The first number you see in a digital camera description is its megapixel rating. A pixel (short for picture element) is one tiny colored dot, one of the thousands or millions that compose a single digital photograph. (One megapixel equals one million pixels.) You can’t escape learning this term, since pixels are everything in computer graphics. The number of megapixels your camera has determines the quality of your pictures’ resolution (the amount of detail that appears). A 5-megapixel camera, for example, has better resolution than a 3-megapixel one. It also costs more. How many of those pixels you actually need depends on how you’re going to display the images you shoot.
Many digital photos never get further than a computer screen. After you transfer them to your computer, you can distribute the images by email, post them on a Web page, or use them as desktop pictures or screen savers.
If such activities are the extent of your digital photography ambition, you can get by with very few megapixels. Even a $100, 2-megapixel camera produces a 1600 x 1200-pixel image, which is already too big to fit on the typical 1024 x 768–pixel laptop screen (without zooming or scrolling).
If you intend to print your photos, however, your megapixel needs are considerably greater. The typical computer screen is a fairly low-resolution device: most pack in somewhere between 72 and 96 pixels per inch. But for a printed digital photo to look as clear and smooth as a real photograph, the colored dots must be much closer together on the paper—150 pixels per inch or more.
Remember the 2-megapixel photo that would spill off the edges of a laptop screen? Its resolution (measured in dots per inch) is only adequate for a 5 x 7 print. Enlarge it any more, and the dots become visible specks. Your family and friends will look like they have some unfortunate skin disorder. If you want to make prints of your photos (as most folks do), keep the following table in mind:
These are extremely crude guidelines, by the way. Many factors contribute to the quality of an 8 x 10 print—including lens quality, file compression, exposure, camera shake, paper quality, and the number of different color cartridges your printer has, among other things. You may be able to print larger sizes than those listed here and be perfectly happy with them. But these figures provide a rough guide to getting the highest quality prints.
The other important advantage that a camera with multiple megapixels gives you is the ability to create high-quality prints of select portions of your photo. Say you’ve taken a great shot of your kids, but they occupy just a smidgen of the overall picture. No problem—if your camera’s got a lot of megapixels under the hood. Just crop out all the boring background and keep just the juicy parts (you’ll learn about cropping in Chapters 9 and 10). If you try that same maneuver with a picture that comes from a 2 megapixel camera, you’ll end up with a photo filled with unsightly pixels.
Instead of popping in rolls of film, you use a memory card—a wafer thin sliver of reusable storage—to store your photos on a digital camera. The memory card that comes with most cameras is a joke. It probably holds only about six or eight best-quality pictures. It’s nothing more than a cost-saving placeholder, foisted on you by a camera company that knows full well that you have to go buy a bigger one. When you’re shopping for a camera, it’s imperative to factor in the cost of a bigger card.
Most cameras come with three picture quality settings: draft, normal, and best quality (or, in the Starbucks-speak you’ll often see in the camera’s manual: normal, fine, and super-fine). Pick either of the two highest-quality settings if you plan on printing your photos.
It’s impossible to overstate how glorious it is to have a huge memory card in your camera (or several smaller ones in your camera bag). Since you’re not constantly worrying about running out of space on your memory card, you can shoot more freely, increasing your chances of getting great pictures. You can go on longer trips without dragging a laptop along, too, because you don’t have to run back to your hotel room every three hours to offload your latest pictures. Your camera’s battery life is more than enough to worry about: The last thing you need is another chronic headache in the form of your memory card. Bite the bullet and buy a bigger one.
The following table helps you calculate how much memory card storage you’ll need. Find the column that represents the resolution of your camera, in megapixels (MP), and then read down to see how many best-quality photos each size card holds.
As the years go by, high-tech manufacturers figure out new and better ways to fit more pictures on smaller cards. If you were the first on your block to buy a digital camera, it probably used CompactFlash or SmartMedia cards, which now look gargantuan compared to, say, the xD-Picture Card. CompactFlash cards, on the other hand, have stayed the same size but greatly increased their capacity.
CompactFlash cards are rugged, inexpensive, and easy to handle. You can buy them in capacities all the way up to 8 GB (translation: hundreds upon hundreds of pictures). Pro: Readily available; inexpensive; wide selection. Con: They’re physically the largest of any memory card format, which dictates a bigger camera. A name brand 512 MB CompactFlash card costs less than $45.
Sony’s Memory Stick format is interchangeable among all of its cameras, camcorders, and laptops. Memory Sticks are great if you’re already knee-deep in Sony equipment, but few other companies tolerate them. Pro: Works with most Sony digital gadgets. Cons: Works primarily with Sony gear; maximum size is 256 MB. A 128 MB Memory Stick starts at about $35, depending on the brand (Sony’s own are the most expensive).
The Memory Stick Pro Sony’s newer memory card, is the same size as the traditional Memory Stick but holds much more. Sony’s recent digital cameras accept both Pro and older Memory Sticks—but the Pro cards don’t work in older cameras. As of this writing, you can buy Pro sticks in capacities like 512 MB ($45), 1 GB (about $65), 2 GB ($115), and 4 GB ($300).
Secure Digital (SD) cards are no bigger than postage stamps, which is why you also find them in Palm organizers and MP3 players. In fact, you can pull this tiny card from your camera and insert it into many palmtops to view your pictures. Pro: Very small, perfect for subcompact cameras. Con: None, really, unless you’re prone to losing small objects. 1 GB cards are now around $65 and 2 GB models are in the $100 range.
The xD-Picture Card, tinier still, is a proprietary format for recent Fuji camera and Olympus camera models (see Figure 1-1). Its dimensions are so inconveniently small that the manual warns that “they can be accidentally swallowed by small children.” Pro: Some cool cameras accept them. Con: Relatively expensive compared to other memory cards (256 MB = $35, 512 MB = $55, 1 GB = $75). Incompatible with cameras from other companies. Also incompatible with the memory card slots in most printers, card readers, television front panels, and so on.
Some CompactFlash cameras can also accommodate the IBM Microdrive—a miniature hard drive that looks like a thick CompactFlash card. For a while, 1 GB drives were popular with pros, but they’re slipping in the polls now that you can get CompactFlash cards of up to 8 GB.
If you’re shopping for your second (or third, or fourth) digicam, you may feel obligated to buy one that takes the same kind of memory card as the old one. Don’t let the memory cards you’ve got limit your options. Memory cards are getting cheaper all the time; buying a new supply is not the big deal it once was. And since photo printers, card readers (Section 4.2), and photo kiosks now accept a variety of card types, you can, too.