Originally created 07/11/98

Digital cameras have limits



A friend who's leaving on a trip to Europe in a few weeks called to ask whether it was a good idea to take his new digital camera along.

I thought twice before answering because his question raised two issues.

One was strictly technical, involving the pros and cons of digital photography vs. traditional film. The other was a humanitarian concern: If I told him to take the gadget, how many poor souls would be subjected to the inevitable digital slide show that resulted?

We'll deal with the easy issue here. There's no reason not to take a digital camera on your vacation. But you shouldn't make it your only camera unless your photographic expectations are modest.

While digital cameras are convenient and great fun, they have serious limitations. One is the quality of the pictures they take. Unless you're spending thousands of dollars for studio-quality equipment, you'll get better results from film -- even if you're only using one of those throwaway cameras that you pick up for a few bucks at the drug store.

Why is this? Well, consider that digital cameras record images as a matrix of colored dots, or pixels. The more dots, the more detailed the picture. Most digital cameras designed for the consumer market produce images in the range of 640-by-480 dots to 1,024-by-768 dots. This is known technically as the resolution of the camera.

These images look fine on a computer screen, which has a resolution that's about the same as the camera's. And if that's the only place you'll be viewing your photos, a digital camera may be just the ticket (given storage limitations that I'll discuss later).

But if you're like most of us and want prints to put in a photo album or send to friends and family members, you might want to think twice. While today's color ink jet printers can produce good images, they require a lot of information to fool the eye into thinking that it's viewing a photograph. In fact, they typically produce images at a resolution of 300 to 1,200 dots per inch.

As a result, that 1,024-by-768 dot image in your digital camera won't produce a very large print unless you use software to enlarge it, which can make the image look grainy and "pixellated," as they say in the trade. Even then, you'll have to use relatively expensive paper designed for photographs and do some retouching on your computer to get anything approaching the kind of prints that most people want for keepsakes.

From a strictly aesthetic standpoint, you'll get better results by using a regular camera and an inexpensive scanner to digitize the prints you like.

While it's hard to make an exact comparison between two different media, photographic film records images at a resolution equivalent to 4,000 dots per inch. Scanners aren't quite that sensitive, but they don't have to be. With resolutions ranging from 400 to 1,200 dots per inch, they can record far more detail than digital cameras and can produce images with enough information to take advantage of today's ink jet printers.

Another issue to consider before committing your vacation to a digital camera is storage. Digital cameras store anywhere from 20 to 90 photos. The exact number depends on the camera's capability, the resolution you've chosen and the capacity of the camera's memory chips. Usually, you can trade lower resolution for more images.

Even though most digital cameras give you a chance to review the photos you've taken and erase the ones you don't like (they're much more efficient than film cameras that way), eventually they fill up. At this point, you have three alternatives.

First, you can upload the images to your PC and erase them from the camera. Of course, this assumes that you're lugging a laptop computer with you on vacation.

Alternatively, you can exchange the camera's full memory cartridge for an empty one. This requires planning and a hefty cash outlay. The matchbook-sized, 8-megabyte flash memory cards used by many of today's cameras run about $80. Since you're probably going to take more pictures than you planned on, it's a good idea to bring an extra memory card along.

Which brings us to Alternative No. 3, which is running frantically to the nearest drugstore to buy one of those little throwaways when your digital camera fills up.

Finally, consider the issue of preserving your photos. Like most folks, we enjoy looking at old pictures of friends, family and vacations. While color photos will fade over time, our families still have plenty of good snapshots that were taken 50 to 60 years ago.

Nobody knows how long the inks used in today's printers will last, but they certainly weren't designed for long-term storage, and it's doubtful that they'll have the staying power of film negatives and prints.

Theoretically, the digital images themselves will never fade, since they're recorded as binary ones and zeros on a magnetic disk. But hard drives and removable disks have a definite shelf life, and it's not as long as film. Will the disks containing your digital photos still be good 20 years from now? Many of the floppies I used 10 years ago are unreadable today.

Even if the disks stay healthy, to turn those ones and zeros into an image, you need the right hardware and software. Will that be available in 20 or 30 years? Will you put the Zip disk with your vacation photos in a box somewhere and forget about it till 2020, when you dig it up and come to the awful realization that none of the computers on the market can read those antiques?

If you have a digital camera, bring it along, snap away, and take advantage of all the neat things you can do with electronic images. But if you want turn this year's vacation into tomorrow's photographic memories, make sure you take a film camera as well.