National Commentary

Attention Shutterbugs: It’s Time to Go Digital

A vacation I took in 2003 serves as the best argument for using a digital camera instead of film.

  ATLANTA — A vacation I took in 2003 serves as the best argument for using a digital camera instead of film.

        That was the last time I took a film camera on vacation. I shot 10 rolls of 36-exposure film. Since it was a cruise starting in San Diego, I mailed a huge box of film ahead to avoid subjecting the film to the fog of airport X-rays.

        Then, when I got off the boat in San Diego, I shipped the exposed rolls off to a processor before heading to the airport for the return trip.

        The hassle wasn’t over yet. Once the film was processed and returned, I spent several days scanning the slides so I would have digital versions. That took two long days.

        Nowadays, I happily carry my camera through airport security with no fear that X-rays or other security devices will harm my digital memory cards. When I return from the trip, there is no film to develop, no images to scan. Instead of carrying around bags full of film, I use a 2-gigabyte memory card that easily holds 700 or so high-resolution images.

        I save hundreds of dollars, a lot of airport hassle and perhaps 10 hours of my time. The pictures are sharp and clear. I make my own enlargements – all the way up to 13 by 19 inches – using a semiprofessional inkjet printer.

        Today, as I sometimes do, I’m stating the obvious when I say film is dead, or at least seriously ill. But it’s worth saying. I was in the Florida Keys not long ago and was surprised at the number of film cameras I saw being carried around by tourists. I saw those little throwaway cameras as well as nice but bulky 35 mm cameras.

        If you are among the film camera toters, stop it right now. Unless those yellow or green boxes of film stir your heart with such nostalgia that you just can’t give them up, move to digital now.

        You don’t have to be a digital photography buff to safely pick a good camera. Truth is, even without any help from me, you could grab almost any brand-name digital camera off the shelf and be reasonably safe.

        But there are ways to make the purchase sure-fire.

        Start with a budget and a notion of how elaborate you want the camera to be.

        Digital cameras come in models that almost perfectly duplicate what was once available in film cameras. If you’ve always been a snapshooter, your digital model probably should duplicate that sort of experience. If you are the sort who carried around two camera bodies and a bag with four or five lenses, you’ll also have a fine selection of digital models.

        But today I’m talking to birthday party and vacation snapshooters.

        For ordinary snaphooters, the sweet spot in digital hovers around the $300 mark. It’s really shocking what $300 can buy. For instance, the Canon PowerShot A700 offers 6 megapixels (that’s close to the resolution of my aging professional digital camera), a zoom lens and even the ability to shoot wide-screen stills for your HDTV, with a suggested retail price of $316.

        I’m not suggesting that you rush out and buy this specific camera. Instead, it is a good example of a name-brand camera that will produce fine pictures for that sort of a budget.

        It also lets me make this point to those who feel $300 is too much to spend on a new camera. When you consider the price of a digital camera, look at it as if a film camera company made this offer: Buy our camera for $300 and get a lifetime supply of film and free developing. That’s exactly what you’re getting with any digital camera.

        So open up your wallet. Then stick with a brand name you know and you’ll be safe. For shoppers who want to be a little more discriminating, there are other things to keep in mind.

        — Megapixels: While there are plenty of other factors that contribute to the quality of the picture, the megapixel count is the easiest to gauge and understand. Digital photos are created using pixels, little points of light. The larger the megapixel number, the better. Five megapixels or over is fine.

        — Viewfinder: Some digital cameras use an optical viewfinder, some use an electronic one, others use the big LCD panel in the back to frame the picture you plan to take. I prefer an optical viewfinder. You don’t have to agree. The important thing is to make sure you are comfortable with how the camera you select works for you. So do your best to actually handle the camera in the store to make sure it suits you.

        — Sturdiness: In general, digital cameras are not as sturdy as film cameras. You can do a good job of judging how a camera is built by simply hefting it and holding it. That’s another reason to check the camera out in the store.

        — Prices: This can vary wildly from store to store, and there are some unbelievable prices online. Unfortunately, many of the very cheapest online prices come from cameras that are gray market models. These cameras do not carry U.S. warranties. Most manufacturers will refuse to work on them. And, if they do, you’ll pay so much that you’d be better off just throwing the camera away.

        — Reviews: There is a Web site at that is so good and honest that you needn’t check another source.

        It’s vacation time for many of you. If you are using a film camera or even an old digital model, do yourself a digital favor.