Computing has reached the stage where even the cheapest second hand computer can display impressive photo-quality images. While some will be happy to sit back and enjoy the work of others, there will always be users that will want to create their own personal digital images.

Perhaps these will be used on a website; or else sent to a friend over the Internet; or perhaps used with one of the modern photo-manipulation packages now appearing on the market. Whatever the reasoning, the headline debate remains how to get these real-world images into the computer in the first place.

The first method is to use standard chemical-based photography and then have these images digitized by using either a scanner or by using a specialist buro. However the other main option is by using a digital camera that store their images as numbers, allowing them to be transferred immediately to a computer.

The first digital cameras were launched in Japan in 1989 with closely following releases from Canon, Sony and Olympus. Sony were also the first company to release professional quality digital cameras that initially retailed at over 10,000 US dollars. Ten years later, most of the technology on the market still comes from the Far East.

The advantages that ALL digital cameras have is the ability to take a vast array of pictures until you get the right one. The lack of costly film also means that you can document your life very cheaply. They are also far less noisy than standard cameras allowing you take pictures far less obviously.

The disadvantages are nearly all to do with picture resolution and the number of images you can take at one time. Despite the introduction of CCD (see glossary) the images nearly all fall short of the standard of 35mm film. This will be especially evident when the images are to be displayed in large format. However if the images are only to be used on a website or as "support shots" in a printed medium this might not be such a problem.

A definite plus is an LCD screen. This allows you to form the shot without even looking through the lens; great if you want a shot at a high (or low) angle. Some even have a twisting lens allowing you can photograph yourself. Another function worth looking for is a delay button or function - this allows the camera to be mounted on a tripod and triggered to go-off a few seconds later.

Getting the images from the camera to the computer can sometimes be tricky. Some camera support software requires a minimum of 16mb of memory or a CD-ROM drive, or else some other qualifier - such as a particular version of Windows or MAC operating system. This software will also require free harddrive space. Always check these requirements before you buy.

Some of the more upmarket models use a form of smartcard to store their images which is then placed into a separate reader in order for the image(s) to be transferred to the computer. This is the system most news organisations use - when deadlines are particularly tight even downloading images straight from the field via mobile phones and laptop computers.

A clever half-way-house has been developed by Sony that uses standard floppy disks in much the same way. This allows for almost limitless images to be taken and stored. To transfer them to your computer you merely have to place them in the computer disk drive. For users with older low memory laptops computers or very basic desktops this will be the only workable option available.

Another option is what Sanyo call "burst capture": This is merely a very short videoclip that works by storing consecutive images. This can also be used when trying to capture a one-off event - such as a famous person - in the same manner as standard camera motordrive. Naturally such a function comes at a price in terms of storage memory.

Other handy functions include a TV out slot that allows you review your images - via a special lead - through a television. A rechargeable battery function is always welcome, because one of the real problems of digital cameras is that they can have a healthy appetite for batteries.

Another thing to look for is the complementary software. This can really boost the value of the package. Using these you can touch-up, clip and size the images without having to buy another package. Like the transfer software option, be very careful that your computer can actually accommodate this software.

As I have hinted before, the real $64,000 dollar question of digital cameras is image quality. A recent report in the camera press suggested that three times as many digital cameras are returned to camera stores than standard models. The main reason being image quality - or lack of it.

Simply seeing the image on the inbuilt LCD is often very different from what will appear when viewed on a monitor or when printed. While journalists can describe quality and make wordy comparisons all day long, this is no substitute for actually seeing the end results first-hand...


CCD: Stands for Charged Coupled Device. Merely a picture format that has a 1,524 by 1,012 pixel resolution giving sharper results than with VGA - see below.
COMPRESSION: This is method by which more images are stored on the medium by reducing repetitive numbers. In nearly all cases digital camera software can work directly from compressed mediums.
FLOPPY DRIVE: With reference to digital cameras a method of recording directly to floppy disk. Presently only being used by Sony.
JPEG: Stands for Joint Photographic Experts Group. A standard for presenting and manipulating compressed still images - see compression.
LCD: Stands for Liquid Crystal Diode. With regard to digital cameras a tiny screen used as an means of picture composing and viewing.
MB: Stands for MegaBytes and is used to indicate the size memory etched on a smartcard, internal memory or other.
SMARTCARD: A method of picture recording that works alongside a partner "reader" device. Allows images to be transferred quickly to a target computer. A technology that has yet to spread beyond the top end of the market.
SVC: Simply stands for Still Video Camera although the initials Electronic Still Presentation (ESP) is still used by some sources.
VGA: Stands for Video Graphics Array. Created by IBM in 1987 it is a quality standard used by some digital cameras.
VIDEO CLIP: Goes under many names, but generally a capacity to take a short videoclip of around eight seconds or so. Some cameras can also record sound at the same time.