The price of pixels

Photojournalism professor Ken Heinen was initially resistant to making the transition from film to digital cameras. And he's still a bit reluctant. But on a recent trip to Miami he became very impressed.

His shots of the Miami skyline, hotel pool and columnist Dave Barry are crystal clear. Even when blown up to 12 by 16, no pixels show up, and the colors are as bright as an oil painting.

"The current crop of professional (digital cameras) has been amazing," Heinen said. "The quality is very good and there's the simple fact that you can get about 400 pictures (the equivalent of more than 10 roles of film) without having to reload."

Digital cameras have been in use for the past decade, but only been in recent years their resolution has advanced enough to earn the respect of professional photographers.

Though high quality professional grade cameras still cost roughly $5,000-6,000, some consumer models are going for as little as $90 or $100.

Often costing more than a PC, some high-end cameras are able to burn pictures directly on to CDs and are capable of storing hundreds of images at a time, giving instant access to the user. Most can store 200-300 images on a memory card, depending on the resolution and size of the memory card.

For most people, the biggest advantage of digital camera is that there is no film processing involved, especially useful for e-mailing pictures to relatives and friends.

A tiny LCD screen on the back is in part the reason that so many have been attracted to the new technology, despite the fact that it's still in its infancy. The screen enables the user to see what they've shot as they shoot it, then delete anything they don't like.

"It's especially good in the sense that you don't have to buy film anymore," Heinen said. "You can see your pictures right away, if they're any good or not."

For now, though, digital remains an experimental gadget for many as film continues to dominate the marketplace, the photo album and affordability.

"Digital is mostly for snapshots, at least in this price range ($100-$500)," said Brock Glaze of Best Buy in Muncie. "Film cameras are still much better. But with digital, once you start to get into $1,000 or more, you're going to get comparable quality."

Most consumer models produce pictures that look fine on a computer screen, but deteriorate into a collage of tiny but visible pixels when printed out.

Lower-end models produce about one or two million pixels (compared to about 8 million dots on a typical frame of 35mm film), and begin to blur if blown up to anything bigger than four by six inches. Medium-price cameras, usually about 3 or 4 million pixels, retain their quality up to about eight by 10.

The best digital cameras boast resolutions of about 6 million pixels, producing quality comparable with that of film to about 20 by 30 inches.

"The technology is here (to produce film-like pictures), but it's still very pricey," Heinen said. "The really high-quality equipment is still out of most people's price range.

"And anything in the $200 or $300 range is basically junk."

Even though the technology is still in it infancy, Heinen warns that the craft still requires as much, if not more, talent than traditional photography.

"This is not something for people who are mediocre photographers," he said. "The equipment does not make up for an eye. The principles are still important, like controlling your backgrounds and capturing the moment."

"A lot of people assume that it's going to be as easy as a film camera," said Tom Nahre of Jack's Camera Shop. "And it's really a lot of the same issues that affect film cameras, but you have to be a little bit more careful with the compositions."

Though Heinen likes the pictures he took with his digital camera, he suggests that newcomers and amateur photographers not rush in.

"I like the new technology, but I think there will always be a place for film," he said. "My advice is to wait awhile, unless you can afford a high-end camera."


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