A Beginner's Guide to Digital Cameras: Part 1

By - Megapixel.net Staff | Posted November 08, 2007

Until very recently, you needed a basic amount of computer literacy to seriously consider a digital camera as a replacement for a film one. This is changing fast. Many stores that used to only offer film developing and printing, are now offering customers the possibility of bringing in their digital images for printing, much like they had done with their rolls of film. The difference is that these images are not recorded on film, but as digital information stored in one type of "memory" or another. And, that once the images have been copied, the customer gets the "digital film" back to reuse again and again.

This development has opened the door of digital photography to a much wider audience. No longer is it an absolute requirement to have or know how to use a computer. Many people are realizing that digital photos do not suffer from film's shortcomings: fading colors, loss of the negatives, etc. This, combined with lower digital camera prices, has increased the attraction of digital photography.

A Look at the Basics
Digital cameras may almost appear magical, but they're not. The technology employed to capture an image without the use of film is not really new, only recently more affordable. Instead of film, the image is formed by the camera's lens onto an image sensor, broadly similar to those used in video cameras. The light is gathered by tiny elements, which are referred to as "pixels," on the sensor. Each of these tiny elements detect the amount of light falling on them, as it is filtered by an overlaid color mask. The light gathered at the location of any given pixel can be attributed to red, green or blue, the basic color components of the photo.

This color information is then "processed" by the electronics in the camera so that the color values gathered from all the locations on the sensor are organized precisely, creating a "map" indicating clearly the physical location of all the colors and their intensity. The result is a digital image.

This electronic information is then recorded, in a digital file, each bit of information processed by the camera being encoded as a "1" or "0" value, sequentially, which can later be read by another digital device, such as a computer or a printer.

This digitization process offers the true value of digital photography. Indeed, once the image is in this digital format, it is nearly indestructible, and it can be copied time and time again without ever losing its integrity.

The Difference Between Film and Digital Cameras
The differences between film and digital cameras fall into two categories: the camera and the system it uses to store the images. Let's start with the camera.

The camera: Unlike a film camera, the digital camera is not only the tool to focus the image, but also the device that records it. In a way, a digital camera is both camera and film. In a sense, when you select a digital camera, you also select the film: the sensor that records the image.

Since the image is captured by the pixels of the sensor, the quantity of pixels will determine the overall quality of the image. In general this value is referred to as the resolution and is commonly expressed as the total number of pixels (1, 2, 3 megapixel, "mega" meaning million); or the number of pixels used to make up the image, stated as horizontal and vertical values, as in: 2048 x 1536 pixels.

A corollary to the resolution of the sensor is that it also places a limit on the size of the images at the time of printing, be it when the image is printed in a store, or printed on a personal color printer. Indeed, to create a smooth image -- one that can be compared to a print made from film -- a certain density of pixels per square inch is required, and this minimum density dictates the dimensions of the print.

Image storage: The other important thing to consider with a digital camera is the way its images are stored. The digital images are generally stored using a type of flash memory, which is a memory that does not require a constant source of power to retain the information stored in it. Recently, another way to store digital images was introduced, the CD-ROM. However, unlike the flash memory used generally, the images are recorded once, and the disks cannot (so far) be reused.

Leaving the CD-ROM type of storage aside, the flash memory designed for digital cameras (known as memory cards) come in different flavors, each more or less popular, and each offering varying price and capacity advantages and disadvantages. The two most wide spread formats currently are: c and SmartMedia. To date, CompactFlash memory cards can be purchased in larger capacities than can SmartMedia cards, but they are generally more expensive.

Tomorrow in Part 2, we'll delve a bit more deeply into the kinds of digital cameras available, their current price range and the features they offer.

Adapted from Megapixel.net.

Part 2 and Part 3

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