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The Complete Digicam Kit
By Mike Pasini, Editor
Imaging Resource Newsletter

"Why don't stores that sell digicams display prints?" a reader asked recently. It's a question we haven't been able to dismiss. And after a recent foray into the steel-reinforced brick and mortar world of digicam stores, an answer looms.

Usually when we want to check out the latest hardware, we just wander over to the Golden Gate Bridge or one of the cable car turntables and wait for a tourist couple to ask us to take their picture. In half a minute we get a rundown on the latest Olympus, Nikon, Canon, Sony, Minolta, Kodak, Ricoh, Fuji, you name it.

But to answer that print question we had to hit the stores. And we did. We hit the big camera stores (where the sales guy dedicated to digicams fumbled on about the "pixel problem"), the little camera stores (where the owner never seemed present and the "help" was occupied with either boyfriends or phone calls), the all-purpose chains (hey, where is that Photo Joe guy? Making another commercial, we guess), and the electronics chains (where the salesdudes were Dobermans whose barks were less than their light).

Undercover Consumer

"In this game, you press the button and you do the rest."

"We're interested in a digital camera," we would invariably explain.

"OK. Well, uh, what do you want to do with it?" was the brightest reply we got. But we're mischaracterizing it. It might have been helpful once upon a time to ask that question about computers, but asking it about cameras is way out there. You're interested in a camera to take pictures, obviously. That's all they do.

Our universally dismal in-store experience is unfortunate because it does indeed help to pick these things up in your hands. Even with all the pictures, you can't get a feel for these babies until you hold them, see how small and light they are, how they rest in your hand, whether you can see through the viewfinder or not, how responsive they are. They beg, in short, for a test drive.

But the in-store demos are rarely powered, always tethered, without media and usually so dirty we can hear Auntie Nightingale LVN screaming, "Germs! Germs!" from some dark deep recess in our memory. Jeez, cameradudes and digidudettes, instead of wandering around the aisle looking propellered, shine up the merchandise. You've got time.

So where are those prints?

Well, these guys don't sell printers, see. So no prints. And even if they did, they'd be in a different department. Near the computers. And no, there isn't a card reader out of box hibernation connected to anything so you can take a picture and print it yourself. Can't imagine why. Even a used car dealer puts a little gas in the tank.

Actually, the truth about a digicam is that it's just one piece of a system. You may be able to extend your present system to accommodate a digicam, swapping some components or adding one or two new devices. But to actually do anything with a digicam, you need more than the camera. In this game, you press the button and you do the rest.

Without film, of course. "No film? How do you get prints?" is a question everybody with a digicam has probably been asked.

Sure, there are ways to get prints, but prints are just one of the things a digicam can produce (and not usually the prettiest). We digicamers fall quickly in love with theimage on the monitor. And we'd much rather burn a CD to share (if we can) than laboriously sit there and punch out prints.


Digicam Checklist

"The truth about a digicam is that it's just one piece of a system."
So what exactly are the basic parts of a complete digicam setup? Let's do inventory.
  • The digicam. Can't overlook this one. Shop where you're comfortable returning it. Some purchase protection is invaluable.

  • Standby power. Big one, don't overlook this either. If your digicam takes AAs, you need Nickel Metal Hydride batteries and a trickle charger for them. Two sets. Run you about $50-70. Thomas Distributing or Radio Shack.

  • Media. Sad to say we've yet to see a manufacturer provide a card with any real room. They are all way too small. You'll need at least a 32-MB card for a 3.34-megapixel camera. About $2 a megabyte today, although if you keep your eyes peeled, you may get close to $1. Buy this online and save.

  • The photo suite: tripod, bag, filters, lenses, strobe, gadgets galore. These are not essential and many can be pilfered from a 35mm setup (and hence garage sales).

  • A graphic workstation. Some people call it a computer, but let's face it, this is a demanding application. Your personal computer has to be able to handle (not just display) 24-bit graphics with enough RAM and hard disk storage. Each year this is less of a problem (except the RAM, where 64-MB is a squeeze), but it could be your biggest bottleneck. Mail order is great if you've owned one before, but if you're new to the game (unsure, that is, if the problem is you or the machine), go where they don't mind holding your hand after charging your card.

  • Internet capability. Well, this should go without saying, but it seems to need it all the same. A 56K modem, at least. So you can tap into online photo processing, sharing and emailing images. Service providers are charging under $20 a month for dial-up Internet access and under $40 for DSL.

  • Software. Big, big deal. You can't "get there from here" without an image editor. Fortunately there are shareware products for both Mac OS and Windows that will get you going if your digicam did not ship with something (and most do, particularly the starter cameras).

  • Off-line Storage. Which, bang-for-buck, means a CD writer. Don't make the mistake of calculating this investment solely on the hardware device. You need duplicate copies of your work and a lot of work it will be. Burning $1 650-MB CDs is a no-brainer. Buying more expensive removable disks of lesser capacity isn't going to happen. Same buying advice as a computer.

  • Printer. At least an inexpensive, photo-quality inkjet. You'll get a lot of mileage out of it and have a lot of fun printing your images as large as 8x10. How many of us have that luxury? We're usually squinting at 4x6 "jumbo" prints. We'll give you jumbo. Just buy an inkjet (from the place you bought your computer).

  • Photo paper. And don't scrimp on the paper or you won't have any idea what the big deal is. Buy photo glossy (and not lightweight) at your neighborhood SuperOfficeSupplyJoint.

  • Frames. So you have that handful of 8x10s and you really do just love them. If you want to see them, you have to display them. Buy some 11x14 photo frames (about $8 each) and put them up. You can always change the pictures when you get tired of them or give them away. So go nuts at garage sales, flea markets, discount chains.

Put all that together and you can see why very few stores are prepared to sell the whole package. We've come a long way since George Eastman sold us a black box that we had to send back to him to get our prints made and film reloaded. Now, we can do it all ourselves. And we bet, like us, you find that very exciting.