Digital cameras are going through a major technology upgrade-and they’re beginning to catch on in schools.

“We’re starting to see increased sales,” says Tom Veselenak, product development manager at Scantron Quality Computers, a national software/hardware reseller specializing in education in St. Clare Shores, Mich. “The price range for a good digital camera has come down to between $500 and $800. That’s a good range for schools. They don’t have to go before a board to get approval.”

A digital camera stores images digitally rather than recording them on film. Once a picture has been taken, it can be downloaded to a computer, manipulated with a graphics program and printed. Unlike film photographs, which have an almost infinite resolution, digital photos are limited by the amount of memory in the camera, the optical resolution of the digitizing mechanism, and, by the resolution of the final output device–your printer.

Even the best digital cameras connected to the best printers cannot produce film-quality photos. But it may be an inexpensive, easy way to add dimension to your school web site or to get your students excited about exploring multimedia technology.

The new generation of digital cameras offers higher resolution, so image quality can rival traditional film/print photos in sizes to 4 x 6 inches, although to get there, special paper and ink in a photo printer are needed.

That’s a big change from the previous generation of digital cameras, whose limited resolution produced grainy images only suitable for web sites and small pictures in yearbooks.

“We’re finally getting to the point where we can print a real photo that’s indistinguishable from a picture from a photo processor,” says Allison Rapp, future product manager at Hewlett Packard.

Megapixel technology

Resolution is measured in pixels, which are light-sensitive picture elements. These elements are in a chip that replaces film in a traditional camera. The more pixels, the better the image. The number of pixels is indicated by a measure such as 1152 x 872 pixels, which means the camera records images on a chip that has 1,004,544 pixels (1152 x 872).

A million pixels-a “megapixel”-is the standard of digital cameras’ new generation. That’s more than three times the resolution of the previous generation, which offers resolution of 640 x 480, or approximately 300,000 pixels. Between these generations are the 500,000- and 800,000-pixel cameras.

Among early entries in the megapixel market was Hewlett Packard, which launched its C20 (1152 x 872) in February for a list price of $699. The C20 comes with a fixed focal-length lens. Rival Kodak’s competitive DC210 (1,152 x 864) has a 2x zoom and costs about $719.

Olympus and Fuji have pushed resolution further-to 1280 x 1024, or 1.3 million pixels. Fuji’s MX-700 costs about $689 with a 2x electronic zoom, while Olympus’s D600L costs around $1,267 with a 3x optical zoom. Vivitar has gone to 1920 x 1600, or 3 million pixels with its V- 3100D, which sells for about $469, with a fixed focal-length lens.

According to the most recent data from the Intelect/ASW market research firm, which is part of NPD Group in Port Washington, NY, Kodak and Olympus had megapixel cameras among the 12 most popular models sold to retail consumers in February 1998. The top-selling digital camera was Sony’s FD7, which offered 640 x 480 resolution.

During 1997, higher resolution cameras outsold their fuzzier competitors. Simultaneously, the average price fell for consumers. In December, only 9 percent of digital cameras sold for $800 or more, down from 33 percent at the beginning of 1997. Cameras in the $600-$699 range accounted for more than 33 percent of December’s sales, according to Intelect/ASW.

“People want higher resolution cameras but don’t want to pay the higher bucks for them. That’s the story of digital cameras in a nutshell,” says Intelect/ASW Senior Executive Neil Portnoy.

Quality or cost?

If you’re going to buy a digital camera, first determine the use you’ll make of it. In some cases, such as producing images for an internet web site or a yearbook, 640 x 480 resolution is ample. It gives VGA-quality images, which is what the internet can reproduce. And when printed, it can produce a picture-quality image up to 2 x 3 inches.

You should also consider who’s going to be using the camera. A good entry-level camera for students is a 640 x 480, said Jim Malcolm, Sony’s electronic photography marketing manager. If you’re trying to put cameras in the hands of lots of students, it’s a solid, cost-effective way to go.

But for teacher use, where images become a teaching tool, resolution should be higher, according to Malcolm.

“If you will need to look at detail, quality becomes important,” he said.

In choosing a camera, resolution is not the only consideration. It’s not even the only determinant of image quality, which also depends on factors such as the signal-to-noise ratio, how well the chip records light and color, and how images are stored.

“Cameras with the same resolution from different manufacturers give images of different quality,” says Malcolm. He suggests looking at sample images before buying.

Beyond image quality, the range of features available is enormous. Most cameras come with built-in flash. Some have zoom lenses. Others come with fast and/or slow shutter speeds. The features you want depend, of course, on the uses you plan. But Malcolm advises that every classroom camera should have one feature in common: the ability to transfer images to a computer quickly and easily.

Some digital cameras transfer images via a cable hookup. Others store images on a medium that can be removed from the camera and transferred to the computer.

“It is important to keep the camera out in the classroom. If it is hooked by a cable to a computer, you are limited by the length of the cable, and during the download process, the camera is out of use,” says Malcolm.

Sony’s FD7 and FD5 use common floppy disks, which makes transfer easy. However, a floppy’s storage capacity is insufficient for megapixel resolution.

Some cameras, such as HP’s C20, use higher-capacity compact flash cards. Some compact flash cards fit the PC card slot that is common on laptops and that can be installed on desktops. Others require the purchase and installation of card readers if the transfer is to be made without hooking the camera up to the computer.

A final warning. Digital cameras give immediacy, which makes photography much more useful as a teaching device than film-based images, but don’t plan to print photo-quality images and save money over film processing. Good-quality images require special ink and paper. HP calculates the specialized ink and paper needed to print a high-quality 4 x 6 image costs 68 cents. Standard inkjet printers can be used, but photo-quality prints require a good photo printer that costs about $400.

Mail-in film processing runs about 25 cents a print, postage included. On the other hand, you might only want one print. With film processing, you pay for the whole roll.–K.F.

THE TOP-5 SELLING DIGITAL CAMERAS

Resolution Average Retail Price

  • Sony MVC-FD7, 640×480, $683
  • Kodak DC210, 1152×864, $851
  • Sony MVCFD5, 640×480, $499
  • Kodak DC120, 1280×960, $758
  • Olympus D600L, 1280×1024, $1267 Sources: Intelect/ASW, eSchool News. Ranking and prices for retail sales, February 1998.