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CassBeth Buying Guide
Looking for instant, high-quality photos you can easily share with friends and family? A digital camera, paired with image manipulation software, an inexpensive color printer, and a personal Web site can deliver astonishingly good results and hugely boost your fun in photography.
Digital cameras make photography easy and fun. They are as simple to use as traditional point-and-shoots, but have added features such as exposure adjustment, special effects, and clear, bright LCD screens that let you preview your pictures before you take them.
With a digital camera you can take unlimited pictures and not worry about running out of filmjust download your photos to a computer, and your camera's memory is free again. Improvements in digital storage allow you to take up to 120 pictures on certain memory cards. In addition, you never have to pay for film processing, and you get your photos immediately, instead of having to wait for the prints to be developed. You can e-mail photos to friends, print them out on photo paper or stickers, or post them on the Web, all without hassling with photo labs or scanners.
When shopping for a digital camera, start by identifying your needs. Do you want to take pictures of friends and family? Will you be using the camera for professional graphics work? Do you ever plan on printing your photos? Knowing what kind of photos you'll be taking most often will help you decide what resolution, storage type, power source, and other amenities you'll need. Check out the specific features below for more details.
Maximum resolution is one of the most important ratings of a digital camera. Resolution refers to how many pixels make up a photo, and it is usually measured in the horizontal by vertical resolution, as in "1280 x 960." The higher the resolution, the sharper the picture. Traditional film has a much higher resolution than what digital cameras can musterat least for now. But today's digital cameras are getting closer and closer to the extreme clarity of film.
Most cameras offer a choice of resolutions, since high-resolution pictures take up much more memory. Common digital-camera resolutions include 1600 x 1200, 1280 x 960, and 1024 x 768 (termed "megapixel" resolutions), 640 x 480, and 320 x 240. The resolution you need depends on what you plan to do with your photos. If you just want to e-mail photos to your friends or put them on the Web, you'll be happy with a lower resolution like 640 x 480. If you want to print your photos, however, megapixel resolutions will give you better results, because most printers print at 600 dots per inch. Lower-resolution printouts tend to be grainy. Megapixel cameras often offer the option of taking lower-resolution photos so that you can fit more photos in the camera's memory. However, not surprisingly, high-resolution digital cameras are more expensive.
Another factor that affects image quality is compression, the process that shrinks a photo's file size. Most cameras take photos as compressed JPEG files, which allows you to store more images on a memory card. Compression also makes it faster to save and download photos and easier to e-mail photos or download them as part of a Web site. For most usese-mailing photos to friends, printing out photos for albums, or posting images on the Webcompressed images are adequate. Compression causes a small amount of data loss, however; if you need the absolute best-quality images, consider buying a camera that takes uncompressed photos. You'll only be able to fit a few uncompressed images on a memory card, but you'll get the sharpest, clearest, most detailed pictures possible.
Memory and image capacity
Memory, the equivalent of film in a conventional camera, is where pictures are stored as you take them. A camera's memory size will determine how many images you can store. If you anticipate downloading your images often, buying a camera with a large amount of memory isn't as important. But if you plan on taking many pictures without having access to your computer for downloading, you should buy a camera with a lot of included or expandable memoryor buy extra memory media.
Cameras with internal memory store their images in a nonremovable memory chip embedded within the camera. However, most consumer cameras use external memorya memory card, PCMCIA card, or even a floppy diskthat you can remove when it's full. You can increase the number of photos you can take by buying additional external memory.
A camera's maximum image rating will tell you how many images it can hold at the lowest possible resolution (usually 640 x 480 or 320 x 240). Most digital cameras can hold from 40 to 120 low-resolution images.
Digital cameras use significantly more power than traditional cameras. While typical cameras usually need their batteries replaced every 15 rolls of film or so, you might find your digital camera running out of batteries before you've filled its memory (especially if it runs on AAs). Digital cameras use either a rechargeable battery pack or traditional batteries; some come with an AC adapter as well. Consider buying an extra battery pack or investing in rechargeable AAs, and always have extra on hand. The biggest drawback to digital cameras is their tendency to run out of power in the middle of a photo shoot.
Most digital cameras come with at least an optical viewfinderthe kind you look through on traditional film camerasbut many digital cameras also come with an LCD screen built into the back, which you can use as a viewfinder as well. The LCD screen is especially useful because you can see what your picture will look like before you take it. It also allows you to look at the photos you've already taken. Using the LCD screen is a significant battery drain, however, so if you use it often, have extra batteries on hand.
The length of a camera's lens determines how much of a scene will fit in a picture. Lens lengths vary between wide-angle (used for landscapes and shots in which you want to include as much as possible) and telephoto (used for close-ups and to zoom in on faraway objects). "Normal" lenses, about 50mm on traditional cameras, most closely approximate what your eye sees; anything shorter than 50mm is considered wide-angle, while anything longer is usually considered telephoto.
The image sensor in digital cameras is smaller than 35mm film, so lenses on digital cameras tend to be much shorter than on traditional cameras. Look for the "35mm equivalent" rating to get a better idea of your camera's range. Most fixed-length lenses on digital cameras fall somewhere between wide-angle and normal focal length. Many digital cameras now offer zoom lenses, which take you from wide-angle to telephoto. In addition to this optical zoom capability, some cameras provide digital zoom, which enlarges an area in the picture. While digital zoom adds extra close-up power, image quality may suffer at a very high magnification. Some cameras also have macro capability, which lets you focus very close and take pictures of small objects.
Focus and exposure
Fixed-focus digital cameras have a lens that is preset to focus at a certain range. Higher-end digital cameras usually have autofocus instead, which automatically focuses the camera at your subject's distance.
Most cameras automatically determine the correct exposure for the lighting conditions. Sometimes, however, the scene will appear too dark or too washed-out. In these cases, it's handy to have a digital camera that offers manual exposure adjustment, allowing you to set the exposure a few stops brighter or darker. A digital camera's ISO-equivalent rating lets you know how light sensitive it is; a camera rated ISO 100, for example, has about the same light sensitivity as a traditional film camera loaded with ISO 100 film. Higher ISO ratings mean the camera is more sensitive to light and can take pictures in darker settings.
Digital cameras work just like traditional cameras when it comes to aperture the maximum aperture rating of a camera lets you know how much light it can let in. Aperture ratings represent ratios; the lower the aperture rating, the more light-sensitive the camera is and the better it can take photos in low light.
Most digital cameras come with a built-in flash. Basic flash modes should include automatic (senses when to use the flash according to lighting conditions), on (for all photos), and off. Some cameras include additional features, such as red-eye reduction or night portrait mode. Red-eye reduction is ideal for photographing people or animalsit fires a series of short flashes before the final flash and exposure, making your subject's pupils contract and preventing them from having glowing red eyes in the final photo. Night portrait mode sets your flash to go off at the beginning or end of a long exposure, letting you take portraits set against a night scene, such as a cityscape. However, you should find something steady to set the camera on; the long exposure needed for low light will turn any shake of the camera into a blurry spot in your image.
Display and image erase
If your digital camera has an LCD screen on the back, you may be able to view images you already took. Some cameras even let you display pictures on the LCD screen in thumbnail format, usually 9 or 12 to a screen. Most cameras also let you select pictures to erase; this handy feature gives you the chance to edit out the photos you don't want in order to free up memory.
A self-timer sets your digital camera for a delayed exposure, usually giving you about 10 seconds before it takes the picture. This feature is useful for getting yourself in the photo and can also be used to take low-light photos, preventing the camera shake caused by pushing the exposure button.
A few digital cameras have the ability to record a few seconds of audio with each shot, letting you add a personal sound bite to your photos. This feature tends to eat up battery power rather quickly, so if you use it often, be prepared with extra batteries.
The first digital cameras were heavy, clunky boxes that could hardly be called stylish. But today's digital cameras are moving steadily toward the sleek, lightweight form of traditional point-and-shoots, with stainless steel casings for added durability. Still, expect most digital cameras to be bigger and heavier than traditional cameras for a while longer.
Some digital cameras include a "video out" function that gives you the option to hook them up to a TV to display your pictures. With this feature you can also record your pictures onto a VHS tape.
Most high-end cameras have software and connections for both Mac and PC computers, but make sure the digital camera you want is compatible with your platform before you buy it. All consumer digital cameras come with the software you need to download your pictures onto a computer. Most also include image-editing softwarewhich lets you crop, adjust, or add special effects to your photosand the cables and/or cards you need to connect to your computer. Connecting and downloading pictures from a digital camera is easier than you might think; the software and cables are straightforward to install and use.
Digital cameras can use a variety of different interfaces. Some use a serial or parallel interface, which plugs into a port on the back of your computer. Others come with a PCMCIA interface, which can be inserted directly into a notebook computer. Digital cameras can also use wireless infrared, which frees you from having to plug in cables or cards. Certain cameras use 3.5-inch floppy disks as memory or provide a floppy-drive adapter for the memory cards.
Once you've downloaded and edited your images, most e-mail programs will let you attach them to messages. You can also upload them to your Web site or copy them onto floppy disk to give to your friends and family. Some digital cameras can be connected directly to a color printer for printing out your photos; otherwise, you can use the printer hooked up to your computer. One of the advantages of using a digital camera is that you can make copies of your photos whenever you want, without having to hunt through negatives and send them out for processing at a lab. You can also make calendars, greeting cards, collages, and enlargements easily and inexpensively at home.
The first digital cameras were meant for professionals and cost more than 0. But current technology makes it possible for manufacturers to offer high-resolution, full-featured digital cameras at a price many consumers can afford. Today's digital cameras run anywhere from $400 to slightly more than $1,000, depending on resolution and features. While the initial expense of a digital camera is still higher than a traditional point-and-shoot, you may find that the added convenience and savings in film and processing costs are worth it.
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