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If the digital imaging bug has recently bitten you, you're probably wondering whether you should take the plunge and buy a digital camera - or wait six months, or a year until they get better and cheaper. It's a tough dilemma.

Digital cameras are the epitome of digital imaging, the ultimate in eco-friendliness. No more film to buy. No more dunking film in toxic chemicals. No more waiting for the prints. No 'misunderstandings' about pictures of the baby in the bath, the girlfriend in the bedroom. A digital camera allows you to create as many pictures as you want, when you want, with negligible running costs. It enables you to experiment, see your results quickly, learn from your mistakes - and keep the disasters to yourself. Digital imaging democratises photography - it's imaging for everyone.

Many things have already gone digital. We expect digital to mean 'better'. Digital cameras have come a long way but, compared with film cameras which have had a hundred and fifty years development, they're still infant technology. Today, you'll have to spend twenty five grand or more to get even close to film quality. But this won't last long - affordable digital cameras will eventually produce even better quality than film.

Film will no longer be manufactured when it fails to bring profit to the photo-chemical companies. It will become an alternative 'art' process. Vinyl records soon slumped after CDs appeared. Those who remember seeing their first black-and-white print appear in the developing dish will look back nostalgically, of course. But the children of the digital age only want to capture, create and share their pictures without hassle. They have no sentimentality.

It's a good idea to get some feeling for the direction in which things are moving, to be able to appreciate what might happen in the future.

Until the 1980s, television cameras used glass tubes to convert images into electrons. They were expensive, fragile, and needed constant attention to maintain image quality. Then solid-state imagers - Charge Coupled Devices or CCDs - began to appear, enabling small, stable, portable cameras to be made.

Over the years I have considered how future camera design might develop. In the late 1970s 'Camera-One' was a hand-held camera with a head-up display viewfinder on a helmet.


The idea for "Camera One", an integrated still and moving image camera, came in a 1970s Henshall daydream. The stylish model was made by a student, to John Henshall's design. The viewfinder was a helmet-type head-up display, to which the camera head could be attached, for use in the midst of sporting events. Many of the "Camera One" ideas were later incorporated into "HandiCam".


"HandiCam" was a development of the original "Camera One" idea. It was made for a Royal Television Society lecture. The name "HandiCam" pre-dates Sony's use of the remarkably similar name "HandyCam as a search of the Trade Marks Register prior to its publication in 1984 revealed. Note the viewfinder, which is very much like the hinged screens later adopted for portable computers. Will a future camera look like HandiCam? Probably not, though it may incorporate many of its features.

HandicamMy 1984 'Handicam' pre-dated Sony's use of the 'Handycam' name, as a search of the Trade Mark and Patent Office revealed. Both cameras have digital zoom lenses with no moving elements - the angle of view is varied by changing the area of the sensor which is scanned. Scanning a large area gives a wide angle; a small area a narrow angle or telephoto effect. The viewfinder is a 8 x 6 cm colour LCD panel, on which the image is illuminated by reflected light - back-lighting consumes too much power. Special circuitry cancels out unsteadiness caused by camera shake or vibration. The camera records both still- and moving-images. A television camera is a still camera with a very fast 'motor-drive' - 25 frames per second in Europe, 30 in the USA and Japan - so why not let it double as both? Fourteen years on, these features have begun to appear in production cameras.

Although technical innovation abounds, ergonomic design is often poor and manufacturers make similar mistakes. A colour LCD panel is a must for reviewing pictures but, two years after a digital camera first sported one, we still get cameras which have an unshaded, power-hungry LCD as the only means of composing a shot. If their designers had actually used the prototypes in real conditions - with bright ambient light washing out the LCD - we wouldn't have had even a single camera without a hood. Or they'd all have separate, optical viewfinders.

Remember Dustin Hoffman's line about a Volvo being 'boxy but good'? A lot of digital cameras sure are boxy, but not very good. What chance would these brick-like cameras with fixed lens, limited storage and no means of checking the captured images have against a sleek product with a 10-to-1 zoom-macro lens, 20-to-1 with digital doubling, two colour LCD screens for both capture and replay, a 25 fps motor drive, removable media coasting about £6 capable of recording 90,000 images, the ability to record digital stereo sound and a processing time of less than two seconds per shot? This spec isn't a pipe dream, it's here right now - in digital camcorders. The game's already up for boring fixed-lens, fixed-media, low-resolution digital stills cameras.

So, should you wait until cameras improve and prices drop? Nah! You know you lust after one, so buy now - but buy wisely. Using a digital camera now will position you firmly on the experience curve - there's so much you can do with it.

Avoid cameras that get digital constipation when they become completely bunged-up with pictures. The only laxative is to delete the images after they have been transferred to a computer - not a convenient solution if you're on the beach. Fortunately, removable media is becoming the norm. Inserting new storage cards allows shooting to continue, like changing film cassettes in the old days. If you have a laptop with a PC card slot, adapters are available for SanDisk's CompactFlash and Toshiba's Smart Cards. This is much faster than using a serial interface, which can take ages to download pictures.

Buy a 'megapixel' digital camera - one having around a million pixels in the CCD. You can get one for well under a grand and they produce great images. If you can't afford one, save up - or persuade your boss to buy one for the office. Tell him pictures would really bring those boring typescript reports to life. Then you'll be able to borrow the camera at the weekend. That's if you can prise it away from the boss.

This article first appeared as the"Henshall" column in "Digital PhotoFX" magazine, Issue 2.
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