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Picture-Perfect Holiday
Want to make holiday photos fun from click to finish? It's time to go digital.
By Liz Garone

It's that time of the year: the holiday photo nightmare. "Why are my eyes closed in the one photo where everyone else looks so great?" you ask, and "Did Tim need 10 copies of negative 12a and five of 14b or vice-versa?"

Now, imagine a hassle-free solution that makes snapshots headache and red-eye free. Welcome to digital photography, where you instantly see your pictures and, if disappointed, re-shoot them. It doesn't even matter if you decide you don't like them after everyone leaves the party. You can still play with the images until you have them just right. Then just upload them to a Web site and send family and friends the URL where they can order prints and even coffee mugs emblazoned with their favorite shot. Best of all, you never once have to step foot in the photo store.

Sound too good to be true? Until recently, most people shied away from purchasing a digital camera for a handful of legitimate reasons: too expensive, poor-quality images, and too much work to get the images, especially if you wanted good old-fashioned hold-in-your-hand prints.

The good news is that the selection of digital cameras and Web sites dedicated to photo services continues to multiply and advance so much that even the most hardened skeptic among you will put down your 35mm and pick up a digicam. You won't be alone; by year's end, 12.7 million Americans will own one, according to a survey by the Gartner Group. The bad news is that first-time buyers may find all the options overwhelming.

Diving Into Digital

Buying a digital camera needn't be any more difficult than buying a 35mm, says Lydia Loizides, a Jupiter Communications analyst. "All the things that you would normally think about for a regular camera, you have to apply to the digital one as well," she says. "Is it comfortable? Is it heavy? Does it have all of the features that I want?"

Features to consider run the gamut, from whether the camera has a zoom lens and how large the LCD screen should be for easy image viewing to whether or not the camera works with an AC adapter, which helps save on battery costs.

Before taking the digicam plunge, you should also consider a number of digital-specific items. First and foremost, what resolution is the camera capable of producing? The old axiom "more is better" holds true for digital cameras. Most companies advertise their cameras' resolution by the number of pixels. For example, a 2.3-megapixel camera can create 2,300,000 pixels. The more pixels a camera offers, the larger and clearer the prints can be. Larger images also mean more room to crop.

"If you're testing the waters, 1 megapixel is fine," says Jupiter's Loizides. "If you're seriously thinking about placing it on par with your analog 35mm camera, then 2 megapixels will give you much better quality." The latest crop of digicams offer 3-plus megapixels for exceptionally clear images and prints, but the prices reflect that, hovering around $1000 this holiday season..

Another factor to consider is the camera's storage options. Digital images are notorious for being memory hogs. Finding a camera with lots of removable memory is important, especially if a substantial number of your images will be taken on vacation or other times you might not have easy access to a PC. Most digicams use either CompactFlash or SmartMedia cards; some of the newer ones accept both, and one even uses a recordable CD.

The Highlights

The digital market now offers nearly as many choices as the analog 35mm. To make your decision easier, we've whittled it down to a handful of good options.

-The Canon Powershot S20 is the smallest 3.34-megapixel digicam on the U.S. market, weighing just 9.5 ounces. It has five image modes, including slow- and high-speed shutter, night scene, landscape, and black and white. $534 @thedigitaldog.com.

-The Fuji FinePix 40i has 2.4-megapixel resolution and a Fuji-exclusive Super CCD image sensor (for better quality pictures). It also can capture 80 seconds of continuous AVI video with sound and has an MP3 audio player. $578 @thedigitalkingdom.com.

-The Nikon CoolPix 990 has 3.34-megapixel resolution and a 38-115mm zoom lens that swivels in any direction. The camera's LCD screen also swivels, so you can make sure your subject is framed properly. $815 @aplusdigital.com.

-The Olympus C-3030 Zoom has 3.34-megapixel resolution and an infrared remote. It features a 32-96mm zoom lens. It also has a QuickTime Movie mode with sound (the first model to offer this). $818 @buydog.com.

-The Olympus and Polaroid C-211 ZOOM is a hybrid camera and printer. It has a built-in instant photo printer that uses Polaroid instant film, combining analog and digital for one truly instant package. $799.

-The Sony MVC-CD1000 Digital Mavica CD-CAM is the world's first CD-Recordable (CD-R) digital camera. It has 2-megapixel resolution and uses high-capacity 156MB, 3.5-inch compact discs, which can be played back on any computer with a CD-ROM. $1,209.99 @ecost.com.

Say So Long, Dusty Shoebox

So now that you have your images‚either stored in the camera or on your PC's hard drive ‚what are you going to do with them? Put them in your online photo album, of course. You can upload your images to the Web, usually for free, and make them password accessible to your family and friends for viewing.

While most sites offer similar services, you'll find significant differences in picture quality, editing tools, and cost. For example, snapfish.com will pay your postage up to 24 times each year, develop film, return the negatives with a set of 4-by-6 prints, and post digital versions on the Web, all for a handling fee of only $1.69 per roll. The site offers 60 MB of free storage to users. A competitor, clubphoto.com, offers unlimited storage space. The site also links to a reprint service so that you can order prints and other photo-centric gifts. But the site's star attraction is its free album organizer software, which uploads tons of photos at once. This compares to slow and tedious loading at ofoto.com. But, what Ofoto lacks in speed, it makes up for in beautiful, clean printing on nice and thick Kodak paper.

Considered the most popular album site by MediaMatrix, zing.com allows visitors to create free ZingAlbums, connect with people who have common hobbies, and store images for auction sites. Other Zing features include a section on photography tips and techniques and easy-to-use editing tools for viewing, searching, printing, and enhancing pictures. And if all this digital imaging gets you down, just sit back and relax. For $36.95, Zing will bake you 18 shortbread cookies with your favorite image on them.

Basics for Beginners

Want to sample the digital smorgasbord but can't commit to the 3-plus megapixel price tag? If you can live without big glossy prints, these lower-resolution digicams provide results that are perfect for small snapshots, email and Web albums.

The Intel Pocket PC Camera gets our vote for best all around. This little wonder works just like regular a PC cam, shooting pictures and video at the computer. But snap off the detachable base and you have a palm-size portable digicam with 8MB of memory (that's 128 pictures or up to two minutes of video). Included software lets you make video phone calls, create e-mail postcards, and even edit your own PC movies. $120.95 @ us.buy.com.

The Olympus D-360L's 1.3 megapixels may not seem like much when compared to its C-3030 big brother, but users are consistently pleased with the image quality. And with features including an autofocus lens with 2x telephoto, a 1.8-inch color LCD viewer, Mac and PC compatibility, and a sturdy housing that would survive a Griswald vacation, it makes a great introduction to digital cameras. $245 @ thecamerazone.com.

Liz Garone is a freelance technology writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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