In my earlier columns I discussed why digital cameras were a good thing, but how they also opened up a whole new bunch of problems, like how do you get prints from digital files, and how do you file and organize all those great pictures you took. In more recent columns I agonized over whether I should trust a digital camera to accompany me on a trip to Japan, and if so, which one I should take. I then reported how things had worked out just great for me and my Nikon CoolPix 900. Then I missed a column when my publisher usurped my spot with a last minute ad. I didn't like that, but ads pay the bills, so I grudgingly accepted it.
It's now been a full year since Digital Camera Magazine debuted at the 1998 PC Expo in New York City. Turns out that we'd been right. Digital cameras have taken off even faster than we thought. When I got that first Olympus DL-300 at the Fry's electronic superstore in Sacramento, it was one of perhaps two or three digicams on display, and it was clear that none of the sales people had the faintest idea of what it was and how it worked. Today when you go to any electronics chain across the nation, it seems that all you see are digital cameras. There are dozens and dozens to choose from, and every month they get better, more powerful, and less expensive.
Digital cameras are here, and they're here to stay. The vast majority of images in all of our publications haven been taken by digital cameras. I personally haven't shot a single roll of chemical film over the past year. The glorious Nikon CoolPix 900 that I've been using ever since I bought it from Nikon with my own money rather than sending it back after our lab test continues to serve me well, but it is already obsolete. Old hat in a field that charges ahead significantly faster than even computers.
As a result of this frenetic pace, there are few givens, few hard facts to rely on for those who want to get into digital cameras. Anything you buy will be obsolete in a few months. There are few standards, and no old standbys to fall back on.
As General Editor of Digital Camera Magazine (a job title I, as a majority partner in our publishing firm, invented to signify a position similar to that of "general manager" while still allowing my friend and associate David MacNeill to carry the prestigious title of editor-in-chief) I have the good fortune of being able to take a bird's eye view of the teeming digital camera and imaging market, and occasionally play devil's advocate. So what does it look like to me?
Quite confusing, actually. Let me give you a few examples of things that need to be sorted out until digital cameras will truly take over:
User interface -- When you buy a computer, chances are it's either a PC or a Mac. In either case, the user interface is totally standard and you don't have to relearn everything when you buy a new computer. In contrast, every digital camera I ever used has had a different user interface. I've spent many hours pouring over laughingly inadequate "manuals" trying to figure out what all those little buttons and levers did, and how the screen interface worked. As a result, I gave up on some otherwise very worthwhile cameras in disgust. The situation is so bad that a very experienced contributor to our magazine recently vented in frustration that it took HIM half an hour to figure out which buttons to push just to get a few test shots. So guys, get together and hash out a standard interface. And no long, drawn-out interface wars, please. You'd only set yourselves back by a year or two.
Printing -- Yes, I know. There is a growing number of really great and affordable photo printers that you can use to get hard copy from digital images. But is it easy? No way. I have some great prints from some of my best digital images. But I only got them after winning a battle of wills with that big Epson 3000 in our office and its finicky spooler. I really don't want to have to buy a special printer with a special interface and special, expensive paper for every digicam I use. This whole process has got to get a whole lot simpler.
Filing -- I wrote about that one before. I used to gather thousands of paper prints (and an almost equal number of negatives) that were always somewhere in my house. Every once in a while I made a big effort and put some of those pictures in a picture album. But the vast majority of pictures are in about a hundred different places in my house and garage. During the time we've published Digital Camera Magazine, I've come across some really nice filing and cataloguing applications. Problem is they are all proprietary. I got into them and used them while I reviewed them, but now I can't even remember their names anymore, and the catalogs they created are scattered on my hard disk as file types that my PC somehow now longer knows how to read. Not good. We need standards.
Imaging software -- Some of the imaging software on the market is totally dazzling. I've reviewed software that had absolutely stunning capabilities, and it either came for free in a bundle with a camera, or it cost something ridiculously low, like $39.95. Problem is that, to-date, none has really established itself as a reliable standard. Some have been bought out, some merged with others, and some simply haven't been marketed consistently enough to sink into the public's consciousness. Everyone knows that Excel is Microsoft's spreadsheet, but how many people remember even the name of Microsoft's superb imaging application? So I've been staying with good, old Photoshop.
Battery life -- The less said the better. Digital Cameras are battery hogs. It's one of their weakest areas.
I am so glad David MacNeill and his crew of able contributors know all the details and latest specs. Their work is what makes this magazine special and educates you about all the latest, coolest stuff in digital cameras. Me, I have the luxury of sampling this or that and see if it works for me. And if it doesn't I can tell you about it here in my column and hope that some of the manufacturers pick up on it and make the wonderful world of digital imaging a better experience for all of us.