They say we're living in the digital age, but that's an exaggeration.
OK, we do listen to music on digital CDs, and maybe even watch movies on digital DVDs.
But in the rest of our lives, we get our sounds and pictures pretty much the way we always have. Unless you're some kind of early-adapter gadget freak, your telephone, radio and TV still deliver the goods the old-fashioned way—cheap and reliable but not digital.
But one digital gadget has just made a successful crossover from nerd toy to mainstream favorite: the digital camera. Americans bought 7 and a half million of these babies last year.
Once you've played with one of these things, it's pretty easy to get excited about them. Of course, gadget freaks like me get excited about anything with batteries and a carrying strap, but that's another story.
A digital camera is all about instant gratification. You don't have to wait for developing to see your pictures. The little screen shows you the picture you're about to take before you take it.
And if you ruin a shot by getting your finger in the lens or hiccupping just at the wrong moment—no problem. You can delete the picture right off the camera. Nobody ever needs to know just how amateur an amateur photographer you really are.
You never buy film, because your pictures go onto a memory card that you can use over and over again. Forget about one-hour photo shops; digital camera people get antsy if they don't have their pictures in one minute.
And the quality is incredible. Here's an enlargement I printed at home on an ink-jet printer, and here's the same shot developed by a camera shop. Can you tell the difference? Here's a hint: the one that chopped off my kid's head came from the camera shop.
But a lot of digital camera owners don't even bother making printouts. For them, the fun is all on the computer screen.
If there's nothing good on TV some night, you can have some friends over for a little slide show. You can send pictures out by email, or even turn them into a Web page for 200 million people to admire. Or you can use one picture as your computer screen background. Just try to keep your files out of people's eyes.
Of course, some people get nervous at the prospect of connecting a camera to a computer. I'm thinking of people like my mom, who's still getting used to the invention of the answering machine.
Fortunately, you don't really need a computer. If you're more comfortable doing things the traditional way, you can drop off your camera's memory card at any of 3,000 camera stores. They'll print your pictures just as though it's a roll of film—and charge you the same way.
Or you can buy a printer that doesn't need a computer; it prints your photos right off the memory card at home.
If all this sounds good to you, you have three big decisions to make. First, are you willing to pay a little extra for good looks? One camera takes much better pictures than another. But let's be real: Wouldn't you rather whip out the better-looking one in public?
Second, you'll have to decide how many megapixels you want. Now, I hate to spoil our little chat with terminology, but you can't escape this one. A megapixel is one million little color dots that make up a photo. The more megapixels, the higher the price, and the bigger the enlargements you can print.
If you figure you'll be content with 4-by-6-inch prints, you can buy a 1- or 2-megapixel model for $300 or less. For 8-by-10's, you'll need three megapixels—that'll run you about $500.
And if you splurge on a four- or five-megapixel camera, you'll spend $600 or more, but you'll be able to print poster-size enlargements with quality that will make your eyes pop out of your head. You'll also be able to go to parties and say, "I was shooting with my five-megapixel digital camera the other day..."
Finally, remember that these gizmos go through batteries like popcorn; a set of double-A's will last you 20 minutes if you're lucky. So shop for a camera with a built-in rechargeable battery, or better yet, one that takes rechargeable double-A's. That way, when one set runs out, you can grab the other set from the charger without missing any priceless photo ops.
Oh, and while you're out spending money, pick up a bigger memory card. It'll cost you another $60 or so, but it'll gain you a lot of freedom—the little "starter" card that comes with the camera holds only about six or eight pictures. Which is great, as long as you only go on really short vacations.
Then you'll be all set: you'll have the technology, you'll have the megapixels. You won't spend any more money on film and developing, you'll be able to do a lot more with your pictures, and you won't wind up with dusty envelopes filled with prints in the attic that nobody ever looks at.
Best of all, you'll have something fun to do while you wait for the rest of the world to go digital.