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Digital Cameras

Remember film? Ancient history: nowadays, almost every camera sold is digital. Which means: instead of storing images on film that requires expensive developing, they store images on erasable memory chips. And they store those images in the form of data bits - zeroes and ones - that you can manipulate and share in just about any way you can imagine.

It all starts with your digital camera: the device that captures your image. There are two primary kinds of digital cameras: Point-and-Shoot, and Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR).

About Point-and-Shoot Cameras

Point-and-shoot is just what it sounds like - a camera that's designed to be easy enough for beginners. Point-and-shoot cameras capture images without fuss or muss. They automate wherever they can: for instance, many can compensate for shaky hands, and some can recognize faces - then, tweak color settings for better portraits. Some point-and-shoots double as very-low-end camcorders; some offer easy image sharing features (such as Wi-Fi connections and links to TVs.)

While your point-and-shoot camera might have manual options - say, for setting faster exposure times to shoot your kids' soccer match - those options are easy to avoid if you can't be bothered.

Point-and-shoots tend to be lighter and smaller than DSLRs. (Many point-and-shoots will fit in your pocket. Some folks actually find them too light and small: tough to control and hold steady.)

Oh, and lest we forget, point-and-shoot cameras tend to be significantly less expensive: you can get a very good point-and-shoot for $175-$300.

About DSLRs

More sophisticated photographers might want to move up to a Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera. DSLRs offer virtually total creative control... but you'll have to invest some time in learning how to take advantage of all those features. (If you were a serious photographer back in the film age, you may already know about aperture settings, white balance, flash synchronization, and so forth: if not, it's a whole new language to learn.)

DSLRs tend to use higher-quality sensors. That translates to cleaner images, deeper color, and more detail. If you're in a hurry, DSLRs switch on practically instantly, and your camera captures your image as soon as you click: none of that maddening "shutter lag" which drives the pros insane. Last but not least, with DSLRs, you can switch lenses - say, for wide angle or soft focus shots.

The downside, aside from a tough learning curve? While DSLRs have come down in price, they're still significantly more expensive than point-and-shoots - say, $500-$1,000, and up.

Get the right software

Whatever camera you buy, you'll need software to edit, manage, and share your images. Most cameras come with some software, but it's often clumsy and rudimentary. On the other hand, unless you're a professional photographer, you shouldn't need top-of-the-line software like Adobe Photoshop. Several options fall in the "sweet spot" right in the middle: they're cheap (or free), and they're easy for mere mortals to use.

Before you spend actual cash, check out Google's free, downloadable Picasa software, and Adobe's brand-new online tool, Photoshop Express. (Photoshop Express "lives" on Adobe's Web site: you run it through your high-speed Web connection). If those don't work for you, other good options include Adobe Photoshop Elements, ACDSee Photo Editor, and Corel Paint Shop Pro Photo X2.

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