If you just bought a $1,000 digital camera that takes 3.3 megapixel pictures, you might have thought you had everything you needed to get started with your new hobby.
But it doesn't take long to discover that it's easy to run out of digital "film," and that getting those huge photos from your camera to your computer can be a real headache.
Luckily, a trip back to the computer or photo store will turn up some accessories that make life easier: Higher-capacity digital film cards for storing your pictures and dedicated digital film readers that plug into your PC and help transfer photographs to your computer.
New-camera buyers aren't the only beneficiaries: If you bought a camera a year or two ago, you probably got a small, four- to eight-megabyte storage card for your pictures and a serial cable that transfers pictures from your camera to computer at the speed of paint drying.
Upgrade to a 64- or 80-megabyte digital film card, and you can store up to 180 quality photos before trotting back to your computer to empty your camera. With a film reader, those 180 photos could race into your PC in seconds.
At the heart of any good digital film system is the flash memory card, which contains chips that store your pictures and keep them intact even without power. The most popular digital storage devices are the wafer-thin SmartMedia cards, the thicker but hardier CompactFlash cards and the 2-inch long Memory Stick developed by Sony. Higher-end cameras might be equipped with an IBM MicroDrive, a tiny hard disk with up to a gigabyte in storage.
Although high-capacity memory cards are available, camera makers rarely include them as standard equipment because they're relatively expensive. In fact, when you unwrap your camera, you're likely to find a CompactFlash or SmartMedia card with 16 megabytes of storage or less.
That's enough for a bunch of low resolution photos suitable for posting on the Web. But if you want to make good prints at 5-by-7 inches or larger, you'll need the camera's full three-megapixel resolution--and you'll find that memory card quickly runs out.
For example, the 16-megabyte CompactFlash card supplied with Epson's otherwise excellent Photo PC 3000Z camera yields only 11 photographs at 2,048-by-1,536 pixels, a resolution that produces great prints. That's not nearly enough capacity to shoot pictures for, say, two hours at a friend's wedding reception.
But pop Lexar Media's 80-megabyte memory card into the Photo PC 3000Z, and you can shoot 80 high-resolution pictures before you run out of space. Bump up to Sandisk's 192-megabyte card, and your camera will hold 187 shots--plenty for a week's vacation.
Price is a serious factor here because the demand for flash memory--in cameras, digital music players and other gadgets--is still outstripping the supply. Lexar Media asks about $200 for its 80-megabyte card (bundled with the JumpShot digital film reader), while Sandisk's 192-megabyte model runs about $500. Serious photographers can spend even more for 256-megabyte cards or one of IBM's MicroDrives.
On the brighter side, you can make it easier to transfer photos from these high-capacity cards to your PC for a modest investment. If you're still using your computer's serial port or the software that was bundled with your camera for downloading pictures, you've learned just how slow and aggravating that transfer can be.
Camera makers don't help much here. For example, when we tested FujiFilm's FinePix 4700, we discovered the manual didn't describe how to download photographs en masse after the camera was connected to a PC.
Digital film readers take the guesswork out of this process by eliminating the middleman. They function like temporary disk drives: Stick a memory card into a reader, and you can transfer photos to your computer just as if they were files on a floppy or another hard disk.
These readers also are designed to work with different types of computers and with cards from different manufacturers.
USB--the Universal Serial Bus connector on PCs and newer Macs--makes these readers even easier to use, although readers that connect through the PC's parallel port are still available. Starting at $40, USB card readers are compatible with MacIntosh computers running OS 8.5 or greater and PCs running Windows 95 or higher.
For example, Sandisk's Imagemate, for about $50, easily handles transfers from CompactFlash media, and it's a snap to install.
Lexar Media makes a similar multiuse reader for $50, but it comes with a PC Card Adapter for a CompactFlash memory card, allowing you to download your photographs directly into a laptop. The adapter also can be purchased for less than $10 independent of the film reader.