Digital cameras are no strangers to the K-12 environment; most schools, at one time or another, have gone through the process of buying a camera or two for day-to-day use. As cameras have evolved, however, so too has the marketplace. Today, there are more digital camera options than ever before, many of which offer feature sheets longer than this very article. How do you know which camera will work best for you? We've compiled this list of questions to help guide your purchasing decisions.
Epson L-500V, front and back views.
1. With so many cameras on the market, what really distinguishes one vendor from another?
The most important thing to keep in mind is that some vendors offer special pricing and services for K-12 customers. Others boast purchasing programs designed to give cash-value rewards for every $1 or $2 spent on equipment. In some cases, vendors even run discounts for purchasing digital cameras in conjunction with other equipment, such as digital projectors, printers, and accessories. Be sure to contact companies directly and ask what sort of promotions they have. This could save you big bucks in the long run.
2. Once I've chosen a vendor, how do I decide what camera is right for me?
Unless your district is rearing paparazzi or the next Ansel Adams, most cameras on the market today will suffice for all of the basic point-and-shoot needs. Before you go shopping, however, ask yourself some questions: What are you going to do with your camera? What, specifically, will you photograph? Where will the photos be used? Answers to queries like these will give you a good sense of what kind of camera you need. Most digital cameras offer a trade-off between size and flexibility: the smaller the camera, the fewer features it has. Almost every vendor offers low-end and high-end options, so it's up to you to determine which cameras fit into your overall budget.
3. Do more megapixels really matter?
Megapixels are important for two reasons: they determine what size your prints can be and how much of the image you can crop away and still produce a good print. There's an advantage to having slightly more megapixels than you think you may need-doing so will give you room to crop. Still, your need for megapixels depends solely on how you expect to use your camera. If you're looking to take photos that will be printed and displayed, cameras offering five or six megapixels should afford you the flexibility to print or crop photos of just about any size. If you're shooting photos that will appear mostly in digital environments, stick with three- to four-megapixel models.
4. Which is more important: digital zoom or optical zoom?
Generally, manufacturers list three different kinds of zoom: optical, digital, and total, which is nothing more than the first two multiplied together. Optical zoom is similar to a telescope; it magnifies an image by using actual glass elements in the optical viewfinder. Digital zoom is much different; it simulates a telephoto effect by automatically cropping out parts of an image. Contrary to what camera vendors would have you think, digital zoom isn't always a good thing; the more you zoom in on an image, the more you're compromising image quality. Generally speaking, 3x digital zoom is equivalent to a standard 35mm to 105mm lens. These specifications are perfectly acceptable for ordinary K-12 use, unless your camera will be used for fast-paced nature or sports photography.
HP Photosmart M22 with Photosmart 8450 Photo Printer attached
5. What are other must-have special features?
These days, most digital cameras come with more features than any of us could use in one sitting. Some new features worth a look include high-resolution Liquid Crystal Display viewfinders and pre-programmed exposure modes, but buyers should be careful with both. LCD viewfinders are notorious for draining battery life quickly (anathema in high-use environments such as schools), and various preprogrammed exposure modes may prove to be limiting to unfamiliar users or in situations with tricky lighting. Other popular developments include movie mode for capturing short video clips; panorama shots for stitching together sequential photos to create a wider image; audio annotation mode for attaching an audio file to a photograph; and remote release, which initiates a self-timer sequence.
6. What are my storage options?
There are a variety of ways to store images on a camera, and all of them involve removable memory cards. Some of the most common memory cards on the market today include Compact Flash and Secure Digital cards. The type of card a camera uses isn't as important as the amount of memory on the card; nowadays memory cards offer up to 512 megabytes of storage (roughly 500 pictures). Some educators say they would rather purchase two cards with smaller memory than one large card because the odds are that eventually the card will be lost or damaged. Our advice: shop around. As prices for memory have dropped over the years, larger cards aren't much more expensive than smaller ones, and they offer more flexibility all around.
7. In terms of viewing pictures and downloading them off the camera, what features should I look for?
After investing thousands in new cameras, the last thing you want to do is worry about how you'll get the pictures from the camera into the classroom. Pretty much all cameras these days come standard with FireWire or USB ports that let you download pictures onto a hard drive, but these processes frequently require users to go back and erase photos from their memory cards before shooting more. Many schools also are purchasing memory card readers, which are especially helpful if your school has cameras that use different types of storage media. These readers are portable and come in combinations that read up to seven different card types in a single device. For laptops, PCMCIA adapters work well; these devices include self-mounting hard drives for existing memory cards so users don't need additional software to download pictures. Other cameras offer special A/V outputs that let you view photos on a classroom television. Some of the newest cameras, including high-end models from HP, Canon, and Olympus, are designed with special docking ports for photo printers and enable users to print photos directly from the camera without ever connecting to another device. Features like these are perfect in the K-12 arena; at a time when kids are accustomed to receiving information instantaneously on the Internet, the quicker they can see their photos, the better.
Matt Villano is a California-based freelance writer who specializes in educational technology.
Pick His Brain
Real-life tips from an educator who made a career of buying digital cameras
As director of human resources and IT for the Brewster Central School District in Brewster, N.Y., Steve Moskowitz is an old pro at buying digital cameras. Here's his advice for emerging from the process with maximum benefit and minimal stress:
"We've got more than 150 digital cameras in our district. In buying them, the bottom line has been that there are few times that kids need to go above three or four megapixels. At home, cameras are used to shoot pictures that become prints, but in school, the pictures are being posted in digital environments, Web sites, or Power-Point presentations. Another huge issue for us has been accessing the photos themselves. We don't want cameras that are going to require students to jump through hoops to get the photos; instead we want the kind where you hook [the camera] up to a TV or computer and can see pictures instantly."
- Look for cameras from vendors who offer special pricing for K-12 schools.
- Megapixels are important, but not everything; find the camera that is right for you.
- Don't be fooled by digital zoom; for consistent image quality, optical zoom is all that matters.
- Memory is a critical feature in most cameras, but you can always buy more.
- Whiz-bang features are fun, but be sure they don't drain battery life unnecessarily.
- The best cameras are those that enable you to view photos quickly and easily.