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LOOK BEFORE YOU LEAP INTO DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY

The camera has been our constant companion ever since America started going outdoors for recreation. These days the buzz is about ditching film and going digital.

For several years I've hunted and fished with avid video tapers. Those devices are relatively easy to master, compared to the vagaries of digital still photography, where most pros still shoot film, though they are also doing digital photo editing. I write this in a home office that now looks like a casting reel with the world's worst backlash: Cables snake and entwine all over three work surfaces umbilically connecting keyboard, mouse, monitor, surge-protecting power strips, new photo printer, film and print scanner, and our old laser printer to the family desktop computer.

Oh, yeah, there's a digital camera someplace here, too.

We felt we had to go digital: First, my wife got a digital camera to e-mail photos to friends and family and create inventory records. Second, I recently inherited a century's worth of family history in the form of glass plates and negatives (hence the scanner and printer). Third, we are traveling to Alaska this summer and wonder how best to capture the memories of that trip.

So far the chief lesson learned is: Don't jump in with both feet!

If snapshots and e-mail are the aim, just about any decent digital camera will do. Most have rudimentary software that allows one to crop and tweak a raw image and e-mail it or even print it on those new photo-quality ink-jet printers.

But for serious "digital darkroom" work, most outdoor photographers I know still shoot film, then use PhotoShop to create whatever digital files they need: highest quality for magazine covers, low-resolution files for e-mail or web pages.

And even expert practitioners say they have not yet learned all that PhotoShop can do. My "guru" says I'll need weeks of tutoring before I can restore faded family photos or do the kinds of simple darkroom work I learned eons ago with developing trays, chemicals and dodging tools.

And I still believe most outdoors people who want a compact, go-anywhere camera would be best served with a 35 mm "point 'n' shoot," either with a single 35 mm focal-length lens, or one with a mild zoom. I like 28-90 (or 28-80) zooms on those pocket cameras because 28 mm is just about wide enough to photograph your companions in a bass boat and the long side is a good portrait lens. They are good for scenery but for wildlife buy postcards at the national park; you'll seldom get pictures that good, even with a professional, long-range telephoto.

These popular automated cameras are also available in digital form and are not much bigger than the film versions. Here are a few pros and cons to consider before taking the digital plunge:

A camera that takes images with 2 million pixels will cost a bit more than its film version, but with it you can make pretty decent prints up to 8x10; 3 million pixel cameras do that even better, but ours has a 200-page instruction manual -- with small print! -- so the learning curve may be steep.

Pro -- They store the images on reusable media flash cards, floppy disks, memory sticks and even tiny microdrives. You can carry enough storage capacity in a matchbox for thousands of low-resolution or hundreds of high-resolution images. The cards can be reused, and airport X-rays won't fog them.

Con -- Various cameras use various non-compatible storage media that could become obsolete down the pike. And those little cards cost as much as a case of film.

Pro -- Digital zooms extend the range of the optical zoom in most of these cameras. Thus they are more compact and easy to carry than a 35 mm SLR with its attendant lenses.

Con -- They still don't go out very far, making them less than ideal for wildlife photos.

Pro -- You can view your shots right now, to see which to keep, which to erase instantly.

Con -- To do that requires using the LCD screen, and these babies already suck down batteries at an alarming rate. Turning on the viewing screen accelerates that. One session, taking 25 digital photos and loading them into the computer for editing, requires a fresh set of batteries. Happily, the new NIMH rechargeable batteries can be topped up while I shoot, so in theory we could charge a set in our cabin while out taking pictures of glaciers.

The Buffalo News recently went to high-end Nikon digital cameras because of their speed: A photographer at a Bills game can send his photos to the picture editor from the sidelines during the game. And our guys can still use their favorite Nikon lenses. They carry laptops to store, do rudimentary cropping and transmit from the field. And lots of batteries. Most of us won't need all that to make Web pages or digital photo albums.

So we have a hung jury: I think my wife will carry her digital camera and send e-mail to the friends and relatives. I plan to lug an old mechanical monster, use a hand-held light meter and have the film developed at the corner photo shop. By this summer, I may have untangled all those cords and learned enough PhotoShop to dodge, burn and crop electronically and print a few memories to hang on the wall.
Contact Michael Levy at 73 Fairlawn Drive, East Aurora, N.Y. 14052 or e-mail: yvel@adelphia.net.

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