Digital photography is perhaps the one universal consumer activity, thanks to the burgeoning success of camera-based cell phones, digital cameras, scanners, photo printers, and PC-based software that makes working with these images easier than ever. Unlike the old days, when sharing photos meant lining up the family in front of a slide projector or passing an envelope of 4" x 6" prints around the kitchen table, you can now experience photos digitally in a variety of friendly ways that add drama and excitement to the moment. For example, you haven't fully experienced digital photography until you've watched a random slideshow of photos, set to your favorite music, on your large-screen TV.
In terms of technology, digital camera basics haven't changed much from last year. You should still look for at least 3 megapixels (MPX) of resolution, which will let you create prints as large as 11" x 17" in size and offer a sufficiently high resolution. But you have a new limitation to consider this year: Although you can buy cameras that support 5 or 6 MPX of resolution, such resolutions are probably a bit much for snapshots and family events. Pictures that big will take up enormous amounts of space on your PC and be slow to load, thereby ruining the experience you're trying to create. So, unless you're a professional photographer or need to make numerous poster-sized prints, purchasing a 5 or 6 MPX camera doesn't make much sense.
Another feature you should closely examine on digital cameras is the optical zoom capability, which will likely be in the 2x to 3x range for consumer-oriented models. This number represents the camera's physical zoom capabilities; don't confuse it with digital zoom, which is software-based and often of low quality. Finally, consider memory types: Big photos take up a lot of space, and the amount of RAM that ships with today's digital cameras is woefully inadequate. CompactFlash currently offers the largest expansion possibilities, but MemoryStick and SD are getting close and are certainly nothing to sneeze at: Any of these technologies is adequate for digital photography.
Sony makes high-quality digital cameras, and its Cyber-shot line of point-and-shoot cameras offers several products at virtually any price point. At the low end, consider the Sony DSC-P32 ($200), a 3.2 MPX model, or the Sony DSC-52 ($250), which adds 2x optical zoom. For $300, you can move up to the Sony DSC-72, which adds 3x optical zoom. But if you're looking for the ultimate in portability and style, you must check out the Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-U50 ($250), an ultra-small, ultra-fast camera that would look at home on your keychain. It's only 2 MPX, but the small size of the unit is remarkable. Of course, all these cameras support MemoryStick expansion.
On the Canon front, this year's entry, the Canon PowerShot G3 ($600), boasts 4 MPX resolution, a whopping 4x optical zoom, CompactFlash memory expansion, and an amazing continuous shooting mode. Like last year's PowerShot G2, the G3 is a bit expensive for consumers, but the Canon is durable and well made, an interesting halfway point between consumer and professional. It's definitely a choice for you prosumers out there.
More casual snapshot takers should look at Kodak's EasyShare line, which the company has dramatically enhanced over the past year. The EasyShare products include sometimes-optional camera bases that make acquiring photos easier on non-Windows XP or Mac OS X-based systems. At the low end, the EasyShare CX4300 ($200) offers 3.2 MPX of resolution and SD expansion. Moving up the product line, the EasyShare CX6330 ($200) includes 3.1 MPX, 3x optical zoom, and a simple LCD display menu. Both cameras offer good picture quality and Kodak's legendary ease-of-use. As with last year's models, users that opt for the optional (and optional-cost) dock can easily recharge the camera when it isn't in use—a feature that arguably should be included with each camera.
Today's photo printers offer picture-perfect printing that's indistinguishable from prints you might purchase at professional photo-printing houses. And the quality comes at astonishingly low prices, although the cost of perishables such as paper and ink can bite you. Be sure to look for printers that offer 4 to 8 inkwells, with dedicated (not mixed) blacks. Regardless of your needs, a printer is in your price range and, perhaps more important, printer ink and paper make excellent gifts for those who already have printers.
One excellent printer choice is the HP PhotoSmart 7960 ($350), which offers stunning color reproduction thanks to its eight ink wells, one dedicated to black. Like many new HP offerings, the 7960 features an integrated LCD preview screen and multiformat media reader, letting you use the printer without a PC.
For about $100 less, the Canon i900D ($225) offers resolution and quality that's similar to that of the HP, but with six ink wells. Like the HP, the Canon supports prints from 4" x 6" to 8.5" x 11", and supports the faster USB 2.0 standard.
Last year, portable photo printers were a new category, but now they're quite common, and they're an excellent solution for people who enjoy instant results on vacations and other trips. The Canon CP-200 ($170) is an affordable solution, although it's more adept at printing stickers and other small printouts than photos. For higher-quality photo prints, consider the Canon CP-350 ($265), which can print 4" x 6" prints at as much as 300 x 300 dpiÑmore than adequate for snapshots.
If you're looking for digital photo-related gifts, you have some obvious choices. First, for some reason, most printers don't ship with USB cables, so you'll need to pick up a USB printer cable ($15 to $30). And again, printer perishables such as high-quality photo paper (HP and Canon sell excellent paper) and ink cartridges (manufacturer-specific) are always appreciated. Digital-camera owners never have enough storage, and SD, MemoryStick, and CompactFlash storage (typically from 64MB to 512MB, with varying prices) are wonderful gifts. Digital-camera buffs should also check out online photo services, such as Kodak's excellent Ofoto, which offers print ordering; frames, albums, and other gifts; personalized photo cards; and a cool photo-sharing system.
Finally, consider the gift of software. Though Windows XP ships with excellent digital-photo acquisition and management software, that software can leave beginning users in the cold, and it offers little in the way of image-editing capabilities. The best software solution is a handy little bundle, imaginatively titled Adobe PhotoShop Elements 2.0 Plus PhotoShop Album 2.0 ($115), which bundles two of Adobe's best consumer applications into one affordable package. Other worthwhile contenders include Microsoft Digital Image Suite 9 ($125) and Jasc Paint Shop Power Suite - Photo Edition ($120).