Digital imaging has been with us since the 1960s, when NASA created the basic technology to record moonscapes. But it hasn't always been accessible to the masses. Even three years ago, when consumer digital cameras began to proliferate, a model of modest pedigree couldn't justify a price tag of $400 and up.
Nowadays, the digital picture looks more inviting. The technology has exploded, performance matches traditional photography's, and prices have dropped. For what would have bought you a semicompact 2-megapixel model in early 2001 can now get you a sleek 5-megapixel, fully loaded camera.
The upshot: This is a great time to invest in digital photography. The problem now isn't technology risk. It's abundance. You can choose from a vast silver sea of digicams, all with specifications and features that will seem complex and confusing to the old 35-millimeter crowd. Ready to take the plunge? Here are a few basics to consider.
First, think "pixels"--the little dots that make up a digital image. Note a camera's "effective" pixel count: A solid 3-megapixel camera that costs between $200 and $300 will provide image quality comparable to a regular point and click. Fewer pixels will give you adequate 4-by-6-inch prints, but don't sacrifice resolution unless the model integrates another desirable technology--an MP3 player, say, or a cell phone. If you plan to make prints larger than 5 by 7 inches, you should spend more for 4 or 5 megapixels. In general, each additional megapixel adds $100 to the camera's price.
Second, know your zooms. Most models offer a digital zoom, which lets you magnify an image after it's been snapped. But an optical zoom, which brings the subject closer and preserves finer details, is more important. If you've been content with disposable cameras for casual shooting, the digital zoom may be just fine. Most of us, however, will want to pay more to go optical.
Finally, consider battery life and memory storage. Cameras using lithium-ion batteries need to be recharged regularly. But many still use double-As, which can be easily depleted. As for storage, you'll need to buy an additional media card. A good 128-MB card is enough to last you until those spacious 256-MB cards come down in price.
The big question: If you've held out this long, why not wait another year for the next big leap in performance? Well, waiting won't hurt--but you're unlikely to gain much, either. For 2004, expect to see manufacturers building on existing innovations. We'll see more ultracompact models packing 5 mega-pixels and up, with faster operations. For most of us, though, now's the time to take advantage of the postholiday sales. Tech holdouts never had it so good so quickly.
Sidebar: Three Price Points, Three Digicams
 $149: Hewlett-Packard Photosmart 435
You won't find a more budget-friendly 3-megapixel camera than this. The downside: Its fixed focal lens only gets as close as you do, although the 5X digital zoom can make up the difference later. (www.hp.com)
 $500: Canon PowerShot S50
Here's a souped-up digicam with features that can go as far as your imagination does. The S50 offers myriad manual settings and photo effects--such as a stitch-assist mode for a 360-degree shot. And its 5 megapixels deliver enough resolution for high-quality enlargements. (www.powershot.com)
 $820: Leica D-Lux
The D-Lux gives you 3.2 megapixels, a 3X retractable zoom, and state-of-the-art engineering in an all-metal 7-ounce body. With its streamlined vintage design, you'll be holding a piece of art while making some of your own. (www.leica-camera.com)