You Shoot. Do They Score?

Sunday, August 19, 2007

RESEARCH QUESTION: We sometimes hit the road with not one, but three digital cameras, including single-lens reflex cameras and compact point-and-shoots. But there are situations when putting your expensive gear into the fray may not be the smartest move. That's where a single-use digital camera might be more suitable.

Pure Digital Technologies, credited with introducing the first disposable digital camera in 2003, continues to corner the market on the product; it's the line most local retail stores seem to stock under their own brand. We sought out RiteAid's One-Time-Use Digital Camera ($19.99), CVS's Digital One-Time-Use Camera ($21.99) and Ritz Camera's Dakota Digital Single-Use Camera ($18.99). With the exception of a few cosmetic details, they were identical Pure Digital cameras.

But sometimes it's not all about the equipment; processing fees and prints make a difference. We wondered: Would a disposable digital camera be up to the job -- and would the resulting prints satisfy?

METHODOLOGY: The camera can hold 25 images and features an automatic flash and a picture preview window, so you can shoot and delete at will. It must be returned to the same retail chain from which it was purchased (the cameras don't work with your home computer). Processing fees include a CD and prints. We shot, returned to the stores and saw what developed.

RESULTS: First, a word on the cameras. They all functioned the same, though the CVS version had a pull tab, which ensured that the battery hadn't been wearing down while it sat on the shelf (a big plus).

In all cases, the picture previews were grainy, and it was hard to tell whether the shot was in focus. But that's a definite upgrade from no preview at all. (Still, our subjects inevitably lost an arm or the top of their heads on our first try; correct framing took two or three tries.) The automatic flash spoiled close-ups of flowers and seemingly caught every reflective surface possible, even when we considered the light generous enough to deem a flash unnecessary. For the next generation of disposable digitals (you listening, Pure Digital?), we want an adjustable flash that fires only when the photographer wants it. A zoom would be nice, too, but we won't get greedy.

The comparison really came into play with the processing.

· Our CVS pre-tax tab came to $9.89; the CD offered two sets of photos (small for e-mailing, about 1 by 2 inches at 300 dpi, and large for printing, 4 by 6 inches at 300 dpi), with easy instructions for e-mailing, printing and creating a slide show. At first glance, the prints were fine, but a closer look showed that they were pixelated.

· The photos from RiteAid ($7.25) were awful; one subject's skin tone rendered as a sickly pink and orange, and the images were foggy. The CD came with the same perks as the CVS version.

· Ritz ($11) came through on color, and the images were sharp, but two different computers rejected the CD. Sigh. Ritz replaced the defective CD when we returned it. To e-mail images, you must install the free software on the CD.

CONCLUSION: With two of the three options, the quality of the print images was unacceptable. We'd rather risk our serious gear or forget about picture-taking altogether than use the cameras from CVS or RiteAid. (And reverting to a disposable film camera just doesn't cut it in this digital age; we're just too accustomed to editing our pictures as we go along.) But for more pedestrian travels, we'd recommend Ritz Camera's Dakota Digital Single-Use Camera.

-- Anne McDonough

© 2007 The Washington Post Company