WELL, at least I opened the box.

I'm accustomed to new cameras coming in somewhat smallish boxes--not all that much larger than the camera itself. So it was a little unsettling when my new Kodak DCS 330 professional digital camera came to my home in what looked like a small valise.

The folks at Kodak have lent me this machine so I can begin what I fear will be a long, slow learning curve of trying to make pictures with a filmless camera.

In short, I'm starting the process of going digital--and I plan to bring all of you along with me every halting step of the way.

For me "going digital" is not an all-or-nothing proposition. I have no intention of abandoning silver-based film: not in color, and certainly not in my beloved black and white. Digital photography to me is simply another way of capturing images--a decidedly imperfect way as there are no guarantees of archival permanence with this new technology. There are no guarantees, either in the disks that capture images in place of film, or in the machines that "play" or produce these images, and which are made maddeningly obsolete by new technologies seemingly every month.

Still, being able to take pictures and download them immediately has its appeal. As a photojournalist, I will be able to write and photograph stories, then transmit words and pictures immediately. As an event photographer, I'll be able to supply a client with, say, a key picture for an on-deadline newsletter without having to speed my film to a lab for expensive rush turnaround. As a wedding photographer I'll be able to e-mail my clients selected digital images from their wedding within hours of the event while my custom lab takes its time to produce "real" prints for them.

In fact, over the course of the next several months, I will be reviewing other, far less complicated digital cameras, including what arguably is one of the most popular digital point-and-shoots around, the Nikon Coolpix 950--all with an eye toward speed and convenience, if not archival permanence.

But for now, I'm dealing with Kodak's impressive-looking DCS 330. First, there was the matter of the box. I mean, all this baby was was a Nikon Pronea body cobbled onto Kodak Digital base. How much box could that take up?

Plenty, as it turns out. Because the support system for this $6,000 list price camera (I keep telling myself I can get a car for that much) is as impressive as it is daunting. There were not one but three CD-ROMs to help me dope out this camera. There was an instruction manual nearly an inch thick and bigger than some novels I'd read lately. There was an AC adapter to run the camera on household current. (I liked that idea.) There was an extra battery tray, since this baby gobbles up 6 double-A's at a time, and pronto. (I didn't like that idea.) There also was a lovely color 8-by-10 of a pretty young woman. A friendly greeting, perhaps, from the person who packed the box to her favorite photography columnist? Yeah, right. It turns out that "included in each box is an image that was captured with a DCS 330 camera and printed on a Kodak LED printer. This same image is supplied electronically on a CD (one of my three) in its original TIFF format (whatever that means), with instructions on what steps were taken to prepare the original TIFF image for printing on a Kodak LED printer. A user, going through the same steps, should obtain the same results . . ." There then followed no fewer than two dozen steps to re-create this photo. Happily, because I don't have a color printer, I simply chose to ignore all this.

I kept looking at the camera itself. It's a big thing all right, though the Pronea body actually is much smaller than Nikon bodies I'm used to: my trusty N90S, for example, or the hot new F100. The Pronea, after all, in its other, non-digital, incarnation is one of Nikon's new, smaller format APS (Advanced Photo System) cameras, so it stands to reason that the body will be small. It's the electronic guts that take up all the room, literally attaching themselves to the APS body like an elegant plastic-coated barnacle. Finally, with manual in hand, I figured it was time to make my first digital image.

I loaded the camera with batteries, turned it on and set out on my great digital adventure. Or so I thought. "Unable to take picture. No card present," flashed the message in the LED readout. Silly me, I thought. It needs "film." No problemo. So, with DCS 330 in hand, I rode up to my local camera shop and said, "Gimme what I need to make this thing go."

And here, I discovered the first bittersweet lesson of digital photography. "You need a PCMCIA card," my friend at the camera shop said, "We don't have them. You have to go to a computer store." I thought he was pulling my leg, certainly, with all those letters; but he wasn't.

"Didn't Kodak send you one?"

"No."

"Well. For heaven's sake, don't buy one. They cost $300."

"Oh, piffle," I said--or words to that effect.

And, as you might guess, this saga will have to be continued.

Questions or comments? Write me at Weekend, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or at fvanriper@aol.com.