What you pay isn't what these things cost.
Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983

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The Cheapskate's Guide to Digital Cameras and Photo Printers

Dec. 3, 2006

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2006, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2006, The Post-Standard

   Digital cameras are hot items for the holidays. And everybody who buys one probably figures it's time to buy a printer that can produce lab-quality photos, too.
   But keep your hand off that credit card while I tell you a few things about cameras and printers.
   First, what you pay isn't what they cost. Cameras have a sneaky little habit of running out of storage space before you can say you'd like to take a picture of Jack Robinson. So buying a camera is only half the deal. You need to buy extra storage, too.
   I'll get to that in a minute. Let me yap about my other least favorite topic for a bit. When you buy an inkjet printer, you're signing a contract with the ink devil. The printer might be cheap to buy, but it's nowhere near cheap to own.
   Now that you see this dual problem, we can go back to dealing with it.
   Digital cameras store their pictures as files, and these files have to go somewhere. Before they can get that ticket to ride the USB highway to your computer, they have to hang around inside the camera. It's dark in there and all that, but picture files don't mind as long as they've got stretch-out room.
   Which means, as parents of gangly teenagers already know, that whatever storage room your camera came with is laughably inadequate for the task at hand. So you absolutely must buy extra storage for the camera.
   This kind of storage comes in the form of a memory card that snuggles into a slot on the camera, usually behind a tiny door. It might seem odd that memory cards that hold a lot of pictures are the same size as cards that couldn't hold a flea, but that's the way it works. So when you buy an extra card, you'll find it looks and feels the same as the old one. The only difference will be the capacity listed on the card. Choose a 1 GB (gigabyte) card. (A "gigabyte" is a thousand megabytes. That's enough for hundreds of pictures from most cameras.)
   Inkjet printers don't need storage, but they revel in ink. They use a lot of ink if you print a lot of photos. Makes sense, right? But what you might not realize is how the cost of ink is figured. When you buy an ink cartridge, you're only getting an ounce or so - but you're paying $30 or more. Do a little math and the actual unit price comes to $3,800 a gallon. (More on this can be found at www.technofileonline.com/texts/tec040304.html.)
   Can you get around the incredible cost of manufacturers' ink by refilling ink cartridges yourself? Maybe. It's messy, but you can do it if you try. But you'll probably find the photos you print don't look as good and won't last as long before fading as the ones you print with the factory-supplied ink.
   Instead, limit your family's ink use by picking up a cheap laser printer (they start below $100) and using it for non-photo printing. Laser printers are much cheaper to run and print text better than inkjets.
   And you can also turn the notion of cheap printing on its ear. Because ink is such a huge expense compared to the cost of the printer, buying a cheap, no-frills printer probably doesn't make sense. Buy a good inkjet designed for spectacular photo printing, such as one of the latest Epson photo printers, and you're more likely to be parsimonious with ink because you'll be happy with the printer.
   Lastly, skip the temptation to buy off-brand photo printing paper. Good photo printers work best with the paper their manufacturers recommend. My fancy Epson photo printer, for example, makes a runny mess out of Staples photo paper, but produces museum-quality photos when I use the company's Premium Luster paper.