Cameras in the digi-era couldn't be more user-friendly. Geeta Padmanabhan describes the varied features found in some of the latest models, which make shooting pictures a pleasure, even for an amateur

Camera in hand, a young man shoots pictures, pulls out the reel and goes on to develop it. But all he sees is a question mark on every slide. Shocked, he rushes to the print shop. He is told, “You pointed the lens toward you, sir. The camera caught your ear. You should start listening to your device.”

That's a pre-digital device. In this digi-shooting century, your sleek, silver-coloured gizmo might warn you, “Hey, what are you clicking today? Your face or the scenery in front?”

No, that's not sci-fi. Work done by Ren Ng, a PhD student at Stanford University eight years ago, has produced what is billed as the first camera that captures the entire light-field in one scene. Once you needed 100 cameras tethered to a supercomputer in a lab for light-field photography. Now you do it with one pocket-sized, telescope-shaped Lytro camera with eight giga-byte storage. Unveiling it in 'Frisco, Ng said its photographer-tested software (for Mac computers) will use light data captured by the camera to allow points of focus to be easily shifted in digital images. (The MS-Windows version is coming!) Simply, the camera lets you adjust the focus on photos after shooting. More simply, it gives you the freedom to “shoot first, focus later.”

Memory card helps

That's a journey of light years in still-camera photography. “Remember when you couldn't see the picture, and didn't know how good it was?” asks J. Ramesh Kumar at Camera Citi, as Deepika Padukone and Priyanka Chopra smile alluringly from the walls. “Photographers had a host of problems at functions — missed the crucial part and took poor shots. Now re-wind to what you've got, and depending on your memory card, click thousands more.” Oh yes, you can get the birthday kid to cut the cake again, the prize-giver/receiver to pose again, newly-weds to smile again, all for those “lifetime” shots that you print within the hour.

“You can make movies with your digi-cameras,” encourages Ramesh Kumar, spreading out his inventory. “EOS-550/D5100 upwards, all cameras have HD video and mike input. So go ahead, shoot a documentary. Get a digi-SLR — you can take gorgeous photos, superb low-light shots; there are interchangeable lenses and zero shutter lag!”

Digi-camera technology itself has shot ahead, he says. “In the early models, you chose the scenery manually. The cameras I sell now automatically choose from among 32 scenes (fire, snow, indoor/outdoor), do face-detection and white balance, stabilise images, reduce noise with a high-capability sensor and are ISO eye-sensitive. You can make 720 HD movies, and have full HD/1080p videos.”

He continues, “Digi-cameras come with filters. Their software can edit, photo-shop, and give ‘perfect' pictures.” He laughs, “No guarantee for accuracy though!” I look at the stars on the wall. “Connect the camera to your LCD TV with an HDMI cable and watch videos of excellent quality.” Now you can even have your “treasures” put into an album or on a mug, T-shirt, desktop calendar, plate and/or key-chain — for the joy of having loved ones (or yourself) around you all the time!

Smaller and sleeker

And SLR cameras are shrinking. Panasonic and Olympus' Micro Four Thirds and Sony's NEX can be carried in your pocket; yet they have a real SLR-size sensor. Pentax Q at 3.9 x 2.3 x 1.2” with a “pancake” lens is probably the smallest interchangeable-lens camera in the world. Its features include a magical flash that springs out on an extension arm high enough to cut off lens-shadow and red-eye. The Nikon 1 goes for speed with rocket-like computing power. It lets you snap a full-resolution still photo while recording video with no gap in the movie. That's a first in the history of everyday cameras.

“Instant feedback,” says photographer G. Venket Ram, listing his favourite digi-features. “You don't worry about wasting film, you can under-and-over expose the shot, get more accurate colours.” He uses a 39-mega-pixel Mamiya 645 AFD II with a Phase One P45 Digital-back for high-resolution ad images and a 21-mega-pixel Canon 5D Mark II for other shoots. “Lots of people have got into photography because digi-cameras are so user-friendly,” he says.

Great, but the click overload makes people behave like pests, says C.R. Jayaprakash, Nilgiris Wildlife/Environment Association, whose breathtaking pictures turn places he visits into a must-see. “Pictures need to be shot for a purpose,” he says. “Digi-tech has put cameras in the common man's hands. True, but great pictures are framed in the mind. Visualisation is more important than the number of frames per second. You may have zoom, but to get a good picture, you need to get near the creature, learn its behaviour, its habitat.”

While Lytro's “light field engine” allows viewers to interact with the “living pictures” on web browsers/smartphones/tablets, shed a tear for the film-role camera that put picture-making in the hands of those with patience and purpose. “I do miss it,” says Venket Ram. “The whole excitement over processing the image in a darkroom and waiting for the final print is gone.”

ZOOM IN

* Go for a 10 megapixel camera with good lenses. You need 14-16 MPs only to crop and make very large prints.

* Find a superzoom that includes electronic viewfinders.

* Top-end cameras now come with swivelling LCD (for tricky shots), a touch screen to control exposure settings, set a focus point, snap a photo.

* 3D cameras are just around the corner.