In the fall of 2002 my wife and I decided that it would be a good idea to look into a digital camera as we prepared for the birth of our son. I had until then been only semi-interested in digicams until last fall thinking they were unnecessary for my needs since I already had my flatbed scanner for getting photo prints into my Mac.
Well, sometimes I think it takes physically having a bit of new technology to really realize how useful it is. It wasn't until I had my Canon A20 in hand to shoot with that I understood just why digital cameras are so wonderful. Let me share some of the things I've discovered in case you're a stick in the mud about digital cameras like I once was.
Creative freedom. Not having to deal with film is incredibly freeing. With my Canon and a 128MB CF card, I just shoot what I want and whenever I want to, without worrying how much film I might be wasting in the process. I just shoot -- good, bad whatever and it's cool. I feel free to explore things that would restrict me with a film camera, which often leads to unexpectedly fun shots. I feel like I'm having fun with my camera again, which makes me want to shoot all the time!
Endless Film. I can wade through my shots in the camera and delete bad attempts immediately, or I can suck all of the images off the camera to my Mac via USB cable or CF card reader and weed through them there. This also means my CF card is essentially an endless roll of digital film as long as I clear it of shots now and then. If I'm away from my Mac the CF card acts as a 120 shot roll of digital film -- not bad. And if that's not enough, I can pick up even larger CF cards to store my shots, though 128MB seems perfect so far.
Selective Printing. One bummer of regular film cameras is getting prints back and finding images you'd have preferred not to have prints of. With digital cameras you can select the images you want to print beforehand and have them turned into film-based prints from online services or from your CF card at your local Walgreens (24 prints for about $7). You can even print shots on your ink jet with amazing quality, though these prints are not of archival quality and may fade over time.
Less Long-Term Expense. Another bummer of print photography are the costs involved. Yes, a film camera is cheaper up front than a digital camera, but as time goes on, the cost (and hassle) of buying film adds up compared to the initial digital camera and CF card investment.
Instant Gratification. Man, it's great to see your shots immediately! Better yet to get them posted on a website (via iPhoto on the Mac) for everyone to see, or emailed if you like. This also means an end to those waits for prints and trips to the drug store to get your prints back. Even using my old scanner to get prints into my Mac seemed archaic and cumbersome after using a digital camera and iPhoto.
I think you really do need a Mac or PC to effectively use a digital camera. There are stand alone printers which can generate 4x6 prints from CF cards or from your camera, but these have limits. They also cannot help you manage the contents on your removable card or store your pictures on a hard drive or burn them to a CD like a Mac or PC can.
So, if you're at all considering a digital camera, right now is a great time to dive in. Digital cameras have reached very reasonable prices as well as the removable media you'll need for digital film. I suggest at least a 2 megapixel camera, good enough to handle 4x6 quality prints, though more megapixels mean better image quality.
Size is another consideration. Make sure the camera you choose is small enough to take anywhere, since big, clunky cameras will tend to be left behind. Camera manufacturers have very small, capable cameras on the market that can easily fit in your pocket.
Where should do you begin looking? Check out these excellent resources to help in your search for a good quality digital camera: Imaging Resource, Digital Camera Views, Digital Camera Resource, Digital Photography Reviews, Megapixel.net and Steve's Digicams. They all have very in depth reviews and great info to help you along. Make sure you visit stores and handle cameras you're considering as a good feel is as critical in your decision as the specs are.
Finally, if you have a friend with a digital camera, see if they'll let you borrow it for a weekend so you can give it a whirl -- you might get hooked like I did! ;-)