By Peter Lewis
Updated October 31, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST

You say you want a revolution? Well, you know: When it comes to cameras, digital photography is mounting one. Which means that film may soon meet the same fate as vinyl LPs and Mariah Carey’s career. Here are four good digicams, from beginner’s models to fancy gadgets for advanced shutterbugs. But first know this: The more megapixels a camera has, the bigger and better the images. Unless you’re a serious photographer, I recommend starting at three or four megapixels, which lets you make good prints up to 8 x 10 inches. Don’t be fooled by so-called ”digital” zooms; an optical zoom is the only thing that counts. You’ll also need an extra storage card to keep from having to dash back to your PC to dump your images. Oh, and even the best camera won’t keep you from putting your thumb over the lens.

For a great starter camera, consider the NIKON COOLPIX 3100 ($299.95). Like the Elph below, it’s a 3.2-megapixel shooter, but it’s less expensive because it’s a bit larger (miniaturization is pricey). On the plus side, that makes it easier to hold and shoot with one hand. Image quality is impressive, thanks to the Nikkor 3x zoom lens, but the best thing about the Coolpix 3100 is its ease of use. Nikon has loaded it with all sorts of preset exposure modes, taking the guesswork out of tricky lighting situations like sunsets, fireworks, and wild parties (”Lenny, would you mind terribly keeping that bra on your head for just a few minutes longer?”). More advanced users will love the full brace of manual controls. It comes with a 16-megabyte Compact Flash card and uses either one CR-V3 lithium or — hooray! — a pair of easy-to-find AAs.

For travelers, the tiny 3.2-megapixel CANON POWERSHOT SD100 DIGITAL ELPH ($499) delivers a steamer trunkful of features. Made of rugged stainless steel, it’s less than an inch thick and easily fits in the palm of your hand. I love the incredibly quick ”power-on-to-first-shot” speed and the feature that automatically covers the 2x zoom lens when not in use. Picture quality is excellent, and the camera can also record short video clips. The Elph comes with a 16-megabyte SD card (one of several storage formats) that can record maybe eight shots at maximum resolution, so you’ll want to buy a bigger-capacity spare. Battery life is good, around 300 shots before a recharge.

If you’re serious about digital photography, or think you might like to be, a 5.0-megapixel camera is the way to go. A good balance of price and performance comes in the form of the CANON POWERSHOT G5 ($799). The G5 won’t fit in your pocket, but that’s cool because its metallic black skin is too beautiful to hide. While there are lots of manual controls for the sophisticated photographer, there are enough automatic settings to keep the novice from feeling overwhelmed. The G5 has a 4x optical zoom lens, and its image quality is excellent. Another plus: the exceptional battery life. It comes with a 32MB Compact Flash card, which, storing a measly dozen or so images, is just a starter card. And if this seems like too much camera, consider the G5’s little brother, the popular 4.0-megapixel G3, which does many of the same things for about $150 less.

For shooting outdoors, say at a nature preserve or a clothing-optional beach, a big zoom lens comes in handy. The 4.0-megapixel OLYMPUS C-750 ULTRA ZOOM ($599) really delivers, with a 10x optical zoom lens that’s the equivalent of a 38mm-to-380mm zoom on a 35mm film camera. I love 4.0-megapixel cameras; besides letting you print poster-size images, they enable you to be more creative in what you can crop out of your pictures (trees, shadows, ex-boyfriends). Nice feature: You can append voice memos to each photo — ”This is me walking up to Uma Thurman. And this is me being tossed out of the club.” To make room for the big zoom lens, the metal-bodied C-750UZ uses miniature picture cards, about the size of your thumbnail. (A 16-megabyte card is included.)