Digital Photography: Memories Are Made of This ; VIEW FINDER THE RISE OF THE DIGITAL CAMERA: The Digital Camera Came upon Us in a Flash " and Completely Changed the Way We Take and Look at Our Photos

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It's dizzying to consider that almost everyone in Britain now owns at least one digital camera, or has one within arm's length. If it's not a 'digital still camera' (as it's known in the trade), then one built into their mobile phone.

That's a dramatic contrast with a century ago, when, in 1905, Kodak pushed the first mass-market camera " the one-dollar Kodak Browning, or 'Brownie'. The first 35mm-film camera only appeared in 1913. Until that new era, cameras were the province of professionals, who would get people to sit in front of paintings to be formally photographed, and then charge them for it.

The Brownie was a breakthrough in attitude. 'You press the button, we do the rest,' said George Eastman of Kodak, in the advertising slogan that backed his company's push towards the mass market. After all, he reasoned, why should the pros have all the fun?

Now, we take photos routinely, because capturing digital images has become so easy. The research company IDC estimates that last year around the world we 'captured, shared and received' 95 billion images using digital cameras, and 80 billion with cameraphones. This year, it expects the numbers to edge up, with cameraphones outnumbering 'cameras' by 155bn to 130bn.

Those numbers give just a glimpse of how digital photography has transformed our attitudes to taking pictures. Jenny Hodge, a spokeswoman for Fujifilm, says: 'Digital cameras have changed the market, because they've increased the interest in photography as a whole. There are more pictures taken by people now, because they know that if they don't want to keep it they can just delete it off the camera, or phone. They can print them, but don't have to. There's more flexibility. People's habits have changed.'

Paul Withington, an analyst who follow the digital camera and printer market for IDC, notes that digital cameras have dramatically changed our habits in the UK. Where we used to get millions of prints from corner shops, now most digital prints are made at home, although 45 per cent of us don't print our digital photos at all (and it's estimated that 80 per cent of digital photos never get printed), and haven't considered using an internet printing service or a retail service like Boots, where you can take a camera or its data storage card and get photos while you wait.

But what's really changed about photography is the way that we do it. With film cameras, especially the SLR ('single lens reflex') models, one had to peer through a viewfinder and try to decide whether the picture was in focus " which usually involved squinting at lines within the picture " and then determining exposure time and the 'F number'. Most people found the latter frequently confusing, as it determined how much light hit the lens, and also the 'depth of field' " how much of the picture would be sharp. With film, the ability to pick the best mix of exposure and F-number marked out the good from the ordinary photographer.

The arrival of autofocus SLRs in the 1980s was a boon, and digital cameras benefited from the technology; all but the very top- end models use lenses with a fixed F-number giving great depth of focus, and have autofocus systems so that whatever is in the middle of the picture will automatically be sharp.

But not fiddling about with F-stops and exposure times (and balancing that with the film's 'speed') isn't the only change. Watch someone taking a photo nowadays: they won't press the camera to their face, they'll keep it perhaps six inches from their eyes, or even at arm's length, as they frame the picture using the LCD screen on the back, which shows what the lens is seeing.

And if you don't like that picture, deleting it is easy " although as storage has got cheaper and cheaper " both on the digital format cards for cameras and on computers " people are finding that you never need to throw away pictures after all; you can just let your computer keep them, or archive them on CD. …