The popularity of digital cameras is booming, particularly with Internet users, according to a study released this week.

A whopping one of every four US homes with Internet access now has a digital camera, says Michelle Lampmann, digital photography analyst at InfoTrends Research Group. InfoTrends conducted the Internet-based study in November; 1051 US residents participated.

The study shows that digital camera penetration into Internet-enabled households has doubled from last year to its current 25 per cent, according to Lampmann. And despite the slowing economy, the group expects that number to double again over the next year.

It's not surprising that Internet users favour digital cameras, because they're equipped to get the most out of them, Lampmann says. Camera owners with an Internet connection can share their digital images with friends and family via email and personal Web sites. Without the Internet, digital cameras aren't nearly as appealing, she says.

Despite their move to digital, most digital-camera owners still own a regular film-based camera, she says. However, most say they're using film less, and almost 10 per cent say they've stopped using film altogether.

The price is right Entry-level cameras make up a big chunk of those in use by survey respondents, says Lampmann. In fact about 7 per cent of digital camera owners received their device for free or won it. For example, she notes, the US Internet service provider Earthlink recently offered a free digital camera as a promotional gift.

These types of cameras are very basic and don't offer great image quality, but they get people started in digital photography, she says. It helps develop their interest in it, and can spur them to buy a better camera down the road.

Of those camera owners surveyed, another 20 per cent paid less than US$200 for their camera, Lampmann says. That's notable considering the high price tag that most digital cameras once carried.

In 2001 first-time buyers expect to pay an average of about $278 for a digital camera, she says.

Almost 70 per cent of digital camera owners surveyed also have a scanner, Lampmann says. Many of these people first got their start in digital imaging by scanning in prints, she says.

Since the price of a low-end scanner dropped markedly a few years ago (units now cost less than £100), using a film camera and then scanning the images into the PC once made more economic sense. But as the price of digital cameras continues to drop, InfoTrends expects more people to skip the scanner and go straight for the digital camera, she says.

Storage a concern Among people who already own a camera, storing their photos is one of their biggest concerns, Lampmann says. The majority of users store their photos on their hard drive, but most haven't made long-term storage plans. A large number also store their data on CDs, but even that may not be a good archival method, she notes.

"Even the CD has potential problems," she says. ""Will they be able to access that CD in the future?"

People are concerned about being able to share their current digital images with future generations, Lampmann says. They'd like to know that images stored today with current technologies will still be accessible with technologies that emerge further down the road.

Some users are archiving their photos the old-fashioned way, by printing them, she says. In fact, photo paper is the single largest accessory people buy when they own a digital camera, she says.

The other major accessory purchases by camera owners include rechargeable batteries, carrying cases, additional storage, and colour printers. Low-priced inkjet printers have no doubt experienced improved sales thanks to the ballooning digital-camera market, Lampmann says.

Sony currently leads the digital camera market, according to both the survey results and the company's forecasts, she says.