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Thursday, May 18, 2006

On selecting a digital camera

April posted one of our Flickr photos, as part of a request for advice on purchasing a digital camera.

I have commented three times (so far) on her post, and decided to make my thoughts into a post of my own. Thanks, April!

First, why would anyone want to get a digital camera? They are expensive, compared to traditional cameras. I have been to weddings where the guests were given disposable traditional cameras to use, they can be so cheap. My answer? Ease in communication. You can easily e-mail digital photos, use them in a presentation, or place them on the web. There are other advantages, too:
Digital photos are easy to screen and cull. In many cases, you can do it in the camera. You don't have to get the film developed to see which photos aren't worth keeping.

Digital photos can be easily edited. Many cameras come with good editing software. You can purchase good software for a hundred dollars or less. Most photos, digital or on film, could stand to be cropped, that is, have the parts you don't need removed, so as to emphasize what you do need. Other common improvements you can make with editing software are to brighten a photo, or increase the contrast, or the reverse. Much more sophisticated manipulation can be done. (See the first item in the images section of this post, for a good example.) Manipulations like these are beyond almost everybody with traditional film, but most people can pick up the basic tasks of editing with digital photos.

Digital photos are easy to store. You can make backups the same way you do with your other important computer files. You are backing up your files, aren't you?

Having established that digital cameras can be useful items, how to select one? I have a few rather idiosyncratic guidelines:

1) Be sure you get enough memory. Most digital cameras come with enough memory to store about 8-12 photos, and that's just not enough. Buy a memory stick, or some such, so that you can store at least 50-100 photos before transferring them to your computer, or changing to another memory card/stick/whatever.

2) Some cameras do not have batteries that can be removed, and replaced (the entire camera has to be connected to house current to recharge it). Avoid them. You need to be able to change batteries if they run dry, right there at the wedding/sporting event/hike/picnic whatever. Have a spare set of batteries with you whenever you take the camera.

3) Zooming: I found, after over 3 years with our first camera, that I wished I could zoom to get better photos close up. There are digital and optical zooms. Digital zooms (where the software adds in pixels) help some, but not very much, compared to optical zoom. However, the problem with an optical zoom (where the glass lens does the work) is that it usually makes the camera larger, or you have to carry a special add-on lens for it. I decided it was worth it, for me. It won't be for everyone. Zooming also lets you take better photos of distant objects.

4) Digital cameras tend to be slow. The dog, or the baby, has changed position before you can capture it. Look for a rapid response.

5) Get a camera with a large viewing screen, the larger, the better. You can see what you are getting, you can check your photos to delete the bad ones, and you can even pass the camera around to share your pictures without waiting for a print-out or putting them on your computer.

6) Digital cameras change rapidly. The life of a particular model is generally less than a year. For most people, especially most people getting their first one, having a newly released model isn't of primary importance, and retailers reduce the prices of the models that are six months old or so, making them more attractive.

7) You shouldn't spend a few hundred dollars without doing some research. There are sites that review digital cameras. As far as I know, they aren't influenced by advertising. Here are some of them: dpreview, megapixel, CNet and imaging resource, which latter I have found to be especially helpful.

8) Try before buying. Borrow a friend's digital camera. Try it out, and work with downloading to your computer. Find out what you like, and don't like. The display cameras in retail stores usually can be used, even when they are tethered to the shelf. Take a few photos. See what they look like.

After you get a digital camera, join Flickr. They have a free membership, for up to 200 photos (for having more that you and others can see, it's $29.95 per year), and your friends can look at them (so can everybody else in the world) without having to join it themselves, so long as you send them the URL. (Here's mine) Some on-line sites require passwords even to look at photos of your cousins. Flickr doesn't. Besides, as I can testify, it's addictive. But that's another story.

Thanks for reading.


Anonymous said...

That's a good list of things to consider, especially for the first-time buyer.

I used to love my 35mm Pentax, but I no longer have it.

Since I would like a camera that will print at least as well as my old 35mm, I'll be waiting until I can afford a 6-8 megapixel Digital SLR (which may be a while). Not that I don't like some of the point-and-clicks - the new ultra-compacts from Sony and Nikon are very nice.

The best part is the amount of money that you save vs. developing film, expecially if you take a lot of pictures.

Anonymous said...

You're great! Thanks for all the helpful info. I'm looking forward to trying out some of the models I've researched this weekend.

I'll be sure to let you know when I buy and what the grand prize winner is. :)

Anonymous said...

I've been checking out some of your flikr photos and added you as a contact.

Your Hosta's look nice, mine have been munched on by slugs!

Anonymous said...

Martin, I'll keep your article as a reference. Clear language, no jargon, down to earth, I like it. I wish I had the change of having a science Professor like you.

Martin LaBar said...

Thank you all.

Carlos Manta, not everyone thought that way about my teaching! Nice to see you here, as well as in Flickr!

Anonymous said...

Interesting. I just got my first digital camera. My husband's uncle gave us this advice on what to look for:
1. Not less than 4-5 megapixels.
2. 10x zoom (optical)
3. Internal stabilization feature.

We chose the Panasonic DMC-TZI. The only additional thing I wish it had is a viewfinder. The LCD screen is hard to see in the sunlight.

The store had a time-limited deal that with purchase of the camera came a free photo printer (HP-335). I'm actually blown away by the quality of the printed photos. It's a whole new world.

Now to join Flickr!

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for your comment, Violet. There's no complete answer to the question, "what camera should I buy?" of course. And I surely don't know everything.

Flickr makes it easy to use photos on a blog. (I know, other services also do.) It even makes it easy to use someone else's photos on a blog.

Anonymous said...

Well, I'm sure you know a whole lot more than I do!

Your photos are gorgeous.