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Introduction to Digital Photography 
by Frank Phillips

There is still a lot of confusion surrounding digital cameras and digital photography. With all the new cameras and options it just seems to get more confusing instead of clearer. It is easier to approach something if you can take it in small bites. So in an effort to make digital easier to approach and understand I've grouped together everything you need to know to get started in ten easy to understand lessons. 

Lesson 1

Lesson 2 Lesson 3 Lesson 4 Lesson 5
Lesson 6 Lesson 7 Lesson 8 Lesson 9 Lesson 10

Lesson 5: Choosing Your Digital Camera Equipment

As I put together these ten articles on "an introduction to digital photography" this was one of the toughest to write because of the myriad choices available today in digital cameras. With that in mind, I'm going to first give a brief overview of how digital cameras work, and then discuss some of the options to look for in a digital camera as well as some of my own personal opinions about which types of cameras would best suit certain types of shooters. 

Function and Form: For basic picture taking digital cameras work almost exactly as film cameras do - with two major exceptions. First, they store the image they capture on digital media instead of film. All cameras whether digital or film do some preprocessing to determine the correct aperture and shutter speed and whether to use their flash. 

But, unlike film cameras, digital cameras also perform some post-processing of the image after it's captured. This can include color adjustment, sharpening, and image compression. 

When a film camera opens the shutter, light travels through the lens and onto the film where the film is exposed. The image is later fixed onto the film during the developing process. When a digital camera opens the shutter, light travels through the lens and strikes an image sensor, which translates that light into a digital image. So you can see that film cameras and digital cameras really do have quite a lot in common, and if you're familiar with either one, you should be able to use the basic functions on the other with very little trouble. This is true for everything from basic point and shoot cameras to digital SLRs. 

Features: There are a number of features available on digital cameras that can play a significant role in what you can do with your camera. Below are some of the more common options and what they do so you can make an informed choice.

Optical Zoom Very important when you need to move "closer" to your subject without moving at all. Some cameras offer "extreme" optical zoom ratings of 10x, which are the 35mm equivalent of almost a 400mm zoom lens. Do not confuse an optical zoom with a "digital zoom". See below.

Digital Zoom A digital zoom simply resizes the image, the same as you would do in Photoshop. Digital zooms are often poor quality and result in fuzzy and grainy images. As a rule you're generally better off resizing the image later in your computer than using the digital zoom feature. 

Hot Shoe Flash Mount Since most on-board flashes on "point and shoot" digital cameras are fairly weak, the ability to add an external flash unit is a real bonus; using it will improve your indoor shots considerably and eliminate virtually all red-eye problems since the further the flash is from the lens the less likely you are to get red-eye.

ISO Rating Most digital cameras have a native ISO rating of 100 or 200, which is like using 100 or 200 speed film in a film camera. These same cameras can be set to higher ISO settings (usually to at least 800, and some much higher). These higher ISO settings give you faster shutter speeds in low light. In general cameras tend to produce more noise at settings above their native ISO setting. The higher you go the worse the noise gets.  Noise from a digital camera looks kind of like grain in film and tends to be most visible in dark areas of the image. 

But this is just a rule of thumb. Some cameras produce very clean images, even at high ISO settings, while others produce a lot of noise at very low settings. That's just one more reason why it's important to try out a camera before you buy it. 

Manual or Program Settings For the advanced photographer, the ability to take over manually gives significantly more control over the image. How much control you get ranges from a full "do it yourself" manual mode to simple pre-programmed settings that pick optimal aperture and shutter speed settings such as action, landscape, portrait, night, etc.

RAW, TIFF or JPEG? TIFF is becoming somewhat rare on new cameras these days because of the size of the files. TIFF is a high quality image format that loses virtually no information when the image is saved. 

RAW mode saves the image exactly as the camera captured it. The settings on your camera at the time the image was captured are saved inside the file, and with the right software you can actually go back and change everything from white balance to ISO settings after the picture is taken! The downside is that RAW files are BIG and take up a tremendous amount of space on your memory card and on your hard drive. They also require special software to read.

JPEG is a compressed file format. Images captured in JPEG are much smaller than either RAW or TIFF files which means JPEG files are kind to your hard drive. The downside is that subtle tonal differences may be lost during the compression process. Will you notice the difference? On large prints - maybe - if you know what you're looking for. On small prints like the 4 inch prints we get for everyday pictures you'll never see the difference. 

Movie Mode Although I wouldn't pay much extra for this feature, it's pretty neat and most digital cameras are including it these days.

It will let you capture short periods of digital video that you can save on your hard drive or distribute on CD (I don't recommend emailing a file this big). 

Pretty cool, so what's the downside? 

Well digital video captured with your digital camera will be kind of grainy, it will be low-res, and it will only fill a small window on your monitor (because of it's resolution). Lets just say you won't be replacing your digital camcorder with one of these anytime soon.

Getting a Custom Fit: As with most things there is no "one size fits all" digital camera. For example, someone who wants a camera for business use "in the field" has very different needs from someone who wants a camera to document their kids' early years. For this reason, I have created three classifications of camera user and recommended some features that would be desirable to that type of user.

Business User Since employee time is the most expensive component of a business's expenses, you need a digital camera that will be easy to learn, easy to use, and has media that is easily transferred to a PC. For this reason, I almost always recommend the Sony Mavica models. The Mavica series use either a floppy disk or a 3" CD for storage, they have excellent optics and optical zoom lenses, and are pretty easy to learn and use. And since they save the digital photo onto a common floppy disk or CD, transferring the photo to a PC is as easy as popping it into ANY floppy drive or CD-ROM on any PC. Now some of you might say that you can plug a USB card reader into any computer. That's true but USB card readers can be fussy and some novice users are uncomfortable with them. A CD is a solution that everyone is familiar with.

Another feature that can be very useful for business users is the voice recording feature. Lets say you're a realtor out taking pictures of your listings. If you have voice recording you can snap a shot of 100 Main Street in Mayberry and then record a short message "100 Main Street Mayberry" that gets saved with the image. Now when you get back to the office and you've got photos of ten similar houses you'll know which one is which.

Snapshot Shooter The drawback to the Mavica cameras discussed just above is that they are bulky and tend to over compress images in my opinion. For this reason, I don't recommend them for people who want to take pictures of Junior's first steps or their daughter's birthday party. Instead I'd recommend a 3 megapixel or better camera that is reasonably small and light (there are now many models that fit this description). 

The reason is simple: if you don't have it with you, you'll miss all those shots you could've gotten if you'd had the camera. For parents a small "point and shoot" in your hand is better than a "pro" digital SLR in your camera bag in the closet. 

One final note to snapshooters though - lighting is everything. You'll get great outdoor shots with these cameras, but when you're shooting indoors, make sure the lighting is as bright as you can get and get as close as you can to your subject, as the usable range for most of these small flashes is only about 7 to 10 feet. 

Advanced, Artistic or Portrait Shooter If you're the type who likes to shoot still life or portraits, prepare to spend a little more on the camera ($400 to $1,000) plus accessories. But for this price you'll get a lot more creative control over your digital photography. 

For this type of user I recommend a minimum of a 6.0 megapixel that has full manual controls and a flash hot shoe or flash sync. Then you'll need to invest $150 to $400 on a good bounce flash, plus another hundred (or more) on media cards. And don't forget the cost of image editing software. Paint Shop Pro and Photoshop Elements are in the $100 range. Photoshop CS has a street price of around $600.

The Serious SLR Shooter Converting from Film My advice is simple. If you have Canon EF lenses, get a Canon digital SLR. If you own Minolta Lenses get the new Minolta digital SLR (due out in a few months). 

If you have Nikon glass you have the most choices including Nikon's own digital SLRs and SLRs from Fuji and Kodak. 

You say you don't have an SLR now and you want to start with a digital SLR? In addition to all the fine choices above you can also take a look at the new digital SLRs from Sigma and Olympus.

Good Enough to Print: Finally, I must add one final note regarding "megapixels". In my experience with shooting and printing digital photos, I have to say that you can get decent printed output from a 2 megapixel camera, and good output from a 3 megapixel camera. However, to get quality that truly rivals 35mm film, you need to have 6 megapixels (depending on print size). Some may disagree with me, but this is what I have seen in my own personal experience. I could not honestly say that "you really can't tell the difference" until I saw glossy prints from a 4 megapixel Sony S85 and things have only gotten better from there. 

There are so many digital cameras available today that the choices are dizzying. But if you're honest with yourself about the kind of shooting you want to do you can narrow down the features you really need. That will narrow down the number of models to look at and make choosing your camera much easier.

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