Tech Talk: Digital cameras

To a consumer, a camera is a device for preserving memories; to a rural builder, a camera is a tool for communicating information pictorially. And like many tools these days, a modern camera is more capable than the previous generation of cameras.
The most significant difference is the switch from film to digital technology. Unlike cameras that recorded pictures to film, current-generation cameras capture pictures on digital memory cards from which you can make prints or view the pictures directly on the camera or on a computer.

Don’t get hung up on terminology, although there are a few new words to learn. All “digital” means is that the information is stored in the camera in a form that can be viewed on a computer, stored on a disc, and sent over the Internet.

As ever, new technology yields new capabilities. For rural builders, the digital camera permits pictures to be transmitted immediately as attachments to e-mail messages. If a quick decision is required from an owner, architect, or engineer, you can send a picture of the situation with an explanation. Printable documentation — always preferable to verbal exchanges — is a mouse-click away.

The ability of even inexpensive digital cameras to make extreme close-up pictures down to an inch or two permits documentation of details such as cracks. Just don’t forget to provide context, such as placing a coin next to the detail.

Progress shots also are easy to make and store. Most digital cameras have the capability to include a date and time stamp directly on the image, thus avoiding arguments over what happened when.

Storing digital images on a compact disc is more efficient than trying to keep track of negatives, especially if you anticipate a need for reuse.

The big advantage of digital cameras is instant gratification. The moment you make the picture, the camera displays what you shot. Forgot to take off the lens cap? No problem; just press the delete key and shoot again. Underexposed? No problem; just delete, change a setting and shoot again. You don’t have to wait for the film to be developed to see if you got exactly what you wanted.

The big disadvantage of digital cameras is initial cost, although if you make a lot of pictures, this will be offset by a lower cost of ownership. With digital cameras, there is no film to buy and no processing expense. If you intend your pictures to be viewed only on a computer, there is no additional cost at all; if you want hard copies, you pay only for the pictures you want, and you have a choice: you can use the color printer in your office, you can e-mail a digital file to a processing house or you can take the digital memory card to a store with a high-quality printer and use its tools to crop or otherwise enhance your images. The cost per print ranges from 15 cents to 40 cents for a 5×7-inch picture. But although the cost of digital cameras keeps dropping, even the least expensive model remains a long way from $7, which will buy a single-use film camera.

How much to pay depends on what you want and what you can afford. Of course, you can buy a standard digital camera that looks much like the film camera you already own. But you might want to consider the other options: Video cameras will make passable still pictures and still cameras will make passable (if brief) videos. Both motion and still cameras will record sound as well as images so you can make verbal notes while you shoot.

Some cell phones now come with adequate cameras. In this column, I will refer mostly to still video cameras — the kind that compete with the traditional 35 mm cameras. They have an LCD screen as a live viewing area on the back of the camera.

Even standard digital cameras come in a wide range of sizes. The smallest ones will fit in a shirt pocket, a purse, or in a case the slips onto your belt. Their advantage is portability. They are instantly available at all times.

The best digital cameras are larger — typically about the same size as a comparable 35 mm film camera.

Which type of camera makes the best pictures? Some professional photographers still prefer film, but for almost everyone else, digital cameras are the better choice. I’m reluctant to get too specific about prices and models, since they change from day to day. A top-of-the-line film camera will cost about $1,500 today; expect to pay about $8,000 for a comparable digital camera. Expect to pay about $200 for a low-end digital camera. There is a bewildering range of options in between, so you’ll need to shop around.

The least expensive digital cameras have an annoying lag between the time you press the shutter and the time the image is captured, the flash works only up to a few feet, picture quality in dim light is poor, picture quality deteriorates as you increase the size of the picture, and it’s uncommon to get a true wide-angle lens. Cheaper cameras also are more limited in the controls they offer and in the accessories they accept.

As you shop for a new camera, you’ll hear the term megapixels, which is a measure of the resolution that a camera can capture. Also pay attention to zoom ranges, which deliver values that are different from 35 mm film cameras. For example, a digital camera with a zoom lens of 35 mm to 70 mm is about the same as 50 mm to 105 mm on a 35 mm film camera. Or just check it out visually.

The following shopping guide is proposed by Phil Greer, photojournalist in residence at Southern Illinois University and former director of photography at the Chicago Tribune. Greer says the Tribune went totally digital in 1999. The topics are presented in his judgment of their order of importance:

Price — You get what you pay for. The top-of-the-line cameras from Nikon or Canon are expensive but offer the best assurance of consistent high quality. Check for rebates, especially on the more expensive cameras. Watch for sales. Used equipment, an upgrade or two old, can be a bargain. Don’t put cheap lenses on an expensive camera body.

Ease of use — Even so-called point-and-shoot cameras have settings that you might want to tweak. The menus are displayed on the viewing area. Make sure you can find what you want quickly and intuitively. Ask the sales rep to demonstrate and then try it yourself.

Megapixels — In general, the more the better, although anything more than 4-6 megapixels probably is redundant for rural builders. Buy the largest memory card that the camera accepts and you can afford. A 2-gigabyte card will hold about 72 uncompressed pictures at maximum resolution. Most cameras permit the image to be compressed for quicker e-mail transmission.

Lens — Quality is difficult to check. Canon or Nikon make the best interchangeable lenses. Cheap plastic lenses on some point-and-shoot cameras are subject to flare and distortion. You’ll need a true wide-angle lens to make interior photographs. A 17 mm lens (equivalent to 28 mm on a 35 mm film camera) is recommended. If you opt for a top-quality camera, buy a box plus a couple of zoom lenses: 17 mm to 35 mm and 35 mm to 70 mm. Consider only optical zoom.

Transfer to a computer — Some cameras require cables; others can connect wirelessly; a few provide a docking station. Make sure the process is easy and intuitive. Ask for a demonstration.

Software included with the camera — Minimal software merely enables image transfer. More capable software includes image manipulation tools, such as red-eye reduction and controls to adjust brightness and contrast.

Vendor — Buy from a store with a knowledgeable sales agent who will let you try the features. Buying from a mail-order house might avoid sales tax.

Portability — Small cameras that you can carry conveniently are instantly available but generally less capable.

LCD viewing area on the camera — In general, the bigger and brighter, the better. Small, dim screens are difficult to see in bright sunlight. A viewfinder in addition to a LCD viewing area is useful. Some cameras have viewing areas that can be twisted so you can compose the picture correctly while holding the camera above your head or to one side. Single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras, which generally represent good quality and high price, have had the disadvantage of permitting only a viewfinder, but Olympus has figured out how to provide both an articulating viewfinder and the ability to compose a picture on the viewing area in a digital single-lens reflex camera. SLR cameras tend to be larger than viewfinder cameras.

Delay — Check out how long it takes for the camera to power up, how long it takes to make the picture after pressing the shutter button and how long a delay is required between each picture. Less expensive cameras might take longer than you want to wait.

Stabilization — Simple cameras compensate for dim conditions by decreasing the shutter speed so it can capture more light. Unless the camera is held rock-steady, the image will blur. Some digital cameras offer an anti-shake feature to compensate.

Brand name — Nikon and Canon are the acknowledged leaders, but quality assurance comes at a price.

Accessories — A carrying case and an extra battery are necessities. If you anticipate a need to shoot in low-light situations, get a supplemental electronic flash and a tripod. An extension cord for the flash will enable you to move the flash away from the camera. You’ll get best results if you match the brand of the flash to the brand of the camera. If you buy a tripod, make sure it is sturdy. The best ones have legs with spikes that stick into the ground. Gitzo, Bogen, and Lutz have the best reputations. Plan to spend at least $100.
If you intend to make your own prints, a dedicated photo printer makes sense, but remember that the cost of ink cartridges will soon exceed the cost of the printer. Canon and Epson have the best reputations for print quality and long-lasting inks. If you buy an expensive camera, spend a few bucks more on a good ultraviolet filter to protect the lens and on a sunshade to avoid flare. If the memory card that comes with the camera seems puny, buy a second card with a higher capacity; 2 gigabytes is not too big. If your accessories are starting to accumulate, consider a gadget bag to carry them.

Oliver Witte teaches journalism at Southern Illinois University. He was the founding editor of AIA’s Architecture Technology magazine and for several years managed the computer-aided architecture evaluation program for Architecture magazine. Contact him at owitte@siu.edu.

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