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How to Decide

Roadmap to a Camera Purchase

Our map is based on both our own experiences with digital cameras and those of colleagues who also have made the journey many times. In it, we break down the decision-making process into the following ten issues:

  1. What are you photographing?

  2. What are you going to do with the pictures?

  3. What are your immediate photographic needs?

  4. How much photographic and computer experience do you have?

  5. How much time do you want to invest in learning how to use a new camera or piece of software?

  6. What are the “must have” features and qualities you need in a digital camera?

  7. What other important features (besides image quality) do you want the camera to have?

  8. What can you afford to spend?

  9. Evaluate and compare the top three cameras on your wish list.

  10. Make your decision and commit to it. Yes, that means “show the camera reseller the money!”

What Are You Photographing?

Before you buy a camera, you need to consider what you want to do with it, as this will help narrow down your choices. Will you be photographing birthday parties, family vacations, and Little League games? Will you be using it for your business to create photos for a catalog or newsletter, or to document laboratory research, or for product development? Are you a photojournalist who travels the world in search of groundbreaking images for news and stock agencies? Are you a wildlife, landscape, or fine art photographer interested in creating prints for gallery and museum exhibitions? Or are you a person who is passionate about photography and just wants a cool camera that will enhance your exploration of the creative image?

Each of these purposes suggests a different group of cameras; knowing how you will use the camera streamlines the list of potential models you have to choose from.

What Are You Going to Do with the Pictures?

Determining the needs of the photo, your intended audience, and how exacting your own standards are is also fundamental to selecting the right camera. Do you need to email family photos and make small, snapshot-sized prints to send to all the relatives? Will your images be viewed only on Web sites, or will they be published in newspapers and magazines? Do you want to make large exhibition prints that require quality and sharpness on par with traditional photographs? Does the camera require special capabilities, such as close focusing for macro work or extended exposure times for astrophotography?

Minimum image quality standards

If you will be making prints, the final presentation size and quality of your images will determine the level of resolution your new camera needs to produce. Although you can specify pixel resolution in an absolute way, determining acceptable quality has a lot to do with your own standards for what you expect from an image. If all you want is a nice 8-by-10-inch print of the kids to give to grandma for her birthday, then you will be well served by most of the 2- and 3-megapixel cameras on the market. If you are a photographer who enjoys making large prints from a fine-grained 35mm or medium-format film original, then your standards for sharpness and detail rendition are likely to be more exacting.

Higher resolution comes at a price, of course, so identifying what you intend to do with the images will help determine how much resolution you really need. As discussed in Chapter 3, camera resolution is not the only determining factor for image quality: Optical and camera processing systems also impact image quality a great deal (see “Important Camera Features to Consider,” later in this chapter). If you are concerned about accurate color and fine detail, take those into account when considering a camera. Table 4.2 summarizes the output resolutions required for a number of widely used applications.

Table 4.2. General Resolution Guidelines
PurposeOutput TypeOutput Image SizeMegapixels
Internetmonitor displayWeb site display1–2
Desktop color printsinkjet printer4"×6"2
In-house newsletterlaser printer4"×6"2
Advertisementb&w newsprint4"×6"2
 65/85 lines per inch (lpi)4"×6"/5"×7"3
Advertisementcolor magazine4"×6"3
 133/150 lpi5"×7"3–5
Display printsphoto-directup to 20"×24"6–22
Large fine art up to 40"×60"14–48
  larger than 40"×60"48+

Assess Your Immediate Photographic Needs

Because digital cameras get better every year, with improved image quality and reductions in price, it makes sense to take stock of your immediate needs. We suggest purchasing a camera that not only fulfills those needs, but also gives you room to grow as you learn more about digital photography. Buying a camera that is “one size larger” than you need now ensures you will be happier with it longer. However, don't be swayed by marketing hoopla or grandiose ideas of what you might like to do with the camera. If all you're going to do with it for the next year is document crumpled bumpers for insurance cases and then email the pictures from a laptop via a slow modem line, then buying the latest high-resolution SLR with interchangeable lenses and the ability to shoot 5 frames per second doesn't make much sense.

How Much Photography and Computer Experience Do You Have?

Once you've figured out what kind of photographs you'll be taking and what you're going to do with them, it's time to take stock of your experience level. Have you been photographing regularly for several years, with different cameras, or are you upgrading from the disposable models found in most supermarkets? Do you understand all the photo jargon, computer terminology, and technical concepts, or do you just want to be able to take great pictures without having to worry about too many details? Your comfort level with the basic principles of photography, not to mention your familiarity with computers, should factor into your camera-buying decision.

Although we do think that buying a camera you can grow into is a good idea, you don't want to overshoot and purchase something that is too far above your skill level. If you find yourself torn between a deluxe point-and-shoot and a digital SLR, decide how much you'll be using your new camera. If you'll have only infrequent opportunities to get out and spend time with the camera, then you might be better off starting out with a deluxe point-and-shoot model that has a less-demanding learning curve. A year from now the pricier SLR will most likely be less expensive and may even offer better resolution. If you want to make a serious hobby of photography at that time, you can save some money now and already have valuable digital photography experience under your belt when you finally do move up to a digital SLR (see the sidebar, “Know Thyself: Deluxe Point-and-Shoot or SLR?”).

Know Thyself: Deluxe Point-and-Shoot or SLR?

When buying a camera, you should consider the type of images you'll shoot and the kind of photographic experience you want. Those considerations have a big impact not only on the camera you should buy, but also on how much you'll enjoy using it.

If you want to take great pictures with a full-featured camera that is easy to use, then most deluxe point-and-shoot models are more than capable of producing excellent results. Plus, they can be a lot of fun to use. Even though we normally lug around heavier SLRs, we really love these types of camera for the freedom and spontaneity they offer (and, in a pinch, we've even used them as backup cameras). Some deluxe point-and-shoot cameras, such as those with an LCD that swivels and tilts out from the camera body, allow you to create images that would be difficult or impossible to achieve with the traditional SLR design. The flexible LCD is great for low-angle close-ups or for shots where it's inconvenient, or just downright uncomfortable, to contort your body into the required posture to see through an optical viewfinder. The variety of features and ease of use of deluxe point-and-shoot cameras will keep you busy for a long time and provide you with plenty of cool bells and whistles to satisfy your photographic creativity.

Digital SLRs, on the other hand, provide more control over the final image, as well as the ability to use interchangeable lenses; for professional photographers and serious amateurs, this latter point is an important consideration. If you are already used to the control and flexibility that an SLR offers, you may not be satisfied with anything less. For some, nothing compares with looking through the lens of a true SLR. But in the end an SLR is just a tool, and it's important to not fall prey to equipment envy. Using an SLR may provide you with better technical quality in your images, but it will not necessarily make you a better photographer.

Making use of existing camera equipment

If you already own an autofocus film SLR and you have a collection of lenses and other accessories that you want to continue using, then your buying decision may be much easier. Canon and Nikon digital SLRs both accept the full range of autofocus lenses designed for their film cameras. Additionally, the Fuji FinePix S2 Pro and the Kodak DCS-14n are also designed to accept the vast majority of Nikon lenses. One thing to be aware of when using existing lenses that were designed for 35mm film cameras, however, is the focal length multiplier that affects all digital SLRs in which the image sensor is smaller than the 35mm film frame (Figure 4.14). See Chapter 3 for more information on how this affects your photographs.

Figure 4.14. Due to a phenomenon called focal length magnification, lenses designed for 35mm film will produce a different field of view on a digital camera where the image sensor is smaller than a 35mm film frame. Since a lens for a film camera is designed to focus onto a larger area (a 35mm frame), when used with a digital camera that has an image sensor that is smaller than the 35mm frame, you only see a center portion of the scene, not the entire view. On the top is a scene shot with a 28mm lens on a 35mm film camera, and on the bottom is the same scene shot with a 28mm lens on a digital SLR. In the digital shot, a focal length magnification factor of 1.6 turns the 28mm focal length into a 45mm focal length.

Evaluate Your Personal Bandwidth

No, we're not talking about your Internet connection here. We're referring to how much time you have to invest in learning a new camera or piece of software. We all have busy schedules that require us to balance careers, hobbies, and family. The promise of any digital technology, of course, is that it makes things easier and saves time. At least, that's what the marketing buzz implies. Despite this idyllic notion, we would be remiss if we didn't tell you that, depending on the type of images you create and what you want to do with them, digital photography can take up a lot of your time. And the time spent looking through the camera lens is only a small portion of it. Of course, it's a much more comfortable time investment than, say, spending hours every day in a smelly darkroom, working with toxic photo chemicals, but it's an investment nonetheless.

Even if you're not reworking every image in a program like Photoshop, mundane chores such as managing your growing collection of digital images can take up a lot of your time. Unlike film photography, where your slides and negatives are delivered to you as tangible items that you can easily file away in a drawer or shoebox, digital photography demands a more responsible file management system if you ever hope to be able to quickly find a certain image again. In addition to basic computer housekeeping, you also need to be vigilant about creating backups, and even duplicate backups, to protect your images from the ever-present specter of hard disk crashes and accidental deletion. We cover these topics in greater depth in Chapter 14, “Archive, Catalog, and Backup.”

Being realistic about how much time you can devote to your digital photography is a key component in guiding you to a camera that fits your personality and lifestyle. If your aim in reading this book is to learn how to take better photographs so you won't have to fuss over them in an image-editing program, then you'll want a camera that offers a good variety of features, including a zoom lens, a selection of automated scene modes, and maybe even the ability to print directly from the camera. But if you can't wait to get past this chapter so you can get to the in-depth information about working in a digital darkroom, then you may already be at peace with the fact that you're eager to spend untold hours in front of the computer, finessing your images into a state of perfection.

Determine the Minimum Requirements

Before you begin looking at cameras and comparing prices, you need to figure out what your camera's minimum features have to be to satisfy your photographic needs. This is not the pie-in-the-sky approach to cool features that you may be craving, but rather a serious look at the “must haves” that you need to get the job done. We've already addressed one of the primary criteria—how large you'll need to print the images. Following are some other factors to consider (we'll cover many of these in greater detail later in the chapter).

  • Megapixel resolution. How much do you need? (See Table 4.2 earlier in this chapter.)

  • Lens options. Is the lens fixed or a built-in zoom (Figure 4.15)? How much zoom do you require? Can you use filters or accessory lens attachments for close-up or wide-angle shots?

    Figure 4.15. Most deluxe point-and-shoot cameras offer a built-in zoom lens.

  • Exposure options. Is fully automatic enough, or do you need more subtle controls?

  • Response times. How quickly does the camera respond when you press the shutter button? How fast can you take a second shot?

  • Battery life and cost. How many shots can you take on a single charge? How expensive are the batteries? Are rechargeable batteries an option (Figure 4.16)?

    Figure 4.16. Rechargeable batteries help keep your oper-ating costs down and spare the landfills.

  • Continuous shooting. Do you need to shoot images in rapid succession?

  • Size. Are a compact profile and low weight important (Figure 4.17)?

    Figure 4.17. If a compact size is important to you, you'll find a wide range of small, pocket-sized cam-eras on the market.

  • Ease of use. Is it well designed? Does the layout of the controls and menus make sense?

  • Ergonomics. Does it fit comfortably in your hands? Is it easy to hold on to? Can your eye locate the viewfinder quickly?

Important Camera Features to Consider

Image quality

Since photography is all about creating images, the ability of a camera to produce images with sharp detail, accurate color, and a pleasing tonal range is one of the most important, if not the most important, factors to consider. A camera's megapixel count is the factor that always seems to get more attention than the others (at least from marketing departments). Let's take a look some of the other elements that go into making a good image:

  • Lens quality. The lens is where the image begins its journey from the real world into your camera, so the optics are the first determinant of how good the image will be. If you have inferior optics that don't effectively focus the image onto the sensor or that produce chromatic aberration or that decrease sharpness, then the quality of all the other components will be compromised. If you're buying an SLR and image quality is important to you, don't try to cut costs by purchasing a cheap, third-party lens. We'll cover what to look for in a lens later in this chapter.

  • Pixel resolution. Camera manufacturers use this figure to tout their camera over others on the market. Too often, however, this discussion sinks to the level of “I have more megapixels than you do”; and, as discussed in Chapter 3, image quality is more than just the number of pixels. Refer to Table 4.2 for a summary of the possible output sizes that different types of cameras produce.

  • Image sensor. The type of the image sensor (CCD or CMOS), its physical size, and the internal processing that occurs after the image has been captured can also impact image quality. For more information on image sensors and how cameras process the data collected by the sensor, refer to Chapter 3.

Speed matters

Your next consideration is speed. Until recently, digital cameras were notably slower than their film counterparts when it came to doing anything in a hurry—from starting the camera to snapping the picture to taking the next picture. Below are some of the main speed issues to think about:

  • Boot speed. When you turn the camera on, this is how long it takes the system to “boot up” and report for duty. This can range from milliseconds to several seconds on some cameras. Henri Cartier-Bresson is famous for photographing the “decisive moment” and creating an image that elegantly captures a fleeting instant in time. Bresson used a 35mm Leica with a mechanical shutter that was always ready and responded instantaneously. Although waiting several seconds may not seem like a big deal, it can be very frustrating if the decisive moment in front of your lens slips away while you're waiting for the camera to warm up.

    On compact cameras, another factor that can delay camera readiness is if the zoom lens has to extend from the camera before you can take a shot. You should also check to see how the camera behaves if you accidentally leave the lens cap on when you power up the camera. One of our pet peeves is cameras that don't recognize this. Leaving the cap on can prevent the zoom lens from extending, which shuts down the camera and produces an error message. To fix the problem, you must turn off the camera, remove the lens cap, and then turn the camera on again. By the time you've done all this, 15 to 20 seconds have elapsed and the decisive moment is a mere memory.

  • Lag time. This is the aspect of digital cameras that people complain about the most. For many users, this refers to the lag between when you press the shutter button and when the camera actually takes the shot. This time varies from camera to camera, but on compact models it is usually anywhere from 1/10th of a second to over 1 second. With portrait shots, you can lose subtle facial expressions; and with subjects that don't tend to sit still, such as children and animals, shutter lag can make you miss the shot altogether (Figure 4.18). Fortunately, manufacturers are addressing this problem, and lag times are much shorter than they used to be. Generally, the more camera you buy, the less likely it is that shutter lag will be a problem. Current digital SLRs have no perceptible shutter lag. Another reason for lag is how long it takes the autofocus system to find a focus once you've pressed the shutter button halfway.

    Figure 4.18. Shutter lag: a decisive moment missed because the camera did-n't respond quickly enough when the shutter button was pressed.

  • Write speed. As mentioned in Chapter 3, when you take a photo with a digital camera, the data collected by the sensor needs to be processed before the image can be written to the memory card. The length of time it takes the camera to do this can affect how soon the camera is ready to take another shot. To speed things up, cameras use RAM storage as a memory buffer, which temporarily stores the shots before processing and writing them to the card. This frees up the camera to take more shots, even while the previous images are being processed. The size of this buffer, as well as variables such as the image's size, the file format it's written to, and the speed of the memory card, determines how quickly the camera is ready for the next photograph.

  • Burst rate. The size of the memory buffer mentioned above also determines the camera's burst rate. This rate governs how many shots you can take in quick succession before the camera has to pause and write data to the storage card. You'll usually only need to worry about burst rates if you need to shoot using the camera's continuous-shooting drive mode. The Canon 10D, for example, shoots at a maximum speed of 3 frames per second (fps) and has a burst rate of 9 shots. This means that if you depress the shutter button with the camera's drive mode set to continuous, the camera will record 9 shots in 3 seconds and then pause while it finishes processing the data and writing it to disk.

  • Continuous shooting (frames per second). If your photography centers around sports or journalism, then the number of shots you can squeeze off in a second matters mightily. Even if you're not a pro, this is a fun and useful feature, allowing you to take sequential shots of moving subjects (Figure 4.19). Prosumer models usually offer continuous shooting at anywhere from 1.5 to 3 fps. Professional SLRs, especially those designed for photojournalists, will offer a higher rate of frames per second. Even though the Nikon D1H, for example, is a 2.74-megapixel camera, it can shoot at 5 fps and has a larger buffer that can hold 40 images. In that regard, its motor drive shooting capabilities are no different from a film camera's, where the length of time you can shoot in continuous mode is limited only by the number of exposures on the roll of film.

    Figure 4.19. Continuous shooting is great for creating a sequence of shots or for photographing fast action, such as sports. There is an interval of 2 seconds between these images of bike racers speeding down a hill.


Even though features such as zoom lenses and megapixel resolution get most of the attention from the marketing departments, the viewfinder is a key part of the camera that you shouldn't overlook when making a purchasing decision. Since you'll be spending so much time looking through it and composing your images, consider the different types of viewfinders to decide which one works best for you:

  • LCD viewfinders. All digital cameras worth considering have an LCD screen where you can review images you've taken; on some, the LCD screen serves double duty as a viewfinder, allowing you to preview image composition before you take the picture. Many cameras have LCDs that swivel or tilt out from the camera. These are useful for taking photos where it might otherwise be difficult to position your body to look through a traditional viewfinder (Figure 4.20)—such as an extreme low-angle composition of a flower's underside. If you think you might want to explore this “road less traveled” approach to photographic composition, then consider a camera that offers a moveable LCD.

    Figure 4.20. LCD viewfinders are changing the photographic experience. Some cameras have moveable LCD screens that make it easy to take low- or high-angle shots.

    On the downside, LCDs can be hard to see in bright sunlight. (For that reason alone, Seán favors cameras that also have an optical viewfinder—he likes to be able to “mask out” the rest of the world when composing a shot.) Determine how bright the screen is compared with other cameras and whether it has a brightness control. LCDs also tend to drain the battery, so look for a camera that lets you turn it off if you're not using the screen for composition. Consider also the size of the LCD and how much of the image it displays. The LCD screen generally shows you between 95 and 98 percent of what the CCD is actually recording.

  • Optical viewfinders. If you've ever used a point-and-shoot film camera, you're already familiar with an optical viewfinder (also known as a rangefinder). This is simply a small, separate lens that you can look through to frame the shot. Although these viewfinders are simple and provide less image coverage and accuracy than an LCD, we consider them to be an essential component of a digital camera for cases where bright sunlight renders the LCD unusable. If your camera has a zoom lens, then the optical viewfinder should zoom, too, and give you a good idea of what is being included in the shot.

    Other things to look for are brightness, clarity, and an undistorted image. Since this type of viewfinder does not show you what the actual lens sees, in close-up shooting situations the difference in position between the two can cause parallax error. Parallax is when the area recorded by the lens is different from that seen through the viewfinder. An optical viewfinder should have parallax correction lines that you can use as framing guides when photographing close-up subjects (Figure 4.21). Some optical viewfinders are tiny, making it difficult to position your eye so that you can see through them. Some cameras offer a diopter knob so you can fine-tune the focus of the viewfinder. If you wear glasses, this knob lets you adjust the viewfinder to compensate for your own vision (Figure 4.22).

    Figure 4.21. Parallax occurs with close-up subjects because the optical viewfinder does not show you what is being photographed by the camera's lens. Parallax correction guides in the viewfinder let you see where the real edge of the frame is, as opposed to what you're seeing in the viewfinder.

    Figure 4.22. A diopter control lets you adjust the optical viewfinder to compensate for your own vision.

  • Electronic SLR. This is a hybrid between an optical viewfinder, an LCD monitor, and the through-the-lens (TTL) capability found on SLR cameras. You look through this device just as you would an optical viewfinder, but instead of looking through a viewfinder directly at the scene, what you see is a tiny LCD screen showing you what will be recorded by the image sensor. There are two advantages to this type of viewfinder: It gives you the more accurate LCD coverage; and since you have to look through an eyepiece to see it, it's very bright and it won't be affected by bright daylight. Higher-end prosumer cameras also provide status information in this type of viewfinder. The main disadvantage is that if you're used to composing your images through a traditional SLR, the electronic TTL view can be disappointing. In feel, this method of viewing the world is much more like a video camera than a true SLR. Seán was once interested in a certain camera that boasted SLR capability, but the minute he looked through the electronic TTL viewfinder, his interest evaporated. If the visual experience of shooting with an SLR and seeing how the actual light affects the scene is important to you, then an electronic SLR leaves a lot to be desired.

  • True SLR. With a true SLR viewfinder, light enters the lens and is reflected up to the viewfinder through a series of mirrors. Instead of seeing the scene via an electronic monitor or through an offset viewfinder, you are seeing the actual reflected image through the same lens the camera is using to record the scene. With the exception of the differing fields of view that different lenses may produce, this type of viewfinder is much closer in feel to looking at a scene with your own eyes (Figure 4.23). The only disadvantage is that the mirrors that provide the through-the-lens view keep the camera from being as small as some of the more compact models that rely on optical and LCD viewfinders. On SLRs, the LCD monitor is only used for image review, never for framing the image. SLR viewfinders are found on cameras in the prosumer and professional categories.

    Figure 4.23. With a true SLR viewfinder, you see the same scene and the same light that is being photographed by the lens.

Exposure controls
  • Scene modes. All digital cameras have automatic, or program, modes that usually do a great job of selecting the proper exposure. Some also offer a selection of scene modes that are designed for special situations that might fool the camera's exposure meter, or for where you want to achieve a specific effect. Common scene modes that can be found on many cameras include portrait, night portrait, landscape, beach/snow, close-up, backlight, sports, and fireworks. Scene modes are great for unfamiliar or rarely encountered situations where you don't want to think about which settings to use. To take good pictures, all you need to do is recognize when it's appropriate to use them.

    For example, if you've ever taken a portrait of someone at night with a sunset or sparkling city lights behind them, you've probably been disappointed to find that in the final picture the background was so dark that you couldn't see the scenery. Night portrait mode will use the flash to illuminate your main subject and a slower shutter speed for the background to record a pleasing exposure of both parts of the image. Beach/snow and backlight modes both compensate for scenes where large expanses of bright areas behind the main subject can fool the camera's light meter, resulting in a scene where the exposure is perfect for the background but the subject is too dark (Figure 4.24).

    Figure 4.24. A scene mode automatically compensates for well-known exposure situations that can fool a camera's light meter. In the photograph on the left, the bright area in the background caused the foreground subject to be too dark. In the image on the right, a backlight scene mode was used to create a more balanced exposure.

    Scene modes are great timesavers; if you're still learning the ropes of camera exposure, they can make the difference between a disappointing picture and a really good shot. They're not just for beginners, either; we frequently rely on them in some situations for the simple reason that they work.

  • ISO. How sensitive the sensor is to light is specified by an ISO rating. This is the same figure that is used to rate film sensitivities. With film, however, you're pretty much stuck with the same ISO for an entire roll. One of the great things about digital cameras is their ability to set different ISO settings on a per shot, per scene basis. Compact cameras generally offer from 50 ISO to 400 ISO, and many also feature an auto-ISO setting, where the camera determines the best setting. The more advanced the camera, the higher the ratings. SLRs such as the Nikon D100 and Canon 10D offer ISOs up to 1600 or 3200. If you expect to be photographing in existing light situations or working with moving subjects in lower light levels, then you need to consider a camera with high ISO capability. Some cameras, such as the Kodak DCS-14n, offer a higher ISO only with lower resolutions. If this is important to you, make sure that high ISO settings are available at the highest resolution the camera has to offer. Keep in mind that noise levels are likely to be more noticeable at higher ISO settings.

  • Aperture and shutter speed. Many digital cameras offer semi-automatic modes, such as aperture-priority and shutter-priority modes, that allow you to choose some of the settings while the camera does the rest. Aperture priority controls how much light passes through the lens, while the camera calculates the shutter speed. Conversely, shutter priority determines how long (measured in fractions of a second) that light is exposed onto the CCD or CMOS sensor, while the camera sets the aperture—the f-stop.

    A lens that lets in more light (meaning a wider aperture/smaller f number) lets you photograph in lower light levels. Aperture also affects how the image looks in terms of depth of field (how much is in focus from foreground to background). Wider apertures generally yield less depth of field, while smaller apertures (higher f numbers) produce greater depth of field (Figure 4.25). Due to the shorter focal lengths on most compact digital cameras, however, achieving a shallow depth of field can be more difficult than with film cameras. Prosumer cameras and SLRs do a better job of producing images wth a shallow depth of field.

    Figure 4.25. Lens aperture not only controls how much light enters the lens on its way to the image sensor, but it also affects depth of field, the area of the image that appears in focus from foreground to background.Smaller f-stop numbers yield a wider (larger) opening and result in shallow depth of field. Higher f-stop numbers close the aperture down to a smaller opening and create greater depth of field. Aperture can be used to great effect to change the visual “feel” of an image.

    The shutter speed can affect the final look of the image, especially if the photo contains moving subjects. By choosing a slower shutter speed, such as of a second, you can add the visual “feel” of motion by slightly blurring a moving objesct. If you need to freeze action in your photography, you'll want a camera that offers a good choice of fast shutter speeds above of a second (Figure 4.26). On the other end of the scale, if you routinely shoot long exposures at night, you'll want to be sure that your camera offers a bulb setting, where the shutter can be left open for several minutes or longer. Shutter speed can also play a role in image sharpness; camera shake can show up in handheld shots that are photographed with a slow shutter speed.

    Figure 4.26. Shutter speed controls how long the light coming through the lens aperture is exposed to the image sensor. Faster shutter speeds ( of a second on the top image) will freeze fast-moving action, while slower shutter speeds ( of a second on the lower image) render motion as a blur. Like aperture, shutter speed is a technical control that can also be used for interesting creative effects.

    Using exposure modes to improve your images or to achieve specific visual effects will be covered in greater detail in Chapter 6, “Digital Photography Foundations.”

  • Exposure compensation and autobracketing. If you review an image on the LCD monitor and you find that it's a bit too light or too dark, exposure compensation lets you adjust the exposure and retake the photo without having to calculate a specific aperture or shutter speed change. It allows you to apply an adjustment, typically in third- or half-stop increments, that gives the scene either more or less exposure. If you took a photo of someone standing next to a window, for instance, and upon reviewing the image on the camera's LCD you saw that the person's face was too dark, you could simply add an exposure compensation adjustment to increase the exposure for the scene (Figure 4.27).

    Figure 4.27. In the image on the left, the highlights are blown out to a total white with no detail. After reviewing the image and the histogram on the LCD and noticing this, the photographer used exposure compensation to purposely underexpose the image by 1 stop, which fixed the problem (right).

    Autobracketing, found on some prosumer and professional cameras, is similar to exposure compensation. With autobracketing turned on, the camera will shoot a series of shots (usually three) and “bracket,” or slightly adjust the exposure for each one. One shot is exposed at the light meter's recommended setting, one is slightly overexposed, and one is slightly underexposed. This way, you can take your choice of shots in situations where the lighting is tricky and the standard exposure isn't working well. Bracketed shots can also be combined in the digital darkroom to take advantage of the best areas of exposure in each image (see Chapter 11, “Digital Darkroom Expert Techniques”).

  • Histogram display. A histogram graphically displays the tonal values of the image. It's useful for evaluating image exposure and for seeing if there are over- or underexposed areas. Many cameras in the prosumer and professional categories let you display a histogram for an image after it has been captured. By viewing the histogram, you can decide if the shot needs to be taken again with a different exposure setting (Figure 4.28). Some cameras make it easy to view the histogram after a shot; with others you have to dig through a series of menus to find it, which makes it harder to get at and less useful. If you're primarily interested in an easy-to-use snapshot camera, then a histogram display is probably not that important to you. If you want to take advantage of the increased control that digital photography has to offer, however, the histogram is an important feature. We cover the histogram and its role in the photographic process in greater detail in Chapter 7, “Seeing the Light.”

    Figure 4.28. The histogram display shows how the brightness values in the image are distributed along the tonal range. A histogram is useful for image evaluation in the field. In the image above, the too-bright highlights show up in the histogram in the way the graphical display is pushed up against the far right side.

  • Tripod mount. While technically not an exposure control, a tripod mount allows you to stabilize the camera in order to make sharp exposures at slower shutter speeds. Check to see that it is made out of metal and not plastic: Plastic threads can easily become stripped over time, and if you expect to use a tripod a lot, you'll want a metal tripod mount. If you're interested in creating multi-image panoramic photographs, the tripod mount should be aligned with the axis of the lens. This will allow the camera to rotate around the axis of the focal plane (Figure 4.29).

    Figure 4.29. The tripod mount should be made of metal, not plastic. For serious panoramic photography, the tripod mount should be aligned along the axis of the lens.

Flash issues

Most digital cameras, even some high-end SLRs, have an on-camera flash unit. At the most basic level, the built-in flash is designed to go off if the camera's light meter determines there isn't enough existing light for a good exposure. In that regard, it's a necessary evil. We all have situations where we need it, but the quality of light that it brings to a scene can hardly be called subtle. Nothing ruins the delicate mood of natural light quite like an automatic flash. Typical problems caused by an on-camera flash include the red-eye effect, overexposed highlights on people who are too close to the camera, and what Seán calls “horror-movie shadows” cast on the wall. Beyond the basic utility of having a flash at the ready, some cameras offer the following additional flash features (red-eye reduction is common to most cameras, while the rest of these features are found on most prosumer and professional cameras):

  • Red-eye reduction. Red eye, that irritating effect where people look like vampires with glowing red orbs for eyes, has been the bane of photography ever since cameras started sporting built-in flashes. Since this problem affects any camera where the flash is located close to the lens, many cameras offer some feature to minimize red eye. The functionality of red-eye reduction varies, but the two most common methods are a quick preflash that fires just before the picture is taken, and a steady, bright light that shines in the subject's eyes. Each of these methods is designed to force a subject's pupils to contract (Figure 4.30). A contracted pupil presents a smaller opening to the camera and the chance of red eye is greatly reduced. Other approaches involve placing the flash on a pop-up extension to increase the distance between flash and lens (Figure 4.31).

    Figure 4.30. Red eye reduction can help you avoid the glowing red eyes problem, but many people find the dual flashes irritating and feel that it stifles spontaneous shots.

    Figure 4.31. On cameras where the flash is close to the lens, the light from the flash enters through the dilated pupils and reflects off the back of the subject's retina, creating the glowing red eyes. A red-eye reduction feature uses a pre flash, or a bright light that shines at the subject, to cause the pupils to contract, preventing the flash from reflecting off the retina.

    Although red-eye reduction is a fine idea in theory, in practice it leaves a lot to be desired. The most common problem is not that it doesn't reduce red eye (it usually offers some improvement), but that the dual flashes confuse the subjects. Katrin can't stand it because the first flash (designed to make the pupils contract) goes off and the people being photographed think the shot has already been taken and begin to turn away. When the photo, accompanied by the real flash, is taken a second later, the pose and expression have been lost. Gathering people together again and instructing them about waiting for the second flash rarely gives you a spontaneous photo.

  • Flash exposure control. Can you control the output of the flash? On some models this is called flash exposure compensation and is useful if the flash output seems too strong or weak for a given scene. Being able to dial back the power of the flash can let you create subtle fill-flash effects to open up (lighten) the shadow areas of an image with having it look like a flash was used.

  • Option for external flash. This is an important feature for serious amateurs and professionals. The most common method for attaching an auxilliary flash is via a hot shoe on top of the camera. For studio flash systems, or for times when you want to mount an external flash on an extension bracket, the ability to plug a standard sync cord into the camera is crucial. A flash unit mounted on a bracket is one way around the problem of red eye. With more distance between the flash and the lens element, the flash does not create the reflections inside the eye that cause red eye. Depending on the type of photography you do, support for external flash may be critical (Figure 4.32).

    Figure 4.32. The capability to use an external flash, either attached to a hot- shoe mount on top of the camera or on a separate extension bracket, frees you from the less-than-subtle built-in flash.

Design and ergonomics

We've saved this for last, but that doesn't mean it's last in importance. If you take many photographs, you'll be spending a lot of time with your camera in your hand, around your neck, over your shoulder, and up to your eye. Proper design and ergonomics can contribute greatly to your enjoyment and comfort when using the camera. Although ordering a camera via the Internet is a popular option, there's no way to evaluate these items unless you can actually pick up a camera and check it out.

  • How does it fit in your hand? Is the camera body molded and styled so that it fits your hand well when you hold it? Is it slick and difficult to hold on to, or does it have a surface that provides a good, stable grip for your fingers? If the camera is an SLR, is there enough room between the right-hand grip and the lens mount for your fingers to rest comfortably without feeling crowded (Figure 4.33)? Are the battery and memory card doors sturdy, or do they feel cheap and flimsy? Consider the weight and size. If you're in the market for a compact camera, then a low weight and a pocket-sized design might be important features for you. The additional weight and bulk that comes with higher-end cameras is not always a bad thing; a camera with more heft will often provide a steadier platform for taking shots.

    Figure 4.33. You're going to be spending a lot of time with your camera, so make sure it fits well in your hand, is easy to hold on to, and is comfortable to carry.

  • How does it fit your eye? Bring the camera up to your eye and look through the viewfinder. Is it easy for your eye to locate the viewfinder? Does the tip of your nose rub against the LCD screen and leave greasy smudges? On some compact cameras with smaller viewfinders, this can be a problem and if you wear glasses, it can be very annoying. Is the image in the viewfinder sharp, bright, and easy to see? If there is an informational display in the viewfinder, how well can you read it? Are the letters and numbers easy to decipher? Does the readout distract too much from the image? Does the back of the camera fit comfortably against your face as you look through the viewfinder?

  • Are controls readily accessible? Study the layout of the control buttons to make sure their arrangement makes sense and that they are easy to operate. Beware of buying a camera where it feels as if you need a second person there to hold the camera while you operate the buttons and search menus.

  • Are the menu and playback options easy to use? Scroll through the menu items and look for such things as a logical organization, text that's easy to read, and clear naming of the different features. Can you quickly locate commands that are important to you, such as the histogram or a scene mode, or are they so buried that they are incon venient to access? Study the playback options to evaluate how easy it is to review images. Most cameras provide a quick review of the image for a few seconds immediately after it has been taken and some let you decide how long it stays on screen. Can you zoom in on the image and scroll to check sharpness and whether or not everyone's eyes are open? Can you lock images to protect them from accidental deletion?

Accessories: The Little Things in Life

We have evaluated dozens of digital cameras, and the cameras that include helpful accessories in the basic price are the ones that we seem to remember most. If you spend $500 to $1000 on a piece of equipment, the least the manufacturer can do is include a camera strap and basic pouch to protect your investment (the latter item is rare, however, as camera bags are seen as a possible add-on sale by camera retailers). The following is a list of some of the little extras you might find in a digital camera package.

  • Digital cameras devour batteries. Rechargeable batteries and a charger make the camera more convenient, economical, and environmentally responsible.

  • Being able to hook the camera up to an AC power supply while downloading files or when working in the studio saves batteries and spares the landfill.

  • Manufacturers that deliver cameras with the smallest possible memory card, or no card at all, are not on our shortlist. Compact cameras are more likely to come with a memory card in the box. With prosumer and pro SLRs, it's assumed the customer will want a higher-capacity card.

  • Once your lens is damaged, there's nothing you can do to fix it. A lens cap, with the option to attach it to the camera strap, should be included.

  • A wrist or neck strap is the cheapest form of camera insurance. If one is included, attach it and use it.

  • A bag or pouch to protect your camera from dirt, scratches, and dings is the second cheapest form of insurance. We especially like bags with separate pockets for extra memory cards and batteries.

  • All cameras come with some form of documentation, either in booklet or CD form. We prefer well-written, well-translated instruction booklets that slip into a camera bag for easy consultation when needed.

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