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How to Shop

How Much Can You Afford?

After you have narrowed your search to a category of camera and decided on which features you really need, you need to set your budget. In the time since the first edition of this book came out, prices for digital cameras have fallen dramatically, but you still may encounter some measure of sticker shock, especially if you're considering a professional camera. However, even though digital cameras tend to be more expensive than their film counterparts, you will save a lot of money not paying for film, processing, and related costs such as overnight delivery to and from the lab.

How long it takes for your digital camera to pay for itself depends on how often you use your camera. If you're using the camera as part of your business, your savings in film and processing costs will likely offset the initial purchase price quickly (see the sidebar below, “Digital or Film: The Bottom Line”).

Digital or Film: The Bottom Line

For many photographers the advantages of digital capture include the ability to see the image right away, taking a second shot to create a better photograph, and in many cases the greater inherent quality of a digital capture. For Vincent Versace, (www.versacephotography.com) noted digital photography expert, the advantages also include significant savings in cost and time. We had the pleasure of speaking with Vincent, and his insights and candor in regard to the financial aspects of digital capture were both refreshing and intriguing.

As Vincent explained, “In 1998 I was using 6000 rolls of film per year at a cost of $20 per roll (film and processing cost) for a total of $120,000. In addition to that I spent $7000 on Polaroid to test exposure, lighting, and composition. With a digital camera, I of course do not have any film costs and better than that, the first shot, the so-called 'Polaroid,' lets me see the exposure, lighting, and composition as before, but with the inherent advantage that often that first shot is the best one. The model is fresh and relaxed, or the splash was just right. So often when we used Polaroid that first shot was what the client wanted, and we had to go through a lot of film in the, in some cases, blind hope of getting the shot again.”

In conclusion to our talk, Vincent offered this advice to professional photographers, “Don't nickel and dime the client. Rather than adding up every mouse click, capture fee, or CD archived—ask the client what their budget is and figure out how you can work within that budget. If you can meet the budget, get the job in on time, and turn a profit, then everyone involved will be satisfied and you'll be hired again.”

If you're a professional photographer, another important factor to consider is the huge savings in time that you gain from being able to review and edit images immediately following a shoot. Having said that, however, it's only fair to point out that if you've shot a lot of images—and that's easy to do with digital—it can add up to more time spent sorting shots on a digital light table. Other potential cost savings: You won't need Polaroid proof shots to check exposure and lighting; you can check the shots immediately, either on the camera's LCD or through a direct connection to a computer workstation. Working digitally also allows you to offer additional billable services such as digital retouching, compositing, proofing, and layout.

If you're buying a camera for personal use, the decision of whether to go digital is a matter between you and your pocketbook. If you're new to digital photography and computers, then we suggest just dipping your toe into the water by purchasing a basic camera with a good set of features. This way you can get used to all the little details such as dealing with memory cards, downloading images to your computer, sorting your photos, making prints, and creating backup CDs. With this grounding in the basics, you'll be better prepared when you're ready to move up to a better camera.


Once you have identified what you'll be using the camera for, the minimum feature set, your own experience level, any additional capabilities, and your budget, it's time to hunt down the right camera. Fortunately, there are plenty of excellent resources available (you're holding one right now) to help you make your decision.

The first step is to see exactly what's on the market and how those cameras compare with each other. For this task, the Web is the best place to start. Unlike magazines, which have to prepare articles several weeks or even months in advance of publication, the Web is immediate. Well-run review sites update their content much quicker. Web-based review sites can also devote much more space to their articles, as well as provide sample images you can download. In addition, their evaluations of digital cameras tend to be much more in-depth and comprehensive than those found in most photography magazines (see the sidebar, “Internet Resources”).

Talking with other photographers is also a great way to gather information, so track down any friends and acquaintances who already use digital cameras. Some review sites, as well as general digital photography sites, also offer lively discussion forums that are frequented by digital camera owners who run the gamut from the weekend snapshot shooter to working professionals. If you have a question about a camera you're considering, you can post it to a forum to get feedback from other photographers who already own the same model. Just keep in mind that sometimes the responses on forums are not the most objective you could hopefor, and negative comments tend be amplified by the principle of “if there's a problem, people complain, but if they're happy, they don't say anything.”

Internet Resources

The Internet is an excellent resource for learning what products are available in a quickly changing market and for finding out what people think about them. For comprehensive listings of the latest cameras and in-depth technical reviews, visit www.dpreview.com, www.dcresource.com, and www.steves-digicams.com.

After you have identified two or three cameras to seriously consider, it's time to talk to as many people as possible who have experience with those cameras. On the Web, visit the discussion groups and forums for entry-level and prosumer cameras at www.dpreview.com, www.photo.net, and www.fredmiranda.com.

Try Before You Buy

After you've narrowed your choice of cameras to a few contenders, evaluate the quality of their performance and output. It's fine to compare the relative merits of the equipment based on published specs and detailed reviews. But in the end, you need to test-drive a camera yourself, preferably under conditions as close to your real-world situation as possible. At the minimum, this means going to a camera store, a trade show, or a colleague's studio so you can handle the equipment and see how it feels (see “Design and Ergonomics” earlier in this chapter). Ideally, you should shoot some images under a variety of conditions to see how the camera performs. If possible, test the camera in your usual shooting environment and take pictures of the things that you plan to photograph. If you're a real estate professional, take pictures of houses; if you need to do a lot of close-up work, take close-ups.

Most likely, your chance to test a deluxe point-and-shoot or prosumer camera will come by borrowing a camera from a friend or by shooting some files at a camera store or trade show. For the latter situations, consider investing in some smaller-sized storage media so you can photograph a variety of images and then take the files home for closer inspection on your computer. The LCD monitors on cameras are no substitute for viewing an image on a large display, where you can zoom in and really check out the fine details.

If you're in the market for a professional camera, most major resellers will work with you in your studio to see how the camera performs in your shooting conditions. Another option for pros is to rent a camera from a professional rental house. At the time of this writing, day rates for Nikon, Canon, and Fuji Pro digital SLRs ranged from $125 to $175, depending on the camera. Although that may seem expensive just to test out a camera, it's a reasonable investment if you'll be using the camera in your daily work. Studio backs that fit onto existing medium- or large-format cameras generally rent from $400 to $600 per day. If you live near a major city, you may be able to locate a rental studio that can provide you not only with a large shooting space, but also with a digital camera back, a workstation, a proofing device, and an assistant who knows the equipment.

Evaluating a Camera: What to Look For

Lens performance

Even an otherwise perfect digital camera can't compensate for optical flaws or distortions introduced in the lens by a substandard lens. When buying a camera, pay close attention to the quality of the lens. Inexpensive, entry-level cameras are likely to have inexpensive lenses that will not give you the optical quality you need. For cameras with interchangeable lenses, the same thing applies. If you buy an expensive, high-resolution SLR body and then put a cheap lens on it to save a few bucks, you might as well save a lot of money and just buy a cheaper camera. The resolving power of high-end imaging sensors, such as that found on the Canon EOS 1Ds, is so great that you have to use them with only the best lenses to make the most of their capabilities.

If you have the opportunity to shoot test files on the cameras you're considering, examine the files, as well as straight prints (in other words, prints that reflect the image as the camera delivered the file, with no sharpening and no color correction) to check the following characteristics:

  • Sharpness. Check that the image is sharp from side to side and top to bottom. If the lens is a zoom, check to see that the image is sharp through the entire range of the zoom. If the image isn't sharp in the first place, there's nothing you can do to fix this problem (Figure 4.34). When judging sharpness, be sure that the image was captured at a high shutter speed and/or that the photographer used a tripod. An appropriate shutter speed for evaluating sharpness will vary depending on the camera and lens combination you're using. For a compact camera, anything over of a second should be fine; for a digital SLR with a large zoom, try to use a shutter speed over of a second, or use a tripod. Typically, the longer the focal length of the lens, the higher the shutter speed needs to be. A good rule of thumb for handheld shots is that the shutter speed should be at least the same as the focal length. For example, you would use of a second with a 200mm lens, with a 400mm lens, and so on. Be sure to factor in the focal length multiplier if it pertains to the camera— a 135mm lens combined with a 1.6x multiplier is really a 216mm lens.

    Figure 4.34. This image is sharp in the center but gets progressively softer toward the edges.

  • Exposure evenness. Look to see if the exposure is even over the entire image. Are the corners darker than the center? Take a picture of a white wall and examine the corners of the image for exposure fall-off. Although this problem can be corrected in the digital darkroom, it's not something you want to fix on every picture you take.

  • Distortion. Does the image bow in (called a pincushioning effect) or out (barrel distortion)? Both effects are more noticeable when there is a straight line near the edge of the frame. Don't confuse this with the widening effect that you get when shooting with a wide-angle lens.

  • Color fringing, or chromatic aberration. This optical flaw shows up when the lens is not focusing all wavelengths of light uniformly onto the image sensor. In the image it appears as slight red, green, or purple color fringes on dark lines or around areas of high contrast. This can be minimized using advanced digital darkroom techniques, but it's preferable not to have it in the first place.

    Refer to Chapter 3 for illustrations showing pincushioning, barrel distortion, and chromatic aberration.

  • Flare. Shooting toward the light source can create flare, which appears as diffuse light areas, aperture-shaped blotches, and a general loss of contrast (Figure 4.35). This problem is minimized by high-quality, coated optics that reduce the amount of light bouncing around inside the lens before it reaches the image sensor.

    Figure 4.35. The lowcontrast light blotches seen in this image are lens flare—the result of shooting directly into a light source. Quality, coated optics can minimize lens flare.

  • Digital zoom. In Chapter 3, we told you why you shouldn't even think about using this! So don't bother testing this out or letting it influence your camera buying decision. If you're concerned about image quality, turn digital zoom off and leave it off.

Sensor and image processing issues
  • Image processing. Once the light has passed through the lens and focused on the sensor, a whole new set of issues comes into play. Image quality is influenced by a number of factors, some of which are functions of the CCD or CMOS sensor, others of the analog-to-digital (A/D) converter, and still others of the system the camera uses to write the image to disk. These issues can be difficult to evaluate if you're just testing cameras in a camera store, but when reading technical reviews, pay attention to how the camera handles contrast, edge definition, and faithful color rendition. Check to see if you can bring your own memory card to the store with you so you can shoot some sample shots and then take them home to evaluate them on your own computer where you can zoom in to check for any image deficiencies. You should also see whether certain in-camera processes, such as sharpening or contrast adjustments, can be turned off (preferable) or at the very least turned down.

  • Resolution. At the most basic level, this determines how large you can print an image without having it look like it's made up of little pixel squares (which, of course, it is). As stated earlier, in a digital camera resolution refers to the number of pixels on the sensor; this, combined with lens quality, determines the camera's ability to capture fine detail.

  • Aspect ratio. This is the proportion of the image. Most compact and deluxe point-and-shoot digital cameras use an aspect ratio of 4:3, which is the same as your computer's monitor. Digital SLRs try to mimic the proportions of the 35mm film frame and have an aspect ratio of 3:2 (Figure 4.36). If a camera offers a panoramic mode, you should read the fine print, as it probably does nothing more than mask the sensor in order to deliver the image in a panoramic shape. This is essentially just cropping in the camera, and it will reduce the number of pixels (effectively lowering the resolution) in the picture.

    Figure 4.36. Most compact and deluxe point-and-shoot digital cameras use an aspect ration of 4:3 (top), which is the same as a computer monitor's. Some cameras mimic the aesthetic of a 35mm film camera by offering an aspect ratio of 3:2 (bottom).

  • Dynamic range. Also referred to as tonal or exposure range, this is the camera's ability to capture detail in the highlights and shadows of a photograph. It's a function of both the sensor and the processor and is an important variable in selecting a camera. Most digital cameras have a dynamic range similar to color slide film, which in turn is less than the dynamic range for color negative film. CCDs tend to perform just fine when the lighting is diffuse and the contrast is low. If you expect to be taking pictures in the bright sun, however, pay attention to this parameter if you need detail across the full range. Unfortunately, it's often difficult to find a concrete number for this feature in the vendors' technical specs, so look for technical reviews that test for this. If they refer to it at all, it may be in terms of exposure range, or exposure metering range, as measured in EV. The good news is that, as the technology matures, dynamic range on digital cameras is getting better (Figure 4.37).

    Figure 4.37. This image shows a good tonal range, with a smooth progression from tone to tone. The histogram for the photo (as seen in Photoshop) also shows a full tonal range, with smooth transitions.

  • File formats and bit depth. The majority of digital cameras deliver files in the JPEG format. Some also let you choose TIFF or RAW. For most people, a high-quality JPEG offers all you'll ever need, but if you consider yourself an advanced user and you want maximum quality with a high degree of control over the image, then you'll want to consider a camera that can save images in the RAW format. We cover the RAW format in greater detail in Chapter 3, with a look at some of the workflow issues for RAW capture in Chapter 9, “Download, Edit, and Convert.” We do not recommend TIFF for a camera format because of the file size. Any benefits you might gain from the uncompressed file are outweighed by the much larger file size.

    Bit depth is the number of bits assigned to describe the tonal level of each pixel and refers to the data that the sensor passes through the A/D converter to the processor, not what the camera ultimately calculates to be the image. Most digital cameras deliver 8 bits per color channel. Higher-end prosumer and professional models that feature RAW files work at higher bit depths. Why should you care about the ability to capture files at more than 8 bits per color? Because it gives you more elbowroom when adjusting color and tonal information in an image-editing application, so you don't have to worry as much about the loss of tonal detail that is an inherent part of digital tonal correction. (See Chapters 3 and 11 for more information on bit depth.)

Evaluating Digital Image Files

As mentioned earlier, try taking some of your own digital storage media to the camera store so you can make test shots and evaluate them on your own computer. Most camera stores, if they're interested in good customer service, should allow you to do this (if they balk, take note; it may reflect their overall approach to customer service). You'll need to find out ahead of time what type of memory cards are used by the cameras you're interested in. CompactFlash is the most common on the market today, but a quick search on the Web can give you the information you need (see the sidebar “Internet Resources” earlier in this chapter).

Try to view the images (straight from the camera, before any enhancement) in a program such as Photoshop that allows you to zoom in to inspect fine details, and that also shows you a histogram of the tonal information. Look for image softness, jagged edges, compression artifacts, noise in the shadows, blown-out highlights, color casts, and excessive noise in the blue channel. Check image histograms for telltale white gaps that indicate missing tonal information. Histograms should be smooth, not spiky (Figure 4.38).

Figure 4.38. In this photo, the white gaps and spikes are symptomatic of harsh transitions, missing tonal values and overall poor image quality.

Buying a Professional Digital Camera

If you're in the market for a professional digital camera, here are a few additional considerations to take into account:

  • High-bit depth files. For the high-quality output demanded for professional advertising and gallery work, the ability to access high-bit data (more than 8 bits of data per color channel) is essential. Though the files are twice as large as standard 24-bit images (8 bits × 3 channels) and they require more RAM and a faster computer, the price is well worth it. Simply put, a pro camera should enable you to capture high-bit data, preferably in a RAW format. If it doesn't, then it's not a pro camera.

  • Color rendition. For accurate color rendition, an image needs to contain a full range of tonal values and no loss of information in the shadows or highlights. Neutrals should be neutral (in other words, no color cast) and the transition between tones and colors should be smooth, with no posterization or banding along gradients. A key element to capturing good color rendition is a camera that lets you perform a gray balance to establish a neutral rendition of a true neutral tone. Including a known color and gray reference in the shot (such as the GretagMacbeth ColorChecker) allows you to select a known neutral for balancing the camera. With digital exposures the goal is to gather good information. Even if the contrast seems a little flat and the colors are a bit dull coming right out of the camera, if you've captured good tonal detail (information) and neutral color balance, particularly with a high-bit RAW file, then you can adjust contrast in postproduction.

  • Camera software. Many professional digital cameras use similar technology and produce similar-sized files, but the software used to interface with the camera can make or break your experience. Try to get your hands on a tryout or rental camera so you can test-drive the software. At the very least, solicit the opinions of other professionals who have used the product

  • Antialiasing (blur) filters. These are installed in many pro one-shot cameras to reduce the stairstep effect on diagonal lines and to control color artifacts found in high- frequency areas, such as finely woven cloth or hair. In some cameras the blur filter sits in front of the image sensor. The general consensus is that while these filters may help solve some moiré problems, they're not perfect and the reduction in moiré often comes at the expense of a softer overall image (we know some photographers who deal with difficult moiré by actually adjusting the lens ever so slightly out of focus). Other solutions to these problems are software-based and are applied to the image after it has been captured. The camera software for the Leaf Valeo digital back, for instance, includes a moiré-reduction brush tool that is very successful at removing most types of chrominance (color) moiré patterns (moiré that affects the luminance values of an image is harder to remove). If a good portion of your work involves photographing clothing, fabric, or anything that has fine patterns, then you should also consider the viability of a three-pass camera that records three separate exposures for red, green, and blue and then combines them into a finished shot. Because the three-pass approach does not interpolate color data in order to create the image, these cameras don't have problems with moiré. Due to the three-shot nature of these cameras, however, they are not appropriate for photographing moving subjects. Image sensors with a higher pixel density exhibit fewer problems with moiré, so as the megapixel resolution of digital backs continues to increase, this may become less of an issue.

  • Warranty and upgradability. Does the company offer a good warranty? How much customer support is included with the camera? Will the company offer a replacement camera while yours is being repaired? Before buying, you should inquire about upgrades for both camera and software. A pro camera is an expensive investment, and being able to upgrade the camera during a regular warranty or extended warranty period is important.

  • Try it before you buy it. If possible, we highly recommend leasing or renting pro digital cameras from a local and reputable dealer before you buy one. There is no substitute for trying a camera out in your own studio to get a sense if it will best work for you. When it's time to buy, look to a trusted, local dealer first. Granted, the price may be a bit higher—but who are you going to call when things don't work out? 1-800-CHEAPPRICE? Or a known dealer that understands your market and needs? We've never regretted having a bit more support than we thought we'd need.

Where to Shop

Online retailers

The Internet offers an astounding variety of online camera merchants that compete for your business with aggressive pricing on popular models. Keep in mind, however, that price, while certainly an important part of your purchasing decision, is not everything. Just as critical are whether you are buying from an established, reputable dealer with a fair policy on returns and exchanges. Study their policies carefully before you type in your credit card number.

You should also make sure, if you're purchasing new equipment, that it is in fact new and not a reconditioned camera. Reconditioned usually means the camera developed a problem and was returned. The factory technicians then repair the problem and make sure the camera is brought up to the standards of a new model. Some people have no problem buying a reconditioned camera because they feel it has received closer scrutiny than a new one just off the production line, plus it's less expensive. Just be sure you know what you're buying.

Some online retailers in the United States offer “special pricing” on cameras that are packaged for foreign countries. This is referred to as gray market merchandise. While the camera may be the same as one targeted for the domestic market, the contents of the box may differ and the instruction manual may be in a language other than English. The most important reason to avoid a gray market camera, however, is that it might not have warranty coverage in the United States. In many cases, the warranty will only be honored in the country of origin; so if you needed a warranty repair, you'd have to ship the camera out of the country.

If you've never dealt with the reseller before, call the toll-free number. With an actual sales rep on the other end of the line, you can ask questions about reconditioned cameras and gray market products. Just remember that if the price seems too good to be true, there's probably a reason.

Brick-and-mortar stores

A store that you can actually walk into offers a certain comfort level for some people, plus you can derive some satisfaction from supporting the local economy. Prices may be a bit higher in a small store than at a large discount chain, but, as we stated earlier, price isn't everything. Dealing with local people you know and trust should carry some weight in your purchasing decision. If you are new to digital photography and have questions, a knowledgeable salesperson in a camera store can be a valuable resource. The Internet can be an excellent resource for those who don't mind going it alone, but purchasing a camera can be much easier when you are dealing one-on-one with another person who knows the camera well, can answer all of your questions, and will be there the next time you have a problem.

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