Digital Photography on a Budget, Part 1: The Camera

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With 5 megapixel digital cameras falling into the sub-$100 price range, sooner or later everyone is going to want one. As an overclocker, we demand high value for less money. We also are frequently asked to make recommendations. In this article I will try to give the essential information, whether you intend to buy a new camera for yourself or you need to give buying advice to a friend or relative.

My background includes setting up and programming industrial digital cameras. It was about 9 years ago or so that I had purchased my first digital still camera. It was awful – no flash, half hour battery life from 4 AA cells, required lots of light, low resolution, and an RS-232 serial interface with proprietary software. After that experience, I vowed not to look at digital still cameras for a while.

It was about a year ago a friend of mine called and asked if I could come over and help him download his pictures from his Sony digital camera into his PC and burn them onto a CD. He had no clue how to do it, and quite frankly, neither did I. I should have asked him for the model number and looked up the manual on the web, so that I would know what to expect and be prepared ahead of time, but I didn’t. I must be slipping. I was dreading having to install some proprietary Sony-only software to download the pictures, and that I would have to (worse yet) explain how to use that software in the future.

When I got there, he had already plugged the camera into the PC’s USB port. My first thought was “Oh no! We probably needed to install the driver first!” but to my surprise I was completely wrong. The computer recognized the camera as a USB Mass Storage Device and assigned it a drive letter. It was at that moment that I realized that digital cameras had finally come of age. The net result was that no new software had to be installed; we downloaded the pictures to his computer and burned them to a CD in a matter of minutes. I felt kind of stupid, but it was a happy stupid.

When 5 megapixels hit the $100 price level, I started researching the issue in-depth, along with the knowledge I’ve gained from my work. It isn’t easy to get truly great pictures – it never has been. If it seems that way, it’s only because the camera industry has invested a tremendous amount of effort into developing automated point and shoot film cameras that increase your chances of getting a great shot, even under adverse conditions.

I think we can all agree that automatic 35mm film cameras are very popular with the amateur photographer and have brought 35mm photography to the masses. Finally, digital cameras have caught up in this regard with comparable quality and ease of use to such film cameras.
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The List

The specific minimum features desired:

Lens: Glass Aspheric, 3X Optical Zoom, Auto Focus, Auto Aperture:

The best type is glass aspheric and generally speaking, larger lenses are better than smaller ones, although the lens size chosen by the manufacturer is selected to match the size of the image sensor behind the lens. Obviously, cameras with optical zoom, auto focus, and auto aperture provide the most automation and best chance to get a crisp, clear photograph. For a second camera or for a photographer on a strict budget, focus-free fixed-aperture cameras can also take great pictures. Paying strict attention to details such as distance to subject, ambient lighting, a bit of practice and patience can yield excellent results.

Image Sensor: CCD, 5 Megapixels or More:

There are basically two types of image sensors: CMOS and CCD. In general, CCD sensors are more sensitive and capable of delivering great pictures even in low light conditions. If the camera you choose requires you to aim the camera through the LCD display, then a CCD is a must. CMOS sensors require much more light, and while the flash strobe helps when the picture is taken, aiming a live view with a CMOS sensor in anything but a brightly lit room is very difficult, if not impossible. CMOS sensors are usually relegated to very cheap digital cameras.

Flash Strobe: Red-eye Reduction:

Required. A digital camera is pretty useless without a flash unit – thankfully most cameras have them. The camera should allow you to set when the flash is used: auto (camera decides), forced on, forced off – support for a red-eye reduction feature is nice to have too. Red-eye reduction works by firing the flash unit once before the picture is taken to cause the subject’s pupils to contract. Then the flash is fired a second time during the actual image capture. Flash unit quality and usable range varies from camera to camera. Note that cameras with a CMOS sensor will have much shorter ranges than cameras with CCD sensors, yet one more reason to spend a little more for a CCD sensor.

LCD Display: 1.8 Inches or Larger, Color:

Required. The LCD will be used to preview your photos and if you don’t have an optical viewfinder, it will be your viewfinder as well. Generally speaking, larger LCDs are more desirable and easier to use. Bear in mind, however, that most LCDs have only 100,000 to 200,000 pixels, so the camera will be scaling it’s multi-megapixel sensor down considerably. Images that are not necessarily in focus on the LCD when you are looking at the LCD viewfinder live display, may indeed be in focus – you won’t know for sure until you snap the picture.

PC Interface: USB 2.0 / Removable Disk:

Required. The camera should appear as a USB Mass Storage Device when plugged into a PC USB port on a Windows XP or Vista computer. No drivers or special software should be necessary. Typically the disk will be formated as FAT or FAT32. It is recommended that you use the camera itself to format the disk (media card), not your computer, if you want to reformat this disk periodically. Since the camera appears to be just another disk drive, you could work with and print your photos without necessarily copying them to your computer’s hard drive. If you do this, be sure not to save an edited JPEG file back to the camera’s memory. You camera might not be able to display the file properly once it’s been edited on computer.

Memory Card Slot: SD Secure Digital Card:

Required. Modern digital cameras store photos either in their puny on-board memory (usually enough for 4 pictures!) or on a non-volatile memory card plugged into the camera. Most cameras use Secure Digital (SD) cards, and this is the preferred type of card. Fuji and Olympus use the xD card standard instead and Sony uses one of their proprietary memory stick formats.

Unless you know for sure you need larger or smaller, the suggested SD card size to buy is 1 GB, since most cameras will support up to 1 GB. A few older or cheaper models may only support up to 512 MB, and some newer models can support up to 2 GB. Generic 1 GB SD cards seem to be fine in terms of compatibility, but for optimum performance get a Class 6 SD card. The speed of your memory card may affect the time needed by the camera in between shots. If fast shooting is necessary, then get a faster SD card. If it’s not important, any old SD card should do.

At 5 megapixels, 1 GB stores approximately 350 high quality photographs. Most cameras do not come with memory cards, or if they do, they are very small. You must purchase an appropriate memory card separately. Many modern photo printers include memory card slots, so you can remove the card from the camera and print directly without a computer. In this case, image selection and printer control is made by working with the printer’s LCD and buttons. If the printer does not have an LCD, then you can usually print an index sheet of the photos on the card.
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Direct Print Capability: PictBridge

Recommended. PictBridge is a standard for connecting your digital camera directly to a photo printer. Image selection and printer control is made by the user interactively working with the camera’s LCD and buttons. No computer is required to print photographs. Naturally, if you want PictBridge support, you’ll have to have it in both your camera and printer. The PictBridge port physically resembles a computer USB port, and the printer acts as the USB host when it is in use. Your camera plugs in using the USB cable that was included with your camera, no special cable is required.

DPOF: Digital Print Order Format

Recommended. This advanced feature allows you to select a batch of photographs to be printed, from the camera’s LCD in playback mode. You can control the quantity of each print, and in some cases also the image size (ie 4 x 6) and quality. Once the memory card is inserted into a printer’s memory card slot or connected to a PictBridge port, the printer automatically prints all photos in the DPOF batch. Printing pictures one at a time over PictBridge or by memory card slot is too tedious and time-consuming. I couldn’t see using PictBridge or printing from memory cards without this feature. I don’t mind if the printer takes a long time to print my batch of photos; I just don’t want to babysit the thing.

Movie Recording: Microphone?

Recommended. Most digital still cameras include some type of rudimentary movie mode, typically limited to 320 x 240 resolution and slow frame rates from 10 to 20 per second. Not all cameras include a microphone to record the sound along with the video, so if this is important to you, then that is one more detail to check before you buy. Despite the low resolution and frame rates, taking movies with your digital still camera can be quite enjoyable. Note that most cameras do not have a speaker, so you might not hear any audio playback when watching the movie on the camera’s LCD. You will hear audio, however, when you play the video on a TV or computer.

AV Output: TV Connection

Recommended. Allows you to connect your digital camera to a TV for still image preview and movie playback, usually with sound if your camera supports sound recording. Useful if you get tired of that tiny screen or want to show your pictures to friends.

Battery: AA Cell Support

Recommended. Most digital cameras are powered by ordinary AA cells, the rest their own proprietary rechargeable battery. AA NiMH rechargeable batteries are generally the preferred choice. A kit with 4 AA NiMH batteries and charger can be purchased for under $10 at Walmart. When they eventually wear out, they will be much cheaper to replace than a proprietary battery pack.

Optical Viewfinder

Optional. Useful when framing a shot at times when the LCD is useless, such as in bright sunlight or very low light conditions. Also allows you to turn off the LCD during shooting to save battery life.
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The Pitfalls of Automation

Asking the camera to handle focus, aperture, and flash strobe automatically is great when the camera gets it right, and usually it does. Occasionally a scene may confuse the camera. When this happens, it may be nice to have a manual mode. If that’s important to you, then that’s one more detail. Some cameras offer more manual control than others. For the casual photographer, using automatic settings exclusively should not really be a problem. A good digital camera will get it right about as often as a good automated 35mm film camera. After all, automated 35mm film cameras aren’t immune to the pitfalls of automation, either.

The Interpolation of Color

What I am about to tell you now may shock you, but I swear it’s the honest truth. Image sensors by their nature are monochromatic – they respond to light no matter what color it is. To get color from an electronic image sensor, a color filter array is placed over and integrated into the image sensor. At each pixel position, there is either a red, green, or blue filter, making that one pixel sensitive only to light of one particular primary color. The micro-controller that reads the image sensor knows what color filter is over each sensor pixel. For each pixel in the sensor, red, green, and blue are interpolated from the value of that pixel and the values of the pixels around that pixel. The desired type of color filter array for digital still cameras is known as the Bayer pattern filter.

5 megapixels vs 10 megapixels

A 10 megapixel camera should be twice as good as a 5 megapixel camera, right? Wrong!

A 10 megapixel camera has about 40% more resolution than a 5 megapixel camera. If you truly need that extra 40%, then don’t let me stand in your way of getting a more expensive 10 megapixel camera. For the average person though, 5 megapixels should be adequate for prints up to 8.5 by 11, and excellent for typical 4 x 6 standard photographs.

Popular Brands

Based on the research, reviews, and countless photography websites I visited, Canon appears to be one of the most popular brands, follow closely by Nikon, Sony, Casio, and HP. I will warn you though that while Canon is a popular brand, their low-end $100 range camera are not popular, and it isn’t until you go above $150 that their cameras are beloved. I wouldn’t be surprised if the same was true with some of the other high-end brand names previously cited.

In the $100 and sub-$100 range, you can’t go wrong with Kodak’s line of competent point and shoot optical zoom cameras. The C533 (5 megapixel) and C633 (6 megapixel) models are packed with features yet retain ease of use, and a good choice for those who are less than technically inclined. Another smaller player in the sub-$100 range is Vivitar.

Before You Buy

Before you decide on a brand or model, take someone along and go to a store where they have functional demo units electrically tethered to a counter and try them out. If you take someone with you, you can get a second opinion and have a subject for testing portraits. Find two or three models you like, at the price you want to pay, then go home and look them up on the web. Most manufacturers have a decent specifications page, and you can usually download the manual. Being able to read a product’s manual before you commit your hard-earned money is a huge advantage. Also, submit the model number into Google and read some user reviews on the web.

So concludes Part 1 of this 2 Part series. Part 2 will discuss the other half of the equation – the photo printer, and how to get lab quality prints.

Roland De Graaf

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