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ATPM 8.07
July 2002


How To



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How To

by Rachel Robbins,

Choosing a Digital Camera

Friends often ask me about buying a digital camera, since I have been an avid user and proponent of digital cameras for a number of years. They want to know where to buy a camera, how much they can expect to spend, how the pictures are transferred to a computer, how they can print the photographs they take, and, most often, what camera they should get. That last question is the most important and the hardest to answer. There are a myriad of factors in choosing a camera.

These days, choosing a digital camera can be overwhelming, due to the sheer number of models and the large range of prices and options. To avoid disappointment, it is well worth it to do some research before buying. Like any computer peripheral purchase, this is an important decision. You want to make sure you get a camera that does what you need and is well made, so it will last as long as possible in these days of quick obsolescence. You want your purchase to be supported fully by its manufacturer in case of any problems or defects. You want your money to be well spent.

So where do you start? For most of us, the first step will be to set a price range. This is obviously something only you can decide. The next step is to determine your needs: what kinds of pictures do you take, and what do you want to do with them? One important factor is whether you plan to print your pictures as photo quality prints, or plan to view your pictures primarily on the computer screen with some light printing (i.e., not as photographic prints). For example, you may just want to take pictures to e-mail to friends and family, to put on Web pages, and to use as desktop backgrounds. If, instead, your main purpose is to print your pictures, do you want to be able to print pictures larger than 5" x 7"? The answers to these questions will determine how many megapixels you will require in a digital camera.

The term megapixel refers to the area (width times height) of an image, with one megapixel equal to one million pixels. A camera that takes images with 1280 x 1024 pixels has a little over 1,300,000 pixels and is called a 1.3 megapixel camera. A one-megapixel camera is good for taking pictures to be viewed on the computer screen and printed as photographic quality prints as large as 5" x 7". A two-megapixel camera is enough for computer screen use and for printing up to 8" x 10". There is some controversy on this subject, and some sources recommend 2 megapixels for 5" x 7" prints, and 3 megapixels and larger for 8" x 10" prints. If printing is a major concern for you, you might want to lean toward more pixels. The more pixels, the greater your flexibility in terms of large-size printing, and also in terms of your ability to crop an image and still have enough pixels to use it in any way you like.

On the other hand, more pixels in the images means larger file sizes, which means you will need more storage for your images, both in the medium the camera uses to store its pictures, and on your hard drive. Something I think many people who give digital camera advice don’t realize is that the average person doesn’t need a camera with more than two to four megapixels, and cameras with larger images can actually be a hindrance in terms of storage. The hassle of storing and working with larger image files might actually be frustrating for some users. This is a balancing act, like so many other computer-related decisions. I suggest you figure out how large you need your images to be, in terms of how you will be using them, and then shop for a camera in that range. Don’t allow yourself to get sucked into the megapixel craze!

Another consideration is your printer: if you want photographic-quality prints, you will need a photo quality printer. A laser printer or an inkjet printer that is not specifically billed as a photo printer will print decent looking pictures, but not the beautiful, fool-your-eye photographic prints that a photo quality printer will produce on glossy paper. Shopping for a photo printer is a separate issue, and if this is something you will need, you should consider this purchase along with the camera or as something you will need to buy in the near future. Choosing a photo printer is easier than choosing a digital camera, but you should still research this purchase as thoroughly as your camera purchase; you will end up with an excellent digital photography lab.

You also should think about what kind of subjects you will primarily be photographing. Are you just taking snapshots, pictures of family, and so on? Do you particularly like to take macro shots, or need to do so to sell small items on online auctions or in a Web site storefront? Is your photography interest in the areas of action, sports, or wildlife? Or do you lean towards portraiture? And, finally, maybe your main photography interest is in scenery, vistas, or still scenes. All of these types of subject matter can be photographed with any digital camera, but some cameras have strengths in certain areas. Some are able to focus closer than most and have special settings for photographing close subjects, and are therefore better for macro shots; some are particularly good at capturing realistic skin tones, and might be your best choice for portraiture and family snapshots; some are better at capturing fast action, are quicker to recover from one shot and be ready to take the next, and have longer zoom lenses, which makes them particularly good for sports and wildlife photography.

If zoom is important to you, make sure you are looking at optical zoom. Digital cameras usually have both optical and digital zoom. Optical zoom is what non-digital cameras with zoom lenses have; it is the physical capability of the lens to get a closer view of a subject. Digital zoom is more of a simulation of real zoom, and is generally not worthwhile; it just uses a form of interpolation to enlarge the central portion of a view. You can perform the same function with your image editing software, probably with better results, but neither digital zoom nor software can create detail where it didn’t exist in the first place, while optical zoom acquires full detail when it closes in on the subject. The moral is to ignore the digital zoom specifications of the camera, and only look at the optical zoom number, which will typically range from 3x to 10x. For most people, 3x zoom is a good amount. If you typically photograph subjects from a distance and want to get in closer to your subjects, you may want to look for a camera with 5x to 10x zoom.

Another issue is how much control you want over your camera. Many people want a point-and-shoot, completely automatic camera, while some prefer to have control over every aspect of each shot. Most, if not all, digital cameras have a completely automatic mode (point-and-shoot). On top of that, most will have at least a few manual settings or overrides, and some have a manual setting for every function, from aperture to shutter speed, white balance to type of flash.

You will also want to look at the interface that each camera uses. All digital cameras can connect to a computer by one or another interface via a cable, enabling direct download from the memory card in the camera to the hard drive of the computer, sometimes with a software application to enable the download, and sometimes by actually mounting the camera as a volume on the desktop. A camera might have a USB, serial, parallel, or FireWire interface, and some have more than one interface built in. Virtually all digital cameras use a removable memory card (SmartMedia, CompactFlash, MemoryStick, PC Cards, and more) or other removable storage medium (CD-R disk, floppy). Many people find that the simplest method for downloading images from their camera to their computer is by way of a card reader. These devices can be found with many interfaces and the ability to read one or more digital camera storage media types, which are directly inserted in the reader. Using a card reader is usually faster than directly connecting a camera to the computer to download images, and can bypass any interface issues between the camera and the computer. There are various other adaptors to look into, such as floppy disk adaptors, which mount a SmartMedia card on a floppy-disk-shaped adaptor and allow the card to be read via your floppy drive.

Again, the more pixels in an image, the larger that image will be in file size, as well as its size when displayed on the monitor or printed. The file size is important when you consider that you will need to store these images on whatever storage medium the camera uses. You will need enough portable storage capacity to take as many pictures as you want when you are away from your computer. Most cameras have the option to take your pictures as smaller files, either with fewer pixels (i.e., by taking pictures with smaller dimensions) or with greater JPEG compression, and often with both methods combined. However, it is advisable to avoid using these methods of saving space, as you lose data with both. Fewer pixels means less flexibility in terms of editing the images; greater JPEG compression means less quality in your original image. You can never regain data or image quality, if you didn’t acquire it in the original image. If you are at all concerned about image quality, start out with your camera’s largest size and highest quality possible, and keep these originals as unaltered master copies. You can always reduce the image in your image editing software later, for Web page use and e-mail, and save the reduced versions separately. You will need to look at how many highest quality images are stored on a given size of storage medium. You will probably need to buy more storage. Factor this into your total purchase price.

How should you deal with all of this information? This is part of what makes buying a digital camera so confusing, but the many options are also what makes it so exciting. My advice is to think about the pictures you take now and the pictures you would like to take. Write down your needs, if that helps to focus on what is really important. Then read the specifications and reviews of different digital cameras and see what seems to satisfy your photography needs most thoroughly. Two Web sites have helped me tremendously in my digital camera research. One is Jeff Keller’s Digital Camera Resource Page, which has reviews of almost every digital camera available, a buyer’s guide that helps narrow down your camera choices based on your requirements, and excellent discussion forums about all aspects of buying and using digital cameras. Another Web site I highly recommend is Imaging Resource, which I find has some of the most detailed digital camera reviews on the Internet. Their reviews helped me when I had narrowed my choice down to two cameras and couldn’t decide which to buy; the detail and thorough testing in this site’s reviews of the two cameras tipped the scales towards one, and finalized my decision.

After you have narrowed down your choice of digital camera to one or two camera models, you should spend some time finding the best deal. Prices can vary widely. Sometimes local stores will have good deals on current cameras, but most often online stores have the best deals. I recommend always searching DealMac for your particular choice of camera model, and also looking there and at their sister site, DealNews Coupons for store coupons, free shipping deals, and the like, which may help find the best deal possible. Beware of unknown stores and deals that sound too good. There are gray-market digital camera sales, which will look like great deals but are often cameras that weren’t meant to be sold in this country and therefore won’t be supported by their manufacturer. The best way to avoid scams like this is to buy from a dealer that you know is reputable, or read the discussion forums at the Digital Camera Resource Page to see if users have good experience with a dealer you’re interested in. If you don’t find any information, ask questions in the forums. (Remember when posting on Web forums to read enough posts to get a sense of the Web site’s tenor, find out if your questions have already been answered, and read any rules, FAQs, and guidelines before posting.)

Another must-have accessory purchase will be good rechargeable batteries and a battery charger. For most cameras and most uses, NiMH batteries are an excellent choice, as they last through many more shots than alkaline batteries, they can be recharged quickly and at any stage of their charge capacity with modern, fast chargers, and they are relatively inexpensive. They do discharge slowly when not being used, but this seems to be less of a problem with modern NiMH batteries. Some cameras have rechargeable batteries included, and some will only use certain types of batteries, so check those specifications before buying any supplementary batteries. One thing is sure, though: regular alkaline batteries will disappoint you and cost too much for regular use. There are times when they are the only choice, for example, when traveling for a long period of time in an area where you won’t have regular access to electricity. It also can’t hurt to have some sets of alkaline batteries available for emergencies, since they have a much longer shelf life than do fully charged NiMH batteries. Most often, however, rechargeable batteries are the best bet. You will find a discussion forum on batteries and a great deal of excellent advice at the Digital Camera Resource Page, and I suggest looking through that forum for details on what to buy and where to get the best deals.

The decisions you make when buying a digital camera are almost as important as the decisions you make when buying a new computer. Take your time and don’t make hasty choices. But don’t let these cautions overwhelm you. Almost any major-name digital camera will please most people. This advice is to steer you towards getting the best camera for your purposes and a camera that will last and satisfy as long as possible. If you put some research and thought into this, you will end up with a camera that will delight you and provide the tools to create excellent pictures!

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Reader Comments (6)

Lee Bennett (ATPM Staff) · July 1, 2002 - 21:29 EST #1
My two cents worth - while I wouldn't advise reaching the point where you feel like you are "sucked in" to the megapixel craze, one should certainly stay abreast of it. Digital camera resolution is like RAM—you can't have too much. My advice is identical for buying RAM or deciding how high of resolution you should get in a digital camera: as much as you can afford at the time. Sure, most of the time, you won't need what you have, but when you do need it, you're glad to have it. For example, you may not necessarily want an enormous print, but perhaps you'd like to crop in on a smaller area of the photo and print it at typical dimensions. You need more resolution to do this without getting a fuzzy picture.

And if you're concerned about storage, don't be. Most Macs can burn a CD-R and if yours can't, external burners cost only a fraction of what the camera costs—just build the cost of one into your budget. And CD-R media can hold hundreds of photos for just a few dimes per disc.

Another point: while I mostly agree with the author's assessment of the size images you can create with a 1.3 megapixel camera, a bit of clarification is in order. First of all, let's be clear that this example is talking about printing on an inkjet printer on photo-quality paper. For most people, this is exactly the scenario that will occur and it is, for all reasonable considerations, true. However, 1.3 megapixel is, by virtually all standards, not a whole lot of resolution. Most people probably would feel that a 5x7 photo-quality inkjet printout that came from a 1.3 megapixel camera looks great, but it would most likely appear somewhat fuzzy and/or pixellated if you compared the same sized printout taken with a 2 megapixel camera.

Personally, I think in terms of commercial offset printing and if I were a betting person (I'm not), I'd wager that this article will get read by a good number of people who are also exploring digital cameras to use for their projects being sent to press. If that's the case, then the example numbers for "resolution" versus "size of photo" go flying right out the window. Any desktop publisher knows that the general rule of thumb is that photos should be roughly double the resolution at 100% of what the intended halftone line screen is going to be. Since a 150 line screen is about the most common, 300dpi images are what you're after. And yes, lots of people will say that double the resolution is overkill and I somewhat agree—especially since I use 300dpi images on jobs that I have printed at a 200 line screen. But using the x2 method is simplest to remember and isn't that much overkill.

So, if you do the math and upsample a 1280x1024 (1.3 megapixel) image from the 72dpi that most digital cameras define up to 300dpi without resampling the photo, that translates to a photo approximately 4.25" x 3.4". For most jobs, this is an acceptable size, but clearly not enough if you want a big photo spanning across a letter- or A4-sized page. Even a 3 megapixel camera would only just fit the bill since its images, redefined at 300dpi, weigh in at approximately 5" x 7". By the way, I use images from a 3 megapixel Nikon Coolpix 990 for the previously mentioned 200 line screen publication I work on.

Anyhow, the point of this is to mention that you have to take into consideration the medium you'll be printing the photos in. You can't just universally say that a 1.3 megapixel camera will give you a 5" x 7" print, and I thank the author for stating that "there is some controversy on this subject." My aim was not to cause additional controversy, but just add some personally observed fact for people to consider.
Chik · July 3, 2002 - 00:42 EST #2
I thought the author did quite well to mention the drawbacks to having a camera with a massive amount of megapixels. I hardly see that warning on most reviews.

I also disagree that digital camera resolution is "like RAM". Maxing out on RAM is all good with no discernible disadvantages. Furthermore, there isn't much variety in the types of RAM out there. e.g. you hardly have to make a choice that "I get more of this type of RAM for this price, or less of the other type RAM which has more features!"

I like digital cameras, for 2 main reasons: because the media is reusable and because it is easy to share my pictures with distant relatives.

I actually find having a lower megapixel rating more desirable -- but that's only for my type of use. I use a 2 megapixel camera. I prefer to take lots of shots, discard the lousy ones, and only minimally edit them, then upload them to Ofoto via ADSL. High megapixel cameras produce large pictures that reduce the amount of pictures on a given CF/memory stick, slow down the transfer from my card reader, slow down the file viewing process, and make it more likely that the file will need to be compressed further for uploading over the Internet (Ofoto compresses the file further for others to view the picture, but stores the original upload in case prints are ordered).

In short, for my type of use, high megapixels are a hassle rather than a benefit. If I became interested in printing some of my pictures, or start cropping and trimming pictures, then I would certainly upgrade from my 2 megapixel camera. I would also invest in higher capacity camera media and a faster computer so that sorting out and editing 200 pictures at a time would be less painful.
Lee Bennett (ATPM Staff) · July 3, 2002 - 00:52 EST #3
I think, Chik, you clarified my point in an area I wasn't clear on. I didn't intend to imply that 1 or 2 megapixel cameras are useless. The usage you describe for yourself is ideally suited for a 1 or 2 megapixel camera.

By the way, for what it's worth, there's no reason one couldn't have a 3 or 4 megapixel camera for the times when they know they're needing high resolution shots for press, but normally leave it set to take pictures at a lower resolution.

And on another note ... memory cards have been really cheap lately. I picked up a 256mb compact flash card for about $110. Sure, you'd expect the cost per megabyte to drop for each higher capacity card, but the way things are now, it's almost ludicrous to buy a card any smaller than 64mb. 8 and 16 megabyte cards are going for about a dollar or two per megabyte.
Janet Mobley · July 3, 2002 - 14:12 EST #4
I was very interested in Rachael's article about choosing a digital camera. One point that she didn't mention is physical size and weight of the camera.

I had an Olympus D-620L. I have Desktop Pictures on ATPM of France (France Nov. 2000) and I used that camera. It took very good pictures but was big. I am just five feet tall. The first week in France it rained a lot and I had to get my raincoat around myself and my camera that was on my chest. It was a big hassle aside from that fact that it was heavy to carry along with purse and umbrella.

Now I have the 4 megapixel Olympus D-40Zoom which is tiny and just 11oz. I can drop it in my purse or wear it on my wrist or in a case I bought that goes over my head and arm. I'm trying to cut down on the weight of things I carry while still getting the quality I desire and that fit this little old lady. I think most of the computer engineers are big, strapping guys who forget about the "other half." Now that I have this little camera, I bought a 12 inch iBook for traveling. My motto now is: Think small.

Janet Mobley,

Editor: North Coast Mac Users Group
anonymous · July 17, 2002 - 12:47 EST #5
IMHO, the best online resource regarding digital cameras is: More info than you can shake a stick at on hundreds and hundreds of cameras--all in a standardized reviewing format that makes comparison pretty simple.

Note: I use a Nikon Coolpix 2500. It's a very sporty little 2 megapixel camera and does a very admirable job, but I wouldn't make 8 X 10s with it.
Uprints · January 27, 2006 - 14:02 EST #6
An interesting article and a good one at that for novice who have no knowledge on Digital Cameras.

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