Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Resolution: Re-thinking High ISO photos

The websites that compile painstaking reviews of digital cameras do a really great job. DPReview.com and DCResource.com are two of the best, in my opinion.

But they get wrapped around the axle on the topic of high-ISO photos and the noise-reduction most digital cameras apply to these low-light photos. They use words like "smearing" and "watercolor."

Here, I say: get over it.

High-ISO photos aren't meant to be Louvre-worthy portraits. They're just not. But the semi-embarassing photos below -- taken at a local high school's "air band" concert a few nights ago -- aren't hideous. They're fine as snapshots, and you could probably print reasonable 5x 7-inch prints from them with little objectionable results.


I shot these photos using a Kodak Z1012 IS camera in High ISO mode. These are absurdly high -- ISO 1600 and 3200 -- and obtainable only with the camera's lens at full 12x zoom.

These photos will not win any prizes. None at all. Nor do I expect them to.


But they will elicit an emotional response, most likely laughter, from people who see them. And any emotional response created by a photograph is better than not having a photo to start with.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Afterlife for a Konica rangefinder, sort of


This may be useful for those of us with far too many classic film cameras, and no real market for them.

Today, there's very little demand for the 1970s-era 35mm rangefinder cameras I love. I have a handful of really good ones: Olympus XAs, Vivitar 35ES, Canonet GIII QL17, and a few Minolta Hi-Matics. Plus a few that need a little work, but I simply couldn't devote time to resuscitating. These have "DOA" tags on them. And on their own, they're useless.

But in trolling for a Konica Auto S3 on fee-Bay** the other night, I found 27 separate auctions for parts for the camera. Only one actual S3 camera, but more than two-dozen parts for sale.

So if you have the patience and precision screwdrivers to disassemble and tag the working pieces of a camera -- and the skill to photograph them using your digital camera's macro mode -- parting out a non-working 35mm camera might be a way to get some value from that old buddy on your shelf.

And, in case you're wondering: my Auto S3 works fine, and no -- it is definitely not for sale.

***

** I rarely sell items on fee-Bay anymore. When they decided to become son-of-Amazon.com, and abandoned the individual casual seller by messing with their fee schedule, I went to Craigslist.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Would Adorama lie to you?


Addendum: One more "one" camera that earns a raspberry for one of my favorite photo merchants.

Adorama, where I've bought my share of digital and film camera bits, sent me an email hyping a deal on, among other items, the Polaroid One 600 Classic Ultra Instant Camera.

Huh?

"Classic" is only partly right. In a few weeks, it'll be a relic. Polaroid's discontinuing its line of instant film for these beasts. What would I do with this camera in, say, 8 months? Make a hood ornament for my wife's SUV?

C'mon, Adorama. I trust you guys, usually.

But selling this photographic equivalent of the AMC Pacer isn't playing straight. Unless you're going to be carrying Polaroid 600 instant film well into 2010, you should have a disclaimer somewhere that tells would-be buyers that the One 600-Classic is destined to be as useful as my Kodak Six-Sixteen Junior camera is today.

Admission o' Guilt Dept.: I've always had pricey habits; my first film camera was a Polaroid Colorpack II, and you had to apply lacquer to your B/W prints as soon as they developed. When my Dad gave me his original SX-70 instant camera in the early '80s, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. I was a big Polaroo for a long time, then the digital revolution steamrolled the company. The guys who own it now have all but lost their shirts in the investment bank disaster, and they're threatening to dismantle what's left of Polaroid today. Sad, sad conclusion.

Never Buy a One

Today's observation: never buy a digital camera with the "1" or "One" in the name.

My first Panasonic digital camera was the fabled Lumix FZ-1. It was a 12x optical zoom, and the aperture stayed at a constant f2.8 at all focal lengths. It took incredible photos. But it was only 2 megapixels and fairly slow to operate, even in 2003. The next iteration of FZ models fixed a lot of these issues, but I had already invested in the FZ-1.

Now Panasonic's come out with this new DMC G1, roughly the same size as my old FZ-1, but with interchangeable lenses like a digital SLR. And a bigger DSLR-like sensor. And an $800 price tag. Right, $800 for a baby DSLR. I can buy a Nikon D60 with lens for much less than $800. What are you thinking, Panasonic?

Other "ones" worthy of this list: the Kodak EasyShare One (a wireless digital camera that's about as slow as my old FZ-1). Sigma DP-1 (also slow, and $999 buys you a camera with performance characteristics worthy of a 2005 model). Samsung's upcoming HZ-1, which has lots of promises -- from a company best known for TVs and toasters.

In my experience, digital cameras with the number "1" in their name should set off a neon light in your brain: it means that version 2 is already in the works. If you need to be an early adopter, go right ahead -- but most of the books talking about the G1 now allude to the next version having, among other things, digital video capability that the G1 doesn't.

Panasonic fooled me once with the FZ-1. And as much as I think they make pretty good cameras, I'm not forking over 800 clams to be the guinea pig with the G1. When they're up to a G4 or so, give me a call.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Instant Obsolescence





If you cruise Craigslist, you can get great deals on recent digital and film cameras. People are practically giving away terrific film cameras, probably because they're too lazy to get film processed. Someone in my town was selling a Yashica T4 with a great Tessar lens for $50. A year ago, you couldn't touch one of these cameras for under $100.

But if someone's offering you a Polaroid "One-Step" camera that uses instant film, run.

Polaroid -- which invented instant photography in the last century, and got a billion-dollar damages payment from Kodak in a patent case -- announced earlier this year that they'll stop making instant film for their cameras. That would leave Fujifilm, which makes the stuff overseas, and doesn't import much of it to the U.S., as the sole source.

So, unless you need another dust-magnet that resembles a camera, keep hunting for that Yashica T4.

(Full disclosure: I work for Kodak, but not in camera or film sales. My first camera was a Polaroid folding camera, and I never recovered from exposure to the "fixing" lacquer that you used to coat you black-and-white photos.)

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Abandoned Sites

Want to know what's going on in photography, 15 months ago?

Hop over to SLR Today, which somehow seems to have halted publication in August, 2007.

Meanwhile, over at MJU-MJU, someone started out saying nice things about the Olympus Stylus Epic -- a really great film camera that's sadly no longer in production. Then, in 2006, the world changed. And that's all he (or she) wrote.

Someone should catalog some of these timeless sites, devoted to photographic marvels that once showcased the technology at its pinnacle. Given all the '70s - era rangefinder cameras I own, you'd think I'd take on the job.

But, no. I just have to delete them from my bookmarks list.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Is that a Vivitar in your pocket? Probably not.

Vivitar used to make some exceptional lenses, and the 285 strobe flash that was every news photographer's workhorse. My favorite 35mm compact rangefinder camera was, and still is, the Vivitar 35ES camera -- built by Cosina, which made and makes low-end cameras for many big brands of the day.

(Trivia: Vivitar's original name was "Ponder and Best.")

More recently, they slapped their brand on inexpensive digital cameras. One was a decent 6-MP underwater camera that sold for around $100 USD. But most insiders knew that Vivitar -- like Polaroid -- was a brand for hire. You could, for a price, slap it on a digital picture frame, a TV screen, or a toaster. But it didn't have that legendary Vivitar lens quality us film dinosaurs so enjoyed in the 1980s.

Fast-forward to today: Vivitar's name has been sold yet again, to Sakar. (Read it here.) Sakar markets a wide array of plastic photographic accessories that you won't find advertised in Popular Photography.

So, get set for Vivitar lens cleaner fluids and LCD protectors.

Friday, October 10, 2008

When image stabilization matters

If you're shopping for a camera, here's some advice on image stabilization:
  • In general, it's nice to have. Mainly on cameras with a long optical zoom. Because a longer lens tends to magnify mistakes, including camera shake.
  • Contrary opinion: if you're looking at cameras with short zoom lenses (say, 3X optical zoom), you don't really need image stabilization. That short-range zoom won't magnify your mistakes as much as a longer lens.
  • If you religiously shoot without a flash, then image stabilization can be your friend. (Think: football, basketball, wildlife photos.)
  • If you religiously use a tripod, you must turn off image stabilization. The resulting images will be flawed. (Think: natural light portraits, still life scenes.)
I tend to use sensor- or lens-based image stabilization, in which the camera's mechanical parts perform the steadying work. Cameras that boast of "digital image stabilization" automatically increase the ISO (or light sensitivity) of the image, so your camera can select a faster shutter speed. This isn't bad in some situations, but higher shutter speeds almost always result in digital noise -- multicolored speckles in your image -- that reduce the accuracy of the shot.

Historically, Panasonic Lumix cameras delivered the best optical image stabilization -- but the company used that technology to compensate for tiny image sensors that resulted in noisy photographs. Now, the playing field is slightly more level; almost all superzoom cameras have image stabilization.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Consumer Reports and digital cameras

Consumer Reports had nice things to say about the Kodak Z1012 IS digital camera. You can read a little bit about it here.

This 12x optical zoom camera is handy for those occasions when you're far away from your subject and there's plenty of daylight. Like when you're up in the bleachers at a football game, or trying to photograph a wild animal from a distance. Superzoom cameras like the Z1012 IS and Panasonic's FZ series are reasonable substitutes for a digital SLR, which can cost a few hundred dollars more.

One really good feature on this camera: it's got a very good digital HD video function. I've used a Kodak superzoom to record a concert in a college recital hall, and got very satisfying results. (The lights were on throughout the performance; I don't know how well it would work in a dark auditorium.)

All this said: Consumer Reports is like the Kmart of product reviews. They review toasters, dishwashers, Hyundais, and DVD players. If you find this particular camera intriguing, I'd suggest hunting up a few reviews on other websites, like Steve's Digicams or DPReview; they spend most of their time reviewing digital cameras and lenses, not toasters. So I tend to take their recommendations a bit more seriously.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Sunday Tip: Taming the Ghostly Orbs


In the days of film cameras, you hardly ever saw these little translucent circles in your photos. But for some reason, digital cameras seem to capture them with alarming frequency.

In the photo at right, the mystery orb is in the lower left corner. It's called "dust." My guess: most compact digital cameras have a flash very close to the lens, which may serve to amplify the appearance of these imperfections in the photo.

Of course, they're more evident when you're making pictures against a dark background. Had the photographer moved in a little closer, you'd see less of the dark wall mural of Jim Croce -- and probably not see the ghostly orb.

So, there are two tips here:
  1. Clean your lens once in a while. Use a microfiber cloth or a lens pen. Try not to use facial or bathroom tissue. Breath lightly on the lens, then wipe gently in a circular motion.
  2. Get closer to your subject to decrease the likelihood of distractions in your photos. Zoom with your feet, not the camera's lens.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Midnight Compression

One good indicator of whether you'll get sharp photos from a camera is if the camera lets you adjust the image quality setting. This is generally found as a menu option called JPEG Compression.

Inexpensive digital cameras generally don't allow you to adjust JPEG compression. Other cameras let you choose different compression levels, such as "Standard" or "Fine." Choosing the "fine" setting results in slightly larger image files, as the camera's processor isn't squeezing your image file into a smaller "standard" setting.

If you visit Flickr and use their Camera Tracker, you can track down a specific camera and view the output quality. (Check out full-size versions, not the default snapshot size). Then see if the image quality meets your expectations -- and visit the manufacturer's website to see if the camera's specs list several JPEG compression levels.

Don't confuse this with image size. Most cameras permit you to select a smaller megapixel size; say, a 7-MP setting instead of the camera's maximum 10- or 12-MP setting. Choosing a slightly smaller megapixel setting will save a little space on your memory card, and if you never print photos larger than 8 x 10 inches, you can easily reduce the file size to a 6-, 7- , or 8-MP setting.



(The photo above was taken with an 8-MP camera, but I've cut the file size down to what you might get with a 1.5-MP camera, if you could find one. Click the image for a larger view. The image looks OK on a computer screen, but the original file -- 1.32 megabytes -- was used to 8 x 10-inches in prints.)

But since I never know whether I'm going to want an enlargement, I'll use the camera's largest file size (usually painted on the camera itself someplace). I can always reduce the file size in a photo editing program later on.

For what it's worth: 8-MP is usually all anyone ever needs.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Sunday tips: bargain digital cameras and printing online


In the bargain department: refurbished digital cameras. It's no secret that most digital cameras are built in Asia. Check the label on the bottom of any camera. And, like any other consumer electronics device, they're bound to have an occasional problem. In the U.S., some brands have such cameras refurbished in this country, often by employees who are a little better compensated than the people overseas who assembled the camera.

So, refurbs are a good deal, as long as you get a decent warranty. Example: Geeks.com is offering one of my current favorite cameras, the Kodak M1033, for $119.95, and Kodak offers a one-year warranty (same as on a new camera).

In the printing department: online photo printing services sometimes have "default" settings that can enhance your photos before printing. This won't turn a fuzzy print into an award-winner, but it tends to punch up the colors in digital photos. If you do a great deal of Photoshop or Picasa manipulation to your photos before uploading, maybe you don't need that enhancement. Jay has an excellent suggestion about this on his blog here.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Design vs. Function - Rangefinders Revisited


Over in Germany, all the camera companies are trotting out their latest concepts -- and a few actual cameras-- at the Photokina trade fair. Olympus served up this retro-looking concept camera, intended to evoke the 35mm, leather-clad rangefinders of the 1970s.

I am an enormous fan of those classic rangefinders. They had fast lenses, mirror-less shutters system that made for quiet photography, and they took great photos. Among the best: the Olympus XA, a very compact rangefinder that delivered superb user control and great photos in a camera slightly larger than a pack of cigarettes.

With the arrival of electronic autofocus technology, rangefinders quickly disappeared. C'est domage. Too bad.

Today's Olympus point-and-shoots, I've found, leave a bit to be desired. They're neither leading edge nor especially user-friendly. I've owned one or two, and found them a little on the sluggish side. Olympus seems to be gearing itself to be the Mazda Motors of the camera world: making cute, almost boutique-calibre digital cameras that look terrific, but don't always deliver the imaging experience you'd assume went with the slick package.

I hope these "Micro Four-Thirds" cameras prove me wrong. But I also hope that they deliver more than a leather-and-brushed aluminum feel, especially in terms of image quality.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

For about $170, which will you carry?


Here are two reviews of two current digital cameras that are both going for around $170:

  • TrustedReviews.com gave a lukewarm review of the Kodak Z8612 IS camera. This is a 12X "superzoom" camera that won't fit in your pocket, but will get you pretty decent photos from over 100 feet away.
  • CNET.com had kinder remarks about the Kodak M1033 camera, a personal favorite of mine. This is a very compact pocket model with a typical 35-105mm lens, and a bigger-than-usual 3-inch LCD screen. CNET liked its image quality; in addition, I like how it's insanely light and compact.

So how do you choose? If you shoot lots of photos from the bleachers at a football game, the Z8612 is a pretty decent value.

But I've always believed that you'll get the best photos from the camera you keep with you. A pocket camera fits better in my sport jacket than a bulky superzoom. Thus, I pack the M1033 for casual shooting, and use a DSLR when photography is the main reason I'm headed out.

The M1033 replaced a Kodak V550 pocket camera that I loved for its high-visibility 2.5-inch screen. I bought that camera for $44 from eBay, and aside from the limitation of a 5-MP sensor, it's still a pretty good performer.

Full Disclosure: I work for Kodak. But I use cameras from Panasonic, Canon, Nikon, Fujifilm, Casio, Olympus, and Kodak.

In other words, I'm a gadgeteer.

Monday, September 15, 2008

It's the lens, stupid


You want a fast lens. One that can capture as much light, wide-open, as possible.

My first digital camera was a Kodak DC4800 (at left) , which had a 28mm wide-angle lens. Its widest aperture was f2.8. That was about the standard on digital cameras in 2000, when this camera was introduced.

Photo enthusiasts from the film era wanted "fast" lenses that captured as much light as possible. The standard 50mm lens on an SLR clocked in at f1.8 -- a full stop faster than the DC4800's. But few camera makers brought fast lenses to compact digital cameras, except with the (long-discontinued) Olympus C-5050 and Canon G2.

Those fast lenses today are almost a bygone thing. The last fast lens on a compact camera was the Canon G6, which retained a very good f2.0 lens.

Most digital SLRs today come with kit lenses that start at a pokey f3.5. The Kodak M1033 in my pocket shuffles in at f3.1. The top-line Z1015IS mimicks the DSLRs with a wide-open f3.5.

It appears camera makers are hoping their cameras' light-sensitive sensors will compensate for these slower lenses. But remember, most compact digital cameras have pixel-packed sensors no larger than a thumbnail. It's hard to imagine any mass-market sensor picking up the slack for a slower lens.

My advice: shop around. Look at the specs. If you find a camera with an f2.8 lens that meets most of your needs, I'd bet you'll get a better yield of low-light images -- with less digital noise -- than a similar camera with a slower lens.

And it's all about the lens.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Now that you've purchased a digital camera...

Here are a few tips to get the most out of your digital camera, no matter what brand you purchased or how experienced you are:
  • First, attach and use the wrist strap (or neck strap) that came with your camera. Even if your camera has a rugged metal body, it's really just a tiny computer and sensor. Dropped from eye-level, it can become an expensive paperweight. That wrist strap can prevent you from turning your camera into a doorstop.
  • Stabilize your camera. Most people hold their camera like a pair of binoculars, but out at arm's length. This invites camera shake. Instead, do this: make your left hand into the shape of a pistol (thumb up, index finger out). Point your hand to the right. Place the camera firmly in the corner where thumb and index finger meet. This helps support the camera better, and leaves your right hand free to press the zoom and shutter button.
  • Zoom with your feet. Almost every digital camera has a built-in zoom. But the longer your lens, the further light needs to travel to the camera's image sensor. If you take a few steps closer to your subject, light needn't travel as far. The camera will choose a higher shutter speed, and you'll get fewer blurry photos.

More later.