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.