Saturday, January 31, 2009

Loose screws


One of my favorite little digital cameras is the Kodak V603. It's nothing extraordinary -- 6 megapixels, 30 fps video, and a pretty standard 36-108 Schneider zoom lens. But it was the right size at the right price, and captured great photos.

My one mistake: giving it to my daughter, who dumped the camera into her bag along with her iPod, cell phone, and Lord-knows-what-else. All that jostling around resulted in a problem: loose screws. Cruise around the web, and you find the V603 earned a reputation for losing the screws that hold the metal alloy covers on the camera.

Last time I saw that camera, it was held together by yellow duct tape at the corners. Not pretty.

Most digital cameras have tiny screws that might work their way out. So, get a set of precision screwdrivers (usually $1 at the Dollar Store). Tighten up any loose screws. Then, place a tiny dab of clear nail polish on any screws that felt a little looser than others. (Be sure to keep the nail polish away from buttons and the lens mechanism; if you're worried, mask the buttons and other sections with easy-to-remove tape before handling the nail polish.)

And you can skip the yellow duct tape.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Separated at birth

Camera companies spend loads o' cash designing cameras. They do studies. They make clay models, churn out non-working prototypes, and show 'em to would-be owners to see what'll work.

Everyone wants to have that breakthrough design.

So, I'm moseying around the camera universe one afternoon, and I spot:
























And I've got to ask: was there a saloon in some European city where the camera designers get looped and take home the wrong USB drive?

Size matters -- not megapixels

In my film camera days, a roll of 35mm film gave you a negative of 36 x 24mm. That area was the "recording surface" for the images I shot.

Digital cameras today are promoted for having 8, 10, or 12 megapixels. That's not the size of the recording surface; it's geek-speak for the number of tiny recording cells on the sensor.

You can squeeze millions of these cells on a sensor. But if the sensor itself is only 7.2 x 5.3 mm -- typically the size found in a pocket digital camera -- you have less overall area in which to capture an image. Add megapixels, and you're just squeezing more tiny cells on a small sensor, which leads to image degradation in the form of "noise."

So, when you're looking at different cameras, megapixels are irrelevant. It's the size of the sensor that really determines image quality. There's a semi-technical explanation of this at this web site, and a simpler (and somewhat exuberant) discussion on Ken Rockwell's website.

Most times, you don't find sensor sizes printed on the camera package. You find megapixels. But here's what I've found:

  • A 1/1.8 sensor generally captures more-detailed, less-noisy photos than cameras equipped with a 1/2.5 sensor.
  • Cameras with 1/1.8 sensors include the Canon A630, the Kodak C875, and Panasonic FX-150. They cost a little more than cameras with smaller sensors.
  • Cameras with (smaller) 1/2.5 sensors include the Canon A590IS, Olympus FE-350, Casio EX-V8 (a personal favorite), and most ultra-compact pocket models from Canon, Kodak, and Nikon.
Deal alert: Canon's factory-refurbushed A630 (a camera I own and enjoy) can be purchased from their web site for $149. That's much less than I paid for it new.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The last instant camera


Fujifilm has come out with a new instant film camera. In light of Polaroid's discontinuing instant film to concentrate on self-destructing consumer electronics, Fujifilm's Instax camera may end up as the only game in town. Read a review here.

I'm wondering what designer thought up that outboard viewfinder on the same side of the camera as the control buttons. Or the idea of prints popping out the top of the camera.

Then again, a viewfinder on a camera is almost a rarity, these days. So even a weird, cyclops-like one is better than nothing, right?


But I'd really prefer to see Fujifilm pick up the slack, and sell instant film that fits the millions of current and recent Polaroid instant cameras that will become doorstops when Polaroid's film inventory is exhausted.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Bursting with creativity

One of the least-discussed functions in point-and-shoot digital cameras is the "burst" mode. It lets you shoot a sequence of shots, usually 3 to 6 images, without removing your finger from the shutter button.

Why is this useful? Get yourself a DVD of the Beatles' film, "A Hard Day's Night." You'll see a scene where a photographer shoots a rapid sequence of portraits of George Harrison. Most of the faces he makes are goofy. A few are keepers. If you have kids, you're better off shooting a quick series of photos of them, and review them later to choose the best shots.

Unlike motor-driven film cameras, digital cameras use a burst mode to capture a sequence of images. Some cameras keep shooting images for as long as you hold the shutter button, but only save the last few frames. Or the first few frames. My old Kodak DX7630 offered the option of one or the other.

Today, all but the least-expensive digital cameras offer a burst mode.

If this sort of technique interests you, here are a couple of pointers:
  • Check the specs to see how many images a camera will capture per second in still mode. (Video can grab about 30 frames per second, but not usually at the same high image quality as still shots). A Canon SD700is, for example, can grab about 2 frames per second. Its replacement, the Sd850is, only nabs 1.4 shots per second -- possibly because it's capturing larger (8MP) image files.

  • Do a little research to see how quickly the camera saves image files to a memory card. Low-cost cameras sometimes have a very slow "write speed," leaving you waiting 10-, 20-, or even 30 seconds while your photos transfer from the camera's buffer to the card.

  • Find a camera with good low-light performance. Burst modes almost always mean you'll be shooting without flash. A built-in flash just cannot recharge quickly enough to fire as quickly as your shutter. Fujifilm's f31fd, f40fd, and f50fd earned praise from online reviewers for their low-light performance.

  • Edit on a computer screen, not on the camera. Review your burst-mode shots on a large monitor. Even the best camera LCDs won't show as much detail as a 17-inch monitor. Remember, you can always discard the unwanted shots after you've found the keepers.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Review beat: Maybe "DP" stands for "don't post"

One of the digital camera review web sites has all but given up individual reviews of point-and-shoot digital cameras. They've decided to focus on DSLRs and their accessory lenses. The exception are "roundup" articles, in which they'll do a quickie analysis of 4-5 compact cameras.

Is this well thought-out? P/S cameras may not snag those magazine-cover quality images, but the abundance of intriguing photos over at flickr.com suggests that not everyone wants -- or needs -- a DSLR. A new DSLR costs more than $500; you can buy two, or maybe three high compacts from Canon, Kodak, or Panasonic for that amount of money.

I like my DSLR, but carrying it everywhere is a pain. I just don't do it. Most days, you'll find a pocket-size digital camera in my jacket. Most times, it gets the shot I want.

Memo to DP-XXXXXX.com: go upmarket, and you might lose the readership that got you where you are today -- a subsidiary of Amazon.com.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Time on my side, courtesy of Kodak


This is one of my favorite photographs. It shows an 1871 lighthouse in Sodus Point, NY.

I captured the photo with a $150 Kodak point-and-shoot digital camera, the Kodak C875, an 8-megapixel camera. Eight MP is considered the "entry level" resolution in most of today's cameras, but in 2006, this was the top camera in Kodak's 'entry level' line up.

The secret to this photo is a function in the camera called "long time exposure." The C875 permits you to make exposures up to 8 seconds long. That's plenty of time to capture all the colors in the sky -- including a few that weren't obvious to the naked eye, that night.

The camera took in plenty of light. A tripod, of course, is essential. That's all I did.

And, in case you're curious, the resulting image required no post-production editing. I sent the file off to AdoramaPix, and they sent me back amazing 11 x 14-inch prints.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Have Your Cake and Shoot It?


I don't know. I love this execution. But something about a camera that adds calories...?

Isn't that the 180-degree turn away from what digital's supposed to do?

You decide. Have a look at this URL. From Wired.com's Gadget Lab blog.

Next: point-and-shoot brownies???

Monday, January 5, 2009

Sell your camera or review it -- not both!


Read this Craigslist ad, and you'll discover how to review a camera. But you won't do much to sell it.

Eventually, you figure out that the seller/reviewer has a Nikon D90 digital SLR. A lovely camera. He or she might have the 18-105 VR kit lens to sell, too. Or another lens purchased afterward. It's hard to tell.

But there's no asking price. And I wouldn't begin to guess what's included with the camera.

I would guess that he's suffering a pretty severe case of buyer's remorse. We've all been there, pal.

I don't miss pricey newspaper classified ads. But they had one saving grace: brevity. If you want to sell something, be accurate, and be brief. If you want to be David Pogue -- who writes funny, detailed reviews for the New York Times -- that's fine. But Craigslist isn't the right venue.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Sunday Tip: January is camera buying month

Forget Black Friday; this is a very good time to buy a new or used digital camera. After the holidays, people look to unload their older cameras that have been replaced by newer models.

Also, with the Consumer Electronics Show starting in a few days, announcements of new models from major manufacturers will make what's on store shelves now seem obsolete, and thus ready for close-out.

If you're buying new: 6-, 7- or 8-megapixel cameras will meet 90% of most picture-taking needs. Really. If you need a 21-MP camera, check your driver's license: you may be the lost grandson of Ansel Adams, suffering from amnesia.

In the stores, consider display models, and ask if they'll either extend the warranty or take a few dollars off for buying a floor model. The worst they can say is, "I'll ask the manager."

The Kodak Z1012 IS camera shown here is a 10-MP camera that's been out a little over a year. Kodak recently brought out a newer, larger camera with a different lens -- making the Z1012 a potential bargain at retail or online.

Buying used via Craigslist or fee-Bay? first- or second-generation digital SLRs are a great deal on the used market. Nikon D40s and D50s and Olympus E-series cameras are, for the mostpart, very durable and receive less abuse than pro-level DSLRs, because they were targeted toward casual photo-enthusiasts.

I have mixed enthusiasm about used point-and-shoot cameras. I bought a used Kodak C330 from a fellow online, and gave it to my father-in-law as something to keep in his glove compartment. He uses that camera more than the larger, 12x zoom digital camera he purchased just two months earlier, and he's happy with the smaller camera.

On Craigslist, however, you'll see too many used digital cameras. Many come with a warning that the camera's battery hatch won't stay closed. This means the camera was dropped, and I'm reluctant too buy any electronic device that's held together with duct tape.