Monday, September 20, 2010

Point-and-Shoot vs. SLR Cameras: What the Author Missed!

Point-and-Shoot vs. SLR Cameras: What Are the Real Differences?

Problem with this article: it's written for idiots.

The biggest difference between point-and-shoot and digital SLR cameras?

DSLRs have larger sensors that capture more light. They'll capture great photos in dimmer light, too. DSLRs also have more processing "horsepower," while p/s cameras ask one chip -- the same one that captures the image -- to do all the computer-type data management and processing. That's why small cameras have shutter lag.

All the other differences are aesthetic. If you don't want to carry a four-pound camera, choose a smaller one. Unless you enlarge your photos to fit on the side of a building, you'll probably be pleased with the results from the camera you have with you, rather than the bigger camera you left at home.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Get with the program (and off "Auto")

For a few hours, Woot.com offered the Samsung HZ30W camera today for $129.99. It sold out fairly quickly.

But I read with interest the comments left by Wooters trying to decide whether to buy the camera. About half pointed to online comments from previous buyers, many of whom complained that the camera's images were too noisy.

I'd guess those users probably did the following:
  • They charged the battery and added a memory card.
  • They turned the camera on.
  • They shot their photos on Auto, and got poor results.
"Auto" is the default mode on many cameras. The camera makes all the decisions: shutter speed, aperture, flash, and ISO (or sensitivity to light). More often than not, cameras left in Auto mode select a higher ISO (200 or 400) so the flash reaches further.

The higher the ISO, the more likely their will be digital noise in your photos.

The way around this? Learn how to use the camera's "Program" mode. It's similar to Auto, but it should allow you to lock the ISO at a lower ISO 100 or 200, where you'll have less incidence of noise. You may need to take a step or two closer to your subject so you get more detail, but the exercise won't kill you.

By the way, I have the Samsung HZ35W -- nearly identical to the HZ30W, but with a better viewing screen. The daylight images are really quite nice. There's some noise in the shadow areas, but nothing objectionable. I need to play with it some more.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Layers of sunset: how I made this photo


This photo had little to do with the model of camera I used, or the lens, or anything very technical.

It had everything to do with the calendar and the weather forecast.

November, 2009 saw a small hurricane called Ida wander across the Gulf of Mexico. Hurricanes leave a trail of clouds. A quick consultation of a good calendar told me when the sunset would take place. A few minutes with the Weather Channel told me where the worst of the storm had gone.

All I needed was a camera and a wristwatch. And a boardwalk to shoot from.

The camera was a Canon Powershot A630, one of the great underrated Canons that uses AA batteries and lets you manually adjust shutter speed, aperture, and other settings. The current A-series Canons don't offer this level of control. (The camera itself is no longer made, but used models may be found at online auction, or maybe www.KEH.com.)

Exposure details: handheld, 1/1000-second exposure at f4.0, with a -0.67 underexposure to deepen the clouds a bit.

Tip: lens flare can be a problem when shooting into the sun, so make plenty of exposures. You may have to edit out lens flares in an editing program.

Monday, August 16, 2010

It's the sensor, not the megapixels

Last week brought thrills galore in my camera collection. One example: I found a name-brand 12-MP digital camera online, with manufacturer's warranty, for $39.99. Even with $5 shipping, it's still a great deal -- especially since I plan to give the camera as a gift later on.

At the other end of the spectrum, I visited Wally World for a few supplies, and wandered past the camera bar, where a salesperson was telling someone why he should by a 12-MP camera instead of a 10-MP camera: "You can make larger 8 x 10 prints with the 12-megapixel camera."

I wanted to interrupt the conversation with:

"When was the last time you printed an 8 x 10 print?"

For many of us, photographic prints are an afterthought. I print only a few photos a year, usually as gifts or to frame and display. When I get a frame-able photo, I have Adorama Pix or KodakGallery do the printing. But most people lean toward 4 x 6-inch prints, if they print at all.

(The discontinued camera above is a 5-MP camera with a 1/1.7 sensor. It delivers more detailed photos than the 12-MP camera below, which has a smaller sensor.)

The only reason to choose the 12-MP camera was IF that model's image sensor was physically larger than that of the 10MP camera. (It wasn't.) A larger sensor generally will give better image quality, because the pixels aren't as tightly packed. If it helps, think of how you got better photos from your 35mm negatives than you got from your old 110 pocket film negs.)

If the sensors are the same size, all the consumer will get are larger image files, which mainly clutter your hard drive.

Camera manufacturers: please do your consumers a favor. Tell us the sensor size on the box, before you get snarled up in megapixels. Larger sensors = more detailed photos, and even better photos in poor lighting conditions.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Sounding off on video


Pocket video camera in your future? They've become as popular as most "standard" digital cameras, mostly because of their form-factor.

Most pocket video cameras often do less than a digital still camera that shoots HD video. The video cameras usually don't have a zooming lens; almost all digital point-and-shoots have an optical zoom lens. Point-and-shoots offer scene modes for nighttime, portraits, etc., while videocams have only a couple of options: stills or different size videos. And I haven't seen a pocket video camera with a flash or fill-in light, which would help improve still photography.

But for all the video choices, I don't understand why so few offer a key feature: dual microphones. Video without audio isn't terrible, but video with poor audio is almost intolerable. Canon and Kodak make cameras with two microphones; the Kodak V1253 pictured above does a pretty decent job, captures HD video, and has a fairly nice feature set in a svelt form factor, including a 3-inch LCD, Schneider lens, and about two-dozen modes for still photos.

One problem: the V1253 is no longer in production. Need to hunt for it in online auctions, or look at somewhat bulkier Canons with twin mikes.

The big-name camera makes, Nikon and Canon, now offer digital SLRs that capture HD video, too. The results are gorgeous, and some allow you to add an external mike, like Kodak's Zi8 pocket video camera. But they are not inexpensive.

For my money, a point-and-shoot that grabs video is far more useful than a camera that emphasizes video first.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

What whine goes with your camera?

Every time I read of someone's disappointments with their new digital camera, the whines fall into three categories:
  • The batteries don't last long at all.
  • The camera manual is inadequate.
  • I can't see the LCD in bright sunlight.
Quick answers:

Batteries: alkaline batteries weren't ever intended to run a high-drain device such as a mini-computer with an always-on LCD (which is what a camera is). Buy some name-brand rechargeables. I use Duracells, and I've heard good things about Sanyo Eneloop AAs. To avoid frustrating yourself, buy a charger that doesn't require 8 hours to charge your batteries. As for the lithium-ion batteries that come with most cameras: they need to be charged first, then completely drained, then recharged before you get optimal performance.

Manuals: Funny, hardly anyone read these things when they came with film cameras. Learn how to download the full PDF version from the CD that came with your camera, or the manufacturer's website. Print out ONLY the pages with essential information, then photograph them in "Text" or "Document" mode so they're in your camera's SD or fixed memory. Problem solved.

LCDs in bright sun are always hard to see. Buy a pop-up shade that's the same width as the LCD on your camera. Delkin makes pretty good shades, and the shade part can be unclipped from the camera when you don't need it. (Note: you can't use Delkin shades on a camera with a touch screen LCD. I've tried.)

Okay? Any other whines, please leave a comment below. Thanks.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Mavericks don't sell cameras. Quality does.


Say you're a big company in the camera biz. Your brand's grown a little dusty, and competition heats up. If you're like a few companies, you realize where you've gone off-track. You switch from building awkward, robot-looking cameras, and try to inject a little color, ruggedness and quality into your products.

Here I'm thinking of Panasonic, which probably manufactures many digital cameras for other brands, but chose to beef up its own cameras, too. They made water-proof cameras that actually take nice photos. They use Leica lenses in almost every camera. And they often lead the way in innovation, which results in image quality -- which is all that really matters in a camera.

What Panasonic didn't do:
  • They didn't sink skillions in a U.S.-only sponsorship for rich white men.
  • They didn't decide to cheapen every camera model in their line with chrome paint and plastic bodies that look like metal, but aren't.
  • They didn't let a maverick marketing VP build his brand at the expense of the company's brand.
  • They didn't blow off making a waterproof digital camera.
  • They didn't introduce a camera model with great features, then delete the hot shoe and call the succeeding model an improvement.
  • They didn't squander resources talking about "design innovations" that didn't translate into sales.
I can't tell anyone how to run a business. But I can look at whose cameras are getting great reviews and fetching high prices -- and whose aren't.

But, by George, I wish I could.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Target Photo CD -- is it just capacity?

Over in Target-Land, I asked the photo department "team member" the difference between a Target Photo CD and a Kodak Picture CD. She replied: "The Kodak CD holds more pictures."

Say what?


Unless the Kodak CD is actually a DVD, it holds the same 800 MB as every other CD on the planet. Less, perhaps, because Kodak's CD's usually contain viewer software and a file to download and install Kodak's EasyShare photo-editing software.

Sure, I could be mistaken. But if there's no premium aspect to the Kodak CD, why is there a $1.50 price premium over the Target CD?

Target, are you listening?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

POS, or at the bar

No, not what you're thinking. Here, "POS" abbreviates "point of sale." As in, where you go to buy cameras.

I hate the camera bar. Or, as I've described it elsewhere, the "camera anchorage." That semi-circular tier of cameras on display, where every camera is attached to a weighty metal anchor which, in turn, is cabled to the display.

This is the worst way to experience a camera. You can't tell how a camera feels in your hands if it's bolted to an anchor. You can't tell if it's lightweight or too heavy. And you probably can't tell whether its tripod socket is in a centered position or off to one side.

I want that experience.

More to the point: I want to power up the camera and see if it works as I expect. That means the power connector from the camera bar has to operate. Which it seldom does.

Target, Walmart, BJ's and Best Buy all have a variant of the camera anchorage, and every one I've experienced has electrical issues. Kmart still has cameras in a display case, which requires a sales clerk to extract one. You have a less-than-even chance of finding a sales clerk anywhere in a Kmart.

Can you think of a better reason to consider buying online? If you can't experience the camera without the metal anchor, why bother with noisy ol' Best Barn?

Note to retailers: remember, most purchase decisions take place at the Point of Sale. With the camera bar, you're chasing away customers by spoiling their first interaction with the product they intend to buy. You can set up satellite systems to beam daily specials onto plasma screens in the store, right?

Finding an alternative to the camera bar shouldn't be this difficult.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Reviewing the reviewers

Here's a quick guide to getting information about any camera you're considering:
  • If you understand f-stops, apertures, and aspect ratios, websites such as dpreview.com, CNET.com and dcresource.com are good online resources. Between the writers' in-depth reviews and the opinions you'll find in the online forums, you'll trip over more details than you need. Do note that dpreview.com has lately acquired a certain ambivalence in its professional reviews, and rarely comes out to say it dislikes a camera. Maybe this has something to do with most digital cameras sharing the same lenses and sensors, to some degree.

  • I also recommend Steve's Digicams and imaging-resource.com, although both tend to get wrapped up in techno-speak. If I want to watch Star Trek, I'll watch Star Trek.

  • If all those tech terms frustrate you, head on over to amazon.com. Almost every camera has user reviews to read. These are real-world people, for the mostpart, who don't dwell on pixel depth or the deep details of lens coatings. However, take what you read with a grain of salt, as many of these writers are less experienced and objective about their cameras (as indicated by reviews that say, "this is my first digital camera").

  • You can occasionally find a good camera review on YouTube, but I generally don't trust them. Many reviews are simply demos of camera features put up by online retailers, and TigerDirect.com isn't going to tell you it's selling a lame product. Worse are the "unboxing" videos, where someone's recorded how he or she removed the camera and accessories from the box in which they arrived. Who cares, really?

  • If you go to a physical store, you can ask the sales clerk. Generally, the larger the store, the less insightful the information you'll get. Independent or chain camera specialty stores are fewer in number, but that's where you'll find the most expertise. The sales people in Walmart and Kmart sometimes have a little pocket script to help them wade through the techno-speak, but it's very easy to stump them.
I don't recommend Consumer Reports' camera reviews, much the same way I eschew their car reviews. These evaluators are lab-coat experts, and likely don't have much opportunity to use these products for extended periods in real-world situations.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

How to buy this camera


I'm going to tell you how to choose a digital camera -- what to look for, and what to ignore. Please pay attention.

Many people ask me which camera they should buy. It's easy to suggest one sold by my employer, but different people have different photographic needs. And an $80, 3x zoom camera with a plastic lens might not make you happy if you want to shoot wildlife that's 100 feet away.

This isn't to say my employer makes inadequate cameras; it's merely that one size doesn't fit all. I'm currently using a Kodak Z950, which delivers fine performance, feels great in my hands, and costs around $150.

First, the items you can ignore:

IGNORE "megapixels". Really. If it has more than 8 megapixels, it'll give you the photos you want. If you need a 14-megapixel camera, you'd better be shooting images to display on billboards, because you'll seldom need a 14-MP file.

IGNORE "fits in a pocket." Ninety percent of today's cameras fit in a pocket or purse. Along with the 115 other items in a purse. Cameras sink to the bottom, next to the cell phone. Besides, you're going to buy a soft case to protect the LCD on the camera, and then "fits in a pocket" becomes irrelevant.

IGNORE any camera you can't try out in a store. Seriously. You need to hold it in your hands and see if the buttons fit where your fingers rest on the camera. The Target store had every chance to sell me a camera a few weeks ago, but couldn't figure out how to get power from the so-called "camera bar" (more like a "camera anchorage") to the camera I wanted to play with. No test drive, no sale.

The most important aspects to consider are: the lens, the sensor, the LCD screen, and what you like to photograph most.

  • Start with what you like to photograph most. If you're shooting mainly photos of kids and their sporting events, you'll need a camera with a fairly long zoom length (8x to 12x zoom), or a willingness to act like a paparazzi and barge your way to the edge of the foul line. (This is a personality decision. I'm willing to elbow my way to the front; you may not be so determined.) Remember that a flash only reaches 10 feet/3.3 meters at most.

  • If your preference is indoor photos of family and friends at parties and restaurants, you want a camera with a wide-angle lens and a fairly strong flash. Many manufacturers are now selling their basic cameras (Canon Powershot SD1400, Nikon S6000, Kodak M575) with a wide-angle lens that telescopes to 4, 5 or 8x zoom). Find out how "fast" the lens is -- that's the "f" number of the lens at its widest. Canons generally start at f2.8; others start at a slower f3.0 or f3.3. The lower this number, the more light reaches the sensor.

  • The sensor (which captures the image) is a tiny surface, much smaller than a single 35mm film negative. The larger the sensor, the more detail and low-light performance you'll obtain. Most compact digital cameras have a sensor that's slightly smaller than the fingernail of your pinkie. (All the 12x "super-zoom" cameras have this small sensor.

  • A few makers sell cameras with a 1/1.6 sensor -- which is somewhat larger than the "pinkie nail" sensor. If you want a camera with a larger sensor (Canon S90), expect to pay more. Larger than that, you're looking for a digital SLR camera, which is heavier. You're less likely to carry a DSLR everywhere.

  • Camera makers did away with useful optical viewfinders on cameras a few years ago. This wouldn't be an issue, except it changed the way we hold our cameras; we now hold them away from our faces and use the LCD screen. Most LCDs are inexpensive, low-resolution screens that wash out in moderately bright sunlight. Panasonic, Nikon, Canon, and Samsung sell a few cameras with higher resolution, high-contrast screens that are easier to view in bright daylight. These are worth the extra cost.
You can spend hours reading camera reviews and opinions online. Many of them describe "noise," or the electronic "snow" that sometimes appears in shadowed areas of photos. If you look at your photos exclusively on computer monitors at 100% size, you'll find this noise. If you mainly make 4x6- or 8x10-inch prints, it won't be a significant issue.

Where do you go for all this information? I'll address this in my next post.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Yeah, they're dead


Spent some time this weekend sorting out my collection of 35mm film cameras. Way too many film cameras.

And now there are a couple in the trash can.

I'm a fan of 1970's era rangefinders, cameras that allowed you to hold the camera to your eye, look through a viewfinder, and focus on your subject. Some even allowed you to control the aperture or shutter speed.

Olympus, Minolta and Canon made the best of these. Konica made some wonderful cameras, but later jobbed out the manufacturing to a company called Cosina. Then Chinon got involved. Ultimately, the move to auto-focus film cameras doomed the rangefinders.

Not to mention the corroded electronics. Most of these cameras used mercury batteries, which seem to cause some degradation in circuit contacts.

The camera above is a Konica C35EF camera. Happens to be the very first thing Dick Kidder stuck in my hands when I started my first newspaper job. So I'm sorta fond of them.

This afternoon, I pitched two Konica C35EF cameras with this problem. Plunk in a fresh battery, and nothing. Rotted electrical contacts. They simply aren't worth repairing.

However, this leaves me with a dozen or so other rangefinders, including a Konica Auto S3 and a Vivitar 35ES -- basically identical cameras, with with less plastic than the camera above. Some just tend to hold up better than others.

Monday, April 5, 2010

How to sell cameras on Craigslist

Here's a short but handy checklist to help you sell cameras on Craigslist:

  • Don't simply say "Nikon digital camera." Give a model number: Coolpix 5400, L20, whatever it says on the camera body.
  • Get the brand right. Shoppers often search by brand name. There's no "Cybersnap" or "Olympis" brand in digital cameras, but there are a Cybershot and an Olympus. Again, it's probably spelled correctly on the camera.
  • Write a better headline than "Digital Camera 12 Megapixels." The difference between a camera made by Kodak or Polaroid is striking. Again, brand matters.
  • Don't fill your ad with meaningless specs borrowed from a web page. Instead, be sure to tell us whether all the camera's functions work, if the LCD screen is cracked, and whether the essential accessories (battery, charger, connector cord, manual, etc.) are included.
  • Show a photo of the camera. Don't blow this off! If you're selling your only camera, set the camera for macro mode, flash-off, and place it in front of a mirror. Photos help sell items online (which may be the reason you bought the camera in the first place.)
  • Don't waste anyone's time by trying to sell a broken digital camera. Unless you're skilled and certified, camera repair isn't worth it, and parts are sometimes hard to find.
  • Post your ad in the right category: photo/video, electronics, even computers are good categories. But I won't find it in the "General" for sale category.

I have cash, now and then, so I'm watching. Good luck.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Missing two photographers

When I edited Kodak's now-defunct online magazine, I wanted to do an occasional story on great photographers of the Life magazine era who worked mainly in black and white. The two I focused on were Loomis Dean and Fred McDarrah.

Mr. Dean captured the famous photo of the Andrea Doria cruise ship as it sank. Much of his career was spent with Life and, before that, the Ringling Bros. & Barnum & Bailey Circus, as a PR photographer. He had his own small elephant for publicity photo purposes. I interviewed him in the early 2000s, at his home in Venice, Florida, using then state-of-the-art digital audio tape. The tape survives. But we couldn't come to terms over use of his images, for which he owned the rights. So the story never appeared online. Loomis died in 2005.

You can see some of Loomis' photos on the www.life.com website, or go here.

Fred W. McDarrah captured the Beat poet movement and Greenwich Village life in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Some of the earliest gay pride parade images in NYC came from Fred's camera. Later, he wrote a Photography Encyclopedia of Brooklyn Yellow Pages dimensions. Fred's imagery is online here. You can buy the encyclopedia used for a few bucks here. Fred died in 2007, a day after his 81st birthday.

I ran across Fred later in life, in an online feature story published by the East Hampton Star, on Long Island. They've since taken down the web page where you could view the story.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Slice a little off the top

KODAK SLICE Touchscreen Camera

I really wanted to try this one out. Sort of an iPod Touch for photography. Great concept.

Then the specs were published. The lens -- the most important part of the camera, period -- is a 5X zoom. Starts at 35mm, racks out the 175mm. Not bad.

Then I glanced at the lens specs. At the widest angle, 35mm, the lens starts at f4.8. (Translation: S-L-O-W.) On some cameras, f4.8 is the spec for the lens at its farthest zoom, not its nearest. The last camera I had with a lens that slow was a 35mm point-and-shoot Nikon.

Compare this with my 3-year-old Canon G6, which has a similar lens length. The lens starts at f2.0. It lets in three times as much light as the Slice's lens.

PR people tend to tut-tut people like me for dwelling needlessly on "speeds and feeds." But, in reality, a camera with an f2.0 or f2.8 lens needs less light than a lens that's hamstrung at f4.8 at the start. That means you either need to be closer to your subject, use flash all the time, or only take photos in bright daylight. Which few of us actually do. Unless we live in Tucson or Miami.

I really hope the Slice finds its audience, and is a huge hit. But my expectations were for a camera that can actually capture photos in mixed lighting conditions. On paper, this camera (with the same focal-length zoom and a faster lens) is more likely to get you the photo you want -- at roughly half the price.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Marketing Digital Cameras to Southpaws

Why aren't there any digital cameras with shutter buttons on the top left of the camera?

SLRs, pocket cameras, ... pretty much every camera you can buy today requires actuating the shutter with your right index finger.

Less than half the world is left-handed. But among that group are artists, photographers, actors, and directors. All of whom have some influence on the general public.

Couldn't a digital camera maker connect with an under-served market segment simply by introducing a camera with power- and shutter buttons on the left side of the camera?

Just asking.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Photosmart Cameras? Why not buy a Newton, too?

Best Cameras Deals, Coupon Codes Discount, Rebates at Dell Best Buy, Newegg and More!

I cannot stress enough that H/P walked away from digital cameras over a year ago. They bailed. Couldn't compete. Their products were less than reliable, and probably have no customer support.

I can't tell you which cameras to buy. But I can provide great rationale for which you should avoid.