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.