Monday, December 17, 2007

Tips for buying, using digital cameras

Lots of us are getting digital cameras for the holidays. My gift to myself was a Canon S5 IS. Unlike the other cameras I've owned, this one has a 12x optical zoom and a body that looks almost like one of those professional SLR (single lens reflex) models, only smaller. At $330 on, it's a lot of camera for the price. But you don't have to spend that much to get an excellent digital camera.

Even if you spend less than $100 on a digital point-and-shoot camera, you'll wind up with all the equipment you need to take excellent photographs. Kodak's C513, which sells for only $79 at comes with a 3x optical zoom, a 5 megapixel sensor and a 1 gigabyte storage card. My older Kodak camera takes great pictures.

One thing you don't get with many small cameras is an optical view finder. For those too young to remember, all film cameras had a little hole near the top that you looked through. Today, most people take pictures by looking at the LCD screen at the back of the camera. One advantage to an optical view finder is that the image won't wash out in bright sunlight. Another is that when you're holding the camera up to your head, you're helping to stabilize it. Mainly for us old folks, it's a force of habit. I'm just used to holding the camera up to my eye.

Some small cameras still have view finders, such as Canon's PowerShot SD850 IS which sells for about $250.

Another thing I prefer is cameras that take AA batteries. They're not as efficient as some of the proprietary rechargeable batteries, but they are cheaper and easier to come by. Worst case, you can buy disposable AAs. But you and the environment are much better off with rechargeable AAs, including a relatively new generation of rechargable batteries, such as the Sanyo eneloop that come ready to use and have up to a year of shelf life. Some small cameras from Kodak, Nikon and others use AAs, though most small digital cameras use proprietary batteries. To my delight, that larger Canon camera I bought last week uses four AAs and is rated for 450 shots on a single charge, depending on use of flash and the LCD display.

When it comes to a zoom lens, pay attention to the optical zoom but ignore digital zoom specifications. Optical zoom involves the movement of the lens to give you a good close up. Digital zoom uses software to simulate a zoom, resulting in a loss of quality. Besides, all digital editing programs give you the ability to blow-up images on a PC or Mac, which is all that a camera's digital zoom accomplishes.

How you use a camera is probably more important than what camera you buy. I'm no expert but I've been taking lessons from my friend George Margolin, an award winning photographer and former technical editor of Popular Photography. Margolin agrees that "virtually any of today's digital cameras will take very good pictures," and he recommends using the camera's "auto" feature for most picture taking.

Still, there are times when you might want to override the automatic settings, such as when taking pictures in low light or photographing a moving object. For that, Margolin suggests using the scene function (often abbreviated "SCN") available in many cameras. That function typically provides various modes, such as bright light, sports, beach, indoor and snow. Most cameras also have a "macro" setting that you can use to take close ups of small objects such as jewelry or flowers.

Most cameras also have manual settings that can get you into trouble if you're not careful but free you up to take some great pictures if you learn to use them. You often can adjust the aperture or F-Stop (size of the lens opening) and shutter speed and set the "ISO," which is the equivalent of using a different speed film.

A lower number such as 2.8 would give you more light than a higher number but also shorter depths of field. A shorter depth of field means that more of the background will be out of focus, which can be good or bad depending on your composition. Decreasing the shutter speed can help compensate for low-light conditions but also increase blur if there is any movement or shaking.

Margolin says that the flash can sometimes be useful even in bright sunlight when there is light behind your subject or if you're photographing someone with dark skin. He also says to pay attention to the way you compose a picture. Things in the background you might not notice such as trash on the ground affect the quality of the picture.

If you use a zoom lens, be aware that you can get increased blur if you or the subject is moving. A 3x zoom triples the impact of any motion compared with no zoom. If you have a very large zoom, such as the 12x in my new camera, be sure the camera has image stabilization to compensate for movement.

Just as a food processor can't turn a bad cook into a great chef, a great digital camera won't transform the likes of me into an Ansel Adams. But, unlike a film camera, a digital model lets you practice for free to make the most of whatever camera you have.

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