|From digital daze to digital days|
|Written by Deborah ShadovitzHits : 910|
|Thursday, 31 December 1998 19:00|
Digital cameras are exciting, and with prices coming down, more people are looking at them seriously. I'm one of those people, and in case you are too, I thought I'd share some of what I've learned from trying a few and reading some comparisons.
First, some background: Back in college, when I first decided to buy a professional camera, I took that decision very seriously. My research included reading Consumer Reports and photography magazines, as well as advice from my local privately owned non-chain camera store where the owner really knew and cared about cameras. I definitely recommend you do the same. My goal here is simply to point out some of the things I've discovered and some things you might want to look for.
Camera body, controls and interface
What I recall most about my search for my first professional camera was the advice of my pal Ralph Merritt, who was studying photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology. While all the advice I received from other sources about lenses and technical details was useful, it was Ralph's words that made the difference and have stayed with me all these years. He told me to choose the camera that felt comfortable in my hands, because in order to take great pictures the camera must become an extension of my body. That, before anything else, is the best advice I can pass on to you. Of course, features matter, and image quality definitely matters; but if the camera isn't comfortable, how often will you use it and how natural will your image composition be?
Hold the camera you are considering. Handle it as if you are going to take a picture. Press the shutter. Does it feel right? (Note that point-and-shoot digitals tend to have slow shutter reactions.) If not, consider another make or model. For example, like many others, I was excited by the Sony Mavica's ability to store images on regular floppy disks. However, it didn't feel right in my hands. My friend Jeff, also a former professional photographer, is perfectly comfortable with it, though, and recently bought a Mavica. Of the cameras I've used so far, I prefer the size and shape of the Olympus 304L.
The interface of a camera's features is just as important as the features themselves. Don't just read a camera's feature list. Try each feature for yourself. Digital cameras tend to have more controls than film cameras, in part because you can view images after you take them. Take the time to look at the manual or have someone show you the controls-and try each one. Take into account whether the icons make sense to you.
If your local computer or camera store is a nice, small shop with people who really know their products and care about their customers, your sales consultant might be able to fill you in and let your try each model. When getting advice, though, don't forget that what feels comfortable and makes sense to one person may not feel right to you. Another way to get your hands on a camera is to ask around among your acquaintances or local Mac user group.
LCD display panels and viewfinders
One feature common to digital cameras is the LCD display panel. This serves several purposes: It acts as a viewfinder, displays commands and lets you view pictures after you take them. After that, you can save, lock or delete them.
The ability to see the image without holding the camera up to the eye is intriguing to those who see a digital camera for the first time. Using the LCD as a viewfinder is kind of fun and handy in some cases, but its use is limited to well-lit situations where there are no shadows on the subject. In dark areas (such as a room where a seminar is going on), the display will show you little if anything, and you'll be left guessing what you are shooting. In brighter settings where the sun is behind your subject, even if your flash has a fill mode to light the subject, you won't be able to see faces; again, you're left guessing. The quality of LCD panels varies, so you may find one that is better than what I've described. My advice is to choose a camera that also provides a standard viewfinder-the kind you hold to your eye and look through.
Just as there was a time when zoom lenses were quite costly in professional cameras and unheard of in point-and-shoot consumer cameras, zoom lenses appear only in the more costly digitals these days. But if you're like me, you prefer a camera with a zoom lens, enabling you to get as close to subjects without being in their faces, or to get a wider shot without falling off a cliff. Consumer-level digital cameras now offer this flexibility. They provide a zoomed-in mode and a macro mode, although you still can't zoom to incremental levels in between. My advice is to look for a camera that offers the maximum zoom range. Digital cameras are evolving quickly, so anything might happen, but you definitely can expect at least a macro mode and one zoom level.
A few features to look for
A continuous or sequence mode could be a handy feature. In this mode the camera captures several images automatically with one press of the shutter. This is similar to a feature used by sports and fashion photographers. Several of the point-and-shoot cameras offer this mode. Also check out how many flash modes a camera has. Can you turn the flash off or set it for fill light only or for red-eye reduction?
I'm having fun with Enroute's QuickStitch, a software that "stitches" together a series of images to form a panorama. Although Enroute's tutorial provides excellent tips on how to take photos for stitching (both horizontally and vertically), it was nice to find that the Olympus D-340L has a mode where guides appear in the LCD panel, guiding you as you shoot horizontally. (Others have this feature by now as well.)
Just as with film cameras, exposure control is another consideration. Other things you might find out are whether the camera can be hooked directly to a television for photo viewing and if there is a printer designed to work directly with the camera.
Instead of film, digital cameras store images on a disk of some sort. There are two similar main storage cards: compact flash cards and SmartMedia cards. Cards come in various sizes (size referring to the number of megabytes stored). Cameras tend to come with a 2 MB or 4 MB card. Extra cards can be purchased individually. The number of images you can store on a card depends on the resolution and quality of the images you are shooting as well as on the size of the card.
Software and image downloading
OK, now here comes the Mac part of the situation. With a film camera, it doesn't matter whether you use a Mac or another platform. Because you'll want to transfer your images into your Mac, however, the camera you select must have the ability to hook up to the Mac, which must have software that will enable you to transfer the pictures. Don't worry: There are plenty of cameras that fit the bill, although you may need to purchase a separate Mac connection kit. Each of the cameras I've seen uses the Mac's serial port to download images. That's the standard connector for the Mac. (At least it was up until the iMac. If you're using an iMac, check for a USB connector.)
If, like other people, you use one serial port for your external modem and the other serial port for your printer or LocalTalk network (which includes LocalTalk-connected printers), you'll need to have the camera share the port. You can choose to disconnect your printer each time you connect the camera, but that's bound to discourage use of the camera. Instead, I suggest a Mini Din (a.k.a. serial or eight-pin) switch. These can be found with two positions, four or six. You run one cable from the back of your Mac into the switch box, then plug the camera's cable and your printer or LocalTalk cable into ports on the switch box. (Actually, rather than a box, I have a flexible cable; it takes less room and travels better.) With the Olympus camera, I've found that I have to turn off AppleTalk. It's a cinch to turn off using the Control Strip. If I don't restart my Mac after turning off AppleTalk, the Olympus software doesn't see the camera.
It may turn out that you won't have to physically connect your camera to your Mac. The tiny memory cards, which store the images, can be placed into special PC Card adapters for image loading-if you have a PC Card slot. I also have seen a floppy disk adapter for SmartMedia cards, but I know of none for the Mac. Just make sure any accessories you choose also are Mac-compatible.
The day hasn't arrived when digital cameras are ready to replace your film cameras, but it's certainly getting easier to have both. Keep an eye on digital cameras.
Worthy Web site of the month
From time to time I discover a Web site that's helpful to Mac users so I've decided that at the end of each column I'll pass along the URL for you. At My Mac Online (www.mymac.com) you'll find Mac info, reviews and opinions. My favorite is John Nemerovski's Book Bytes. John is a real Mac user and is not under pressure from any publisher. He provides an unbiased review of books. John also shares his experiences with software, including responses from vendors about issues you might also encounter.