Digital Camera Dilemma SOLVED: What You REALLY Need to Know

On January 9, 2004, in Opinion, by John Nemerovski

**First in a new series**

Spending all day every day this week in San Francisco using a digital camera, in mission critical Macworld Expo environment, solidifies knowledge obtained during the past two years with still digicams. Working as a professional photographer and instructor during 1980s and 1990s made me a confident film photographer with an experienced skill set. Being a computer tutor and digital photo consultant now, among other things, places me at the intersection where lack of knowledge confronts desire to purchase. What the fudge should a person buy, and then how to use the darn thing?

Here are Nemo’s MUSTS for people considering buying a new digital still camera. You can accept or reject any or all of the following, but understand that these strong opinions have been germinating slowly and quietly for a long time, and are given with your best interests in mind.

SIZE = SMALL, but not tiny. You’ll pay a premium for miniaturization, which is overrated and overpriced, and which puts you at risk for losing or damaging your precious camera during an accident. If you can place a rectangular camera in your shirt pocket, and comfortably view and capture the image while holding the camera steady in both hands, the size is optimum.

BATTERY = LONG LASTING and EASY TO CHARGE. The industry is divided between using rechargeable AA batteries and proprietary custom lithium ion batteries. The former are heavier, cheaper to buy, slower to charge, and quicker to discharge. The latter are lighter in weight, more expensive, charge faster, and hold their power longer. Confused? You’ll be living with this decision for as long as you own your camera, so make the choice seriously. In general, if you have guaranteed access to a standard electrical socket, AA batteries are a solid suggestion. If you need to go l-o-n-g periods between charges, lithium ion batteries are preferable. Whichever you use, buy as many as two or three sets of extra batteries, and keep them charged. You should NOT wait until they’re fully discharged, because it’s better to partially deplete them and recharge, switching to your duplicates, back and forth, over and over. Idea: if you can locate a combo camera that accepts either/both AA or lithium ion, you’re all set. How many of these exist? Not many, but battery technology and manufacturing trends are evolving at a steady pace.

OPTICAL VIEWFINDER = EASY TO SEE SUBJECT. Some digital cameras have digital viewfinders, meaning accurate “what you see is what you get” framing of every scene. These tiny liquid crystal displays make lousy viewfinders when lighting is bright or uneven, negating many advantages of precise framing. Optical viewfinders are subject to parallax, meaning your subjects are framed with ever-shifting inaccuracy as you zoom out and in. EXPERIENCED photographers learn to estimate fairly closely what will actually be on most digital images, after learning how far off vertical and horizontal center they frame a lot of pictures, when using an optical viewfinder. Frame management technology is almost static, with not much development going into improving the optical viewing situation, because most of this engineering was done decades ago in conjunction with the emergence and market dominance of 35mm point and shoot film zoom cameras.

LCD SCREEN = BRIGHT AND LARGE. Brighter is better. Larger is better. Repeat! In brilliant sunlight an extra bright LCD screen will satisfy your image-checking requirements (both before and after shooting a picture), but an ordinary screen will always annoy you. Trust me on this one, because my Fuji FinePix 4700 has a classic example of low-quality LCD presence in an otherwise terrific camera, especially in blaring Arizona mega-sun. A bonus occurs in low or unevenly lit scenes, where subtle tonal and color gradations can be perceived in better quality LCDs. “Size matters” too, but is not a deal breaker as much as brightness. You’ll really notice the differences between brands and models of digicams once you begin your hands-on comparisons.

SHUTTER RELEASE = QUICK, and SHUTTER LAG = QUICKER. Most digital cameras appear to respond promptly when pressing the shutter release, but in reality almost all have unacceptable delay between pressing a shutter release and actually taking a picture. This exasperating phenomenon is called shutter lag, and your camera will almost certainly have it, which is BAD. Try many cameras in a variety of focusing and lighting situations to see how moving subjects (think: children) are captured or missed due to short or delayed shutter completion. Technology is improving at a decent rate in this crucial area.

ZOOM RATIO = LONGER MEANS GOOD. Generic 3x zoom ratio is what you get in generic digicams. Wide and standard angle focal length works fine, but telephoto zooming is pathetic and deceptive. Pay more for 4x, 5x, 6x, or greater, and your people pictures and distance shots will have tons more impact with much less cropping required. You can’t buy extra zoom focal length without also buying more pixels, which adds both to price and quality. Is this a problem? You decide.

OTHER FACTORS TO CONSIDER are flash response, flash settings, image quality, color accuracy, type of memory card, location of input/output connector ports, ability to operate dials and push controls, clarity of printed and online documentation, physical construction/durability, plus a few dozen more, such as focusing problems and viewfinder focus zones. Don’t get sidetracked by claims of digital movie duration, plethora of manual controls, or a slew of other featuritis you’ll never use.

BROTHER IN LAW = IDIOT. Don’t take anyone’s advice to the point of buying a product (any product) without kicking the tires and tasting the fizz. You’re ready to spend many hours’ wages on a marvelous complex precision instrument that needs to perform with reliable quality for many years under an unimaginable range of conditions. Loads of Internet and printed resources are available to help you select the best digital camera, and in the end you want to make sure your decision is one you can live with for as long as possible.

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