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Series: Digital Cameras
Wanna be a digital shutterbug? Details on low- to mid-range cameras, plus accessories!
Article 1 of 12 in series
Is it finally time to buy a digital camera? The digital camera market is already several years old, early adopters are now old pros, and more people consider the switch to digital photography every dayShow full article
Is it finally time to buy a digital camera? The digital camera market is already several years old, early adopters are now old pros, and more people consider the switch to digital photography every day. In part one of this article, I asserted that this year really is the year to buy a digital camera, whether it's your first or a successor to an earlier model, and I offered a checklist of features that you should look for in the current crop. In part two, it's time to pull away the curtain and give you my list of best picks for beginners for this year.
If you want to see pictures of the digital cameras described below and check out a comparison chart that lists their features, click on over to my site, the Digital PhotoCorner.
The "Model A" of Digital Cameras -- The Fuji MX-1200 is the first-ever blister-packed digital camera, but don't let plain-clothes packaging put you off; this camera will deliver excellent pictures. Even though it doesn't have autofocus, its f-4.5 to f-11 lens (38 mm equivalent) will keep objects sharp over a large range and its top shutter speed of 1/750 second will stop most action. When you want to get in really close (like up to 4 inches), flip a switch to Macro mode. It has excellent low-light capabilities, a manual mode to control white balance and exposure compensation, five flash modes, and has about the easiest menu of any digital camera I've ever used. It's ready to go in about 2 seconds after you turn it on, and you can click off shots every 3 to 4 seconds. It's a good-looking digital camera, too, and will take 32 MB SmartMedia memory cards (4 MB included). The MX-1200 marks a defining moment in the history of digital cameras. Street price: about $250.
The Low Light Champion -- The Olympus D-450 Zoom has a 3x optical zoom lens, autofocus, and a fast shot-to-shot time of about one second thanks to its big buffer that stores shots as they're being processed. It includes a whole slew of features including video out, two light metering modes, and a choice of three ISO ratings: 160, 320, and 640. I've shot pictures with this digital camera at night where the camera recorded details I couldn't even see. It can also store uncompressed TIFF images, has a fast sequence mode of up to 2 frames per second, 5 flash modes, shutter speeds of 1/2 to 1/1000 second, and a fast f-2.8/f-8 lens which is needle-sharp. Olympus is one of the most experienced optical houses in the world and has been in the forefront of photographic innovation (including digital photography) for more than 80 years. A nice feature is that distances can be pre-set to capture fast action so the camera isn't slowed down by having to focus. If big prints are what you're looking for, this camera will deliver. Included are Adobe's PhotoDeluxe, Enroute Quick Stitch Panorama software, and an 8 MB Smart Media memory card. Street price: about $390.
Finally, Big Yellow Scores! The Kodak DC240 Zoom is one of the first Kodak digital cameras I found to be just right: solid and well built. Its shot-to-shot time is fast for the first two images, and then slows to a still-creditable four seconds or so between shots. But its simple and elegant controls and menus are where this charcoal and silver beauty excels. If you can't figure them out in less than five minutes, give up on digital cameras. In essence, Kodak has reverted to their roots in that you need only to push a few buttons and the camera does the rest. The LCD monitor is a bit grainy in low light and a tad jerky when you move it quickly from one scene to another, but since you're not shooting movies, it's tolerable. It has a 3x optical zoom, an aperture range of f-2.8 to f-16, shutter speeds of 1/2 to 1/755 second, and four flash modes. It also comes with four AA alkaline batteries so you can get going right away, while the included charger juices up the four NiMH rechargeable batteries that also come standard. Also supplied: an 8 MB Compact Flash memory card and Adobe's PhotoDeluxe and PageMill. For video out you can toggle between NTSC or PAL and, along with its standard serial port, the DC240 Zoom features USB. Street price: about $395.
A Voyeur's Dream Cam -- The Minolta Dimage EX1500 Zoom costs more than the others and will take you longer to learn to use, but it has one feature no other digital camera in the world (that I know of) offers: the entire lens assembly can be detached from the camera body and placed in any imaginable position you desire. A five foot optional cable allows you to hold the LCD monitor in a comfortable position while poking the lens around a corner, over a fence, or even into a hole in the ground. I found it great for cat photography; the small handheld lens part becomes very non-threatening and allows for some unusual angles. It does have a few quirks: the lens cuts slightly into the optical viewfinder's field of view at its widest setting; you have to open the battery compartment to insert or remove the memory card; and its LCD monitor is jerky when you move the camera to frame your scenes - all annoying, but not fatal. With a 3x optical zoom, f-3.5 lens, 1/4000 second shutter speed, five flash modes, a burst rate of up to 7.5 frames per second at high resolution, and its detachable lens feature, this is a one-of-a-kind digital camera. Street price: about $550.
The Scrunch Eliminator -- The Canon PowerShot A50 Zoom has a unique optical 2.5x zoom which, at its widest setting, it is the equivalent of a 28 mm lens on a 35 mm camera. Although most people crave more telephoto power, it's the wide end of the zoom that produces the most visually interesting shots, with great depth of field and dramatic spatial relationships between objects in the foreground and background. You can also get more of a crowd into the picture at close quarters without having them scrunch together. In its miniature brushed duraluminum case, it looks like it was designed not only to see, but to be seen. It has an f-2.6 lens, shutter speeds from 2 to 1/750 second, four flash modes, and is able to capture uncompressed images if you need the highest quality. It has an interesting feature that forces the camera to shoot at the slowest speed commensurate with good exposure which, among other things, will let you pan with a moving subject or object to keep them sharp while blurring the background. If you choose this digital camera, plan on spending another $80 or so for a kit containing a rechargeable Lithium-Ion battery and a charger/AC power combination because it comes with only a disposable battery. Street price: about $325.
Hi-Res & Smokin' Fast -- The Toshiba PDR-M4 is the only 2.1 megapixel digital camera in this group. Alas, it doesn't have an optical zoom lens but it does have 2x digital one (which, unfortunately, lowers resolution when used). Nevertheless it's a speed demon: two seconds from power-on to ready, less than a second between shots, a burst-rate - at its highest resolution - of four shots in two seconds, and some super-slow shutter speeds (up to eight seconds) to allow great, special effects night photography. It's a mini-camera (the most compact of the group) and if you have big hands you'll have to adjust somewhat, but that's a small price to pay for the quality of images you'll get. The camera includes a Lithium-Ion battery which can be charged in-camera or with an optional external charger. (Put a spare battery on your shopping list, though, to have as a backup.) With an aperture of f-3.2 or f-8, a normal shutter speed range of between 1/4 and 1/1000 second, 4-inch macro capabilities, five flash modes, NTSC video out, and an 8 MB SmartMedia memory card included, this is quite a package for the price. It comes with both serial and USB. If you need super-high resolution and speed, and can forego the zoom lens, this little jewel could be a good choice. Street price: about $400.
A Digital Tomorrow Today -- All of the cameras above are good values with outstanding features and realistic prices: the flexibility of digital photography has finally come down to earth for a wide range of consumers.
[Arthur H. Bleich is a photographer, writer, and educator who lives in Miami. He has done assignments for major publications both in the U.S. and abroad and is currently Contributing Editor of Digital Camera Magazine.]
Article 2 of 12 in series
Each year, when I write this article for TidBITS, I say: "This is the year to buy your first digital camera." (See the "Digital Cameras" series of articles beginning in TidBITS-407.) But this year really is the year, because for between $750 and $1,000 not only can you get a quality camera, but also a great printer, a charger and batteries, a card reader, and even an additional higher capacity memory card. A few features and specifications have changed or improved since I wrote about them last, so let's first run down a checklist to give you some guidelinesShow full article
Each year, when I write this article for TidBITS, I say: "This is the year to buy your first digital camera." (See the "Digital Cameras" series of articles beginning in TidBITS-407.) But this year really is the year, because for between $750 and $1,000 not only can you get a quality camera, but also a great printer, a charger and batteries, a card reader, and even an additional higher capacity memory card.
A few features and specifications have changed or improved since I wrote about them last, so let's first run down a checklist to give you some guidelines. In next week's issue, I'll wrap up with my personal camera picks.
1. The digital camera you buy should have at least 1,280 by 960 true optical resolution (that's roughly 1.3 million pixels, commonly referred to as 1.3 megapixels). You'll then be able to get excellent prints up to about 8 by 10 inches. If this is your first digital camera, it's not necessary to go into the 2 megapixel range although there is one inexpensive 2.1 megapixel digital camera worth considering.
2. There's an old saying: "Familiar things are best." Look for a digital camera that operates most like the film camera you've used. This means fast start-up and fast shot-to-shot time. Many digital cameras are still slugs when it comes to these two features.
3. If possible, check out the camera's menus. I recently reviewed a digital camera for MacAddict that had menu items festooned around the LCD monitor in such a disorganized manner that a 747 cockpit instrument layout looked like it'd be easier to learn. Menus should be intuitive and easy to navigate.
4. Cross off any camera with only an LCD monitor for pre-viewing. They are notorious for washing out in sunlight and you usually have to hold the camera in an uncomfortable position to use them. A well-designed digital camera has an optical viewfinder in addition to the LCD monitor for easy, eye-level viewing.
5. Digital cameras that use standard floppy disks may seem like the ideal way to go but most fall short on speed and resolution. Besides, floppies are fast fading away in the Mac world.
6. The digital camera should come with written documentation so you can refer to it with camera in hand. You'd be surprised at how many so-called quality camera manufacturers try to save a few bucks by putting the documentation on CD-ROM, expecting you to print out 150 pages after you've spent close to $1,000.
7. Read a few reviews before you decide. Most digital photography Web sites have very thorough and detailed reviews. On the other hand, read digital camera reviews in computer magazines critically; the reviewers are not usually experienced photographers, and get sidetracked with bells and whistles.
8. Be prepared to buy a couple sets of rechargeable NiMH (Nickel Metal Hydride) batteries and a good charger unless your digital camera comes with them or uses Lithium-Ion batteries. Quest and Kodak batteries are long-lasting, and the Maha C204F charger is an absolute jewel. Two sets of batteries and a charger will set you back about $50 to $70 from places like CKC Power.
9. Transferring images to your computer can be tedious unless both camera and computer have USB. But USB on a digital camera should not be a prime requisite. You can get inexpensive USB and SCSI memory card readers that let you transfer pictures to your computer in a flash. The Microtech USB CameraMate ($85 from places like CKC Power) takes both Compact Flash and SmartMedia cards, used on most digital cameras today. And Norman Camera has a couple dozen discontinued Minolta SCSI readers ($120) which, with the appropriate PC card adapter work fine with older Macs.
10. Printed pictures will only be as good as the printer you use, so plan to buy a decent photo-quality printer. Printers are like the speakers in your stereo system. It does little good to have the finest electronic components pushing sound through a set of tinny speakers. Although the Epson Stylus Photo 750 ($250) has traditionally been the choice of most Mac users, the new USB HP 970 Cse ($400) delivers absolutely stunning output.
If I had to choose between an expensive digital camera without the extra peripherals (batteries, card reader, printer, etc.) and a less expensive digital camera with them, I'd go for the lower priced camera with all the goodies. Why? Because you'll eventually be buying another camera based on what you've learned from your first digital camera. But in the meantime, you'll be getting the most convenience and best output from the digital camera you've bought.
In part two of this article, I'll tell you just which cameras fit all or most of the above requirements, and how their features stack up. Although I've said this is the year to get your first digital camera, even those who already own a digital camera may be persuaded to upgrade to the current generation.
[Arthur H. Bleich <firstname.lastname@example.org> is a photographer, writer, and educator who lives in Miami. He has done assignments for major publications both in the U.S. and abroad and is currently Contributing Editor of Digital Camera Magazine.]
Article 3 of 12 in series
There's nothing more thrilling than shooting pictures with a digital camera and then - with hardly any steps in between - seeing them splash onto your computer screen and flow smoothly into your image editing programShow full article
There's nothing more thrilling than shooting pictures with a digital camera and then - with hardly any steps in between - seeing them splash onto your computer screen and flow smoothly into your image editing program. It's the same as watching the birth of a photographic print in a developer tray, or experiencing the chills that accompany unwinding still-wet negatives from a reel and holding them up to the light.
Of course, if you need a reason other than "it sounds like fun" to have one of these new magic machines, consider the following advantages: instant images, no scanning, no film costs (which encourages creativity), and promoting a cleaner environment. There's also the historical significance of being among the first pioneers to venture into new photographic territory. Whatever your motivation, this article will acquaint you with the basics of digital photography.
In this two-part series, I'll first discuss resolution and general issues such as light sensitivity that relate to using a digital camera. Next week, I'll cover specific issues to consider before purchasing a digital camera, and offer my opinion on the best cameras currently available in the low to middle price range. For now, begin your quest for the right digital camera by asking yourself how you'll use the pictures; those uses play heavily into what features you'll need from a camera.
Resolution for the Screen -- No discussion about digital cameras and imaging can avoid the subject of resolution. Many chapters have been written about resolution, but I'll try to make it as simple as possible. If you're not up to tech-talk now and want to skip the next few paragraphs, remember this: when discussing digital camera resolution, "Higher Is Better." Memorize that and you'll ace Resolution 101.
Before we launch into screen dimensions and measurements, let's make sure we're all talking about the same thing. Images from digital cameras (and scanners) are made up of little squares (sometimes rectangles) called pixels. Pixel is short for "picture cell" or "picture element." Pixels also make up the images on a computer screen. Printers, in contrast, produce images by laying down many little dots on a piece of paper.
Digital pictures and monitor screen images are measured in pixels-per-inch (ppi). Printer output is measured in dots-per-inch (dpi). Many people interchange the two abbreviations (especially when discussing scanning) which drives some purists insane. For clarity, it's best to use ppi and dpi as separate terms.
If a digital camera records a picture that has 640 by 480 ppi, the camera's resolution is determined by old-fashioned multiplication: 640 times 480 equals 307,200 pixels.
Suppose your digital camera records pictures at a default measurement of 640 pixels wide by 480 pixels high. To figure out how big such an image will be on your computer monitor, a bit of division is required; for instance, on most Mac monitors, 72 pixels in a row equals a linear inch. So to find out the length - in inches - of 640 pixels, just divide 72 into it and you get 8.8 inches (about 22.4 cm). Do likewise with the short side of 480 pixels, and you end up with 6.6 inches (about 16.8 cm).
Given that 8.8 by 6.6 inches is a pretty good size, if you don't plan to print images, a 640 by 480 ppi resolution should work nicely. It even gives you a large enough image that you can remove unwanted elements and still have a good chunk left over for viewing.
Resolution for Printing -- However, if you want to print that photo on paper, things change drastically. You certainly can print that same 640 by 480 ppi picture as an 8.8 by 6.6 inch photo, but you may not be satisfied with the results. It depends on how fussy you are about picture quality. The picture might look fuzzy or have jagged edges - called pixelization, a phenomenon that occurs in low-resolution pictures when there aren't enough pixels to describe the range of color or detail in an image.
As a quick fix, you can tell your imaging program to interpolate the image, that is, to add more pixels, thus increasing the ppi count. Interpolation adds more pixels in order to make the image look smoother, but the results are not always satisfactory because the program must guess where to insert extra pixels, what color they should be, and so on. To get the image quality you want, it's often necessary to reduce the image size; this pushes the existing pixels into a tighter fit, resulting in higher overall resolution and a more pleasing picture.
Right about now you may be thinking: "My color ink-jet printer can give me all the resolution I need, because it can print at 720 dpi - it says so right in the manual." Well, yes, but what the manual means is that the printer is capable of squirting a maximum of 720 dots of ink per inch, with an average of three dots of ink assigned to print each pixel. (Remember, pixels and dots are not the same!)
If you have a 640 by 480 ppi image whose size is 8.8 by 6.6 inches, that image will have 72 pixels per inch and your printer will spit out about 216 ink dots per inch (3 dots of ink for each pixel multiplied by 72 pixels equals 216 dots of ink).
Since you paid for 720 dpi and got only 216 dpi you might think a hefty refund is due. Not so fast. You can print that picture at 720 dpi if it is reduced in size so its pixels scrunch together to line up 240 of them in an inch of space. Then, with each pixel getting 3 dots of ink, your printer would be outputting its full potential of 720 dpi. (Sorry, no refund.) In order to pack pixels in that tightly, the original 8.8 by 6.6 inch image must shrink to 2.6 by 2.0 inches (6.6 by 5.1 cm), making it a great size to frame as a dollhouse painting.
However, take heart. The 3:1 shrinkage ratio that we end up with is an extreme that may not be necessary. You can get fine pictures at 4.4 by 3.3 inches (by pushing the pixels together to 144 ppi), and even good 8.8 x 6.6 inch prints at their original 72 ppi. Of course, if you started with a higher camera resolution of 1,024 by 768 ppi you'd get excellent 7.1 by 5.3 inch (18 by 13.5 cm) prints at 144 ppi. You can even get acceptable 14.2 by 10.6 inch (36.1 by 26.9 cm) photos at 72 ppi if you're going to be looking at them from a short distance, since viewing distance has a lot to do with what an image looks like. For example, did you know outdoor billboard images are printed at only 18 dpi? They look great, but only at the right distance.
What all this math boils down to is this: higher is better when it comes to digital cameras. Buy a camera with as high a resolution as you can afford if you want to make reasonably-sized prints. Most cameras offer a choice of high and low resolution modes, but chances are good you'll use the higher one most of the time.
Higher Is Bigger, Too -- Of course, the higher the resolution, the larger the file size - even though most images are compressed in the camera using JPEG (Joint Photographic Experts Group) encoding. At first, you'll probably want to save every gem you've shot, so expect your hard disk to fill up fast (another reason to buy a removable drive, with plenty of cartridges).
Your file sizes will depend on the specific image and the degree of compression you choose (user selectable in many cameras). Figure that an uncompressed image will be roughly five to twenty times larger than its compressed size. A 640 by 480 ppi image compressed to 50K will inflate to about 900K when opened in an image editing program. A 1,024 by 768 ppi image compressed to 200K expands to 2.25 MB. And when you get to 1,280 by 1,024 ppi (the highest resolution in the $250 to $1,300 price range I'll be looking at) a 900K JPEG balloons to 3.75 MB.
That's only the beginning. If you do any editing on images, you won't want to save them as JPEGs, because JPEG is a lossy compression method. This means that to reduce file size, some of the image information is lost; once gone, you can't get those pixels back without starting over from your original image (which you saved before doing any editing, right?). Instead, you'll likely save images as TIFFs (Tagged Image File Format, which can employ LZW lossless compression in some image editing programs) or as uncompressed PICTs. (For more information on image file formats and compression, see NetBITS-007.)
Patience Is a Plus -- Let's take a little breather here. I live with several cats and I'm always telling newlyweds to have cats before they have children (a biological impossibility, but you know what I mean). Cats teach you how to be patient and accept things on their terms. So will digital photography. If you love instant gratification, it will certainly provide you with that, but it will also teach you patience.
The first time I transferred images from a digital camera through the Mac's serial port to my hard disk I was too excited to notice each one took about 30 seconds. Doesn't sound like much, but when you transfer 40 exposures, that's a minimum of 20 minutes. Plus, it takes still more time to rotate those vertical shots upright so you don't twist your neck out of shape.
Then, once transferred, you must separate the good, the bad, and the ugly. So far, there's no easy way to do this. The "digital contact sheet" displayed prior to downloading isn't - as they say where I live - worth spit. The images are too small and you can't see detail. So, expect to end up transferring most of them. And when they're finally aboard, it's not easy to position them side-by-side onscreen without resizing them and fiddling even more.
To help a little, there's a great freeware program called Jade 1.2 that will let you drag & drop a folder of images onto its icon and bring the pictures up in various sizes - tiled or stacked. It can't yet turn those verticals right side up, alas.
All this will change, of course. You'll eventually be able to transfer scores of images in a flash (literally) and software will eventually take care of positioning and selection. But for now, prepare to have your patience tested.
Imaging Software -- You'll need a photo imaging program to transfer and work with the images. Most camera manufacturers supply plug-ins to simplify this process. Adobe's cross-platform PhotoDeluxe is bundled with many cameras. I prefer PhotoFix, which is called PhotoStudio when it's bundled. It has 32 levels of fast undo-redo which cuts the learning curve to next to nothing, and makes it a snap to do traditional photographic darkroom stuff without spending a fortune on workshops and seminars. You can also opt for the big gun of photo-imaging, Adobe Photoshop, but for hobbyist digital camera owners, it's way too much power (and expense).
Light Sensitivity -- Unlike conventional cameras where you can select films with different sensitivities to light, digital cameras in the under-$1,500 price range have only one fixed sensitivity to light, usually a film-equivalent ISO of 50 to 200. It's not a big limitation, though. Many of them take good pictures under low light conditions because their lens apertures are pretty fast, usually around f-2.8. As a standard feature, most have a built-in flash for abysmal conditions and for filling in deep shadows on sunlit, high-contrast subjects. And when it comes to freezing action, some even have shutter speeds up to 1/10,000 of a second!
What you may find disconcerting at first is the slight lag time that occurs between pressing the shutter release and the actual exposure. That's when the camera spends a fraction of a second going through its pre-shot calibration and white-balancing act. There's also some delay between shots while the camera processes and compresses the image, and some people miss the whirring sound of film being advanced. You'll quickly adjust to these quirks, though.
You've Come a Long Way -- Civil War photographers like Brady and O'Sullivan had to sensitize their plates with poisonous solutions in a dark tent, then shoot their picture before the emulsion dried. That was a real hassle, but the thrill of the results made it worthwhile. You'll feel the same way once you get into digital photography, I guarantee (without handling poisons, even).
Next week, I'll tell you what I consider to be the eight best digital cameras in the $250 to $1,300 price range.
[Arthur H. Bleich has been a photographer, writer, filmmaker, musician, and teacher. He currently serves as the Executive Director of The Children's Telemedical Health Fund, which provides free medical and psychological care to needy kids through interactive television.]
Article 4 of 12 in series
Last week in TidBITS-407, I discussed resolution and other general digital camera issues; this week I'll talk about how to choose the best camera to suit your needsShow full article
Last week in TidBITS-407, I discussed resolution and other general digital camera issues; this week I'll talk about how to choose the best camera to suit your needs. If you buy a camera based on my listings, make certain that specific model hasn't undergone any drastic specification changes or else WYWMNBWYG (What You Want May Not Be What You Get).
Resolution Review -- Before purchasing a digital camera, as we noted last week, you should to consider what resolution you require. To review, for quality photographic prints or to enlarge small sections of images for onscreen viewing, purchase a camera with as high a resolution as you can afford. Digital camera resolution will only improve and today's "high" will be tomorrow's "normal" or even "low," so you may as well not start behind the curve.
Choose a camera with 640 by 480 ppi (pixels per inch) resolution as an absolute minimum. If you can afford it, go up to 1,024 by 768 ppi or higher. This lets you print larger pictures using the full image size and allows for moderate cropping without too much image degradation.
I also suggest that you check out print quality at different resolutions before you buy. At least two camera manufacturers, Olympus and Epson, offer sample images on their Web sites. Make sure you don't print the images from your Web browser, because your output will be locked at the screen resolution of 72 dpi. Instead, download the files using the links provided, then open them in an imaging program such as Adobe Photoshop or PhotoFix. From there, print your samples at different resolutions and sizes to see for yourself how they'll look. (If you don't yet have imaging software, a program like the shareware GraphicConverter should let you view and print sample images.)
Avoid the Shakes -- Unless you've got several thousand dollars to blow on a professional Steadicam system, even the best digital camera will seem like a poor choice if you can't keep it still when shooting. Favor cameras that have conventional optical viewfinders or through-the-lens reflex viewing (which enables you see the image through the lens used for taking the picture, just like looking through a telescope), and look for cameras that you can steady against your head to avoid camera shake. Cameras that provide only an LCD screen to view the image you're going to shoot may look nice sitting in a camera store, but make you hold the camera away from you to frame the shot, which creates unsteadiness. Also, the LCD image washes out if you shoot outside with the sun at your side or back. An exception might be cameras with screens that swivel to allow you to look down into them as you brace them against your chest or waist.
Screens, Batteries, and More -- Shakiness aside, cameras that have integrated LCD screens (or as a plug-in accessory) in addition to a regular viewfinder can still be useful. They're great for checking the quality of pictures you've already taken, and for pre-framing tight close-up shots, preferably with the camera on a tripod. However, they're not usually integrated into cameras under $500 and, to tell the truth, you won't miss them.
Some cameras allow you to view images on a television screen. This is a nice feature, especially if you want to check a large view of your shots when you're traveling and don't have a computer handy. You can also use the camera for presentations by pre-recording your pictures in the correct sequence on a storage card. Just make sure you buy an AC adapter if it's not supplied with the camera.
If the camera doesn't have a rechargeable battery, buy rechargeable batteries and a charger, or be prepared to support The Energizer Bunny for the rest of your camera's life. Most of these cameras eat batteries like candy, especially since batteries must power the flash and the LCD screen used to preview and post-view shots (if the camera has an LCD).
If you can afford a camera in the intermediate price range, look for cameras with a removable storage cards - it's a pain to stop shooting and spend half an hour transferring images to a laptop halfway up Mount Everest. At the moment, there's no established storage card standard, but the SmartMedia Card holds promise (about $10 per MB). In addition to being able to transfer images directly from the camera, it should also (with appropriate adapters) be able to pop into a PC card reader or directly into your floppy drive for faster cable-free transfer. (Don't confuse this capability with cameras that use standard high-density floppy disks; the SmartMedia card is entirely different).
Books - Reading a book or two will improve your background knowledge of digital cameras and help you use one more effectively. Three good books on digital photography are:
Essentials of Digital Photography by Akira Kasai, Russell Sparkman, and Elizabeth Hurley (translator). (New Riders, ISBN 1-56205-762-6, $60.00.) This intermediate to advanced book covers digital photographic theory and practice, along with Photoshop techniques. Outstanding! The bundled CD-ROM is a gem and includes a cross-platform tutorial and other goodies.
Digital Camera Companion by Ben Sawyer & Ron Pronk. (Coriolis, ISBN 1-57610097-9, $30.00.) This winner of a book contains a potpourri of great stuff at a beginner-to-intermediate level, although it's marred somewhat by a Windows-only CD-ROM.
The Photographer's Digital Studio by Joe Farace. (Peachpit Press, ISBN 0201-88400-3, $25.00.) Joe Farace is a long-time photographer who's "been there and done that." The book was the first and is a still-relevant overview for the beginning or intermediate user of what to do after you've taken your picture.
My Digital Camera Choices -- Now that we've talked about issues and features relating to purchasing a camera, it's time to focus on cameras especially worth consideration. I'll save my winning set of camera models for the end of this section and begin with three cameras that deserve serious consideration.
Fuji DX-5: Sized at 4.5 by 1.5 by 2.5 inches, this compact pocket camera has a fixed focus that keeps everything sharp from about two feet to infinity. Fuji recently redesigned the camera, and the original integrated LCD monitor was dropped in favor of a bright optical viewfinder. Two manual aperture settings (for different lighting conditions) and a neat pop-up flash make it a great traveling camera. It can take 640 by 480 ppi images and has the added plus of SmartMedia removable cards. No TV output. $300.
Konica Q-EZ: This camera's main claim to fame is that it can shoot as close as 1.4 inches. It uses removable storage cards, has autofocus, and you can preset and control some of its functions using your computer. (I haven't tried this, so if that appeals to you check it out before you buy.) It lacks an LCD display and has no TV output, but it's a handsome-looking camera from a camera house with a great reputation. $400.
Minolta Dimage V: This camera's lens swivels mightily and can even be detached and used at the end of a three-foot cable tether to look around corners, over people's heads... I'll let your imagination take it from there. Put the camera in your pocket, mount the lens on your helmet, and you're set to jump - just don't forget your parachute. Features include a fixed focus, zoom lens, LCD viewing, removable SmartMedia storage cards, 640 by 480 ppi, and a 1/10,000 shutter speed. This camera is worth a look, particularly if you like to amaze your friends with all the latest technical marvels. $700.
The Winner -- My winner of the 1997 World Series of Digital Cameras is... the Olympus Camera Corporation's lineup of cameras, which address a variety of tastes (and pocketbooks). An innovative camera manufacturer for generations, Olympus always comes through with the right stuff at the right time, from half-frame cameras to autofocus point-and-shoot 35s, and now to digital cameras that, in my opinion, are the best in their class.
Here's a quick rundown of the specifications for Olympus's camera lineup. If you buy a D-220L or D-320L, make sure it's a 220 or 320, not a 200 or 300; these earlier models lack removable storage or television compatibility, and are still being sold. (You might be able to get a great price on one of these if you can do without those two features.) All prices are average street prices; you may be able to do better.
D-220L: This baby is sweet, small, and loaded with features, which include 640 by 480 ppi high resolution (320 by 240 ppi low); three user-selectable compression modes; autofocus; optical viewfinder; built-in LCD screen; flash; 2 MB removable SmartMedia storage; and TV-compatibility. $500.
D-320L: Buy this one if you want a big brother to the D-220L with all its features plus 1,024 by 768 ppi high resolution, 640 by 480 ppi low. This camera was a Macworld "Best of Show" winner for 1997, and it's worth every penny of its price. $700.
D-500L: This camera has a totally new and exciting design. It has a TTL (through-the-lens) single lens reflex type viewfinder; 3x zoom lens; flip-up powerful flash; 1,024 by 768 ppi high resolution, 640 by 480 ppi low - both with multi-compression modes; and 2 MB removable SmartMedia storage, though - regrettably - no TV output. $900.
D-600L: This camera provides the highest resolution -1,280 by 1,024 ppi - of any camera under $2,500. It also offers an alternate resolution at 640 by 512 ppi, helpful when shooting images for the Web and multimedia, or when large-sized prints are not required. The D-600L has all the features of the D-500L (plus a few more, like 4 MB removable SmartMedia cards) and even though it lacks TV output, I predict it will fly off dealers' shelves. $1,300.
The following URL points to a detailed FAQ on the D-500/600Ls, plus sites where sample images can be downloaded.
Web Sites for Digital Photography -- The Web offers a number of resources for immersing yourself further in the world of digital imaging and photography. The best photography site on the Web, bar none, is Zone Zero, where you can spend many pleasant hours looking at both digital and conventional exhibits. Two other sites are also worth checking out. PC-Photo Forum is an ambitious and well designed commercially supported site with detailed digital camera comparisons, reviews, and a search engine to find the best camera prices. And, only a few weeks old, the Digital Camera Resource Page goes into great detail on digital camera industry news, specific cameras, technical glitches and fixes, reviews, forums, and other good stuff.
Magazines offer other interesting sites: Photo District News Magazine has a hip site with great technical information and a special digital section; PhotoElectronic Imaging Magazine specializes in digital photography; and newcomer PCPhoto Magazine stands to become the de-facto popular publication for digital photography.
Choosing and Using -- Whichever digital camera you choose, keep in mind that it probably won't be the only digital camera you're going to own. Like people who buy computers (which are notorious for becoming techno-relics as little as six months after purchase), digital camera owners understand that the future promises better hardware with more snazzy features (satellite broadcasting? holographic output?). But while you wait for your ideal camera to appear, you'll watch your friends become digital shutterbugs. If you think you need to buy a digital camera in the near future, by all means consider jumping into the foray now. Like it or not, digital photography will no doubt usurp film-based photography in the coming years. And to you traditionalists who are scoffing at that statement, I ask: "How many photographers do you know who still coat glass plates?"
[Arthur H. Bleich has been a photographer, writer, filmmaker, musician, and teacher. He currently serves as the Executive Director of The Children's Telemedical Health Fund, which provides free medical and psychological care to needy kids through interactive television.]
Sponsor Specials -- TidBITS sponsors Small Dog Electronics and Cyberian Outpost are both offering digital camera specials this issue; check the sponsorship information at the top to learn more.
Article 5 of 12 in series
by Jeff Carlson
Pixel Perfect -- Following Arthur H. Bleich's articles about choosing a digital camera (see TidBITS-407 and TidBITS-408), several sharp-eyed readers called attention to the fact camera resolution specifications were stated in terms of pixels per inch (ppi), when in fact they should be stated just in pixelsShow full article
Pixel Perfect -- Following Arthur H. Bleich's <email@example.com> articles about choosing a digital camera (see TidBITS-407 and TidBITS-408), several sharp-eyed readers called attention to the fact camera resolution specifications were stated in terms of pixels per inch (ppi), when in fact they should be stated just in pixels. A digital camera captures its image on a surface consisting of light-sensitive pixels, but that surface isn't restricted to a certain measurement. When the resulting image shows onscreen, its resolution is then correctly described in pixels per inch, such as 640 by 480 ppi.
Also, Andrew Nielsen <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote from Australia to say that outside the U.S., the Olympus series 200, 300, 500, and 600 cameras are designated 400, 800, 1,000, and 1,400 respectively. Also, we've learned that Arthur will be writing a twice-monthly column for ZoneZero beginning in January. [JLC]
Article 6 of 12 in series
Since last year at this time, the winds of change have swept though the digital camera industry, blowing away most of the first generation failures and replacing them with a solid base of megapixel digital cameras that are a hair's breadth away from producing film-quality imagesShow full article
Since last year at this time, the winds of change have swept though the digital camera industry, blowing away most of the first generation failures and replacing them with a solid base of megapixel digital cameras that are a hair's breadth away from producing film-quality images. If 1999 looks to be the year you choose to become a digital photographer, this article will help you make sense of this often-confusing field.
I highly recommend that you check out the articles I published in TidBITS last year, as they cover many basic digital camera conventions, such as screen and print resolution, in more detail.
Resolution Recap -- When you begin researching digital cameras, you'll likely find yourself swamped by various numbers, such as pixel dimensions and image file sizes. In most cases, these refer to a camera's resolution, simply defined as the capability of a device to record fine details in an image, like individual threads in a sweater or separate grains of sand on a beach. Images from digital cameras (and scanners) are made up of little squares or rectangles called pixels. (Pixel is short for "picture cell" or "picture element.")
A digital camera's imaging surface is made up of rows of tiny individual light sensors (the sensor array) that capture color and light information, which is then electrically converted into digital data - the cells or pixels that make up the image. If a camera is capable of capturing an image that consists of 640 horizontal by 480 vertical pixels, it is said to have a resolution of 680 by 480 pixels, or 307,200 pixels (arrived at by multiplying the two dimensions).
The total sensor array is a charge-coupled device (CCD) and is used on most digital cameras now on the market. However, some cameras are being built around complementary metal oxide semiconductor (CMOS) devices, which are more reasonably priced and require very little power compared to CCD sensors. However, under certain conditions CMOS cameras sometimes produce undesirable electronic noise in the image.
If you can pack more pixels into a given area, you increase the resolution, which produces an image with finer detail. Think of it as using graph paper to help you draw a picture: the more squares per inch, the more nuances you can render.
If you want to make prints ranging from 5 by 7 inches up to 11 by 14 inches, consider buying a camera with as high a resolution as you can afford. Reasonably priced digital cameras are now available in the 800,000 to 1.6 megapixel range that will easily satisfy that requirement. However, if your images will be displayed on a monitor (or printed not larger than 4 by 6 inches), then a digital camera in the 640 by 480 range is all you'll need to accommodate the relatively low resolutions of most monitors.
Optical versus Interpolated Resolution -- Specifying digital camera resolution has become tricky lately, because some cameras offer both optical resolution, the actual number of sensors in the array, and interpolated resolution, a software-based method to increase the resolution of the optically obtained image by artificially adding more pixels.
Depending on the camera, interpolation can work well. For example, Agfa's PhotoGenie software, which comes with all but its lowest-priced camera, does an excellent job of interpolation when images transfer to your computer. You can also interpolate a picture from a low resolution camera within an imaging program, usually allowing it to be blown it up to a larger size without losing too much quality, depending on the quality of the original image. However, you can only interpolate (or "upsample") so much before your picture turns to pixel pudding, at which point no amount of digital manipulation can make it any better.
From Autofocus to Zoom -- Even though the terms are not unique to digital cameras, let's define autofocus and fixed-focus (or focus-free). Autofocus cameras automatically and accurately pinpoint whatever you aim at and record it as the sharpest object in the picture. Fixed-focus cameras have their lenses fixed (or locked) at an arbitrary distance calculated to keep most everything acceptably sharp from a few feet to infinity.
Because lenses used on digital cameras are of extremely short focal length, they have extraordinary inherent depth-of-field, allowing subjects both near and far to remain in focus, even when the lens aperture is wide open. So if your camera doesn't include an autofocus feature, it's no big deal unless you shoot big close-ups with a fixed-focus lens or expose without flash under low-light conditions (subjects or objects in the foreground may appear blurry). To compensate, some cameras feature settings to shift the point of focus manually, depending on whether you're shooting close-ups, portraits, or general subjects.
Finally, zoom lenses for digital cameras now come in two flavors: optical and digital. To make matters even more challenging, some cameras incorporate both. On a digital camera with an optical zoom, the resolution remains the same regardless of the focal length you choose. But a digital zoom uses only part of the sensor array and, unless it is interpolated, ends up exactly as if you'd cropped the image yourself - with resolution dropping accordingly. The Olympus D340L, for example, features a resolution of 1,280 by 960, but using the telephoto mode or the sequence shooting mode produces images that are only 640 by 480. Just remember: "Optical zoom, good; digital zoom, not so good," unless you shoot only for the Web or for CD-ROM multimedia productions, in which case it usually doesn't matter.
Recharge Your Batteries -- If rechargeable batteries don't come with the camera, I highly recommend getting some. Most digital cameras eat batteries like candy (the number one user complaint), especially since they must power the flash and the LCD screen used to preview and post-view shots (if the camera has an LCD). The best batteries I've found for most digital cameras are Quest nickel metal hydride (NiMH), made by Harding Energy and now sold everywhere.
Quest batteries hold a near-constant voltage when in use, and I've found they last four times longer than standard alkalines and at least twice as long as nickel cadmium (NiCad) batteries. And you can fully recharge them anytime, since, unlike NiCads (which photographers detest), they don't suffer from memory problems whereby they remember previous power levels instead of fully recharging. Although they can take up to 16 hours to recharge (from full discharge), Quests are so inexpensive (4 batteries and a charger for $35) you can buy several sets to always have enough on hand. If fast recharging is a must, a special charger has been promised soon.
For even longer-lasting power, I recommend one battery pack above the others. The Emberley ProPower 2.45, a featherweight NiMH rechargeable powerhouse that could put the Energizer Bunny into warp drive. Lasting more than twice as long as a set of Quests, it can double as an AC adapter, (which can cost as much as $65), and sells for about $99.
Storing Your Images -- Most digital cameras now use removable storage cards, with the two main types being either Compact Flash or SmartMedia. I've found them to be equally good, although presently Compact Flash cards have higher capacities. This can be a double-edged sword, though; it would be like using a roll of film that could hold 100 pictures, handy in one way but a little risky in that all your photographic eggs would be in one basket. Furthermore, it would take a long, long time to go through those images in the camera's playback mode if you had to. The main advantage to cards with more memory capacity is that they'll be able to store higher resolution images produced by the next generation of digital cameras.
SmartMedia cards are less expensive than their Compact Flash cousins and they can also slip into a FlashPath adapter ($99) can then be inserted into the Mac's floppy drive. Images then transfer faster than through a cable connection. (Don't confuse this capability with Sony cameras which use standard high-density floppy disks.) Both Compact Flash and SmartMedia are firmly established standards, so buy your camera based on its attributes and don't worry about the storage it uses.
Whether you store images on removable cards or the camera itself, you'll soon realize after transferring them to your computer that digital photos can quickly consume hard disk space. Higher-resolution images create larger file sizes.
Fortunately, many cameras allow you to select the degree of compression depending on the ultimate picture quality you require. On the Nikon CoolPix 900s, for example, available compression ratios are 1:4 (Fine), 1:8 (Normal), and 1:16 (Basic), with lower compression yielding better image quality than higher compression. In all modes, resolution remains the same. On some cameras, though, resolution also changes, so check the specifications. If a high degree of compression is acceptable, you can store more images in the camera or on its memory card. Expect to see compressed images grow from roughly five to twenty times in size if you open them in an image-editing application.
Also keep in mind that cameras compress the images using JPEG (Joint Photographic Experts Group) compression, which is a lossy method - some data is thrown out to conserve space. When you bring the image into your imaging program, save it as a TIFF-formatted file before doing anything. This eliminates the risk of it being closed as a JPEG file (which throws out more data) and becoming further degraded each time you save it.
Don't worry if you don't own an image-editing program such as Adobe Photoshop. Many digital camera manufacturers now include their own stand-alone programs that allow downloading to a folder, and some even have limited imaging capabilities. Another possibility is Adobe's cross-platform PhotoDeluxe, which is bundled with most cameras; other good software, like Microspot's PhotoFix (also bundled as PhotoStudio), should be given serious consideration. These programs are very inexpensive (under $100), easy to learn, require only a small amount of RAM and hard disk space to run, and have many features photographers will appreciate.
Until you pick the digital imaging program you want to marry - divorce not being an easy option in this field - you can do a bit of refining with those programs and then print your results. Some cameras, such as Epson and Olympus, allow you to bypass your computer entirely and print directly to one of their photographic quality printers, but in return for the convenience, you give up creative control of the final image.
Printing Images -- Although low resolution images are fine for the Web, printing them on paper changes things drastically. A 640 by 480 pixel image can be printed as an 8.8 by 6.6 inch photo, but the results could end up fuzzy or pixelated. If you want to print pictures as large as 5 by 7 inches, the camera should have 768 vertical pixels or more. Larger print sizes will usually require a camera with at least 960 vertical pixels (the vertical pixel number is the smaller one when resolution is described). However, some cameras with lower resolutions may be able to equal the results of those with higher pixel counts depending on the quality of their lenses and other design factors. Incidentally, many cameras offer a choice of high and low resolution modes. Use the higher one if you want prints, and the lower one for Web images or for sending photos as email attachments.
Into the Next Generation -- Digital cameras have now settled comfortably into their second generation. The 640 by 480 resolution cameras are mainly for snap-shooters who want to display work on the Web or make prints up to 4 by 6 inches. Megapixel cameras in the 1.2 to 1.6 million pixel range produce beautiful 8 by 10 inch prints (and larger) when output on inexpensive Epson 1,440 dpi PhotoStylus printers (the best, incidentally). The difference in resolution between 1.2 and 1.6 million pixels is often negligible.
Things improve every day. For example, some cameras can now even take multiple shots per second, whereas a year ago you would have been evaluating which camera had the shortest time lag between shots. (However, only a few, such as the new Olympus D620L can take multiple shots at their highest resolution settings - and you may still have to wait a minute or more after each half-dozen shots are taken for the camera to process the images.)
In the next installment of this article [which may have to wait a week or two because of Macworld Expo news -Adam], I'll offer my top picks for digital cameras currently on the market. Now that competition is heating up, there are some real bargains out there.
[Arthur H. Bleich is a photographer, writer, and educator who lives in Miami. He writes for major publications both in the U.S. and abroad, and is Contributing Editor of Digital Camera Magazine. He invites you to visit his Digital PhotoCorner, where you can find resources mentioned in this article, plus take an interactive course he'll be teaching called DIGIPHOTO 101.]
Article 7 of 12 in series
Digital photography continues to advance. In TidBITS-461, I talked about what to look for in a digital camera, and what has changed in terms of resolution, image storage, and printing since I first wrote about the field in TidBITS-407Show full article
Digital photography continues to advance. In TidBITS-461, I talked about what to look for in a digital camera, and what has changed in terms of resolution, image storage, and printing since I first wrote about the field in TidBITS-407. If you need to come up to speed on some of the terminology below, check out those articles.
Now it's time to focus on specific cameras that merit serious consideration. To make my short list, a camera must feature an optical viewfinder or reflex viewing in addition to its LCD screen. However, I've also listed an acceptable few without viewfinders, but which include LCDs that pivot so you don't have to hold the camera at arm's length. Cameras must also have an integral flash, a street price of $1,000 or less, and high marks from Internet users. All cameras come with transfer software - usually Adobe's PhotoDeluxe and a plug-in - and some also include other software.
All the cameras listed below will please you, and I've noted my personal favorites. I've been involved in photography for over 40 years, and my picks usually ignore bells and whistles that some folks like but seldom use, serving only to complicate camera operation.
Here's how current cameras stack up, grouped in order of increasing resolution and then street prices, rounded off to the nearest couple of dollars as of 15-Jan-99. Remember, though, you may want to pay a few dollars more to buy from a reputable dealer.
Low Resolution Cameras -- Don't assume low resolution means low quality. For Web design and images not intended for print, lower resolution cameras can be an excellent value.
Agfa ePhoto 307 (internal storage only, no LCD screen; $180): Built like a Panzer tank, this fixed-focus camera with a 43 mm equivalent lens has two resolution modes, shutter speeds up to 1/10,000th of a second, and an excellent software package. Internal memory stores 36 images at 640 by 480 pixels or 72 images at 320 by 240 pixels. The ePhoto 307 uses little power and batteries last a long time. Agfa has just discontinued this model, but they're still available and they've received nothing but high praise from users. Consider it plain vanilla, but oh, so good!
Fuji DX-5 (removable storage, no LCD screen; $195): Sized at 4.5 by 1.5 by 2.5 inches, this compact pocket camera has a fixed-focus lens, a pop-up flash, and a 640 by 480 pixel resolution. Fuji recently redesigned this camera, dropping the original LCD screen in favor of a bright optical viewfinder; there are also two manual aperture settings for different lighting conditions. The DX-5 is a great travelling camera, using SmartMedia storage and requiring only two AA batteries.
Olympus D-220L (removable storage, autofocus, LCD screen, and video out; $235): This is a sweet, compact, traditional-looking camera loaded with premium features, including a choice of 640 by 480 pixel or 320 by 240 pixel resolutions. Three user-selectable compression modes and superb glass optics give it better-than-expected images considering its pixel count. SmartMedia storage also makes this a gem for the price.
In a Class by Itself -- It's hard to place the $300 Agfa ePhoto 780 in any category, since it shoots 640 by 480-pixel images which its software can interpolate to 1,024 by 768 - something akin to digital alchemy in which extra pixels are spun out of thin air (for more information, see the previous article in this series). It's the fastest, slickest, and most usable advanced-feature digital camera in its price range. It has a bright optical viewfinder, simple controls, and takes just over a second to recycle between shots. Its LCD can also be used for viewing, and it brings up stored pictures as fast as you can press the button. It features removable SmartMedia storage, three focus positions (macro, portrait, and group), and a sexy, seductive design. And the pictures print out fine up to about 5 by 7 inches. To top it off, the ePhoto 780 comes with great software and video out. Who could ask for anything more? This camera is one of my personal favorites.
Medium Resolution Cameras -- When you need higher-quality images, but don't want to pawn your valuables to get them, turn to these medium resolution models. Each one uses removable media.
Olympus D-320L (autofocus, LCD screen, video out; $325): This camera features 1,024 by 768 pixel high resolution, and 640 by 480 pixel low resolution, offering absolutely brilliant images up to about 6 by 8 inches. The D-320L takes SmartMedia storage cards, features fine glass optics, and delivers finer picture quality than its resolution would indicate.
Sony MVC FD91 (optical zoom, LCD screen, viewfinder; $855): With a new progressive-scan charge-coupled device (CCD) producing a 1,024 by 768-pixel resolution and using almost-ubiquitous floppies, Sony seems to have hit the mark with this Mavica model. Multiple resolution choices, in-camera disk-to-disk copying, audio support, a phenomenal lithium-ion battery good for hundreds of shots before recharging, a rapid-fire mode, aperture and shutter priority choices, macros, and numerous other features make it almost too good to believe. It will even shoot up to one minute of MPEG-compressed video. Of Sony's new FD series, only the FD91 has a color viewfinder and an LCD viewer- the other Mavicas will still give you the feeling that you're holding a rifle at arms' length as punishment for not spit-shining your shoes. With a humongous 37 mm - 518 mm optical zoom, this camera should become a favorite of sports and nature photographers.
High Resolution Cameras -- So you want to grab as much image information as you can? Look no further than these high-powered models. (All use removable storage cards.)
Fujifilm MX-700 (also Leica DigiLux; autofocus, digital zoom, LCD screen, video out; $455): Looking like something built for James Bond, this miniature silver beauty captures images in 1,280 by 1,024-pixel resolution with 640 by 480 as an alternative. Wildly loved by its users, its main drawback is a low-resolution 2x digital zoom. It needs five seconds to recycle between images (12 with flash), offers three compression modes plus SmartMedia storage, macro capabilities, and a lithium-ion battery that can power over 150 shots between charges.
Nikon CoolPix 900/900s (autofocus, optical zoom, LCD screen, video out): 1,280 by 960 pixel resolution with outstanding color and "right-on" exposure. These CoolPix cameras offer three metering choices, an optical zoom viewfinder with diopter correction, a see-through LCD shield that protects against finger marks, and a swiveling 38 mm - 115 mm (35 mm equivalent) Nikkor zoom lens with the closest focusing macro of all. A manual override mode, an external flash synch on the 900s for Nikon flash units only (using others will hurt the camera), and a host of other goodies make these cameras top-of-the-line choices and one of my personal favorites. The CP900 is $570, while the CP900s is $635.
Olympus D400Z (autofocus, optical zoom, LCD screen, video out; $665): This is a remarkable new camera incorporating both 3x optical (35 mm - 105 mm) with a 2x digital zoom boost (at any optical focal length). With a 1,280 by 920-pixel resolution, the D400Z is right up there in pixels. The package includes a FlashPath adapter for transferring images directly to your computer through the floppy drive. You can also shoot uncompressed TIFF images, a novel feature that eliminates JPEG artifacts- but don't expect to store more than a few on each SmartMedia card. Still, for special shots, it's a unique capability on a unique camera.
Agfa ePhoto 1680 (autofocus, optical zoom, LCD screen, video out; $740): An extraordinary camera that beats all other swiveling designs hands-down on ergonomics, the ePhoto 1680 offers an optical resolution of 1,280 by 960 pixels and can further interpolate an image to 1,600 by 1,200 pixels. Alas, it has no optical viewfinder, but I've not found that to be a drawback on this particular camera or its slightly lower-resolution cousin, the ePhoto 1280. A 38 mm - 114 mm tack-sharp optical zoom lens and some of the easiest-to-operate controls make this camera well worth a look.
Olympus D-600L/D620L (reflex viewing, autofocus, optical zoom, LCD screen): These cameras provide resolutions of 1,280 by 1,024 pixels with an alternative resolution of 640 by 512 pixels. (The new D620L allows fast shooting - up to 5 high-resolution images in 3.6 seconds - along with external flash synch for any brand of flash and some extra goodies.) Both have a 3x zoom lens (36 mm -110 mm equivalent) and support for SmartMedia cards. The size of their sensor array is directly proportional to an 8 by 10-inch print, which means no wasted pixels printing at that size. Even though they lack video output, they're among my personal favorites. The D600L is $705, while the D620L is $995.
Boldly Going Where No Digicam Has Gone Before -- My evaluation unit of the unusual Minolta Dimage EX Zoom 1500 camera hasn't arrived yet, so I can tell you mostly that it's a major upgrade from the lower resolution model I thought was pretty neat last year, priced at $735. Its uniqueness lies in its detachable lens unit, which you can place anywhere at the end of a five foot cable tether. I'm sure you can think of a few creative uses for this feature.
But that's just the beginning. I'm impressed with its high 1,344 by 1,008-pixel resolution (including uncompressed image capability) and compact flash memory storage, plus its ability to shoot 7 frames in 2 seconds at high resolution. The camera also offers manual control of f-stops and shutter speeds and an equivalent 38 mm - 115 mm optical zoom. It has both an optical viewfinder and LCD viewing screen, shutter speeds from 1/4,000th to 2 full seconds, a 640 by 480 low resolution mode, video output, and future optional lens units and resolution upgrades. As Agatha Christie's fictional sleuth Hercule Poirot would say, those little grey cells at Minolta were working overtime here. This camera is bound to become one of my favorites and - fair warning - Minolta may have to send out a SWAT team to get my evaluation unit back.
Depth of the Field -- Don't feel bad if your beloved digital camera isn't listed here - that means nothing as long as you're happy with it. Last year, I received multiple email messages from readers who entered into battle with me because the two Sony Mavicas then on the market weren't listed. Although those cameras produced awful low-quality freeze-frame video images and had horrible LCDs, they sold like hotcakes because users were enthralled by the cameras' use of cheap floppy disks. And so was I, until I realized I was homing in on one interesting feature that didn't make up for other shortcomings. And, believe me, I tried my best to include a Kodak camera this year, but their low-end models all come up short and their high-end ones are downright Mac-unfriendly.
There's no "right" camera; only the one that's right for you. And if it isn't, buy another. That's the point of my picks: to help you identify the wheat among all the chaff. Just as you'll buy more than one computer in your lifetime, you'll do the same with digital cameras. There will always be a better one just around the corner, and there are no fatal mistakes when it comes to buying digital cameras. Recognize that, and just build your picture-taking skills with the camera you choose (or already have). As your skills improve, you'll know exactly what features you'll want on your next camera.
More Information -- A wealth of resource material covering everything mentioned in this article, other digital photography sites, price comparison sites, and a major online merchant list may be found at the Resources section of Digital PhotoCorner. You'll also find other informative material relating to digital cameras and imaging at the site.
[Arthur H. Bleich is a photographer, writer, and educator who lives in Miami. He has done assignments for major publications both in the U.S. and abroad, and is Contributing Editor of Digital Camera Magazine. He invites you to visit his Digital PhotoCorner where, among other things, you can take an interactive course he'll be teaching called DIGIPHOTO 101.]
Article 8 of 12 in series
If you've ever tried to put together a good audio-video system, you know the angst that goes with it. Even with an unlimited budget, you have to make hard choices between this amplifier and that receiver and those speakersShow full article
If you've ever tried to put together a good audio-video system, you know the angst that goes with it. Even with an unlimited budget, you have to make hard choices between this amplifier and that receiver and those speakers. The same applies to digital cameras - they're only a part what we call digital photography. Look at your first digital camera purchase as just a component in a larger system, the capture component. But, if you're like most people and want prints of your digital pictures, the output component is equally important because without it, the images printed from best digital camera will disappoint you. Plus, you'll want to think about batteries, more storage space, and just how you'll be transferring images from the camera to your computer.
From Input to Output -- So, along with choosing a digital camera, choose the right printer, and right now the best photo printers are made by Epson - period. I'm uninterested in getting into a religious war along the lines of the Mac versus PC debates, but suffice to say that Epson is my pick, and a good Epson printer should be the first item on your digital camera budget. There are two basic lines, the Stylus Color and the Stylus Photo, and the primary difference is that the Stylus Color printers print in four colors, whereas the Stylus Photo printers print in six colors. The more colors, the better the photos, which also benefit from smaller ink droplet size - 4 picoliters is better than 6 picoliters. However, ignore high resolution figures (above 720 dpi) on printers; they are not always true indicators of print quality. The price you'll pay often reflects print speed and number of interface options; just make sure to match those to the amount you plan to print and to your current (and future) computer system.
I'm partial to the Epson Stylus Photo 870 and the wide-format 1270 because they give gorgeous prints at high speed. The $250 Stylus Photo 870 is the biggest bargain in six-color inkjets on the market today. But if that's too much, look at the four-color Stylus Color 777 which has 4 picoliter droplets and matching iMac color choices for under $100. You can compare specifications on the many different models on the Epson Web site.
I'm familiar with the "fading" flap about ozone and possibly other airborne elements that are causing the light cyan ink in the Stylus Photo 870 and 1270 to take a premature hike resulting in "oranging" of the print. But this has been much overplayed. Take it with a dash of light magenta: most users have never experienced the problem and besides, only prints on Epson's Premium Glossy Paper seem to have faded, and Epson has now reformulated that paper. [Remember too that you're printing a digital photograph - since it's digital, you can always print additional identical copies. -Adam]
Recharge It! Once you have resolved the printer problem, it's time to add other elements of the system. If you read digital camera newsgroups and other forums, you're bound to read something like, "I really like this camera but battery consumption sucks!" or words to that effect. It's as if the new purchaser expected NASA-level performance out of a crummy set of alkaline AA batteries (yes, the particular poster I had in mind did). This unfortunate situation occurs because most digital camera marketing mavens think consumers won't buy the product if they were to say: "We've put a set of drugstore batteries in here to get you started, but you'll have to spend a few bucks more for rechargeables."
The smart manufacturers slip in rechargeable NiMH (or in a few cases, lithium-ion) batteries and a charger and defuse the issue from the beginning. But if your new digital camera comes only with standard sizes of alkaline batteries, just buy a Quest Premium Gold Battery Charger (it comes with four batteries), and four extra batteries and be done with it. The Quest charger monitors each battery individually, does a fast charge in just a couple of hours followed by a controlled trickle, and you can leave the batteries in the charger for as long as you'd like- they're always topped off and ready to go when you are. As an added advantage, it includes a 12-volt DC plug that lets you use the charger while driving.
Store Those Images -- Along with battery life (the reason to have an extra set of batteries), the other factor that will limit how many images you can shoot at once is the size of your memory card. There are three basic types of memory cards: Compact Flash, SmartMedia, and Sony's proprietary Memory Sticks. Most digital cameras come with small (commonly 8 MB) memory cards, and particularly if you want to shoot at the highest resolution offered by your camera, you'll fill that puppy up with a mere handful of shots. Trust me, you'll want at least one more memory card, but choose 64 MB or under because, like eggs, you don't want to put all your shots in one basket. Several smaller cards are better than one humongous one. The camera you choose generally dictates which type of card you use, but it may be worth keeping in mind that SmartMedia cards, although the smallest, are sensitive to static electricity because their contacts are exposed. Compact Flash cards are more common, usually less expensive, and come in larger sizes. Sony's Memory Stick cards are also relatively inexpensive but limited to use with Sony products right now. You'll have no trouble finding retailers that sell memory cards, but it can pay to shop around.
Image Transfers -- Finally, there's the question of just how you plan to move images from the camera into your computer. Many people worry about whether or not the camera supports USB (or serial connections, for older Macs), but it's not as big a deal as you might think. Everyone I know hates using USB because you have to plug a cable into the camera, then the other end into a USB port, and then fiddle around with a camera that sits in front of your computer. Here's how the sophisticated photographers do it. They buy a digital camera based on the features they want, whether or not it has USB. Then they get a Delkin or Microtech International USB multi-card reader that reads Compact Flash, Compact Flash II, and SmartMedia cards. When they want to transfer images, they pop the memory card out of the camera and into the reader.
And if you primarily use a PowerBook that supports PC Cards, you can buy inexpensive adapters from companies like Microtech or Unity Digital into which you insert the memory card. Then, when you pop the adapter into the PowerBook, it shows up like another disk, so it's not only easy to work with, it doubles as a RAM disk if you need to transfer files to another PowerBook.
If you don't yet have an extra memory card, look for bundles that provide a memory card and some sort of card reader - it can be cheaper than buying them separately.
What's the cost of these digital camera components? Less than $500 for the printer, rechargeable battery package, extra memory card, and USB or PC Card reader. You don't need all these items right away, but those five bills will save you so much grief, you'll smile every time you use the components.
[Arthur H. Bleich is a photographer, writer, and educator who lives in Miami and is Feature Editor of Digital Camera Magazine. He has done assignments for major publications both in the U.S. and abroad, and conducts Digital Photography Workshop Cruises for Zing.com (where he is right now). TidBITS readers can participate in the Zing Digital Photography Workshop-at-Sea between 03-Dec-00 to 10-Dec-00, where pictures taken by and of the class will be posted each day at Zing.com, where they'll remain through January. Log in with zingcruise2000 as your member name and zingcruise as your password. Arthur also invites you to click in to his Digital PhotoCorner to read a complete guide to buying your first digital camera - TidBITS will also have more on that in next week's issue.]
Article 9 of 12 in series
My last article talked about the various accouterments you'll need for a digital camera, and it should have given you some ideas that you'll find useful when researching which camera is perfect for your needsShow full article
My last article talked about the various accouterments you'll need for a digital camera, and it should have given you some ideas that you'll find useful when researching which camera is perfect for your needs. Now let's look at some digital cameras that would make exquisite holiday gifts. These are my opinions of some of the best I've used; if you want details on every nut and bolt, check out the links page on my Web site for descriptions of the best digital photography sites offering detailed reviews. Although I also do camera reviews - for Digital Camera Magazine, CNET, Wired, and others, I keep cameras around for a long time - much to the chagrin of some manufacturers. I want to use them as a serious photographer would, so my impressions may be quite different from reviewers who do what I call "autopsy" reviews and then move on to the next camera. Also, this is the third year in a row I've written about digital cameras for TidBITS; check back on some of my previous articles for general advice and explanation of different aspects of digital photography.
Finally, after you've read all the detailed reviews (which may be a mind-numbing experience if you're not seriously into photography), it's worth checking out the model you like best on price-comparison services like DealTime, StoreRunner, and MySimon. Also, if you have some time, watch the special deal sites like Dealnews and Techbargains.com to catch short-term specials.
Here then are my three favorite digital cameras that I have used extensively and would highly recommend. They range from two megapixels to four megapixels and are priced accordingly.
Nikon CoolPix 800 -- I've used this little two-megapixel wonder for almost a year [it's being replaced by the higher resolution CoolPix 880; see Outpost.com's deal in the sponsorship area at the top of the issue. -Adam] and the image quality is outstanding. It costs about $500 (there's a $75 rebate through the end of the year), it's easy to operate (although the initial set-up menus require attention), and you can hang a lot of accessory lenses and filters on it. It's also the best digital camera I've found for shooting infrared pictures; just put on a Tiffen #87 infrared filter and the image shows up clearly on the LCD display. (The CoolPix 800 will a shoot an infared image at 1/30th second at f-4; most IR-sensitive cameras measure exposure times in full seconds.)
You cannot make many adjustments to exposure - the CoolPix 800 is basically a sophisticated point-and-shoot camera with reasonably fast shot-to-shot time and very fast shot-to-shot playback. Its moderate zoom range, 38mm to 76mm, can be easily extended in either direction to 28mm or 152mm by using Tiffen auxiliary lenses and an adapter that brings its small diameter lens threads up to a more-standard 37mm.
The CoolPix 800 will also focus to an unusually close 2.8 inches for macro shots, has video out so you can display images on a television (great for when you're visiting relatives), offers fast shutter speeds for capturing action pictures, and uses Compact Flash memory cards. One downside is that it's restricted to slow serial transfers unless you use a USB-based reader or PC Card adapter to access its Compact Flash cards.
Kodak DC4800 -- This beautifully designed three-megapixel digital camera packs more punch into a small package than anything on the market today, and all for about $800. Image-wise, it'll equal or beat the pants off the best that other manufacturers have to offer and is so well-thought-out, if you buy one, you're likely to keep it for years.
The outstanding virtue of the DC4800 is simplicity, but lurking behind that mask are a plethora of professional features you can ignore until you're ready to take them on. There isn't a reviewer that didn't catch his or her breath when they received this little beauty and started to shoot with it. All the controls are logically laid out, and the menus are the simplest you'll find. If you want more control, you'll find niceties like a mechanical flip switch right on top of the camera for the exposure compensation control - no need to dive into a menu. You can also change aperture on a simple mode dial so you have depth of field (range of sharpness) control at your fingertips
The zoom range is a perfect 28mm to 84mm - perfect because with an inexpensive Tiffen MegaPlus wide (.75x) or telephoto (2x) add-on, you can shoot really wide at 21mm or extend the focal length to 168mm. Kodak made a perfect choice there- it's a professional range, yet excellent for beginners who, if they need to take a group shot, won't have to back off a cliff.
Although shot-to-shot time isn't great (about one second), the DC4800 shines in playback mode. You can flip through images as fast as you can press the button. It uses a lithium-ion battery, so you'll probably want to buy an extra one. The DC4800 has a wide range of shutter speeds and lens opening settings, includes video out, uses Compact Flash memory cards, and can connect to your computer via USB. So much potential packed into a digital camera this well-designed and inexpensive is indeed a find.
Olympus Camedia E-10 -- Olympus's $2,000 answer to the semi-pro Nikon D-1, Canon D30, and Fuji FinePix S1 is the four-megapixel Camedia E-10. Big, heavy, and built like a traditional 35mm SLR (single-lens reflex) camera, the Camedia E-10 proves that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Despite an awesome array of buttons, the Camedia E-10 is one of the easiest-to-use digital cameras on the market because it mirrors traditional single-lens reflex cameras in both form and function. It has a fast f-2.0, 35mm to 140mm (equivalent) zoom lens - a huge hunk of light gathering glass that produces incredible images. You can zoom in by turning the lens barrel and can manually focus the same way. Either look through the lens or at the image on the LCD monitor to preview your shot - the LCD swivels in two directions to simplify photographing at odd angles.
The most outstanding feature of the Camedia E-10, though, is that it has evened the playing field with traditional cameras on shutter lag - there's virtually none. It does its pre-shot song and dance so adroitly, you can simply press down and you've got the shot - not what came after what you saw. If the cat yawns you'll capture tongue, teeth, and throat, not closed lips and a peeved expression. It can also do automatic bracketing of exposures and time lapse photography.
There are a few minuses. Forget fast action shots, because Olympus failed to crank up the shutter speed up faster than 1/640th of a second (slower than both of the two other cameras I've discussed so far, which can hit 1/750th of a second and 1/1000th of a second, respectively). But on the flip side, you can do extremely long exposures - up to 30 seconds. Playback is annoyingly (but not fatally) slow, with about a second between images. Olympus has never gotten this right - it's a genetic flaw.
Finally, although money is not your main issue with a $2,000 camera, the Camedia E-10's lens add-ons and filters are going to be pricey since the lens is threaded for 62mm accessories; to get an aperture of f-2.0 on a zoom lens, you need a lot of glass diameter, so high prices just go with the territory. Finally, that same big lens might make it difficult to find accessory lenses to widen the field of view. Olympus makes a 62mm add-on but it only converts the lens to 28mm - not wide enough for dramatic shots.
The Camedia E-10 has an aperture range of f-2 through f-11, can use optional lithium-ion batteries (although a Unity Digital ProPower Pack battery will do even better), and has video out for image display on a television. Unlike most smaller cameras, the Camedia E-10 accepts Compact Flash, Compact Flash II, and SmartMedia memory cards, plus you can connect it to a computer via USB. All in all, this is the digital camera many serious photographers have been waiting for- the one that will challenge and smash old prejudices about the superiority of film images compared to digital (I can hear the purists out there gnashing their teeth and I'm ready to take them on). In short, the Camedia E-10, even with its minor flaws, is a tiger.
Although these three are my picks for 2000, there are plenty of other good cameras out there, and I'll have some more short recommendations soon. [They'll appear in this week's holiday gift issue. -Adam]
[Arthur H. Bleich is a photographer, writer, and educator who lives in Miami and is Feature Editor of Digital Camera Magazine. He has done assignments for major publications both in the U.S. and abroad, and conducts Digital Photography Workshop Cruises for Zing.com. Arthur also invites you to click in to his Digital PhotoCorner for more on digital cameras.]
Article 10 of 12 in series
In TidBITS-559, I highlighted my three favorite digital cameras I've used extensively in the two-to-four megapixel range. The cameras listed below are culled from many other digital cameras I've personally used, reviewed, and liked over the last yearShow full article
In TidBITS-559, I highlighted my three favorite digital cameras I've used extensively in the two-to-four megapixel range. The cameras listed below are culled from many other digital cameras I've personally used, reviewed, and liked over the last year. If your favorite isn't included, it only means I haven't used it. They're listed first by number of pixels and then alphabetically by name, with a special section for boutique cameras at the end.
One-Megapixel -- These cameras are great if you're starting out and don't want to spend a lot of money on a digital camera, particularly if you're not sure how much you'll be using it.
Epson PhotoPC 650: It has a poor LCD monitor image and no optical zoom, but it does feature a threaded mount for auxiliary lenses, USB support, and both NTSC and PAL video out. It's a good starter camera for just $300.
Fuji MX-1200: Although it lacks automatic focus and optical zoom (digital zoom is worthless), it's a bargain at $235. (Look in the "Prosumer" digital imaging products on Fuji's Web site.)
Olympus D360L: This camera is all-around excellent with great image quality and a terrific feature-set, though no optical zoom. A "Best Buy" at $300.
Two-Megapixel -- Consider a two-megapixel camera if you want higher quality images and are willing to jump up a level in price. The last camera in the list, the Olympus C2500L, features two-and-a-half megapixels.
Casio QV2000UX: This $600 camera features an f-2.0 lens and flexibility, with shutter and aperture priority. USB and serial connections give some versatility for downloads. Also, it's only $800 with the 340 MB IBM Microdrive, which not all cameras support.
Kodak DC3400: Successor to the great 240 and 280 Kodak cameras, it's probably the best and easiest-to-use digital camera in the $500 price range
Olympus C2000/2200 Zoom: Loaded with features but harder to learn than the Kodak DC3400, this $800 camera's image quality is outstanding and its f-2 lens is excellent in low light.
Olympus C2500L: In a class by itself, the huge 2/3-inch CCD of this $1,100 camera yields better image quality than most three-megapixel cameras. It's also an SLR (single lens reflex); you view your intended image through the lens, but cannot preview it on the LCD monitor, which isn't a drawback in my mind.
Three-Megapixel -- The three-megapixel cameras appeal to the serious amateurs who are willing to pay more for increased quality and features, but who can't justify jumping to the level of the semi-pro Camedia E-10, above.
Casio QV-3000EX: Almost identical to its two-megapixel sibling mentioned above, this $800 camera has a complete feature set. Again, it's only $1,000 with the IBM Microdrive.
Nikon CoolPix 990: Although the image quality on this well-liked camera is excellent, you either like its ergonomics (the two-part body rotates so you can view the LCD while photographing at odd angles) or you don't. Try one out before you commit to this $1,000 camera.
Olympus C3000/3030 Zoom: Upgraded to a higher resolution than the C2000/2020 series, this $1,000 camera unfortunately lost its f-2.0 lens and now has an f-2.8, which doesn't handle low light levels as well.
Boutique Digital Cameras -- Finally, we come to the boutique cameras, which are mostly notable for being truly tiny. Small size is not just a gimmick though, since it doesn't matter how good the pictures from a digital camera are if it's too large to carry with you comfortably. Some people even have two digital cameras, a large model for serious work where quality is all-important and one of these itty-bitty guys for snapshots.
Kodak DC3800. Small, with richly saturated color images, this two-megapixel camera is easy to use and a "Best Buy" if you want a diminutive digital camera at the diminutive price of $500.
Sony DSC-P1: This $800 camera is an absolutely to-die-for little jewel which, despite Sony's lousy 90-day warranty is worth dangling from your wrist for the looks you'll get. It takes great pictures, too!
[Arthur H. Bleich is a photographer, writer, and educator who lives in Miami and is Feature Editor of Digital Camera Magazine. He has done assignments for major publications both in the U.S. and abroad, and conducts Digital Photography Workshop Cruises for Zing.com. Arthur also invites you to click in to his Digital PhotoCorner for more on digital cameras.]
Article 11 of 12 in series
Digital cameras are selling briskly this holiday season and prices have finally descended from the stratosphere. For $300 to $500, you can get a digicam with the same resolution and features that would have cost almost twice as much just over a year agoShow full article
Digital cameras are selling briskly this holiday season and prices have finally descended from the stratosphere. For $300 to $500, you can get a digicam with the same resolution and features that would have cost almost twice as much just over a year ago. A plethora of Web sites review almost every new model in excruciating detail; instead of picking out specific camera models this year, as I have for the last few years in TidBITS, I've chosen to look at some nifty digicam accessories and peripherals.
Get a Better View -- If you yearn to shoot wider, tighter, or closer than your camera will let you, add-on lenses can open up a whole new visual world. Wide angle add-ons let you include more in a scene, telephotos bring distant objects up close (and are great for portraits), and close-up lenses can pick out the most minuscule of details. Most cameras have threads on or at the base of the lens to allow auxiliary lenses (or adapters) to be screwed on. Tiffen and Kodak make adapters, lenses, and sets of lenses that fit most digicams at prices from $40 to $125.
These next three small items can make a big difference. To prevent your LCD monitor image from disappearing in bright sunlight, get a $20 Hoodman LCD Hood which is easily attached with supplied velcro. To keep your lens squeaky clean, the $17 LensPen MiniPro will clean lenses with diameters between 7 mm and 13 mm, getting right to the edges and lifting the dirt off rather than just pushing it around. There's also the standard LensPen at the same price for larger lenses. Finally, why crouch when you can sit? When you need to shoot at a low angle or get on the same level with kids, save your knees and spring for a $6 featherweight, folding camping stool that can be opened in seconds and provides stable, comfortable seating at 15 inches off the ground.
Shoot Steady, Travel Light -- A tripod can make a big difference when shooting under low light - it will steady your digicam when slow shutter speeds are required for proper exposure. But it's no fun dragging around a big, heavy tripod, so many good shots are lost. The answer? A 2.5 pound lightweight Cullmann Magic 2 ($120 at B & H Photo Video) that extends to full tripod size. The legs, ball head, and quick-release mechanism fold absolutely flat to about 13.5 by 5 by 1.5 inches, so it can be carried in a small camera bag; you can even unscrew one of its legs, join it to the center column and, presto, you have a full-sized unipod.
Speaking of camera bags, Tamrac makes a reasonably priced selection from $25 to $80 that are custom-tailored for different digicam models. Most can be worn on your belt or slung over your shoulder, and many models are virtually waterproof. They have custom pockets for batteries, memory cards, and manuals; larger ones can hold a full line of add-on lenses. One even comes in two sections so if you travel, you can unzip the part that holds chargers, small storage drives and other non-photo stuff and leave it in the hotel room while you take off for a photo shoot with the other part which holds your camera and accessories.
Extra batteries or a battery pack are also a good investment. If your camera uses AA batteries, the Quest Q2 Premium Gold Charger Kit is available for about $50 and comes with four NiMH rechargeable batteries which can be rejuvenated in less than three hours. Each battery is monitored by a separate charging circuit that applies periodic trickle current to keep it in top shape. Need more power? Try one of UnityDigital's ProPower Packs that sell for as low as $69. It weighs only a few ounces, plugs into your digicam's AC input, and lets you shoot almost forever before it needs a recharge.
From Camera to Mac -- You'll soon find that the meager memory card that came with your digicam does not have nearly enough capacity to hold all the images you'll be taking. You'll need a bigger card, but fight the urge to buy the biggest. Why? Because if it gets corrupted, you could lose all your pictures. It's better to break up memory storage into smaller cards, like 64 MB or 128 MB, depending on the resolution and image compression you usually use when shooting. Delkin and Lexar make good cards with strong warranties - prices are now about $1 per megabyte or less.
Although most all digicams transfer images to your computer via a USB cable, it's frequently a pain to hook it all up. A better solution is a memory card reader that stays permanently attached to your Mac's USB port. Then, all you have to do is remove the card from the camera and slip it into the reader. The $89 Addonics Pocket DigiDrive has slots for five different sized cards: Compact Flash I and II, SmartMedia, MultiMedia/Secure Digital, and Memory Stick. Why do you need all five when digicams usually take just one type? Because your next camera (or other devices) may use a different card. With a memory card reader this flexible, you'll be loaded for bear - at least until yet another card standard comes along.
As you accumulate more images, your hard disk will begin to fill up until it begins to bulge. Time for some extra storage. About $300 will get you Iomega's Predator USB or FireWire CD Burner to store images on CDs; with the included Roxio Toast software it's really a snap. Or spend about the same for Western Digital's 60 GB External FireWire Drive which provides a near-bottomless pit for picture storage. As a bonus, you can back up your entire hard disk to it and still have gobs of room for photos.
Some digicams come bundled with decent imaging programs, while others do not. Regardless, for $100 you can get what I unabashedly feel is now the world's greatest imaging program value: Adobe Photoshop Elements. Don't just take my word for it - go to Adobe's Web site, download it, and try it absolutely free for 30 days. My guess is that after using the built-in how-to's that can transform you into an instant imaging expert, you'll wonder why it isn't selling for three times the price - or even more.
Once you get hooked on imaging, you'll want to check out the latest versions of flat panel computer monitors - sharp, bright, cool-running, and thin. One of my favorites is Samsung's 17-inch SyncMaster 170T, which is compatible with both analog and digital video signals. It's a top-of-the-line monitor whose images don't fade away like old soldiers when you view it from various angles; that's why it fetches a hefty price of about $850. If that's a bit too high for your budget, KDS has two analog models, the 15-inch Rad-5 at $400 and the 17-inch Rad-7 at $800 that display superb images; you can check 'em out (no kidding) at your local Wal-Mart store.
Although your photos are taken digitally, there are bound to be times when you want printed copies. Hundreds of ink jet papers are being made today, but sampling them could cost a fortune. That's why Red River Paper puts out various sample packs. Their Photographer's Sample Kit includes two letter-sized sheets of each of the company's 22 paper samples (44 sheets in all) and costs only $8 (and until 31-Dec-01, Red River is offering a special price of $4). Included are different weights of glossy, matte, and exotic watercolor papers to try before you buy your favorites in larger quantities. Also included are instruction sheets that give you optimal settings for all popular printers.
Expand Your Exposure -- Finally, if knowledge is power, you'll want to learn more about digital photography so your pictures can pack a visual punch. Digital Camera Magazine costs $18 for a year's subscription and runs in-depth articles, columns, how-to's, showcases on digital photographers, and more. The magazine uses Macs, so reviews of hardware and software are always Mac-friendly.
Want to take a class? Enroll in my Digiphoto 101, a ten-week, online course ($350) for beginners and intermediates. Classes usually have a cosmopolitan make-up- students come from diverse locations such as the UK, France, Guatemala, the Canadian north, New Zealand, and Saipan. Ten students are given assignments, get their work individually critiqued for all to see, and benefit from personal mentoring. If you want to mix education with relaxation, consider a week-long Photodigital Workshop at Sea <email@example.com>.
[Arthur H. Bleich is a photographer, writer, and educator who lives in Miami. He is feature editor of Digital Camera Magazine, contributing editor and columnist for CNET, and appears worldwide on CNN-TV as a digital photography expert. He invites you to click in to his Digital PhotoCorner.]
Article 12 of 12 in series
Digital cameras remain one of the hottest pieces of hardware in the technology world, with ever-higher resolutions and ever-lower prices. However, the vast number and variety of digital camera models means you're best off reading reviews and comparing models at one of the digital photography Web sites listed belowShow full article
Digital cameras remain one of the hottest pieces of hardware in the technology world, with ever-higher resolutions and ever-lower prices. However, the vast number and variety of digital camera models means you're best off reading reviews and comparing models at one of the digital photography Web sites listed below. When it comes time to purchase, it's worth shopping around since prices vary widely. All the digital camera review sites offer price comparison services, as does TidBITS sponsor dealmac, with their new dealcam site. That said, make sure to buy from a reputable retailer and avoid "gray market" cameras that lack the manufacturer's warranty. Sometimes those incredibly low prices really are too good to be true.
So this year I want to focus on some useful accoutrements that make taking and working with digital photographs easier, plus some that can help you get even better results from your existing camera.
Show Your True Colors -- To match your printer's output to the image on your monitor, you first must make sure your monitor is accurately displaying your original photo. Your printer can't see what's on your screen; it prints from the image file on your computer. If that file doesn't display properly, making changes to it in your imaging program is like shooting in the dark - you won't know the results until you see a print. ColorVision's Spyder colorimeter (with PhotoCal software) is a device that automatically calibrates your monitor in a few seconds so it'll display your camera originals properly. The result? Prints that match what you see, and enough savings in ink and paper to pay for itself quickly. Calibrate periodically to correct for color shifts as your monitor ages. A model for CRT monitors only is $160; one used with both CRT and LCD monitors is $288.
The Incredible Shrinking Reflectors -- Are your outdoor portraits plagued with deep shadows or burned out highlights? Reflectors can easily solve those problems and an ingenious solution is PhotoFlex's MultiDisc 5'in1 that compresses five 32-inch (81 cm) reflectors into a zippered container just 12 inches (30.4 cm) across and weighing less than two pounds. Kids love to watch them expand - it's pure magic. For $115 you get five of the most popular reflectors used in the photo industry today: gold, soft gold, silver, white, and translucent. They'll fill in shadows, cut harsh sunlight, and much more. Need smaller or larger sizes? They're available, too. And they're just as useful when used indoors with PhotoFlex's new digital photography lighting kits or your own source of light.
What's a Podmatic? Tripods are a pain to tote around. If you just need to steady your camera, the Podmatic will do as well or better. This is the best monopod in the world - an improved version of the famous German Linhof Monomatic that sold for several hundred dollars until it was discontinued. Demand was so great, photo retailer Adorama decided to make their own ($90) and it's a dandy - only 14 inches (35.6 cm) collapsed and 58.5 inches (148.6 cm) when extended. It's perfect for steadying your camera at those slow, "iffy" shutter speeds when the light is low or when you're at full zoom and a shaky hand can ruin your shot. You'll also want to add a Slik Compact Ball Head ($25) for even more versatility.
More Power To You -- If your camera takes AA batteries, you can extend your shooting time with a Quest Q2 Platinum Charger Kit ($50), that comes with four 1800 mAh, Platinum NiMH AA batteries. Each battery is charged on a separate circuit and then supplied with a trickle of current to keep it up to snuff until needed. For industrial strength power, Unity Digital has three, lightweight power pack models ($70) that will keep most any digital camera juiced up for a full day (or more) of continuous shooting (you'll run out of energy before it will). Each model comes with a charger and the appropriate cable for your camera. And if you have a camera that uses a Lithium Ion battery, Maha Energy has a new line of replacement batteries in various sizes and voltages, all of which are less expensive ($30 to $40) than the original manufacturer's batteries and last a whole lot longer.
Adobe Has You Covered -- Okay, so you have a great camera and some nifty accessories but what about a versatile image editing program to do some photo-fixing and fiddling? Tasks like removing backgrounds, darkening and lightening areas, correcting bad color, trimming, sharpening, and eliminating that satanic gleam called red-eye used to take hours in a darkroom (if you could do it at all). Now it's just a matter of minutes at your Mac in either Mac OS 9 or Mac OS X. Photoshop Elements 2.0 ($100) is easy to learn and loaded with features specifically developed for photographers. It's probably all you'll ever need in an imaging program, but should you decide to step up to the big guns - the $600 Photoshop 7 - you'll have all the basics already mastered.
The Miraculous AutoEye -- AutoFX has some amazing filters that do, well, amazing things. They wisely designed their AutoEye ($130) program to work as a plug-in to popular imaging programs or as a stand-alone application; it can miraculously (well, almost) ferret out lost detail and color in your images to transform dull and dingy pictures into absolute stunners. AutoEye uses a totally different set of adjustment methods that don't rely on standard curves and histograms to correct the entire image. Download a trial copy; once you see for yourself how easy it is to make these high quality image enhancements, you'll be asking "How'd they do that?" Use code #88991 and get $30 off.
Sharp as a Tack -- Most people discover that using their imaging program's unsharp mask feature to sharpen images can drive them crazy. Although it gives far better results than a generic Sharpen command, unsharp masking involves setting three variables (amount, radius, and threshold) that can be confusing especially to those who don't use the feature regularly. Nik Sharpener Pro! Inkjet Edition ($170) is a plug-in for most imaging programs that knows all this stuff and automatically matches the degree of sharpness exactly to the desired print size of the image and your inkjet printer's resolution- there's no guessing. Nik Multimedia also has a complete line of other imaging effects filters that are tailor-made for photographers.
Chameleon Software -- Ever want to change one color in a picture without going through the hassle of laboriously using a selection tool to outline the portion you want replaced? Digital Light & Color's $50 Color Mechanic Pro lets you do this with just a couple of mouse clicks and doesn't affect any other colors in the image- only the one you want changed. This powerful color correction plug-in works with Adobe Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, and most other imaging programs. It's a great tool to use when you want to change a red car to a blue one or Junior's sweater from putrid green to cheerful yellow. And it's far more precise than other methods that only give limited adjustment. You won't believe how easy this is to do!
Actions Speak Louder -- Most full versions of Photoshop can play back pre-recorded commands in an Action palette; once you get a sequence down pat, you can repeat it exactly again and again. Fred Miranda has developed some actions that would normally take you hours of experimenting to come up with (assuming you could do it at all). His actions reduce noise, give soft-focus effects, get rid of unpleasant artifacts, emulate infrared (and black-and-white) pictures, and more. One of the most innovative actions increases the dynamic range of your pictures so that details can be seen in both the darkest shadows and brightest highlights - better than Ansel Adams could ever do. The actions are priced at $8.50 and up.
Rabbit Round-Up -- Digital photos tend to proliferate faster than rabbits and before you know it, they're all over the place. Extensis Portfolio is a slick, powerful, image-cataloging program that will quickly organize and keep track of where they are. You'll never again have to search through nested folders to find the photos you need- they'll always be at your fingertips, even if they're in different locations. And you can also rename, categorize, and copy photos directly from your camera's memory card in one easy step. Order before 01-Apr-03 using the second link below to get $100 off the regular price of $200! Extensis Portfolio works with Mac OS 9; a preview for Mac OS X is available.
Greeting Cards on the Cheap -- If you haven't noticed, the cost of greetings and postcards have risen like flu fever. Red River Paper has a remedy for that - make your own custom cards for under a buck apiece! You supply your own images and messages and they supply cards and envelopes in different sizes (up to 5 by 7 inches). The cards are pre-scored (for easy folding) and come in gloss, matte, or watercolor paper with clear, pearl, or rainbow "see-thru" sheets and elegant white, eggshell, or brilliantly colored envelopes. Postcards allow you to do small, targeted business mailings without having to pay for large minimums you'll never use. You can order a sample set for $5.
Stripping the Light Fantastic -- Test Strip is derived from the age-old darkroom technique of printing variations of the same image on a small piece of paper to see which looks best before committing to a large, final print. Test Strip is a plug-in for Photoshop and Photoshop Elements under Mac OS 9 that shows you a comparison preview of your image - adding or subtracting colors, density, contrast, or saturation. You can easily change the orientation and the number of strips that are displayed and then print a test proof. If you've had trouble matching your printer output to what you see on the screen, just print out a test strip, pick the image that looks the best, and then select it to print out at your desired size. Order the Show Special and get $100 off the regular price of $200! Mention Digital Camera Magazine if asked.
Crash Parachutes -- If your digital camera's memory card goes south with priceless images on it, all's not lost. Don't reinitialize it! Just call Southwest Stars Data Recovery for a quote and then send it to them for resurrection. If they can't bring it back to life, bury it.
Learn, Baby, Learn! Plenty of knowledge is available out there that can bring you up to speed on digital photography. VTC has a huge library of training CDs that you can buy or subscribe to. For only $25 a month, you can browse any title at any time of the day. Web sites also abound; go to my Digital PhotoCorner site to get a listing of the best. While you're there, look in on the Digiphoto 101 online class to see if you might want to enroll. For more personalized instruction, think about attending a Workshop At Sea, where you'll learn about digital photography, imaging, and printing while you cruise to exotic ports, enjoy the company of fellow enthusiasts, and have the time of your life.
Books Are In -- Here are a few titles that stand out among the many. A classic that's still in print, Essentials of Digital Photography by Akira Kasai and Russell Sparkman, is filled with vital information that clarifies difficult concepts. Real World Digital Photography by Deke McClelland and Katrin Eismann is another oldie-but-goodie that's great for beginners to intermediates. Ben Long's Complete Digital Photography is loaded with excellent information for more advanced photographers who want to make the transition to digital. Creative Digital Printmaking by Theresa Airey and Michael J. McNamara is a fine mixture of creative and technical information about inkjet printing. Finally, Photoshop Elements 2 Solutions by Mikkel Aaland is a "must have" to keep at your side (if you use a full version of Photoshop, you probably already have a groaning shelf filled with Photoshop-related tomes).
[Arthur H. Bleich is a photographer, writer, educator, and feature editor of Digital Camera Magazine. He lives in Miami, does assignments for major publications both in the U.S. and abroad, and conducts digital photography workshop cruises.]
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