Sunday, October 31, 2010

Retro Cam app for Android camera/phones

I have been having a great deal of fun lately as well as recharging my creative thinking by shooting with a few photography apps available for free for my Motorola “Droid” camera/phone. I wrote about the FX Camera app in a previous post. This post discusses the Retro Cam app.

Retro Cam simulates several styles of old film cameras. The choices include Barbl(cheap German rangefinder), Little Orange Box(mass produced “toy” camera), Polaroid(with several choices of “look”), Pinhole and Fudge(another “toy” camera look). All camera choices include the ability to select black&white or color output and rectangular or square framing. All also include some degree of “vintage” film effects such as scratches, frame edges, fading, enhanced or reduced saturation, etc… All image files produced are quite small(580x580 pixels for my favorite square framing option) but are quite adequate for on-line sharing and web page illustration purposes.

Except for the very small file sizes produced, I think this is a great app and I am using it more that others I have been exploring. I harbor a deep fondness for vintage cameras and still occasionally use a twin-lens American-made medium-format Cirro Flex from the late 1940’s and a Russian-made medium-format Kiev60 from the 1970’s. Both cameras use square framing. I also love shooting with my Lensbaby Composer on my DSLR, which reminds me of shots from antique large-format view cameras. With the new Android camera/phone apps, I can pick and choose from the various styles at will or just shoot them all in sequence and sort out my favorites later on the computer.

In conclusion, Retro Cam is a fun and easy to use app for mobile Android camera/phones. This app adds variety and interest to photos, effectively camouflages some of the short-comings of the naked built-in camera and produces files that are easily e-mailed or uploaded to an on-line photo album.  Last but not least, it won’t cost you anything to try it out.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Book review: "Contemporary Landscape Photography"

Contemporary Landscape Photography is a new book by Carl E. Heilman II. It is published by Amphoto Books which has a large stable of photography book titles. Suggested retail prices for the 176-page volume is $24.99 and it is available new through for $16.99.

This is a well written and fully illustrated book covering all aspects of landscape photography. All photographers from beginners to experienced professionals will gain something to add to their photographic arsenal. Starting with a review of equipment choices and features and progressing through development of a personal vision, it then moves on to the possibilities of location and lighting and ends with post-processing techniques. Topic coverage is thorough, in-depth and inspiring.

Heilman includes his personal thought processes and reasoning at many appropriate spots throughout the book, making this much more than just another how-to manual. The illustrating photos are well executed and appropriate for topic. The printing is crisp and clear on heavy coated matte paper stock.

Contemporary Landscape Photography would be a welcome addition to any landscape, nature or wildlife photographer’s bookshelf. We all need a little review of the basics, reminder of more advanced techniques and injection of inspiration now and then. This book is just the ticket.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Florida beach photography

“Florida” and “beach” go together in most people’s minds, whether residents of the sunshine state or visitors on vacation. Even most vacationers to inland destination areas of the state such as Disney in Orlando plan to fit in at least one day on the coast. This post has some tips to help you get the best beach photographs possible.

The bright sand and sun of a Florida beach can cause the same exposure problems as snow. Many camera meters will try to under-expose, leaving the sand looking drab and the water too dark. Use the exposure histogram when available and know how to use exposure compensation and/or manual exposure to get the proper brightness. A polarizing filter can help make swimsuit, umbrella and sky colors pop. Use flash for people pictures to lighten facial shadows.

Remember composition basics. The rule of thirds works for subject placement within the frame. Diagonal, converging and s-shaped lines all work to draw the eye into an image and add a sense of depth. Having a strong foreground subject is another great way to imply depth in a photo. Be careful with lines and objects breaking the frame edges, which can be very distracting.

Try to add some subtle excitement to the shot. Wait until a wave in the background is just starting to break to trip the shutter. Wait for a sea gull or pelican to fly into the frame. Try a slower shutter speed(if possible) to catch the ripple of the wind in a swimsuit, towel or umbrella.

Add interest to shots by using an unusual viewpoint-place the camera at sand/water level(but watch out for waves). Use bright colors as focal points and take advantage of local architecture and vegetation for subjects and backgrounds. Detail shots imply a sense of place and involvement. Don’t be weather shy-stormy beaches can be very dramatic.

Finally, try to protect your camera. There is almost always at least a light breeze at the beach an anything exposed will become coated with salt. Keep the lens cap on the lens whenever the camera is not being used. Try to keep the camera itself out of the wind as much as possible. Be aware of waves when near the water line. Carry a dry cloth and/or blower brush in a pocket or case for cleaning/drying lenses and removing sand.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Android cat composite

I took a real day off today(at least most of it), did a little recreational reading and spent a few hours playing around with a couple of free photo apps for my Android phone/camera. Since the old black cat was being cooperative, I was able to cycle through almost all of the various options available and get direct, side-by-side comparison shots. This type of experimentation gives me a basis for deciding when and for what subjects I would use any of these variations in "real world" photography. At any rate, the cat and I both had fun and I will now be keeping a sharper eye out for more of these apps.

FX Camera app for Android phone/cameras

FX Camera is a free app available for android mobile phone/cameras. FX makes a variety of different and interesting photo effects available while also down-sizing the file size for easier and faster on-line sharing. I think of it as a third-party upgrade equivalent to the “picture modes” available on most compact digital cameras and DSLR’s.

+Toy Cam mode gives options for color-biased cross-processed simulations, high contrast, vivid single color renditions, warm tone and monochrome. Framing can be set for rectangular or square. Severity of vignettes and pinhole(round) can also be set.

+Polandroid is a Polaroid simulator. The main choices are vintage, faded, aged or monochrome. Rectangular of square framing can be chosen as well.

+Fisheye has only two settings to choose from-round or full-frame.

+Symmetricam splits the frame either vertically or horizontally and creates a mirror-image double.

+Warhol makes four single-color posterizations of the image.

+Normal gives choices of monochrome, sepia, negative or solarize.

I found the Fisheye mode most interesting and quite convincing. Both the circular and full-frame images emphasize and enlarge the central portion of the frame while proportionally distorting the edges. The middle of the image seems to bulge forward while the edges retreat into the background. As with any “real” fisheye lens, much more effective for some subjects than for others and easily overdone.

The Toy Cam is also a mode I will use for some subjects to add interest. I am a fan of vintage cameras and particularly liked the effect produced by the monochrome-medium vignette-square frame settings in combination. The ”look” is similar of some old medium-format film TLR’s I have used.

This app adds a lot of choices for phone/camera images where there were none previously. I would have no problem leaving a Holga or Dianna or CirroFlex TLR at home, saving the film and processing money and carrying just my phone with this app. The image files produced are quite small for prints but adequate for on-line use. And it is really difficult to argue with free.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Try black and white for emotional and visual impact

When inspiration and creativity seem to be hiding in the bushes it can be difficult to break out of a photographic rut. As the days go by and the images get duller, enthusiasm starts to wane. These are the times when we need to dig deep and do something different to break the patterns of habit. Going so far as to make breaking the pattern a habit can reduce those lackluster photographic spells to a bare minimum.

One of my personal “pattern breakers” is to shoot a day or two of black and white(yes, with digital). The best way to do this with a DSLR is to set the camera to record both RAW and .jpg files set to “black and white” mode. Some older DSLR’s and most compact digital cameras won’t have this feature and it will be necessary to shoot only black and white .jpg files. While not as good for ultimate image quality, .jpg’s serve the habit-breaking purpose of this exercise just fine.

Actually shooting in black and white mode, rather shooting in color and converting after the fact, serves more than one purpose. Obviously the most immediate reason is to get an immediate, on-the-camera-back preview in black and white. The effect of traditional black and white colored filters is visible right away.

A second reason for shooting in black and white mode is to really make the break mentally away from color and into a different thought/vision space. This is very important for creativity and thought stimulation. You will find yourself making images in black and white that just would not work in color. This is one of the points of the exercise.

My favorite tool for making the final image is Adobe Camera Raw when starting from a RAW file. It does a great job and makes it possible to fine tune every color density range. If Camera RAW is not an option, my next choice is color channels. Channels is similar to Camera Raw but with fewer color range adjustments. As with color editing, everyone will eventually develop their own personal favorite “look”.

There are many reasons that black and white photography has never gone completely out of style. When all of the color is taken away, what is left can have much more emotional and visual impact. Color can be used for impact but can also be a great distraction from what the photographer is really trying to communicate. Think of becoming proficient at black and white photography as adding another language to your visual communication portfolio.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

How low can you go?

Photography, like most art, benefits from brutal and ruthless editing. How much can be cut out in order to focus attention on the main subject? Removing as many possible distraction and detractions as possible from the frame results in a photograph with much more impact.

So, how low can you go? How simple can a photograph be while communicating the photographer’s intent to the viewer? The answer is: much simpler than many photographers think.

There are many routes to simplicity and maximum visual impact. Controlling depth-of-field with lens aperture to eliminate background distractions is common. Bright spots in the background, even if very de-focused, also draw attention and need to be controlled. Colors can be distracting(hence the emotional and graphic impact of black-and-white photography) and can often be controlled by careful choice of viewpoint(remember that monochrome images can be blue-and-white or red-and-white as well as black-and-white). Lines and shapes that break through the edges of the frame can draw attention away from the main subject and lessen impact. Clutter(aka “too much stuff”) within the frame makes it difficult for a viewer to figure out what the main subject of the photograph is supposed to be.

Great photographers use the same editing process for every frame as writers use for every article. Avoid giving too much information at once(keep each frame and each article focused on one subject). Remove all clutter not contributing to the intended idea or emotion (i.e. visual “clutter”, “fluff” adjectives, more than one point of focus, etc…). Always know before tripping the shutter what the main subject of that frame is.

Tripods are a great editing tool for photographers. Using a tripod slows down the process of making a photo. More attention can be paid to the edges of the frame, to the background and to the content of the frame. Depth-of-field can be checked. Point of view can be minutely adjusted for the most impact and fewest distractions.

Make a habit of using these techniques and more “ooh’s” and “ah’s” will come your way. Photos containing just enough information to get the intended across to the viewer have much greater visual and emotional impact than photos containing too much information(remember the old Police song?). These ideas are what is really behind the old maxim “if you want better photographs, get closer”.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Imgur for Android makes photo hosting easy

The following article is a guest post by smart-phone expert Craig Walkup.

An aspect that I have always felt has been lacking in the mobile world is the ability to upload photos to photo hosting sites easily and seamlessly. Now one of the best options I have seen for this comes to the Android Market in the form of Imgur for Android.

First things first, if you have never heard of Imgur, you need to know that it is one of the best and simplest photo hosting sites on the internet. Where most hosting sites have all kinds of limitations, from forcing you to create an account, to limiting what you can do with photos after you upload them, Imgur has none of that. You can literally go to their site, hit upload, pick your file, and watch as your photo is quickly uploaded, then presented to you with links for HTML codes, message board codes, and even direct image links. You also have the option of creating an account if you want to, which will simply hold on to all your uploaded photos in a simple page so you can go there and find them easily by thumbnail. I had been using Imgur for a while, and was elated to find out that someone had made a real app for the Android operating system.

This app is as easy as the website to use. Upon opening the app, you will be taken directly to the pictures you have already uploaded in your account, along with buttons at the top to refresh the album, a camera button to open the camera, and an upload button to upload a picture from your phone. If you don't have an Imgur account, the screen won't have any pictures on it. I suggest opening an account, as it keeps track of everything you've uploaded, and you can completely manage the files from the app or from the website.
When you click to upload a photo, it will being you to your gallery screen, where you choose what photo to upload, then it will ask you if you want to upload it under your account or anonymously. Another neat thing about the app is that it integrates itself in to the operating system, so when you take a picture and click the share button, imgur comes up as an option along with text, email, facebook, twitter, etc. This is an excellent app for any Android user wishing to use photos between their mobile device and the internet.

Imgur for Android is available in the Android Market as a free app. Make sure if you search for it, you download the one called "Imgur for Android"
developed by Colin Edwards. The other ones that come up are poor applications. There is a download version for this app if you feel like supporting the developer, it is $1.99 but doesn't seem to include any added functionality, except preference in future feature requests.


Imgur for Android:

Craig is a contributor for iPhone repair techs at iFixyouri.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Sunday gear round-up 10/17/2010

*Look for much higher resolution images from cell phone cameras soon. Sony is now making 16.4-mega-pixel and 8.1 mega-pixel “Exmor R” back-illuminated CMOS sensor chips. Sony has also designed the world’s smallest and lightest high performance auto-focus lens modules to match the new sensors. The pixels on the 16MP chips are only 1.12 microns across. Sony claims high sensitivity and low noise by using a unique formation of photo diodes.

*Timbuk2 now has a “stealth” camera bag that looks like an ordinary messenger bag. It is designed for smaller SLR/DSLR cameras and accessories. The bag also has a slot for a small laptop computer. It will be offered in two sizes and three colors starting at around $130. Timbuk2 calls the new bag the “Snoop”.

*Fujifilm will begin selling a totally new “professional” quality compact digital camera early next year. The new camera will be called the “Finepix X-100” and is aimed at pros wanting a small and light back-up to a DSLR or a high quality travel camera. It will have a 12 mega-pixel APS-C sized CMOS sensor exclusive to this model. The fixed lens will be 23mm(35mm equivalent) with a maximum aperture of f/2. The lens uses aspherical elements, a nine blade diaphragm and can focus down to 10 centimeters. The camera will also have HD video capability. The closest competition will be Sigma’s “DP” models. This is the type of camera I like to take along on casual walks or errands in town when the SLR is too much but top quality is still required.

*Lensbaby has two new products on the market. The “Scout” is the company’s first lens without any tilt movements and comes standard with the 12mm fish-eye optic installed. It is also fully compatible with all of the other optic modules(double glass, single glass, etc…). The lens lists for $250.

Maybe even more interesting is Lensbaby’s new “Tilt Transformer” adapter. Currently available only for Micro-four-thirds and Sony alpha-NEX mounts, the Tilt Transformer gives any Nikon-mount lens tilt capability. I would really like to see this adapter is a Canon APS mount to accept Canon full-frame lenses.

*The social/art network Deviant Art is teaming up with the Fotolia stock-sales site. Deviant Art members will be able to sell their work through Fotolia and license Fotolia works for their own use. The partnership is being compared to the Getty Images/Yahoo partnership.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Lensbaby

The Lensbaby company makes a very interesting line of lenses. The latest and greatest incarnations have interchangeable optics and a variety of accessories available. Three current models are all variations of the very first: a tilting lens for SLR/DSLR cameras with basic, old fashioned optics. The images produced by a Lensbaby are sharp in the center with progressively more softness, optical distortion and color aberrations towards the frame edges.

The size of the central “sweet spot” is controlled by the aperture. Lensbaby apertures are physical disks inserted into the front of the lens using a supplied tool. No disk in place corresponds to approximately f/2 and full-stop disks are supplied up to f/22. At f/22 nearly the entire frame looks reasonably sharp.

The placement of the “sweet spot” is controlled by the tilt of the lens. When the lens is straight the sharp area is centered in the frame. When the lens is tilted to the right, the sharp area moves to the right.

The “Composer” model I currently own has a ball-and-socket arrangement to control the tilt and is very easy and intuitive in use. There is a locking ring to hold the lens in position for repeatability. I have also used the older “IIIG” model, very similar to the latest “Control Freak”. The IIIG/Control Freak is like a view-camera bellows-and-lens on an SLR. It is more complicated to use than the Composer but also slightly more versatile.

There are as many reasons to use a Lensbaby as there are photographers. One I know uses his “Muse”, the base-model Lensbaby, as a substitute for a toy camera like a Diana or Holga for street shooting. I have seen excellent portrait and wedding work with Lensbabies from nationally known professional photographers. I love my Lensbabies because they are fun and they produce images that can’t be made using modern lenses or editing software.

When I mount a Lensbaby on my DSLR, I am suddenly using a 100-year-old folding-bed view camera with a hand-ground, uncoated doublet lens. I almost always shoot a Lensbaby at f/4 or f/5.6 to get a distinctive and distorted softness around the edges. Contrast is quite low and highlights are smeared into the shadow areas. I usually shoot in aperture-priority automatic exposure mode and often dial in -1/2 to -1 stops of exposure compensation to tame the highlights.

Occasionally I will want only the tilt function for focusing reasons. Using the f/16 or f/22 apertures nearly eliminates the edge softness and distortion. While certainly not the quality equivalent of a Canon or Nikon tilt/shift lens, a stopped-down Lensbaby can produce surprisingly sharp images. I also use my models on extension tubes for macro work and with a tele-converter for more reach, both with good results.

Available accessories include tele, wide and ultra wide adapter lenses that screw into the front filter threads. Internal optics choices consist of double-glass(sharpest), single-glass, plastic, soft-focus and fish-eye. These accessories provide a lot of versatility and choices of “look” for the final image. This is why Lensbabies have become so popular and lasted so long in a tough photography market.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Transmitted light photography

One of the best ways to achieve great color saturation, show internal structure and get a distinctive look in a photograph is to take advantage of transmitted light. This is light that passes through a translucent subject rather than light reflected from the object. This is accomplished by using back-lighting: the light source is behind the subject. Framing tightly to exclude edges eliminates the flare, diffraction and over-exposed background seen in most back-lit photos. Think of shooting stained glass on a sunny day from inside a dark building as opposed to the same stained glass shot at night using flash. The colors have a rich glow and depth not seen in a reflected-light image of the same subject.

An added bonus, especially for nature photographers, is the visibility of the internal structure of the subject. All of the veins of a leaf and the varying thickness of flower petals become apparent when the image is made with light passing through the subject. The result can be very interesting photographs indeed. Even quite ordinary subjects such as the pages of a book can become more interesting by using this technique.

Green leaves, brightly colored autumn leaves, glass panes and bottles, paper and clothing can all be photographed with transmitted light to bring out internal structure and rich colors. Any subject that is at least slightly translucent and large enough to fill the frame is fair game. The less translucent the subject, the brighter the back-lighting must be(or the dimmer the ambient light) to overpower the light reflected from the side facing the camera. This technique should be part of every creative photographer’s arsenal.

Finding subjects is easy. Look towards the light source. During mid-day, this might mean getting low to the ground and looking up. At dawn or dusk the solution is to look towards the rising or setting sun. Indoors, try placing the subject between the camera and the light source or placing the flash behind the subject facing toward the camera.

Exposure is a straight forward affair. If the subject fills the frame any automatic setting should give a correct exposure. If the subject occupies a smaller are of the frame, exposure compensation might be needed to correctly expose the subject while allowing the background to be over-exposed(as in more traditional back-lighting). Experiment with exposure whenever possible to get the most pleasing results.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Creative Zooming

Zoom lenses are popular with most photographers because of the added versatility they offer compared to fixed-focal-length(prime) lenses. A zoom lens allows the photographer to choose the point of view and then vary the perspective/background by changing the focal length and distance to the subject with a single lens. Zooms also let photographers change the subject size in the image and/or the framing without physically moving to get closer or farther away from the subject.

In addition to the conventional selling points, zoom lenses offer important creative possibilities not available when using prime lenses. One creative use of zooms is to change the focal length during a long exposure. The result is a subject centered in the frame appears to be exploding or imploding depending which direction the focal length changes. This technique has endless possible variations all starting from the same point.

A slow shutter speed is required, preferable at least ½ second or longer. Enough time is needed to smoothly change focal lengths during the exposure. If a sharper main subject is desired, part of the exposure should be at a constant focal length and only part of the exposure zoomed. Another way to get a sharper main subject is to use flash. The long shutter speeds required can be achieved by combinations of: low ISO speeds, small f-stops(f/16-f/22) and use of polarizing and/or neutral-density filters.

This technique is best accomplished with the camera locked down on a solid tripod. Hand-holding will produce much less predictable but possibly more interesting results. Unlike the usual compositional advice, zooming during exposure normally looks best with the main subject centered in the frame(that is where the explosion/implosion lines converge).

Every photographer should experiment with all of the variables to find the results they prefer. Once that result is achieved this is a very repeatable technique. Always try variations for different subject matter. If using flash, try both first-curtain and second-curtain synch to see the difference and decide which is preferred. Try zooming both short-to-long and long-to-short-the results will not be the same.

Another variation of this technique is to shoot many exposures at slightly different focal lengths and combining all exposures into one image(this could be done on one frame of film). The result will be a “stepped” zoom look without the streaks of a continuous zoom. This is also best done with the camera on a tripod to keep framing and focus constant.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

New Techniques to keep creativity alive

Keeping photography “fresh” is all about maintaining an open mind to new techniques. This often means applying already-used techniques in new ways or new situation or to new subject matter. A willingness to experiment this way is the key to maintaining creativity. No one has difficulty falling into a rut. Getting out of that rut requires some effort.

The hardest part for me is taking the time and effort to try something new. For me, creativity requires periodically and consciously coming to a complete halt and taking the time to think and speculate about new possibilities. There has to be a willingness to suspend judgments about the possible outcomes. The time must be taken to execute the new ideas and process the results.

This is the way the standard catalog of photography techniques is expanded. It is how the accepted range of subject matter is enlarged. Occasionally setting time aside for experimentation and to just play around with new ideas is what keeps creativity alive.

The photo illustrating this article is a good example. I went to the local park as usual with the intention of getting my morning walk and perhaps some wildlife or nature photos. For the past few days I have been thinking of changing my profile photo on FaceBook. While on a boardwalk through a forested area, quite dim under the foliage and just after sunrise, I decided to take a few minutes to experiment. For my usual nature shots in these conditions I would use a DSLR at ISO800 on a tripod without flash. I took out my compact Canon G10, set ISO200 and f/5.6 with built-in flash “on”. This gave a meter-recommended shutter speed of ¼ second. Holding the camera at arm’s length, I took a dozen shots while spinning slowly in place. The result was three “usable” photos and a new technique that I will continue to use in a variety of situations and subjects.

I have used camera motion during long exposures before, primarily for panning moving subjects but also to render more dream-like and abstract images of trees. Flash combined with slow shutter is also not a new technique but previously I always had the camera locked down on a tripod combined with second-curtain sync. The result is some new creative excitement and thoughts about how to apply this technique to other situations and subjects.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Blurring the lines between types of photo products

This is a time of rapid innovation for photography. A previous post discussed the various types of digital cameras currently available. This post is about new image-making gadgets that are blurring the lines between camera types. Expect much more of this sort of innovation as the general public becomes more accepting of cameras that just don’t look like traditional cameras.

Panasonic has been making the Lumix line of digital cameras for many years. These cameras have been well received by both the general public and by photographers because of their good design, high quality construction and image quality. Panasonic has now introduced a new Lumix camera that is also a mobile phone, so far only for sale in Japan. The camera-back LCD functions for both camera and phone and slides to reveal a dialing/texting keypad. There is a 13 megapixel sensor behind a lens that starts at 27mm-equivalent. It is a pretty basic camera but still far ahead of any other camera/phone. Expect something similar, from someone, in the U.S. before too long.

Also from Panasonic is a 3-D lens to mount on micro-four-thirds camera bodies. There are the usual two lenses, no zoom and apparently no aperture control or low-light ability. Having only seen photos at this point, it looks quite thin and light, certainly smaller than the average micro-four-thirds “kit” zoom lens. For a few hundred dollars this would be a good way to try out 3-D without buying a dedicated camera. Assuming there was already a micro-four-thirds camera body in the bag, of course. To a large extent the future of 3-D will depend upon people willing to replace not-outdated flat-screen televisions with new, smaller, more expensive 3-D televisions that require glasses. This could be a tough sell.

Sony is also innovating and blurring product lines. The new Sony NEX-VG10 is a combination video/still camera accepting interchangeable lenses in the Sony E-mount. A-mount Sony and Minolta lenses can also be used with an adapter. The NEX-VG10 has the form-factor of a traditional video camera, the size of a very small DSLR and a very good top-mounted stereo microphone. The sensor is an APS CMOS capable or recording 14 megapixel still images at 7 frames per second and 1920x1080i HD video at 60 frames per second. Image stabilization is supplied by the lenses. The NEX-VG10 seems to pack in nearly all of the best features of Sony’s DSLR’s in a form more suited to video capture, including a side-mounted 3” LCD. Memory is the Sony-standard memory stick or SD/SDHC.

As the number of photographers who grew up using film cameras declines, acceptance of new camera shapes and combinations of functions will grow. A digital image sensor is much easier to work around than a roll of 35mm film. Video has become a popular feature on DSLR’s recently but is inconvenient to use with that camera shape. Cell phones that can surf the internet and cameras that can send photos or video directly to YouTube or Flickr are popular, so combining a phone with a high quality camera seems an obvious choice.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The types of digital cameras

The most basic digital cameras are those built into cell phone. Many do not even think about their phone being a camera, but some of the newer phones actually produce quite good image quality at five mega-pixels or more. The biggest problem with phone-cameras from a photography standpoint is the total lack of control. ISO speed, color balance, lens aperture and shutter speed settings, file format of the image file and amount of compression used on the image file are all handled by the phone with no input from the photographer. For quick record shots to immediately send to a friend by e-mail or to post to Facebook or Flickr, they are adequate and obviously much better than nothing. For more serious photography they can also produce quite good images as long as their limits are known and worked within.

Next up the image-quality scale are the compact digital cameras. This type of camera has a built-in lens, often a zoom, a small image sensor with correspondingly tiny individual pixels and often lacks an optical viewfinder. Compact cameras cover a very wide range, from barely above cell-phone functional to nearly DSLR quality. The huge majority are in the middle of this range. They offer zoom lenses in the 3x to 6x range, some exposure control(compensation and/or aperture priority but often not full manual settings), often a choice of ISO speeds and usually include some sort of anti-shake mechanism. The best of the compacts also offer a hot shoe for more powerful flash, near DSLR-like control of settings and the choice of saving image files in RAW format for better image quality.

Compact cameras should produce image quality more than adequate for any on-line use and print publication at up to full page sizes. Careful attention to shooting techniques minimizing noise/grain and maximizing sharpness/detail will really pay quality dividends with these cameras. Images taken with my personal compact camera are used regularly to illustrate my on-line real estate column and web sites.

A new type of camera occupies the next rung of the ladder. A real name has not yet been decided but they are being called “compact interchangeable lens”, “micro four-thirds” or “electronic viewfinder interchangeable lens” cameras. They use a sensor much larger than most compacts but about half the size of most DSLR’s. Lacking optical viewfinders, they rely on built-in or accessory electronic viewfinders or just on the camera-back LCD. Because there is no prism or reflex-mirror housing and a smaller sensor, these camera bodies can be made nearly as small as a compact camera with small, light-weight lenses to match. Because the sensors are much larger than those in compact cameras image quality can come close to matching that from DSLR’s. My feeling is this class of camera will really catch on with the public.

DSLR’s are the traditional 35mm film camera in digital form. Sensor sizes range from APS-C to full-frame 35mm, giving large individual pixels for optimum image quality even at higher ISO values. Bright, sharp optical viewfinders occupy the top of the cameras, with some also offering “live view” on the camera-back LCD(emulating compact cameras). All of the functions offered on traditional 35mm film cameras plus many more are available on almost every model. The result is a comparatively large and heavy camera body and accompanying lenses. In practical use, this type of camera is still the most versatile, offers the greatest choice of lenses, flashes and other accessories, and produces adequate image quality for up to 16”x20” prints or even larger.

The final type of digital camera is the “medium” format. Again, these are digital versions of the former film cameras. They are generally considered professional-only because of the high price of the bodies and lenses. Much larger and heavier than DSLR’s, usually only those needing extremely large prints or the ultimate of image quality even consider them.

My personal choice is a combination of camera types. I have a cell phone with a 5MP camera which works fine for a quick snap of a restaurant dish for an on-line review, to record dings/scratches on a rental car or to remember a house for sale. I use a compact camera for on-line illustration shots and whenever a DSLR is too conspicuous or just in the way. My DSLR is still the workhorse because of its versatility and image quality. But I always have at least one of them with me and I will use whatever camera is handy to make the best shot possible.