Thursday, April 19, 2007

Working with digital - A Guide in buying Digital Camera

This feature is one in a series on digital photography aimed in particular at professionals and serious amateur photographers and deals with buying cameras and related issues, as well as two of the technical aspects of taking pictures that are special to digital photography - file formats and in camera storage:

Problems in buying digital cameras
Costs, dust and camera backup
Digital Negatives - using Raw format
JPEG and TIFF Formats
Compact Flash and Microdrives
Other features related to digital photography are listed in the box at the right of the page. The next part of this series will look at safe long-term storage and cataloguing of digital images. Further features will examine editing, printing and publishing digital images and other aspects of digital photography.

If you are new to photography, and are using a digital camera, there will still be much of interest here and in the other features on this site.

We are all digital now

Many photographers are now working completely with digital images, taking them on digital camera and camera backs and supplying them to clients either over the internet or on CD. Others - like myself - are still dipping our toes in the water and teetering, steeling ourselves to make the plunge to a completely digital solution. A recent 'TrendWatch Graphic Arts' report found over 80% of commercial photographers using digital cameras, with just over half owning a professional digital camera, and slightly more intending to buy one in the next 12 months.

Photography for me has been partly digital for some years. I started working with images on a computer around twenty years ago (before Windows), wrote my first CD about ten years back (I took it to show a major government agency at the time and they didn't have a single machine with a drive that could read it.) Seven or eight years back I put my first site on the web. Most of my printing is now digital (though I still make contact 'proof prints' in the darkroom, because it is quicker and cheaper.) The lab gets my work on CD, as do some clients.

Truly we are all now in a digital age. Our pictures will be used digitally even if we still supply them on film. I do use a digital camera, but only a consumer model, though I've sold and exhibited a few of the images I've taken with it. Most of my work is still taken on 35mm (and occasionally 120) film.

I'm an occasional user of ultra wide lenses - including the great (and ridiculously cheap) 15mm Voigtlander lens. I also love to use my Hassleblad X-Pan with its 30mm wide-angle, producing seriously wide panoramics, though at times I take this further with a swing lens camera that gives 120 or 130 degrees horizontal view.

Such images are possible with digital, but not with the simplicity and ease of these specialised cameras, simple to use handheld in normal daylight. Digital can only produce similar images by joining several frames, or by using a cumbersome scanning system.

Only the current top of range models use full-frame sensors, so unless I spend perhaps ten thousand dollars now I'd have to put up with losing those extreme wide angles. Possibly next year, with the next wave of cameras, I may be able to get similar capability at perhaps half the price. Logic and the bank manager may suggest I should wait, but I don't think I can for much longer.

A recent feature (see box, top right,) looked at pro and 'prosumer' digital SLR cameras currently available or due shortly. All of them had their good points and can deliver 'film quality' or better for most types of work. Which is best for any particular photographer depends on the type of work and also any existing investment in lenses and accessories.

Choosing your camera

When it comes to actually buying a camera, there are other considerations. Several of the models I mentioned in my recent feature are either not available yet, or in extremely short supply with long waiting lists. In some cases the supply problem is simply because the camera has proved more attractive than the manufacturer anticipated, but it may also be the result of difficulties in production - which perhaps makes it a less desirable proposition.

If you have been reading the latest online reviews, you will know that the SD9 produces the stunning image quality that was expected from its Foveon X3 chip (see box, top right,) giving markedly sharper pictures than its competitors. However the camera is less usable than the Canon, Fuji or Nikon and as yet only appearing in very small numbers. It would appear to have proved that the X3 concept does work, and increases the chance that an upgraded chip will appear in cameras from the major manufacturers at a future date.

Unhappy returns

Recently I've heard from several photographers who have had to return their new digital bodies for replacement, including some who have had two replacements from the retailer before getting one that was functioning properly. Some have had great problems with dirt on the sensors, and others have had obvious defects with "dead pixels" on them.

Of course, some customers are less discriminating than others, even when paying for relatively expensive equipment. Some dealers take less care of equipment in stock than others, and some are less ready to listen to customer complaints. As well as choosing which camera to go for, we have the problems of finding stock and supplier. Its an area where it may well pay to go to a reliable dealer rather than aim to save every last cent.

Good dealers take customer complaints seriously, replace equipment and take the problem up with their supplier. Some less reputable ones have been known to pack up returned goods carefully and sell them to the next customer in the home they will be less fussy.

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