Digital Photography Tips

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What is the difference between optical and digital zoom?

Optical vs. Digital Zoom

The one feature of digital cameras that probably causes more confusion than any other is "digital zoom." While some people think that a 4x or 5x digital zoom makes a camera more versatile, in reality, a camera's digital zoom has very little value... and here's why:

Have you ever enlarged a picture and noticed that the enlargement was fuzzier than the original print? That's because the enlargement process simply makes the tiny dots that make up a photo larger. Larger dots means less fine detail per inch of print... and a grainier result.

This is really all a "digital zoom" does - it makes the individual pixels in an image larger. And this results in less fine detail per inch - both in print and on your camera's or computer's screen.

An optical zoom, however, uses the elements of the camera's lens to magnify the scene itself. The zoom lens works in the same way as a spotting scope or pair of binoculars (except that it has an infinite number of magnification settings). Since it's the scene itself that's magnified - and not the "dots" making up an image of the scene - an optical zoom provides a clearer, sharper result than a digital zoom ever could.

In fact, the digital zoom feature on your camera merely mimics the "zoom" capability of most image editing software. So you're much better off simply turning off the digital zoom in your camera's menu and doing any enlarging of the image in your computer. That way, you can enlarge an image, but control its graininess.

Why would you need a memory card for your digital camera?

Memory Options

Some digital cameras come with built-in memory, but it's nearly always very limited. Usually, a digital camera's built-in memory is only enough to shoot a few pictures at the camera's highest resolution setting.

But very few digital cameras don't include a memory card slot. There are several types of memory card, however, and only a handful of cameras can accept more than one type. So it's important to know what type of memory card your camera uses.

The most common memory cards are Compact Flash (CF), Secure Digital (SD), MultiMedia Card (MMC) and Sony's proprietary Memory Stick. Some Olympus and Fujifilm cameras use a proprietary memory card called xD. SD and MMC cards are often interchangable - check your camera's manual - but none of the other products are. Finally, there are SmartMedia (SM) cards, but no cameras using this type of card have been made since 2003.

One thing that these cards all have in common is how they store information: flash memory. But not all flash memory is created equal. For example, high-capacity SD cards (SDHC) - with capacities over 2 GB - only work in certain cameras. And CF cards come in Type I and Type II configurations. The Type II cards are thicker, and if your camera fits the thicker Type II cards, it can probably also use MicroDrives - tiny high-capacity hard drives.

SD and CF cards also offer different transfer speeds (the rate at which data is written from the camera to the memory card). If your camera's sensor is very high resolution, or if you need to shoot many pictures quickly - as with sports - a high-speed card can reduce the time between shots enough to make a difference for you.

Finally, consider capacity. When digital cameras shot 1MP (megapixel) photos, a 32 MB (megabyte) card was often enough memory for the average snapshooter. But with digital cameras now commonly offering resolutions of 10 MP and higher, even 1 GB (gigabyte) cards can fill up fast.

If your camera's top resolution is 5 MP or higher, you probably shouldn't bother with memory cards smaller than 1 GB, unless you routinely shoot at lower resolutions. But check your camera's manual before you invest in cards with capacities over 2 GB... some cameras don't work with high-capacity cards.

What are problems of using film?

The Digital Do-over

Back in the days of film, the "insurance shot" was a standard for any important subject. That is, the smart photographer took a second (or third, or fourth) shot of critical subjects whenever possible, just to be sure they got the shot they were looking for. (Nothing like having your spouse blink just as you snap that photo of them with a Broadway star.)

Of course, insurance shots also meant you had to buy, change and process more film more often... and that could get expensive.

Thanks to the instant feedback of today's digital cameras, you don't have to take insurance shots nearly as often - something your family probably appreciates while on vacation. And even if you do take an insurance shot here and there, there's no added cost, since you can simply delete any shots you don't like.

As long as you're not dealing with a moving target or a busy celebrity, with a digital camera, you can take as many shots as you need to get just the shot you're looking for. Just shoot, review and shoot again. And when you print your pictures, you'll already know which ones you like - so you save money on that end, too.

There's no doubt about it, the digital do-over saves you time, money and frustration.

What are megapixels?

Resolution: The Megapixel Myth

You've probably heard that more pixels means better pictures. And this is true... up to a point. Like so many other measures, a digital camera's resolution is only part of the story. So let's demystify the megapixel myth.

First, you should understand that more pixels is only half the story. The other half is pixel size. You see, smaller pixels tend to produce more digital "noise" - those annoying artifacts that degrade the quality of a digital photo. Some camera models increase resolution simply by cramming more (smaller) pixels into the same space... while others increase resolution through the use of larger sensors.

So, if you're looking for a 10 MP camera, your choices would include the Nikon Coolpix P80, the Olympus SP570 UZ, the Panasonic Lumix DMC FZ50 and the Casio Exilim EX-Z1000. Any one of them could be a good choice, depending on your needs.

But, though they're all rated at approximately 10 MP, the Nikon and Olympus have larger sensors (1/2.33 inches, vs. 1/1.8 inches on the Panasonic and Casio). The larger sensors on the Nikon and Olympus mean larger individual pixels... and less likelihood of digital "noise" being a problem in any of your shots.

So when you're shopping for a camera, be aware that - in some cases, at least - higher resolution doesn't necessarily mean better quality pictures.


It's in the Bag

When we talk about digital camera accessories, one that's often overlooked is the camera bag. And that's too bad, because choosing a bag is one of the most important decisions you'll make outside of selecting your digital camera itself.

Now, if you're a snapshooter with an ultra-compact, pretty much any bag will do. Or your purse or pocket, for that matter. But for anyone shooting with a digital SLR, high-end digital rangefinder or other, more advanced camera, the bag can often make the difference between getting the shot and not getting it.

My first consideration for a camera bag is protection. Second is acessibility. And third is capacity. I'll leave an accessory or two behind if it means compromising my gear or missing important shots.

And - here comes the advertisement - that's why my favorite bags are made by Domke. Designed by a pro for pros, there's no waste here... and they have all the features a serious photographer needs. They're heavy cotton canvas and padded only where they really need it. (Why carry the extra weight?) They're reinforced where your bag really needs it. And there's no compromise in the quality of the hardware.

Best of all, you can get at anything you need quickly. The layout is open, so you never have to stuggle to get at a lens or other accessory. I use the F-3X "Supercompact" bag all the time, except when I'm on the trail.

Domke bags don't look as fancy as some other brands. And you pay a premium for the quality. But when it comes to performance, I've never found them lacking.


Get More Out of Low Light Situations

You're on vacation. You've just paid $20 or $25 to get into a historic building. And there's the sign: "No Flash Photography!"

What do you do? It's not quite cave-like, but it's certainly too dark for hand-held shots without flash.

Well, if your digital camera also shoots video, you may still be in luck. You see, digital video typically requires much less light than still pictures. So you can still capture memories of those important stops - even if you can't use flash.

Yes, digital video is also lower resolution. But a few minutes of even VGA-quality video is better than no memories at all.


Just How Far Digital Photography Has Come

The Ur-Leica, introduced in 1913, was the first "true" 35mm camera. It used the same 24 x 36mm frame format as today's 35mm cameras. While there were many advances, it would be about 90 years before digital photography finally toppled the format king from its pedestal.

Digital photography, however has developed - pardon the pun - at a much faster rate. For the sake of those of you unfamiliar with Brownie Hawkeyes, Kodak Disc cameras and Instamatics, I thought we'd take a little stroll down digital photography's memory lane. Way back to 1992, and the Kodak DCS 200.

Love your camera's "plug and play" USB connection? Well, 1992 was long before USB was the standard. The DCS 200 featured a SCSI connection. (Okay, all together now: What's a SCSI - pronounced "scuzzy" - connection?) You plugged the 50-pin end into your computer and the 25-pin end into the camera. How convenient.

But before you could acquire pictures from your camera, you had to install the Aldus (What do you mean you've never heard of Aldus?) PhotoStyler software... plus the camera driver from the provided 3.5" or 5.25" floppy disks. Yes - there was once such a thing as a 5.25" floppy disk. And they were truly floppy.

The DCS 200 featured a 1,524 x 1,012 CCD sensor. That's 1.5 megapixels - a toy by today's standards. Each frame was saved as a 4.5 MB file and could be transferred to an optional hard drive for storage. Without a hard drive (internal or external) the camera's capacity was one image. The optional internal hard disk held up to 50 images.

The camera numbered images consecutively from 1 - 399, then started over. Deleted images were included in the count. This could result in multiple images with the same frame number.

Two backs were available for the DCS 200 - a color back and a monochrome back. That's right: If you wanted to shoot black and white, you had to switch to a different camera back (purchased separately). But they were both quite speedy for the day: 1 shot every 3 seconds.

The DCS 200 was built on a Nikon N8008 35mm camera body, but was considerably larger than the Nikon itself. The Kodak digital back was nearly as large as the camera body itself. And it was a real lightweight. The whole unit was a mere 3.75 pounds.

Yes, you read that right: 3.75 pounds!

And speaking of pounds, the DCS 200 was no lightweight in the price department, either. This state-of-the-art "high-res" digital camera reportedly sold for half the price of it's predecessor, the DCS 100. That's quite a price drop. Except the DCS 100 sold for about $30,000!

Compare all that with today's Kodak C913 digital camera. It offers 9.3 MP resolution, a 3x optical zoom, 640 x 480 video with sound, multiple scene modes, 16 MB of internal memory, half a second between shots, USB connectivity, and weighs in at a whopping 4.8 ounces (without battery). And it's yours for around $80.

That's how far digital photography has come.

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Barbara Gibson