Date:30 September 2008
Capture visual memories with style – and precision
What works for you
One thing's for sure about today's digital camera market: whether it's a point-and-shoot or a pro-quality SLR, the huge range of different makes and models means you can be sure there's one just right for you. The tricky part is managing to pick your ideal match out of the zillions of options – never mind trying to avoid caving in to sales talk and specmanship.
Before you even subject yourself to option overload, though, simply ask yourself this: what will I be using the camera for? Here's what we mean.
› What kind of pictures will I be taking?
› What will I intend doing with them afterwards?
› How much effort am I prepared to put into my photography?
Before choosing a camera with lots of complicated knobs and dials, it's always a good idea to consider whether you're ever going to bother learning what they're for. If what you're after is something you can keep on you at all times to take happy snaps of the kids, then keep things simple and don't bother with anything other than a compact camera.
Alternatively, if you want a camera capable of taking great pictures in any lighting conditions from any distance (with the appropriate gadget mounted up front, naturally) then go for a single lens reflex (SLR) camera. Generally speaking, SLRs have more controls and menus than other cameras, giving you much greater control over your images. They can be used to create superior pictures. The downside: a much steeper learning curve.
Compact digital cameras
Also known as point-and-shoot cameras, compact cameras are automatic models with varying degrees of manual control. They require little or no knowledge of photography to operate. If you're looking for something that delivers great party snaps and decent family or baby shots with minimal fuss, and also fits into a pocket in your jeans, then this category should work for you. Typically features include lenses with 3 to 5x optical zooms, although some of the higher-spec models boast more powerful optics.
Prices range from about R1 400 to R5 200 (depending on make and features).
The "big daddy" of this category is Leica's D-Lux3 retailing for about R8 300.
Advanced digital compact cameras
Although these cameras use similar-quality optics to what's available on SLR cameras, they do not have interchangeable lenses and can still be operated with little knowledge of photography. Essentially, these are bridging cameras. Users want top-quality photographs, but are either hesitant about operating an SLR or are afraid of carrying several lenses or working with a larger camera.
Advanced digital compacts are great options if you want quality images without having to lug excessive weight or gear about. They have more powerful optical zooms than their compact cousins, ranging from 10x (35 mm equivalent 380 mm) to as much as 20x (35 mm equivalent 520 mm). Bulkier than compact cameras, they are still small enough to fit into a large jacket pocket or small day pack. Another bonus: usually their LCD screens can be swivelled, allowing for more creative angles when shooting subjects.
Average price range is from R1 700 to R7 600; at the top end you're looking at Leica's V-Lux 1 at about R11 000.
Digital single lens reflex cameras
Digital single lens reflex (DSLR) cameras produce professional-quality images. Their significant advantage is superior, interchangeable optics and a high degree of manual control (although most have sophisticated automatic functions). They are significantly better than compact cameras in terms of performance specifications; many also have compatible accessories such as flashes, underwater housings, motor drives, wireless shutters, filters and lens extenders.
Top-of-the-range DSLRs are designed specifically to put bread on professional photographers' tables. It stands to reason that they have the highest specifications available, and most feature full-frame 35 mm sensors. Quality matches or surpasses that of film cameras. Consequently, they tend to cost an arm and a leg. Expect to pay anything from R22 000 to R77 000 for a camera body sans lenses.
Entry to mid-range DSLRs generally have smaller APS-C size image sensors. Mid-range cameras compete well, on features, with high-end variants. Ideal for serious amateur photographers or students, they feature most of the bells and whistles found on their more professional counterparts, but their specifications are understandably less impressive. Camera bodies in this class range from about R6 000 to just over R14 000. If you keep your eyes open for bundled specials that include lenses, you can find some good deals.
User-friendliness scores big
Would-be camera owners are less concerned about the niceties of composition and depth of field than about the entirely practical question, "What if it rains?", if the 2008 JD Power and Associates Digital Camera Usage and Satisfaction Study is any guide. Weatherproofing and built-in memory top the list of features most desired by those in the market for cameras, the study reports.
In fact, when it comes to features, the simpler the better.
Although manufacturers like loading cameras with features that differentiate their products from competitors, complexity turns consumers off, says Larry Wu, senior director of the technology practice at JD Power. "Average satisfaction scores are 235 points lower among customers who say their features were difficult to use, compared with those customers who say the features were easy to use," Wu says. "Designing features with the consumer in mind and providing clear and concise instructions can help maintain high satisfaction levels with new features and functions."
Those who clearly took this lesson to heart are JD Power's 2008 category picks for highest customer satisfaction: the Canon EOS Digital SLR, Canon PowerShot G, Fujifilm Finepix S, Lumix (Panasonic) DMC-TZ, Nikon D and Sony Cyber-shot T series.
The 2008 Digital Camera Usage and Satisfaction Study is based on responses from more than 8 000 consumers who bought a digital camera between April 2007 and March 2008. It examines camera model lines in four body-style segments: point and shoot, premium point and shoot, ultra slim and digital single-lens reflex (DSLR). In each segment picture quality, performance, ease of operation, and appearance and styling are assessed.
Among point-and-shoot cameras, the Fujifilm Finepix S scores particularly well in picture quality, performance and ease of operation. Kodak's V, Z and M Series are next in line.
As for advanced compacts, the Canon PowerShot G series and Lumix (Panasonic) DMC-TZ series are rated joint best, and in ultraslims the Sony Cyber-shot T series leads ultraslims with an outstanding showing in all four customer satisfaction categories.
The heavy hitter rankings are dominated by the Canon EOS Digital SLR and Nikon D series, tied on 823 points. Whereas the Canon gets notably high ratings in picture quality, the Nikon D series (highest for the second consecutive year) gets praise for ease of operation, performance, and appearance and styling.
Key trends noted in the Powers study include:
› Shoppers across the board do pretty much the same things: they set great store by Internet product and review sites. Many also take on board information or recommendations from family and friends, read print reviews and consult in-store salespeople.
› Digital SLR owners take the most photos in one month, averaging 454 images, followed by owners of advanced point-and-shoots (159), ultraslims (96), and point-and-shoots (83).
› Buying an extended warranty results in significantly higher overall satisfaction scores. In 2008, nearly 1 in 4 DSLR buyers opted to buy an extended warranty for their digital camera.
An eye for detail
New technology inspired by the human eye promises improved images with a wider field of view. A significant advantage claimed for the new design is that it images the edges of the field of view much better than simple planar cameras.
A curved array of silicon detectors and electronics that acts as the focal plane array of a camera to capture an image has been designed by US academics. Yonggang Huang, Joseph Cummings Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Mechanical Engineering at Northwestern University's McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, has collaborated with John Rogers, the Flory-Founder Chair Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, to create the array. Their research was featured as a cover story in the journal Nature.
Normally, the electronics lie on a straight surface. A complex system of lenses reflects an image several times to position it correctly on the focal plane.
"The advantages of curved detector surface imaging have been understood by optics designers for a long time, and by biologists for an even longer time," Huang says. "That's how the human eye works, using the curved surface at the back of the eye to capture an image."
Until now, the fragile silicon wafers used in camera electronics couldn't reliably be bent to lie properly on a curved surface. The novel solution proposed by Rogers and Huang involves an array of photodetectors and circuitry that is so tiny – approximately 100 micrometres square – it avoids the problem of circuit elements bending and breaking. This array is laid on an elastomeric membrane that is then forced into a hemispherical shape.
But there are two more tricks up the designers' sleeves to combat breakage:
› Thin metal wires connect each of the devices on the array, forming flexible arc-shaped structures that Huang and Rogers call "pop-up bridges".
› The silicon component of each device is sandwiched between two other layers that absorb much of the stresses; the top layer stretches, the bottom layer compresses, and the middle layer experiences very little stress.
Tests have shown the design to be workable. Early images obtained using this curved array in an electronic eye-type camera indicate large-scale pictures that are said to be much clearer than those obtained with similar, but planar, cameras, when simple imaging optics are used.
How to: Take pictures like a pro
Don’t show all your junk
This is starting at the end, really, but it is also the simplest and most useful tip to improve your photography.
Select only the best of your pictures to show to others and leave the rest in the drawer. Showing someone every picture you have taken dilutes the effect of the best pictures and gets very boring. The thing is, presentation is an essential part of photography and what you don’t present is an essential part of presentation. Even if your friends and relatives beg you to see the rest of the pictures… resist.
Composition is key
In our modern world of automatic cameras, which focus for us and adjust the exposure in an ever more perfect way (most of the time), the biggest difference between a good photograph and a mediocre one is the composition.
› Photo boundaries (cropping);
› The shapes into which we arrange our subjects – that is, creating shapes and textures that please.
If you are shooting landscapes or other immovable objects then you must compose the picture by moving yourself and deciding where to place the point(s) of interest in your picture.
Fortunately, there are compositional guidelines that can help you to compose pleasing pictures.
Rule of Thirds
Landscape photographers are particularly fond of this one, but it works well for many types of subjects. The rule of thirds simply says that, instead of placing the main focus of interest in the centre of the frame, which gets a little boring, that you look to position it on an intersection of the thirds. That is to say, one third up and one third in, or two thirds up and one third in, etc.
In our "thirdsy" example, placing the boat near the top of the picture tells the viewer that what they are supposed to be looking at is the reflection.
Also the mast is almost exactly on the "third" line. There is a little space to the right of the bow of the boat which helps to give the impression that, although the boat is not moving, it has somewhere to go.
This picture falls foul of another "rule" in that it has very light corners, especially at the top right. Coupled with the yellow stripe, the effect is to lead the viewer's eye out of the picture.
Setting your subject matter on a diagonal will almost always make for a more dynamic picture, even if this is an invisible diagonal that draws your eye between two points.
"Exposure" means the amount of light that falls on the film or CCD. In modern cameras the exposure is usually set to automatic by default; most of the time, it can be left there and will produce beautiful pictures. There are times though, when the lighting conditions are difficult or we want to produce a particular effect.
The problem with all types of recording media is that they cannot record the entire range of contrast (black to white) that the eye can see. That's especially so when you take into account that the eye is constantly adjusting to cope with high contrast. On a sunny day if you look into the shadows of a scene, then into the bright areas, the iris in your eye will quickly adjust so you can see detail in both.
Faced with the task of recording as much information as possible, the camera will try to average out all the light levels and expose the film accordingly. As burnt-out highlights are normally considered uglier than black shadows, the camera, left to its own devices will normally err on the dark side. That's no good if you are shooting someone's face against a bright sky. It's the person's face you want to see, and you don't really care if the sky is white.
Camera manufacturers have come up with all sorts of ingenious metering systems to try to help. Multi-mode metering systems give you a choice of “centre weighting”, “spot metering” or “multi spot metering” on many of the better cameras, but none can guarantee to give you what you want every time.
Yet you can use auto exposure to your advantage. With the typical default “centre weighted average” metering, the camera takes more notice of what is in the middle of the frame. So, if your main point of interest is not in the centre of the frame, it’s a good idea to put it there temporarily while you focus and take your light reading, then move the camera whilst still holding the button halfway down and compose the picture the way you want it to be. Similarly, to get skin tones right, say a group of people in bright sunlight for instance, move close in to the group and take a light reading from someone’s face – or even the back of your hand.
The amount of light falling on the light sensor is governed by three things.
› The amount of light reflected from the scene.
› Shutter speed – the amount of time the shutter is open, measured in fractions of a second.
› Aperture setting, which is the size of the hole through which the light enters. This is measured in “f stops”. The shutter speed and aperture settings have other quite separate effects on the photograph, but for the purposes of exposure, making the picture darker or lighter, they are interchangeable. Make the hole twice as big and open the shutter for half the time and you will expose the film the same amount. The advantage of manual exposure is that the settings do not keep changing as your scene changes.
Flashgun do’s and don’ts
Without any doubt, the worst, most horrible, ugliest way to light any subject is with the little flashgun that now comes built into every camera. This produces lighting that is flat and harsh, and often results in “red eye”.
The closer the flash is to the lens the bigger the problems. Even held at arm’s length, or pointed at a reflective surface such as the ceiling (“bounced”) a separate flash gun is superior.
When you’re obliged to use the built-in flash, if there is any light at all, then use as much of it as you can. Modern autofocus cameras tend to do this automatically; they use the widest aperture to let as much natural light in as possible and add the flash to bring the exposure up to what is necessary. They might, however, be a little stingy with the shutter speed.
One of the ugly things that I mentioned is the “outline” effect you get when the flash light casts a shadow on the wall behind the subject. This can be minimised or eliminated by either posing your subject against a dark wall or, better still, getting them as far away from any walls as possible.
The Inverse Square Law
Basically all the inverse square law says is that an object that is twice the distance from a point source of light will receive a quarter of the illumination. What it means to us photographers is that, if you move your subject from 3 metres away to 6 metres away, you will need four times the amount of light for the same exposure. This can most easily be achieved by opening the lens aperture two f-stops or using a flashgun that is four times as powerful.
For our purposes any flashgun or lamp can be considered a point source.
So why do we need to know this?
If you are using flash on camera and everything is automatic, then you don’t need to worry about it at all. However, you may “run out of light” because your flashgun is not powerful enough. It also explains the big diff erence in exposure between objects or people near the camera and those only a short distance farther.
If your flash or light source is off camera or bounced off a wall, then you have independent control over the distance from the light to the subject. In the studio my lights are often much closer to the subject than my camera. There are two reasons for this: one is to get more light on the subject, and the other is that, the nearer the light is to the subject, the less of a “point source” it will be and so the softer the shadows will be on the subject.
Nikon D700 Digital SLR
Pro performance, compact style
Professional photographers are notoriously finicky people – but there's one thing that many of them seem to agree on: as a pro snapper standard, Nikon takes a lot of beating.
So it’s no surprise that Nikon’s first FX-format camera – FX denoting a fullframe sensor the same size as 35 mm film – turned pro digital photography on its head. Now, that technology is available in a smaller, lighter design: the D700.
Even in low-lit situations, the D700 delivers virtually noise-free images at up to ISO 6400. In constantly changing lighting, the D700 handles the complex exposure changes with ISO sensitivity auto control. Should conditions demand it, you can also go as low as ISO 100 and as high as ISO 12 800 or even ISO 25 600.
When you need more speed to capture a crucial moment, the D700 has the option of a multi-power battery pack that gives up to 8 frames per second.
The D700 shares its powerful, state-ofthe- art EXPEED image-processing tech with the D3. Rich data captured with the FX-format 12,1-megapixel CMOS sensor maintains an extremely high signal-tonoise ratio, smooth tonal gradations, high detail, and continuous transition even in highlights.
Unlike many digital cameras, everything is handled by a single engine, conserving battery power. This, combined with the large buffer memory, gives greater breadth in crucial situations, including extended shoots of fast-moving subjects, such as sports or wildlife.
The D700 has three AF area modes: Single-point AF, Dynamic-area AF, and Auto-area AF. With good light control and a static subject, Single-point AF ensures that the most important element in a composition, such as the eyes in a character portrait, will be sharply focused. Dynamic-area AF allows several focusing options – utilising 9, 21 or all 51 points – a distinct advantage when shooting moving subjects or in conditions of insufficient contrast. Auto-area AF also uses colour information and special face recognition algorithms to automatically focus on an individual’s face.
Quick off the mark
A startup time of 0,12 seconds and shutter release time lag as short as 40 milliseconds (CIPA standard) are right up there with leading speedsters – but the D700 has endurance, too. It can shoot as many as 1 000 frames; adding the MB-D10 battery pack nearly trebles this. Next-generation UDMA technology is supported, giving an extra boost of recording speed, and enabling more consecutive shots.
Of course, speed without accuracy and consistency isn’t worth much. Thanks to what Nikon calls Scene Recognition System, the D700 takes automatic control to a new level. A unique optical device enables more precise colour information readouts for an unprecedented level of detailed scene information and analysis. Each scene is analysed milliseconds prior to shutter release, further optimising autofocus, auto exposure, i-TTL control and white balance.