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DigiCam 102 -- A Tale of 3 Photographers

By Lou Pastura

Washington Apple Pi Journal, July/August 1999, p. 13, reprint information

With all due respect (and sincere apologies!) to Charles Dickens, when it come to choosing a digital camera, these are, indeed, the best of times and the worst of times. Selection and feature/price ratio have never been better. The down side is that the plethora of choices makes a final decision a daunting challenge.

In my last article I described an unfortunately (though unavoidably) long list of issues, options and alternatives to consider in deciding which digital camera is right for you. This time I'd like to take you through the process of analyzing your needs and wants and selecting a camera that best fits your situation. Those of you who derive great joy from complex multivariate analysis should stop reading right here. My goal is to simplify the process, not chart a murky path through outlandish complexities. (Note: This is not a value judgment...I'm one of those crazies who enjoys the research as much as the result! I just hope that what I've learned from four purchases and two upgrades might help you avoid some of the pitfalls.) As you read further (those of you who haven't already dropped the magazine in horror and run away screaming), please bear in mind that there are no absolute truths here. At the end, I'll describe three real world situations that have had happy outcomes. I'll discuss what the individuals selected and why. Your mileage may vary, so apply this discussion to your personal situation with an emphasis on what makes most sense for you, not what someone else did.

Okay, enough with the disclaimers! There are 3 fundamental questions you need to answer in order to make an informed digital camera selection:

  • What's your budget?
  • What do you want to photograph?
  • What do you want to do with the results?

What's Your Budget?

This seems like a question so fundamental that it doesn't bear mentioning...and to a large extent, it is. I raise it as an issue only because you need to consider not only the cost of the camera, but also the cost of all the goodies you'll need or want to go along with it. These might include:

  • Archival Storage (e.g., CD-ROM writer)
  • Extra Removable Memory
  • Extra Batteries -- Note: Non-rechargeable Lithium batteries are good for more shots, but they're very expensive. NiMH batteries and a charger are the most cost effective solution. Alkaline batteries are useless. My solution is to use NiMH batteries in both my camera and the external flash, carry two spare, fully charged NiMH sets, and also carry a set of the Lithiums for "emergencies". They have a really long shelf life, so keeping a set in my camera bag is good insurance.
  • External Battery Pack
  • AC Adapter
  • Add-on lenses
  • Tripod
  • Software for Cataloging Images
  • Image Editing Software
  • Additional Computer RAM (Image editing software likes a lot of memory.)
  • Color Printer
  • Photo Paper

List the items above in three categories. Those that you already have, those you need right away, and those you can do without or wait for. The items in the middle category, those you need right away, need to be factored in your base budget. This reduces the amount you can spend for the camera, but eliminates surprises that can be a shock to your wallet.

What do you want to photograph?

This is the question that will have the greatest impact on your decision. For example, are you a big vacationer? If so, the size of the camera (smaller being better) might be an important consideration. Do you have a desire to do sports or nature photography? A camera with a long zoom lens (or the capacity to attach one) would be a must. Also, a lens that supports fast shutter speeds will enable you to freeze action and reduce depth of field to intentionally blur backgrounds (which makes your primary subject matter stand out in sharp focus). Are you more of a snap shooter of events and family gatherings? Something that's reasonably portable and has lots of automatic features might be more to your liking. Is close-up work something that appeals to you? If so, you need to make sure the camera has good macro capability.

None of the situations in the list above are mutually exclusive. You'll likely want to get involved in more than one, perhaps all of them. Inevitably there will need to be compromises. A camera with a 10x zoom lens is not going to fit in your shirt pocket. Also, the list above represents examples, not the universe of possibilities. Go back and look at the first article in this series, "DigiCam 101 -- A Megapixel is NOT a Huge Pixel" (it's on the WAP web site if you can't find the last Journal). Think about what's most important to you and factor the most important features into your decision in priority order. A three level approach works well here, too. Consider features you must have, those you would like to have and those you don't care about.

What do you want to do with the results?

This last item is relatively straightforward compared to the last two. However, it's critical enough that it merits its own section. What you intend to do with your photographs determines the resolution of the camera you need to buy, which will be the fundamental driver of the cost associated with this venture.

I discussed this in the previous article, so please bear with me as I briefly repeat myself. If your intention is to prepare photos for web publication or any other application that will only result in viewing on computer, a low resolution camera (640 x 480) will be more than enough, and save you some money. Keep in mind, however, that if you're going to need to do any editing or cropping, you'll be throwing pixels away and need to start from a bigger file, perhaps 1 or 2 megapixels. For printed output the rule of thumb is one megapixel will produce an acceptable 4x6 print; two megapixels will go to 5x7 and three will be okay at 8 x 10. These are not hard and fast numbers and different camera/printer/paper combinations will do either better or worse.

My best advice would be, if you can, to try some alternatives and see what works best for you. Many local camera stores will let you take some photos in the store, save them to your own memory card, and take them home to edit and print. While trying different cameras may take a few trips to the store (you need to format the card in each camera you test to be safe), you'll have the chance to work with each camera on your list, get a feel for the ergonomics and ease-of-use and have some real world output to help you judge differences. Also, don't forget that you'll need some way to transfer the files from your memory card to your computer and/or printer. A friend with a card reader is a possibility. You can either borrow the reader or ask your friend to email the files to you.

The Real World

(OK, so I just wanted to use a title that showed I'm pretty with it for an old guy...I can steal from MTV!)

Now I'd like to offer three scenarios in which the prospective photographers used the process described above and are all happy with the results. Since one of the examples is me and the others consulted with me, all cameras purchased were Olympus. As I may have mentioned before, Olympus is pretty much all I work with and recommend. When I find something I like better, I'll switch, but that hasn't happened yet! If you disagree, write an article and tell all of us why! (Or send me an email...if I get enough, I'll publish the debate. My email address is lou.pastura@wap.org.)

So let's apply our three questions to our photographers' situations and see where we come out:

Photographer #1

  • What's your budget? I don't really have a strict limit on what I can spend, but I also can't justify (even to myself, let alone my long-suffering spouse) the cost of the high end "pro" digital SLRs. I already have all the peripherals I need since this is an upgrade from a digital camera I already own.
  • What do you want to photograph? I'm interested in a little bit of everything. I'd like to do some outdoor work with wildlife that will require a long focal length lens. External flash is a requirement because I need the capability of bounce flash for portraits. A camera with a great deal of manual control would be a plus. Small size and light weight are not important to me.
  • What do you want to do with the results? I want to be able to edit and perhaps crop the photo quite a bit, so large file size is critical, as large as possible. Most prints will be 8 x 10.
  • What did you buy?
  • Olympus E-10
  • 3x Tele-Extender
  • 1.45x Tele-Extender
  • Wide Angle Adapter
  • Olympus FL-40 Flash
  • External Bracket and Cable for Flash
  • 32MB Smart Media Card
  • 128 MB Compact Flash Card
  • Combination Smart Media and Compact Flash Car Reader
  • BIG Camera Case
  • Explain: Just about the time I'd given up on finding an SLR with great glass and lots of control for less than $4-5000 (plus lenses!), along comes Olympus with a 4 megapixel camera with everything I want for $1999. A lot of money? Sure. But a lot of features and capability, too. Size/weight were not an issue, since my wife, about the same time, bought a different camera that didn't require the assistance of a small moving company to carry around. The additional lenses and flash, while expensive, are of exceptional quality and give me everything I'll need in almost any circumstance I can think of for a long time to come. When I saw the quality of the 4 meg files printed at 8 x 10 (the word "stunning" gets used a lot) I was hooked.

Olympus E-10 camera (Photo by Lawrence I. Charters, using a Nikon CoolPix 990 camera)

Photographer #2

  • What's your budget? I'd like to spend less than $800. I already have a printer, software, paper, and other peripherals to get me started. Down the road I'll want an external flash, extra batteries and an extra memory card.
  • What do you want to photograph? I'd like to take snapshots of family and friends. I want a camera that's easy to use in automatic mode, with good auto focus and automatic exposure capability. It should be reasonably light and portable, but not necessarily shirt pocket size.
  • What do you want to do with the results? I will mostly view the photos on my computer and send them to others via email. However, I will want to print some out at 8 x 10, and the quality of those is important to me.
  • What did you buy?
  • Olympus C-3000
  • Olympus FL-40 Flash
  • External Bracket and Cable for Flash
  • 64MB SmartMedia Card
  • 2 Sets of NiMH AA Batteries and a Charger
  • Explain: I wanted something reasonably simple to use and portable that would give me excellent printed output at 8 x 10. 3.3 megapixels was the minimum requirement. I wanted a 3x zoom so that I could photograph our pets and achieve reasonable close-ups without getting into their space in a way that might have a negative impact on the picture. The external flash supports use in lower light situations and the bounce flash feature creates interesting effects and absolutely eliminates red-eye, even from our pets, which can be difficult to do with a normal flash, even with a red-eye reduction feature. (Red-eye reduction also introduces an unacceptable delay between pressing the shutter release and actually taking the picture, even in film cameras.)

Olympus C-3000Z camera. (Photo by Lou Pastura)

Photographer #3

  • What's your budget? The farther I can get under $1000 the better. I already have a computer and a printer. I'll need extra batteries and a charger, and an extra memory card right away. I may add a card reader later, if I'm not happy with the direct (USB) connection between my camera and computer.
  • What do you want to photograph? Both my children are very active in sports, soccer and basketball. My primary goal is to capture their sports activities, but I also want something I can take on family outings and vacations. Event photography, in the form of birthdays, holidays, and so forth is also important to me.
  • What do you want to do with the results? I want to be able to do limited editing to spruce up printed output at 8 x 10, but I don't think I'll be doing any serious cropping.
  • What did you buy?
  • Olympus C-2100UZ
  • 32 MB Smart Media Card
  • 1 Set of NiMH AA Batteries and a Charger
  • Olympus Fitted Camera Case
  • Explain: The C-2100UZ has a 10x zoom that's electronically stabilized to eliminate blurring due to camera movement. Although it's 2 megapixels, rather than the 3 I'd prefer, I tested the output at 8 x 10 on my printer and good quality photo paper and it's quite good. It's not shirt pocket size for taking on trips, but the zoom was more important to me than the small size and the carrying case will make it easier to transport while protecting it from bumps and the elements.

Olympus C-2100UZ camera. (Photo by Lou Pastura)

So that's how three folks coped. One last reminder, the Internet is a great source of information to help you decide. I mentioned the following 3 sites, among others, in my last article. This time I'll refer you to specific areas in these sites that are more relevant to this part of your "quest."

  • http://www.shortcourses.com -- This site has four sections you might want to review:
  • Editor's Choice -- The Best Digital Cameras
  • A Short Course in Choosing a Digital Camera
  • Everything You Wanted to Know about Batteries
  • Digital Camera Pocket Guides. (The guides are intended as supplements to/summaries of the manufacturer's manuals. If there's a guide for a camera you're interested in, reviewing it can give you a good feel for ergonomics, features and ease of use.)
  • http://www.steves-digicams.com/hardware_reviews.html and http://www.dpreview.com/reviews/--These two sites provide what I think are the best reviews with the most detailed information on features and operations.

There are lots more resources out there, including sites and discussion groups devoted to the individual cameras. As always, take what you read from fanatics, including me, with a grain of salt and just a little skepticism. Also, limit the data you try to absorb and analyze. There's so much out there you can become paralyzed and thus incapable of reaching a decision. Remember, the goal is not to spend time shopping, it's to have fun taking pictures. Enjoy the search, enjoy the result and write to me and let me know if all this helped. Tell me what you bought and why. Maybe you'll be in next month's article!

Camera: Olympus E-10 SLR
Maximum Resolution: 2240 x 1680 (4 MP)
Optical Zoom: 4x
Dimensions: 5.0 x 4.1 x 7.0 inches
Weight: 37 ounces (without batteries and memory cards)
Price: $1999
Olympus C-3000Z
2048 x 1536 (3 MP)
Optical Zoom: 3x
Dimensions: 4.3 x 3 x 2.6 inches
Weight: 10.6 ounces (without batteries and SmartMedia card)
Price: $699
Olympus C-2100UZ
1600 x 1200 (2 MP)
Optical Zoom: 10x (Stabilized)
Dimensions: (4.5 x 3.1 x 5.6 inches
Weight: 19 ounces (without batteries and SmartMedia card)
Price: $799