Plugged in: Some things change, some settings stay the same

By Joseph Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

Digital photography has much in common with traditional film and chemistry photography. Indeed, the principal factors that determine whether you “get the shot” are the same, regardless of how you later process and display the photo.

Understanding the fundamental concepts that underlie all photography enables you to take technically good photographs regardless of whether the final image is processed chemically or electronically and regardless of whether it is displayed on a computer screen or an enlarged exhibition print.

The basic technical concepts should be at least generally understood in order for high-quality photography using any photographic process.

Most decent cameras, when set to automatic, can handle most of these variables fairly well under ordinary circumstances, IF your picture is straightforward and matches what the camera’s designers had in mind when they designed the automatic modes.

Most casual amateurs run into problems when they try to use a camera’s auto mode to take photos that are not plain vanilla or where the lighting, circumstances or subject are not optimum. Understanding how to adjust your camera to deal with these nonstandard situations will greatly increase your ability to get the shot that you wanted.

This week, I’ll discuss some of the initial “cameras” topics and will examine the others in later articles.

Camera types

There are three major digital camera types. The first includes casual point-and-shoot cameras, which are fully automatic and generally compact.

Unless you plan on taking photos under dim lighting conditions or of fast-moving sporting events, or plan upon making large, exhibition-quality, prints, almost any good-quality point-and-shoot compact camera will suffice for family vacations and everyday life.

In fact, if you only use your camera for undemanding tasks like standard 4-by-6 or 5-by-7 snapshot prints or posting photos to the Internet, a 3 or 4 megapixel camera from 2004 or 2005 will do just as well as a $3,000 full-frame Canon 5D Mark II pro grade dSLR camera mounting multi-thousand dollar Canon L series lenses. There’s no objective reason for most casual snapshooters to move up to expensive and bulky, but impressive-looking, dSLR cameras.

Don’t dump them yet

There’s no reason at all to discard last year’s camera just because there’s a newer, higher megapixel model. Often, getting a customer to move up to a more expensive, newer camera is merely a marketing ploy.

Even though I have an excellent Pentax K20d digital SLR camera with good lenses, I still use a number of older cameras with good success, depending on subject and circumstances. For example, I have made a number of very sharp, exhibition-grade 24-by-30-inch color prints using a 6 megapixel Kodak z760 compact camera made in 2005. Large prints that I’ve made from cropped portions of 8 megapixel files shot in RAW format with a 2006 Kodak P880 (then) semipro digital camera have regularly been selected for inclusion in juried exhibits.

In both cases, these cameras include excellent, sharp lenses and were used within the limits of their relatively large 1/1.8 sensors — lowest ISO sensitivity settings and bright outdoor light. Remember, though, that no current compact camera does well under low-light conditions or at high ISO settings because of the inherent limitations of their small sensors.

Olympus is hinting, though, that its June 15 new products announcement will include a compact camera with a large Micro 4/3 sensor. A camera of that sort would undoubtedly be expensive at first but will set the standard for compact camera image quality under low light and high ISO conditions.

A great buy

At this point, with the phase-out of the more capable models of Canon’s PowerShot A series and SD series cameras, and the gradually diminishing image quality of most lower-end Kodak M and V series compact cameras, I find myself regularly recommending Panasonic’s compact cameras.
Panasonic’s very compact 14MP FX150, currently on sale for an amazing $199 from http://www.amazon.com, includes a compact, finely made metal body, a relatively large 1/1.7 sensor, a sharp Leica-branded lens, full auto and manual capabilities, and optional RAW file capabilities.

It appears that this recent model did not sell well, despite its stellar specifications and high image quality, and is being phased out in favor of cameras with lower features and no optional RAW capabilities. It does suffer, though, from high image noise at ISO 200 and above.

If you are interested in a high-quality compact camera to use in good light with low ISO settings, then the Panasonic FX150 can’t be beat, especially at this price.

Another great buy, this one below $100 at Amazon, is the Kodak z885. In its favor are a very sharp lens, a decent, mid-sized 1/1.8 sensor and full manual controls. On the downside, this older camera does not include anti-shake stabilization to help you take photos under low light situations. However, if most of your photos are made in bright light, this is an excellent camera for the price.

Bridge cameras

The second major digital camera category is that of intermediate “bridge cameras” that have more features and typically higher image quality, a category that includes both moderately bulky “long zoom” cameras with extreme telephoto capabilities, and also includes high-grade, mid-sized compact cameras with excellent optics and RAW file format capabilities.

The latter category is simple to discuss: It includes only two real contenders, the Canon G10 and the Panasonic LX3. Both have their partisans and both are excellent in their own divergent ways. The Canon is a little larger but, at $450, is nearly $100 less expensive than the LX3, which is hard to find and has become something of a cult item. I would be inclined toward the G10.

There are several excellent long-zoom bridge cameras that are also good buys. Remember, though, that long-zoom cameras all use small, 1/2.3 or 1/2.5 sensors in order to achieve those long telephoto effects with zoom lenses of practical size and cost. As a result, their final photo image quality will resemble casual point-and-shoot cameras, although with a greater telephoto effect. A few of these long-zoom cameras include optional RAW file format, which can improve the quality of a final image if properly computer processed. Remember, too, that high zoom-ratio lenses (six times or higher) are usually not as sharp optically because it’s hard to fully correct a lens over a 12 times or 24 times magnification range. That’s especially true for lenses costing only a few hundred dollars. Except for special purposes, I try to avoid high zoom-ratio lenses.

Some of the better long-zoom cameras that include optional RAW format are the Panasonic FZ28 (an excellent buy at $302 through Amazon) and Kodak’s z1015 and z980 cameras. The Panasonic FZ28 is especially well-regarded and is probably among the very best cameras in this class.

Many well-regarded, long-zoom cameras do not include an optional RAW format but still produce high-quality photos. If you have $500 or $600 spare dollars, then consider Sony’s H1 and Canon’s SX1 and SX10 cameras.

There are a number of more compact long-zoom cameras that you really should consider if you’re in the market for this type of camera, particularly Panasonic’s new ZS3 or the slightly older, rather less expensive TZ-4 and TZ-5. Among reliable Internet vendors, Amazon has the best prices for these cameras. Canon’s SX110 and SX200 cameras are quite a bit less expensive and less bulky than Canon’s SX1 and SZ10. The SX110 and SZ 200 have a reputation for excellent image quality. However, I’d opt for a Panasonic TZ-5 as the best buy in the compact “travel zoom” market segment ($220 at Amazon).

Even though it does not include the desirable RAW format option, Kodak’s z1012 remains a very good buy because of the high quality of its classic 12 times Schneider zoom lens ($250 through Amazon, although I’ve seen them as low as $218). I’ve owned a Kodak z1012 for nearly a year and find myself surprised at its image quality, which is quite good for a small-sensor camera. Kodak’s z8612 is a more compact, less expensive camera that includes the same excellent 12 times zoom lens. Although the z8612 is an excellent buy at $150 through Amazon, I personally would spend the extra $70 for a Panasonic compact TZ5.

dSLR cameras

The final category, interchangeable lens digital Single Lens Reflex cameras, is usually the bulkiest camera. Because dSLR cameras use the largest sensors, they are potentially capable of the highest image quality, assuming you use high-quality lenses. The starter “kit” lenses included with most camera bodies are usually not very sharp compared to the more expensive after-market lenses that camera manufacturers really want to sell you. In fact, the fixed lenses on some top-end, mid-size cameras like the Canon G9 or G10 are actually sharper under bright light conditions than many dSLR lenses. Bigger is not always better.

Today’s marketing trend is toward dSLR cameras, in part because prices have dramatically declined for these cameras, even as the cost of far less-capable point-and-shoot cameras has increased. Currently the best buys in entry-level dSLR cameras are the Olympus E-520, the Pentax K200d and the Canon XSi, all of which can be purchased from a reliable Internet vendor for $500 to $700. Any of these are excellent cameras, although the Pentax is weather-sealed and the most rugged of the three.

High-grade, semipro models like the Pentax K20d sometimes sell for as little as $660 (body only) at Amazon, plus the cost of a decent lens. Of the Pentax lenses, I believe that the $300 16-45mm zoom is the best buy and the best match for the K20d.

Generally, I like Nikon’s D5000 and D90 and Pentax’s K20d and new K7 midrange dSLR cameras as providing the best overall quality and best value in the $700 to $1,200 range. Unless you are a professional photographer with very specific needs, these can fulfill any foreseeable need with the right lenses.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his Web site, http://www.kashilaw.com.

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