Selecting a digital camera

©1996-2016 Gail J Berg

With the start of the 21st century, more and more folks are turning from the old film camera to a digital camera.

One of the primary reasons is cost; the cost of taking hundreds of digital images, "processing them" and utilizing them, compared to the costs of film, development and prints is tremendous

In addition, with a camera monitor, there's an immediate feedback available to know if the image is in focus. And the speed from taking the image to being able to share it, can be seconds rather than hours or days.

This article will provide some criteria to help select a camera for those in the model horse hobby.


So, why are you getting a camera? How will you use it? The answer to these questions has extreme relevance in what camera would be best for your uses.

Bottom line on every feature: Get to know your camera and experiment with what works and what doesn't. Reading the manual isn't required, but can help you know and understand the full capabilities of your camera. When researching cameras, try to find actual user comments or photographic magazine reviews that help explain what features a camera has and how well/easily they accomplish what is needed.

Another thing to keep in mind is the budget for purchasing a camera. Some features such as memory size, optical zoom range, stabilization, or shutter speed may have great impact on the cost of the camera. CNET or Froogle are two sites you might want to check out to help determine the specific model that fits your needs and budget. Some camera shops do "rent" cameras. Borrowing a friend's camera may help in decision making as well.

There are essentially two reasons pictures are taken (for the scope of this article) in the hobby: show photos and reference photos. The latter include the simple set ups needed to photograph an item for sale, or insurance purposes, as well as document an entry at a live show. The former can include elaborate setups and backdrops taken in a studio.

Scale, focus

Is the only criteria you're interested in is the capability of taking pictures of model horses?

The biggest (or smallest ;-) issue with taking pictures of model horses is the issue of scale (they're small). Some photographers consider this the "macro" realm of photography. (I have some sample images of model horses, taken in a studio setting here.)

Taking pictures of traditional (and most classic) scale items isn't that big a deal; the camera is able to focus and the field of focus is such that usually the entire horse is in focus. However, smaller scale horses it gets a lot more complicated because the camera is having to focus on a "thinner" (less depth) field of focus, so the head might be in focus, but the rest of the horse isn't.

Many "cheap" (point & shoot) cameras, and built in cameras on cell phones, PDAs and other hand held devices, don't do a great job of focusing where/how you want. It gets more complicated to "adjust" the camera to determine what to focus on. A manual, or semi-automatic (where you can override the "automatic" focus) camera may allow you to get the right focus and proper field of depth. Some cameras allow you to set up a single point of focus, or an entire range of focal points when determining how to automatically focus the image; this may take some reading of the manual to understand the different usage.

Some cameras have a "macro" mode (often denoted by a flower) that is specifically set up to help in the photography of small, close up items.

Some cameras, without a macro mode, can be used with telephoto zoom to get close to objects. If a camera has optical zoom, that means that it focuses closer to an item; if a camera has digital zoom, that means that the camera uses manipulation of digital signal to take a "close" picture (and reduces the effective resolution of the image).

One way of testing this is to take a horse to your camera store when checking out the camera focusing ability.

Memory

Another thing to think about is what you want to do with the picture once you take them. Are they going primarily to the web? Or will they be printed out poster size? This has a direct bearing on the resolution of the camera.

If going directly to the web, 2-3 Mb in resolution may be sufficient; but if printing out larger than 4x6, more resolution will be needed. 4+ Mb for 8x10 image is suggested.

A related issue is the media size. When digital cameras first came out, 16Mb card was a lot. In 2006, many digital formats have standardized around 1Gb. Remember that if you have a 8Mb camera resolution, that's only two images on a 16Mb card, but over one hundred images on a 1Gb card. So, if you plan on taking a lot of images, remember that additional memory cards might be needed.

And realize that media cards may "wear out" due to usage and need to be replaced. Light usage may allow a card to be used for years, but heavy usage may result in short life. Periodically "reformatting" a card may help in prolonging the life.

Battery power

Most digital cameras run on battery power. (A few high end camera have the ability to plug into AC or DC for their power needs, so have unlimited capability.)

Some cameras have a specific-model battery pack, others use standard (alkaline, NiMh or other formula) batteries. Researching the cost and time benefit of rechargeable batteries is always healthy for the environment; some battery packs may last hundreds of images, but cost hundreds of dollars to purchase additional packs.

If non-rechargeable batteries are used, a ready supply is needed; and many landfills no longer allow batteries to be tossed in the standard garbage, instead requiring them to be specially disposed of as a "hazardous" waste; check with your local sanitation organization for the proper disposal of used batteries.

Understanding what drains power on a digital camera is important to know that you have the power when you want to take a picture. Use of the flash and reviewing images can "eat" a lot of battery power. Spending a lot of time focusing from picture to picture may also increase the battery usage.

Connectivity

One thing to consider is how you will get images from your camera to printer or computer.

USB is one standard communication protocol. Firewire (AKA IEEE 1394b) is another protocol. Not all cameras have both capacities, not all computers can handle either or both protocols. Before purchasing a camera, make sure it's compatible with your computer. Some cameras require special software to access the images on the media; ensure it's compatible with your computer and operating system.

Some cameras have a special camera-end adaptor that allow data to be transferred via USB or Firewire. Often, this is unique to a camera, so it's important to keep the cable identified and working.

Some printers can accept media and allow for printing of one or more images from a media card. Check out the printers and cameras to ensure they're compatible.

However, if you want to save a copy of the images on "permanent" media (CDs or DVDs), access to a computer with CD/DVD writer/burner is required.

Lighting

Most model horse imagery is taken indoors. So your flash can be your best friend or worst enemy. Having a camera that can "turn off" the flash is of great benefit.

In a studio set up, there may be three or more lamps focused on the photography area which provide sufficient lighting so a flash is unnecessary.

Depending on the size of the photographic area in a studio, a flash can create a shadow on the backdrop and "ruin" the image of a "real" horse image.

But at a live show, having the flash "fill in" may produce a more realistic result (for reference).

When not taking photographs with a flash, the camera will need to be flexible enough to adjust the aperture (bigger to add more light) and/or shutter speed (to remain open longer to let in light). If the shutter speed is "long enough", hand holding a camera may result in hand/body movement causing the image to blur; this can be overcome with some cameras having an image stabilization mode, or using a tripod to hold the camera.

A related lighting matter is white balance which when used properly can save you hours of processing time on images.

Our human eyes automatically compensate for areas that are not naturally illuminated (e.g., lit by incandescent, fluorescent, halogen, etc. bulbs). If you take a photograph in those areas, it may turn out with a green tinge or yellow hue that looks unnatural. That means that every picture taken will need to be color corrected to look correct. (Film photography uses colored filters to compensate for color shifting.)

Digital cameras often give the photographer the ability to tell the camera what "white" looks like. The camera then does the work when the image is taken to adjust the color, so the image requires no color post-processing.

Other features

Will you ever use the camera for other functions? Taking candid shots at family gatherings? Taking pictures at your child's sporting event? Taking pictures at child's recital/concert/play? Taking pictures of landscapes during vacation?

Candid shots may need the ability to use fill in flash and/or red-eye reduction flash patterns. Do realize that a built in flash is generally not effective for more than six feet from the camera.

Sporting events often want a potential ability to take "burst" shots (e.g., multiple images/second). Few cameras (especially the non-pro) can do more than 1-2 images/second. And many cameras have a 0.25 to 0.5 second delay from the time the shutter button is pushed until the image is captured. If this is going to be a significant issue, investing hundreds or thousands of dollars in a semi-pro or professional SLR (single lens reflex) camera and detachable lenses may be the most cost effective way to go; some professional models can take up to eight shots a second and up to twenty four images in a burst. (Some cameras also have "video" version where you can shoot up to 30 seconds or so.)

Sporting events also need the ability to "freeze" the action, which is around 1/250th second or shorter in duration. Most cameras are capable of this. Some cameras have sports-action modes which help with this.

Some experimentation may be needed when the action is moving in front of you to know whether the camera works better keeping the subject in focus and moving the camera (panning), or keeping the background in focus and catching the subject.

When taking pictures at an indoor performing event, the lighting is usually low in the audience and focused on the stage. Some cameras my have a "night" mode that allow for larger aperture and/or longer shutter times. And flash may have to be able to be turned off (so as not to distract performers). This may be a time to utilize a camera's image stabilization and/or a tripod to take pictures.

Taking landscapes isn't usually a problem. Some cameras have a landscape mode that allows you to compose an image taking in the "whole" scene. But if you want to compose a shot focusing on a flower in the foreground (near the photographer) and a mountain in the background, it may take more work or the ability to override settings to capture that shot.

Accessories

Some accessories may be vital to the long term "health" of a camera.

When not in use, carrying the camera in a protective case is recommended. An unprotected camera could be jostled in a bag and "turned on" using up all the battery power before you ever have a chance to use it. It also could prevent other damage due to rough handling.

If using a SLR camera with detachable lenses, investing in a "UV filter" is a great way of protecting the lens. It's much cheaper to replace a filter that may get scratched than the lens.

If using detachable lenses, having a lens cap holder may help keep it around. An investment of a couple of dollars in a holder can save tens of dollars to replace cap, depending on the size of the cap.

Knowing when and how to clean your camera is important. Read your manual to understand if mere alcohol or ammonia can help or hurt the camera lens and/or body; special lens cleaner kits are usually available and safe. Sending it to the repair shop for cleaning can be costly.

A tripod or detachable flash may be good investments as well. When considering a tripod, consider a "quick release" version if you'll be alternating between handheld and tripod a lot.

Finally

So, keep in mind any budget you may have, as well as the size of the camera (and assorted equipment) when going out and taking pictures. Remember that a camera that fits in a shirt pocket may be convenient, but a full professional set up may take a large case to store all the lenses, and be bulky and heavy to transport.

Enjoy your photography!


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