Photography is magic. It has been since it’s beginnings and remains magic right up to today. There is a certain mystery to the way light sensitive particles in film or pixels on a silicone chip gather light and shadow to document a split second in eternity. Film based photography has its mysteries but those are mostly unlocked by chemists, scientists and photo lab technicians. Digital photography has its unknowns too. Some are left up to the engineers to solve but some are left to us, the everyday users. Most of us just want to shoot good pictures but are intimidated by things like megapixels, memory, white balance and other strange things we never heard of let alone had to worry about before.
There is so much to know about digital still camera technology that one can write volumes and still not offer a complete answer. Let us take a quick look at some of the basics and try to separate the hype from the facts.
Look for digital cameras that will perform well and not produce a ton of “noise” (grain) in the image. You should also consider a camera that will give you a good range of detail from deep shadows to the brightest areas in an image (This is known as Dynamic Range). Digital is great, but as of this writing it still cannot compete with film in its dynamic range. Once most digital camera users see what they have to go through to print a good picture after they click the shutter they suddenly realize how much their photo processor did with the negatives to make those good looking prints.
Some camera ads will play on how many Mega Pixels (MP) a camera has. This may not be the best way to judge quality. For example a 6 MP point and shoot camera with a 4mm sensor is not the same as a 6 MP DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) with a 14mm sensor. When it comes to sensors bigger is better. The larger sensor gives you better resolution and a much better signal to noise ratio with the same amount of advertised pixels. (Signal-To-Noise Ratio is the amount of noise you observe in an image versus the amount of clarity).
Another issue is white balance. White balance is the camera’s ability to see the color white, as our eye perceives white. This can be equated to using daylight or tungsten film, but with a much wider gamut. You want a camera with which you can adjust the white balance manually to fix those out of the norm indoor and outdoor shots.
Consider cameras that have a wide, and manually adjustable ISO range and shutter speed.
There is a speed of another sort and that is lens speed or the somewhat ambiguous “f.” Ideally you want a lens that will give you an f 2.0 or lower.
Speed again when it comes to write speed to the storage medium. You ideally want a fast write speed or you will be waiting for a long time for your camera to clear itself for the next picture.
Latency is another issue related to speed. Latency is how long it takes your camera to see the picture, focus, set the f-stop, capture and store the image once you push the shutter release. You want something that is near instantaneous. There may be some point and shoot cameras that might take upwards of 5 seconds to process a single image and store it in memory after you push the shutter button.
Modern cameras are designed to take most, if not all the burden of thinking about camera settings away from the user. This can be a wonderful feature, especially for neophytes or those of us who want to take a quick shot in ideal conditions. Sometimes you might want to “think” about your shot and customize your exposure and focus so you can get the best possible results. Auto settings are great when there is plenty of light and things don’t move or they don’t move very quickly.
Some digital cameras can produce grainy images. Grain increase may be a factor of a camera’s “brain” automatically changing the ISO setting. When there is enough light it might be at ISO 200 when the light becomes low it might up the setting to ISO 1000 or greater. To see if this is what happens in your camera check the user manual and look for settings for Auto or Manual ISO, if there are you will want to set to Manual. You will then have to change the settings yourself for the amount of available light you have, but that might do great things to get rid of any grain issues. (Grain is actually a film term related to the size of the silver halide particles used in manufacturing film. Larger particles yield better low light performance but are grainy – Noise is a better term to use with digital cameras. Noise is the electro-optical manifestation of camera circuits making the pixels “work harder” to see in low light.)
Rule of thumb here for both film and digital is the lower the ISO number the clearer the image. Consider this too, the lower the number the longer your exposure time and/or the larger your aperture needs to be. You cannot expect to capture fast movement in low light conditions without sacrificing image quality. This is pretty much consistent with Film and Digital photography. Some digital cameras have a long exposure feature where it will actually squelch noise. See if your camera has this option and experiment with it.
Bad color can also be related to the above or it might be related to another automatic feature called “Auto White Balance.” Again, check your manual and see if you can change this feature to Manual and adjust the white balance yourself. Here is a rule of thumb to use when doing this:
3200 Degrees K = Tungsten stage lights & incandescent lighting in your home
5400 Degrees K = Daylight with blue sky at high noon
6000 Degrees K = Cloudy day, snow or light colored sandy beach
7000 Degrees K = Daylight in the shade – Photo Flash
9300 Degrees K = White on some high end computer monitors
Technology changes rapidly. Yesterday’s issues are solved in today’s cameras. Tomorrow it might be better than anyone imagined. One thing to remember when creating pictures. All this hardware is great but the camera itself is only a tool. It will not make you a good (or better) photographer. That bit of magic still remains in the very heart and imagination of the one who pushes the shutter button. -33-