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Everything You Need to Know About Buying Digital Cameras

January 2009

Digital photography technology changes constantly, and quality isn't determined strictly by megapixils. Learn what you need to know to choose the camera that you need (for your practice and your vacation) from the myriad available options.

Now that Christmas is past, consumer electronic bargains abound, particularly that digital camera that you really “need” for your law practice but didn’t get. Given the economics of the times, getting the most for your money is now more important than ever.

Many new and improved digital camera models will be announced in January and February 2009 in time for the annual PMA photo equipment show, so the models that I’ve mentioned here may change. I suggest that you check the web sites that I’ve listed below before making any purchases at this time.

There are some basic concepts and misconceptions about buying digital cameras that I’d like to address first because understanding them should result in more informed purchases and usage. These basic principles for choosing and using digital cameras remain fairly constant over the years.

  • The basic technical knowledge required for highest quality digital photography is the same as with traditional film cameras - correct exposure, good focus and depth of field, proper contrast and tonal quality, good color balance, avoiding blurring due to camera shake, using an optically sharp lens and all the rest. Even a high end digital camera will not turn an indifferent film photographer into the next Ansel Adams although it can help a knowledgeable photographer avoid some pitfalls.
  • A digital camera’s sensor acts very similar to traditional film, particularly high contrast slide film. Except when using very large sensor professional cameras, using higher ISO sensitivity ratings usually results in poor color and tone separation in shadows and highlight details and in higher image noise that looks and acts just film grain. As ISO settings increase, these problems gradually degrade image quality until it becomes unusable. This happens very quickly with small consumer camera sensors that pack too many pixels into too small a space, causing serious electronic interference between adjacent pixels on the sensor.
  • A higher number of megapixels (MP) advertised for a particular camera does not guarantee higher sharpness and image quality despite attempts by marketing departments to convince consumers otherwise. The megapixel race basically dupes consumers into buying this year’s model. Pros know that a good 10MP camera, used properly, can produce high grade professional images. Given the current state of the art in digital sensors and electronics, there is an optimum megapixel level for each type of digital sensor.
  • Just as film cameras that used larger negatives usually produced better quality photographs, digital cameras that house larger sensors will usually produce better quality images than those with smaller sensors, particularly at the higher ISO sensitivities needed in dim light, when using high magnification telephoto lenses, and when you’re taking high speed action shots. Remember that unlike film a digital sensor cannot be changed for something better - you’re stuck with it for the life of the camera.
  • The smallest sensors are usually termed 1/2.3" or 1/2.5". These usually have the lowest image quality and are primarily useful for very compact casual cameras and compact cameras that mount high magnification zoom lenses. Eight to ten megapixels is usually about as much as can be rationally fit on these small sensors - any more and you’re typically losing image quality rather than gaining it. It’s not even worth discussing trade-offs - small sensor cameras are not really suitable for most serious work.
  • Mid-range sensors are usually listed as 2/3", 1/1.6", 1/1.7" or 1/1.8". These sizes once were also used in higher quality consumer cameras but are now mostly found in high end compact cameras intended for serious use. When used in good light at their lowest ISO settings (about ISO 50-200), high end compact cameras using mid-range sensors can take professional quality photographs. Ten to twelve megapixels is about the useful limit for top grade cameras using mid-size sensors. Some of the more expensive compact cameras claim to squash fourteen to fifteen megapixels on to a small or mid-range sensor and I’m sure that even higher numbers are on the way. In such cases, image quality is often worse than in earlier models with fewer megapixels. Remember that the effective area of even a mid-range sensor such as a 1/1.8” sensor is only about 1/20th the size of a traditional 35mm negative, which itself was considered to be rather marginal for making large prints. Optical technology has improved over the past ten years but not by that much. When used in good light, a serious compact camera using a mid-sized sensor can approach digital SLR quality. Compared to a digital SLR, what you’re trading off when using a mid-sized sensor camera are the ability to take a series of fast action shots, low light capabilities, and inherently higher image noise.
  • Most digital Single Lens Reflex (dSLR) cameras use what’s termed an APS-C size sensor that’s slightly less than half the size of traditional 35mm film but still several times larger than a mid-range sensor. An APS-C sensor is capable of providing excellent quality photographs under a much wider variety of lighting conditions and high speed photography compared to a high end compact camera. A dSLR camera usually has a faster operating speed, often taking three to six frames a second when needed. Fifteen to sixteen megapixels seems to be the reasonable upper limit for large APS-C sensors at the moment.
  • At the upper end of price and performance are the so-called “full frame” professional grade cameras whose 35mm film-sized frame sensor operates well even in low light and at faster shutter speeds. However, even when comparing these mega-thousand dollar cameras with relatively big sensors, lower megapixel sensors using larger pixels still produce better quality images
  • Zoom lenses with long zoom ratios such as 15X are more expensive and seem to appeal to less knowledgeable buyers. However, it’s truly difficult to wring good optical quality across a wide zoom range. Stick with zoom lenses whose zoom ration is 6X or less, preferably in the 3X to 4X range. You’ll get a lot more optical quality for less money. “Kit” lenses bundled with entry level digital SLR cameras are often less sharp than high end compact cameras like the Canon G10. Do your homework and check the review sites listed below before making a purchase. Some reasonably priced lenses by long-established independent lens makers Sigma, Tamron, and Tokina are often optically superior to much more expensive name brand lenses.
  • Lens sharpness remains the most critical single indicator of photographic quality but can be impossible to gauge by looking at a camera or reading ads. You should research potential purchases by checking some serious digital camera review sites. I’ve found that the best overall comparative camera reviews are found at www.imaging-resource.com , www.dcresource.com , www.steves-digicams.com, (US sites), www.dpreview.com (British) and www.cameralabs.com ( New Zealand). The best interchangeable lens reviews are at www.photozone.de (German), www.dpreview.com and www.imaging-resource.com . By far the best comparison of the digital sensors found in high end cameras is at www.dxomark.com (French). The best site specializing in high end compact cameras suitable for occasional enthusiast and semi-pro use is www.seriouscompacts.com . All of these resources are English language sites.
  • Although all current digital cameras can save pictures in a compressed, ready to use JPEG file format, using JPEG compromises your ability to later correct and enhance photos and usually reduces overall quality and resolution. A camera that allows you to optionally use an uncompressed “RAW” file format is much more flexible and can capture the highest quality images. However, you will need RAW-capable software, of which Adobe Photoshop Elements 7 is the least expensive, usually about $80 at Costco. Adobe Photoshop Lightroom ($299 list price) is a very modern, wonderfully intuitive and high quality program that really shines with RAW images. Lightroom is fast becoming the choice of professional photographers while still sufficiently easy to use and inexpensive that it’s well-suited for any photography who wants to get the most out of a higher end camera. All digital SLR cameras, and a few higher end compact cameras, have optional RAW file format capability.
  • It’s very useful to have the ability to make video clips as needed, especially in a litigation practice. Almost all compact cameras include some form of video mode although capabilities vary, with many newer models including a high resolution video mode. Only a very few digital SLR cameras, such as Nikon’s new D90 and Canon’s new 50D, include any sort of video mode at all. Cameras that use QuickTime or H.264 video compression and processing are usually more convenient than older uncompressed video standards such as AVI and MPEG, both of which produce relatively large video files.

Useful features include:

  • Anti-shake stabilization goes by several proprietary names and is probably the single most useful optical innovation in the past 25 years and is very useful when using slow shutter speeds in low light. Only mechanical-optical anti-shake technology is worthwhile. “Digital anti-shake” or its verbal equivalent is a scam - it simply raises the sensor’s ISO sensitivity and uses a faster shutter speed, leaving you with very noisy, potentially unusable images. In contrast, true mechanical-optical anti-shake technology moves the sensor or a lens element to truly compensate for the kind of slow shutter speed camera shake that is the leading cause of blurred images. I would not buy a digital camera without this feature. Anti-shake technology built into individual lenses is reputedly more effective but each lens requires its own anti-shake mechanism, raising costs. Anti-shake technology built directly into the body of interchangeable lens dSLR cameras made by Pentax and Sony is reputedly slightly less expensive but much more economical, providing anti-shake capabilities with any lens that mechanically fits the camera body.
  • Your camera ideally should include e xcellent automatic color balance along with manual color balance options.
  • A live “histogram”, a type of display that shows the distribution of bright and dark areas and that can help you optimize your exposure. Properly used, a live histogram is one of the best ways to optimally adjust exposure to a particular situation. A live histogram is found most often on good quality compact cameras and newer digital SLR cameras that include a “live view” capability.
  • I prefer b oth an optical viewfinder and along with the usual large, bright LCD display on the back. An optical viewfinder is often handier when you need to shoot quickly or under low light conditions. A lot of people who first learned using 35 mm film cameras will find an optical viewfinder more natural and comfortable. Look for one with diopter correction to compensate for your own eyesight.
  • Bracketing causes the camera to take three or more shots at different exposures and in rapid succession. This in handy when you are not sure about the correct exposure because of unusual or difficult lighting conditions that may fool a camera’s automatic exposure. Professional photographers traditionally shot a lot of film to be sure that they had at least one good exposure. It’s a lot less expensive and a lot easier to take this precaution with a digital camera.
  • I prefer cameras with b oth reliable automatic operation and also easily operated manual over-ride exposure options. You really need programmable compensation (P) and manual exposure (M) modes as your abilities progress, particularly if you run into situations that can fool purely automatic exposure modes.
  • Adequate “scene” modes”: Some lighting conditions, such as bright sun on snow or theater lighting are inherently tricky. Good scene modes will automatically set your camera to whatever the manufacturer has found to be optimum under those specific circumstances. These are very helpful for amateurs and handy for experienced photographers as well.
  • External flash capability, either the traditional “X synch” output or a hot shoe for a programmable flash designed for that particular camera. Built-in flash is usually really anemic and can’t reliably reach beyond about 10 feet or so. Sooner or later, you will want a more powerful and sophisticated external flash unit, so you’ll need a camera that can work with an external electronic flash.
  • Fast startup and operation are nice but probably not crucial under most legal evidentiary circumstances. If you really need to be able to shoot photos really quickly, then you probably need to hire a professional anyway. Given the choice between better photo quality and faster operation, go for better quality every time unless you plan to shoot NBA basketball. Consumer grade and mid-range digital cameras typically exhibit relatively slow operation compared to digital SLR cameras
  • Easily transportable size: All other things being equal, it’s easier to take a compact camera with you wherever you go and thus a compact camera is more likely to be used. On the other hand, compact cameras have to strike a balance between convenient small size and overall image quality. If forced to make a decision, opt for better image quality rather than style and compact size

Generally, digital cameras models are aimed at specific users, including:

Casual family snap shots that will be displayed on smaller computer monitors or digital photo frames and that will rarely be enlarged much beyond standard 4x6 or 8x10 prints .

My recommendations for compact casual cameras include the Canon A590IS, the Pentax W60, the Kodak z1085 IS, the Pentax W60, and the higher end models in Sony’s W series such as the Sony W120. The best buy is the Canon A590 IS. Canon’s and Panasonic’s lines of casual consumer cameras have the best overall reputation. Panasonic’s FX150 is a worthy high end casual camera with the bonus of optional RAW files. Best buys for high magnification long zoom ratio cameras include Kodak’s z1012 IS, the Canon S10, or, if you also want a RAW file option, either the Kodak z1015 IS or the Panasonic FZ28, whose 18X Leica lens is considered unusually good. Unfortunately, lower end consumer models from Nikon and Olympus tend to get rather poor reviews;

Business users such as engineers, contractors, government agencies, and attorneys who need to document specific evidence easily and with sharp detail.

Suitable entry level dSLR cameras include the Pentax K200d (has the best kit lens), the Canon XSi (EOS 450D), the Nikon D60, and the Olympus E520. Semi-pro quality compact cameras for professional users currently are pretty much limited to the Canon G10 and the Panasonic LX3. However, new “Micro 4/3” compact cameras from Olympus and Panasonic are an exciting new concept that combine large sensors and high grade lenses in compact bodies.

Lower level but still decent quality compact cameras with good lenses and mid-range sensors include the Fuji F60fd or Fuji S100fs, the Nikon P6000, the Panasonic FX150, and the Kodak z1085IS,

Frequent travelers and vacationers who need decent quality in a very compact, versatile camera . Consider the Canon SD880 IS, the Canon SD990 IS or the Panasonic TZ-5.

“Enthusiasts”, including hobbyists, serious photography students at the college and university level, and fine art photographers .

Cameras in this range are often considered “semi-pro” models. The only current semi-pro level compact cameras worth considering are the 15MP Canon G10 and the 10MP Panasonic LX-3. Both are polished models. Again, though, seriously consider new “Micro 4/3” compact cameras as professional reviews of them become available.

There are several very good digital SLR cameras in this range and so many lenses options that you really should check some rigorous reviews before making a purchase. One of the best is Nikon’s new D90, whose image quality and usability seem superb, especially with Nikon’s new, very sharp 16mm-85mm lens.

I also like Pentax’s quite rugged, weather-sealed K20d with the older but still quite excellent DA 16mm-45mm F4 and FA 28mm-105mm F 3.2 lenses. The Pentax K20d will likely be replaced by an upgraded model in the first half of 2009. Pentax lenses are often among the sharpest available in their price range, assuming that you get a properly assembled copy.

Canon’s new 50D is also highly regarded but check out whichever Canon lens is sold with the body - the newer versions are fine but the older optics had a deservedly bad reputation.

The image quality of Sony’s entries in this category, the A300 and A350, has been unfavorably compared to Sony’s more expensive A700, to Pentax’s K20d and to Canon’s 50D.

The Nikon D90 and Canon 50D are among the very few digital SLR cameras to include a high resolution video mode, a real plus for a law office that needs to document litigation data such as approaches to auto accident scenes, physical disabilities, and the like, but look for other manufacturers to include it in their 2009 models.

Professional Photographers: Although professional photographers will sometimes use a semi-pro model like the Nikon D90, the Pentax K20d or the Canon 50D, serious working pros usually prefer an upper end APS-C like the Nikon D300 or a full frame digital SLR camera. The image quality is typically somewhat better but more importantly to pros, professional grade cameras are built to last. Higher construction quality and durability account for much of the increased cost of “professional” cameras and lenses. Not uncommonly, as with the recently released Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom lens, a “semi-pro” enthusiast grade lens made largely of high quality plastic will have optical qualities that are superior to name brand “pro” lenses costing a thousand dollars more. The difference is the extra ruggedness built into “pro” equipment.

The least expensive full frame camera bodies are the Canon 5D Mark II, the Nikon D700, and the Sony A900, which range between $2,700 and $3,000 without lens. These are all excellent cameras but unless you’ve got the proceeds of your most recent bank robbery still stuffed in your mattress, purchasing a full frame digital camera is probably beyond the needs and the means of anyone who can’t legitimately deduct it.

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About the Authors

Joseph L. Kashi is an attorney and litigator living in Soldotna, Alaska, who is active in the Law Practice Management Section He has written regularly on legal technology for the Law Practice Management Section, Law Office Computing magazine and other publications since 1990. He received his B.S. and M.S. degrees from MIT in 1973 and his J.D. from Georgetown University in 1976, and is admitted to practice in Alaska, Pennsylvania, the Ninth Circuit, and the U.S. Supreme Court.

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