If you are planning to let your ageing film camera last you yet another holiday, think again. It’s time you snapped for yourself one of those trendy digital cameras flooding the market and go clicking. It’s instant gratification—take a shot, review it, and if you don’t like the “frame”, just take another one. Besides, there is always the option of correcting the picture on Photoshop. It’s cheaper than using a film camera, and you are so much more in control of the process: from the detail and quality of the image to transferring, storing, editing and printing it. It needn’t be an expensive process, but the camera and accessories you choose will determine how much you spend in the years ahead.
The megapixel myth
No debate on digital photography is complete without confronting the eternal question: are more megapixels necessarily better? There is no simple answer to this. In some ways, it seems nothing but a marketing ploy to make you believe that your older 3 megapixel camera is not as good as the latest 12 megapixel one.
The problem, however, is that image quality is controlled by several factors, one of which is megapixels. It is difficult to make out the difference between prints from cameras with higher or lower megapixels.
At the same time, there is a pronounced difference between the quality of pictures taken with a point-and-shoot camera and a professional digital SLR (single-lens reflex) camera. Still, a number of factors—such as the lens quality, size of the CCD (charge-coupled device) and sharpness of the image, in addition to megapixels—contribute to the final print quality.
The right camera
The range of cameras available in the market, each one promising to give you the perfect picture, can be very confusing. It is, therefore, important to choose a camera based on the kind of pictures you intend to take. For regular use, a point-and-shoot variety would be ideal. Loaded with features such as multiple auto modes for different shooting conditions, among other things, fancier cameras in this category also have full manual controls, which lets you to shoot using either aperture priority, shutter priority or just complete manual mode.
If, however, you are an amateur photographer, take a look at the new breed of digital SLRs. These cameras use mirrors to reproduce what you will eventually capture. So, think of it as a true “what you see is what you get” device. Another big advantage with digital SLRs is the option of changing lenses. Although many point-and-shoot cameras now have lens enhancements and attachments, they are nowhere near the range of lenses that are available for SLRs.
The next big advantage on the SLR is the CCD—the area that is used to capture the image. Now, in the case of the compact cameras, the CCD is quite small, typically ranging from half an inch, going up to about two-thirds of an inch for the SLR. The big issue is when you cram more and more pixels into a small area, they actually tend to degrade the quality of the photograph rather than enhance it. In fact, there is a distinct loss of colour when you put 12 megapixels into a half-inch area as opposed to 6 megapixels in the same area.
And then there is the “shutter lag”. Have you ever tried taking a picture of a child using a compact camera, only to find that the child moved away by the time the photograph was actually recorded and all you are left with was a blank frame? Well, that’s what we call shutter lag, the time between the actual image being recorded after you pressed the shutter. On an SLR, this could be as low as 0.05 seconds, whereas on a compact camera, this would be about 0.65 seconds. In photographic terms, it is this speed that makes all the difference in the camera’s ability to capture any fast-moving object.
Now that you are clear about the kind of camera you need to purchase, there are a number of other factors that you need to keep in mind to make your investment worthwhile. The camera body or the lens you choose are but just a part of the actual cost you would incur. Let’s take a look at some other factors.
If you are taking a picture in low light, mounting the camera on a tripod or a monopod is a must. It is because most of these lenses, on an average, weigh in the region of 2-6kg and it is not possible to keep the camera steady without a tripod. There are a variety of tripods available in the market and the starting range is around $200 (Rs8,060). You also need a ballhead to support the lens on the tripod. Again, there are a variety of products available in the market and the starting range for this, too, is about $200. Indeed, as in case of the cameras, it is pretty much an unending game for these accessories.
It is very important to keep you camera clean if you are looking for a spotless picture. When you buy a device, don’t forget to pick up a basic cleaning kit. It would consist of a cloth, blower, lens pen and sensor brush. Be warned that camera cleaning is not for the faint-hearted and it is not advisable to do it yourself if you don’t know how to go about it. Because camera lenses are highly sensitive, it helps to approach the authorized service centre of your brand and let professionals handle the task.
Disk storage and image tanks
You will be amazed at how quickly hard disks tend to fill up when you start storing photos. Fortunately, memory and storage are two items in the digital photography loop that are constantly becoming cheaper. More than just raw storage, there are some other useful applications, such as photo banks or digital image tanks, that are now available. These are, essentially, a combination of a card reader and a hard disk, and in some cases even a photo viewer. After taking photos, all you need to do is connect the card to the image tank, and hit the copy button.
As the list of your equipment grows, you will find that you need specialized bags that can safely carry all your gear. These bags are available as backpacks, side-holsters or messenger bags. Remember, when you go for a photo shoot, you do not need to carry all your equipment. Along with bags, you may also want to look at camera skins and covers. Rather than having a big black or grey barrel sticking out in the middle of nowhere during a wildlife shoot, you can cover you camera with a skin that will camouflage the stark black or grey and more readily merge with the area. Finally, not to forget, a good strap around your neck will save that camera from falling. Often, casual photographers don’t wear the strap and end up dropping the camera.
It’s simple: the more space you have in your memory card, the more comfortable you are. But remember two things. One: make sure you buy cards that match the total capacity of your camera. Two: buy the fastest cards your camera can support. The memory card is where all your photos will be stored as you shoot, and a card tends to fill up rather fast. While reviewing images, some people tend to delete the bad ones then and there. It is safer to delete unwanted pictures only after you have transferred them to your PC. If the card is not fast enough, combined with shutter lag, you can get disappointing results.
Flashes and lights
There are times when the built-in flash of the camera just does not cut it. To avoid this, you need to attach an external flash. The starting price for some of these can be as much as $800. Make it three times the price of a low-end point-and-shoot camera. But if you want to do creative lighting, then nothing beats an external flash and sometimes even a series of them. Such flash lights are commonly used by fashion photographers.
Batteries, grips and rapid chargers
One of the most ignored yet critical accessory is the battery. Most cameras use rechargeable batteries and some of them even have special batteries intended for use only in that particular device. Others use standard batteries. It can be highly embarrassing to go for a photo shoot only to discover that your batteries are discharged. Most photographers keep a spare set of batteries and that’s where the rapid chargers come into the picture. These can charge your batteries in less than two hours. You will at times also find that the single set of batteries that goes into the camera can also be a limitation at times, especially when you are trying to shoot rapid action in low-light conditions. For such conditions, you need extra grip. It’s basically an extra battery pack and grip combined into one.
Lenses are by far the most expensive of the camera accessories. If you look at the prices of telephoto lenses, you will be amazed to see price tags ranging from $4,000 to $8,000. Some high-end lenses easily cost much more. And then you also have special lenses. For portraits, you will need a 50mm lens with a high aperture (f1.4 or f1.8). If macro photography interests you, then a 105mm lens with f.28 is ideal. But if it’s wildlife photography that intrigues you, then your bare minimum will be a 500mm lens, preferably with an aperture of f4. In short, you need to be really rich to afford all these lenses or have some means of justifying these high-cost items.