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Looking for a (mostly) product photo camera w/ HD video (but more parameters inside!)

Carolyn Eilola , Jan 09, 2012; 11:18 p.m.

Hi there,
I've been assigned the task of shooting product photos and little product videos for my company…which gives me a great opportunity to buy a nice new camera and learn photography! :)

What I need (bare-minimum) is a camera that can shoot good, large product photos. The biggest product is the size of a large hat and they get smaller from there, so I'm planning to pick out one of those tent/lightbox contraptions or something similar, to get a nice white background, along with some other things to create a little "mini studio". I don't think I'll be taking these photos any more than a couple of times within a 6 month period, and not more than a few dozen products at any time, so this doesn't need to be a serious photographer's setup, just needs to get the job done.

Anyway, my basic needs:
I need to shoot good product photos. These will primarily be on a website and I would like to have the large version product photo be relatively large and well-detailed on a big monitor. We will also feature a short video showing the product from multiple angles (either moving the camera or moving the product, haven't decided). My goal is also to have the photos be print-material-worthy, since we'll likely want to create ads and marketing materials for some of the products I'm shooting.

The most difficult product I need to shoot is a construction hat…meaning hard plastic, very reflective, and comes in a rainbow of colors (including white, bright yellow, red, blue, black, etc.) I can learn how to set up my mini-studio to minimize the bad reflections and things.

In an ideal world, it might also have something that will shoot moderately low-light scenes (think slightly dim auditorium lighting, not candlelight), and might also be suitable for print material shots of people in a studio setup. But for this purpose, just a nice non-flash shot in a tent and a good-quality (possibly 1080p HD or more?) video is really all I technically need.

If this can be something I can have fun with and do things like take nice macro shots, high-zoom nature shots, food photography, etc. that would be great, too! (I'm sanctioned to use this for personal use as long as it's available in the future whenever I need to do more product photos.)

More parameters:

  • I've been told two things by someone I know who does a bit of photography: 1) wait until the CES tradeshow is over, so that I could potentially get a new product or at least wait for prices to take a bit of a "old product stigma" hit, I guess…and 2) to look more towards a Canon, Fuji, or Nikon and less towards Kodak and Olympia (who are both having money troubles) or a lesser-known brand.
  • I use a Mac, and I know this can be a bit of an issue. I'll do some research when I have specific products in mind.
  • I like the idea of full-body cameras, though I have small hands. (I think that's because I'd like to have something to hold on to when I'm moving products. Plus I hate taking photos with my iPhone…I always feel like I'm about ready to drop it. But that might just be because I never remember the new button-shutter feature and try to hit the on-screen button every darn time!)
  • Battery -- would like a battery that has the option to charge by ejecting the battery pack OR charging via USB, if possible. I'd like to be able to swap out dying batteries with new ones, but also not risk leaving my only battery behind after charging it overnight. I prefer a battery pack to rechargeable batteries. Not a deal-breaker though.
  • Flash -- I'm not concerned with flash at all for work. I would like a decent flash or the opportunity to buy an add-on flash later if possible, for personal use.
  • Lots of controls, features, manual adjustments, etc. are not an issue. I'm perfectly fine with learning new technology and can handle doing some reading/research and experimentation to figure out how the camera works and everything.
  • I may or may not get much use out of special features like panorama, wide-angle, diorama, etc. though I would certainly enjoy them if the camera I pick has them. (Actually, panorama is great for big events, so that would actually be of use. The other ones things--you know what I mean--would just be for plain fun & novelty.)

Budget:
In the $200-ish range, I think. I'm guessing my boss would like to spend no more than $250 or $300 with the other accessories I'll need as well. Although if I can back myself up, I might be able to get a little more money. (Since it's a business expense that I could use for at least the next few years and get a decent range of uses out of it, it's possible I could get up to $400 for everything. I'll pay for a few things out of pocket, if necessary.)
I doubt a DSLR is in the budget, even a cheap one.

Other things I'm buying:

  • I'm looking at photo tents, or other solutions. I would like something that can change to a green screen or something easy to edit out, but a white background is perfectly fine. (My Photoshop skills are good.) I'm a little interested in coming up with a slightly smaller version of this stand+clamp+string thing that was featured on Tuts+ … I don't quite have the room for that, but I've been meaning to clear out part of my office anyway, so I potentially could have room for it. But I think that ultimately I'd like a desktop or tabletop setup that I can move out of the way until in use.
  • I know I'll need a tripod. I've seen the ones with the horizontal arm and I think that might be useful. Will likely go for a tabletop size. I have access to tall ones and a gorilla arm if I need to borrow them.
  • Some white-balancing or color-balancing stuff. Haven't looked into this yet, but I'm guessing I'll at least want a white-grey-black card. Complete color accuracy isn't a big priority, though it should be relatively good. (Personally though, I would love to be able to do nearly color-true photos, if I can get something that good.)
  • Lamps. Possibly a diffuser/reflector kit. Though I think we're getting in the studio realm with this one. May just buy some lights from the hardware store or something.
  • One of those rotating stands (like the plate in the microwave), to test out turning the products instead of walking around them.

I need to buy something in the next week or so. Need to shoot the product photos and video before the end of the month.

Thanks a ton for any help or advice you can give! (Even if it's just which specs I should narrow down into, or which equipment/accessories sound best.)

P.S., Sorry for the novel! I'm both very particular and a little excited at the prospect of a new camera after my last one. I've been through high school and college since I bought my last camera. haha

(x-posted at Steve's Digicams, if you read both forums)

Responses


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Leslie Cheung , Jan 10, 2012; 10:53 a.m.

I didn't read your whole post but if the scene/product is well lit, then it should be okay with most cameras, even $100 cameras. Remember to shoot at ISO 100 or lower. The crucial missing information is the final output print size? For your next question(s), be quick and to the point. We are not grading essays here...

Bob Sunley , Jan 10, 2012; 11:40 a.m.

For starters, take approx $40 of your budget and buy the book Light Science and Magic. You will need that before you buy anything.
Lighting is going to be your major problem if you want decent consistent images.

R.T. Dowling , Jan 10, 2012; 08:01 p.m.

This is one situation where a compact point-and-shoot might actually be as good or better than a DSLR: they have tons of depth of field, which is really important when you're doing product shots and you want the entire product to be in focus.

Unless you're going to make huge fine-art prints, anything with at least 10 megapixels should be fine. But I agree with Leslie that it would be good to know how big you'll be printing. If the shots will only be used on the web, or in small brochures, don't worry about megapixels at all.

Finding something in the $200 price range that can shoot 1080p video might be a little more challenging. 720p video is pretty much a standard feature these days, even in budget cameras. In terms of image quality, there's not going to be a big difference between a 720p video and a 1080p video unless you're watching it on a really huge TV, like 50" or bigger. If the videos will mostly be watched on computers, tablets, or smartphones, 720p is more than enough. What's more important, in my opinion, is that you get a camera that can autofocus and zoom while shooting video. There are some cameras that shoot in 1080p, but the autofocus and zoom are disabled when shooting in video mode, which really limits your options -- and can potentially give you videos that are out of focus. A camera that shoots 720p video with autofocus and zoom will give you better results.

Carolyn Eilola , Jan 10, 2012; 11:09 p.m.

Thanks for the book rec, Bob! It looks great--I love the fact that the authors explain the science without dumbing it down too much. It's $18 for a Kindle copy, so I went ahead and bought it to read online (in color of course!).

Leslie & R.T., I at very least need to do large online photos and enough for small printed items (like a brochure), but I would really like to have photos that could look great on a glossy magazine ad (8.5x11 or a few inches bigger than that).

R.T., I've been considering 720p instead, though I do know that two of my clients use big 25-27" monitors and may want to blow the videos up to full screen. 720 isn't quite good enough for that not to look choppy...though it would definitely work for a smaller, non-maximizable video. Autofocus is definitely a great idea for the video! Primary placement will be on a product website/webstore (with a lightroom feature for larger versions of each) and then some blog and other website coverage.

When I've been asking around about what kind of camera I should buy, I've been told a few differing opinions.

  1. That my iPhone 4S should nearly good enough for this and a $150 whatever camera will be fine and all I need are a good sensor and halfway decent video.
  2. That I need a pretty nice $250+ camera with a decent lens and a relatively great shutter speed, and then to spend a lot of time and focus on getting great lighting results and everything, too.
  3. That anything less than a $400 or so camera will be a waste of everyone's time and money, plus a couple hundred on equipment.

Everyone's leaving me confused! I'm leaning towards just having my boss take $50-100 out of my next few paychecks towards buying a DSLR, even though I'd rather not.

Carolyn Eilola , Jan 10, 2012; 11:15 p.m.

I guess here's a better rundown of some criteria. Anyone have any good contenders?

  • Something that can do fairly nice, relatively true-to-color photos (I'll buy a white balance card, but some of the cameras I've been looking at seem to run blue or washed out, which I'd like to avoid.)
  • RAW option if possible, but also a decent JPEG optimization engine
  • decent macro options (not anything crazy like 1cm, but enough to capture textures or other fine details in macro shots of products)
  • Fast shutter speed--been told my ideal is at most a minimum of f/3.2 if I can get it.
  • 720p or higher HD video with video autofocus and video zoom options
  • not an ultra-compact...I like the look of full-body cameras like DSLR's, plus I want to be able to hold on to it with one hand when I adjust the subject or a light. (Note that I am fairly petite with proportionate hands...so not the biggest, heaviest camera on the market, please!)
  • Some manual options, if possible (So that I can learn more about photography, mostly. Things like aperture, shutter speed, etc.)
  • Battery pack (vs. taking normal batteries)

R.T. Dowling , Jan 10, 2012; 11:34 p.m.

It sounds to me like you can accomplish this project without a DSLR. You would quite possibly need a dedicated macro lens, and that would put you way over budget even if you were able to find a decent DSLR body for $400. Conversely, most compact point-and-shoot cams have some sort of macro ability built-in, and their inherent depth of field means that you don't have to stop down to f/22 just to get the entire product in focus. What that means in layman's terms is that it makes you life a lot easier in terms of lighting.
 
One thing to keep in mind about video is that 720p vs. 1080p only tells part of the story. You still need a decent sensor, a decent lens, and autofocus if you want the video to be crisp and clear. A 1080p video shot with a lesser-quality lens and no autofocus is probably not going to look quite as sharp as a 720p video shot with a good lens with constant autofocus. The Canon G12 and the Nikon P7100,  both top-of-the-line in their class, have 720p video. Both cameras sell for around $400. I've seen less-expensive cameras with 1080p video, but I suspect the overall quality wouldn't be any better, and it might actually be somewhat worse.
 
If you can swing $400, I think the P7100 would be a very good choice:
 
http://amzn.com/B005IGVXJS
 
Also worth considering is the Panasonic LX5, at around $350. It lacks some of the versatility of the P7100, but the image quality is near the top of its class:
 
http://amzn.com/B003WJR69E
 
Closer to $200, there is the Panasonic ZS10. Image quality isn't going to be in quite the same league as the LX5 and P7100, but it's certainly capable of producing good quality images, and it does have 1080p video with full autofocus -- and I have to say that Panasonic cameras do a very good job with video:
 
(link)
 
 

Bob Sunley , Jan 11, 2012; 12:01 a.m.

A question for you, if you are doing this for the company, on company time as an employee, why are you buying the camera yourself? For example, odds are if you drop or damage it at work, your tenant/homeowners ins may not cover it.

Carolyn Eilola , Jan 11, 2012; 12:26 a.m.

Bob, I'm technically an independent consultant. Sometimes I'm given money up-front to cover an expense and sometimes it's purchased and sent to me...either way I'm paid to do this type of research and find the best/smartest choice, and then paid to learn the trade and then produce results. Beyond that, it's a company of less than 10 at any given time, so I doubt we have the same type of corporate insurance that you may be thinking of. But thanks for looking out!

R.T., thank you for the list! When I posted earlier I was comparing results in DPreview.com's still life scene comparison tool and I had up the G12 and the LX5 (and the nicer DMC-GF3) and the Fujifilm Finepix F600ER. So I guess I was going in the right direction.

The support at BH Photo told me that the bare minimum I should get would be either a used Canon EOS 20D with a 50mm lens on the DLSR side, or the G12 on the P&S side. I love the results of the G12, so I'll do some more research. I also really love the Lumix cameras with the Leica lenses, like the LX5...though the image quality takes a bit of a dive from the G12 and the GF3. I'll do some more research on these models--thanks for a push in the right direction!

Bob Sunley , Jan 11, 2012; 01:14 a.m.

Then you better read up on copyright law and ownership of photos and licensing as well along with a review of your contract to determine who would own the images.

I was referring to your personal ins which may or may not cover loss or damage to personal tools used on a jobsite. Any company should have ins on its assets, not that a $400 camera would likely have a value greater than the policy deductible.


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