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We live in strange
times. Remember the 1970s when magazines and newspapers had digital compositing
systems but word processors weren't widely available? Content originated on
typewriters and had to be imported (rekeyed) into digital form. That's where we
are in the late 1990s. Most imaging professionals have a computer and software
capable of processing digital images. But content originates on film and has to
be scanned. So only a tiny percentage of images that people make are amenable to
The world of photography will change when most content originates in
computer-readable form. That means the world will change when the average person
converts from a film-based camera to a digital camera.
Thus before we get into thinking about which digital camera is best, we have
to consider whether a film or digital camera is better for a particular
How much worse than a film camera is a digital camera?
How much quality do you lose by using a digital camera? Maybe none. In fact, a
digital camera is better quality than a film camera in many important respects!
The easiest to understand specification is resolution. A 35mm film-based camera
will crush any digital camera in the number of good pixels. But maybe you care
about color balance under mixed lighting. A digital camera is actually better
than a film camera. Maybe you care about scale, the ability of the camera to
capture detail in the brightest highlights and darkest shadows of a scene. A
cleverly designed digital camera may be much better in this respect than a
The key word in the above sentence is clever. Most digital cameras
come from Japanese companies with a lot of engineering experience making imaging
pipelines that run from a CCD to an analog video tape (i.e., what is inside a
camcorder). They've adapted these pipelines to the new DV camcorders. So why not
adapt them to the digital still camera? It is mostly the same thing except you
write one frame at a time to some sort of computer memory. The flaw in this
argument is that the CCD sensors are capable of much more dynamic range than one
can record in an NTSC video signal. There has thus been very little pressure to
make the pipeline milk the ultimate in shadow and highlight detail from the
sensor. However, if one were to store digital still images with 16 bits per
pixel, it would be worth trying to squeeze all the dynamic resolution from the
sensor. Cameras like the Nikon D1 and Canon D30 are just the beginnings of the
trend away from 8-bit cameras.
Over the next few years, expect to see some interesting digital cameras from
non-traditional companies with strong backgrounds in instrumentation (e.g.,
Yeah, yeah, but what about resolution?
You need at least 200 pixels-per-inch
for photographic quality. So for a 4x6 proof print to stick on the fridge, an
800x1200 image will be fine. For an 11x14 you'll want 2200x2800 (6
Note that the megapixels from a digital camera aren't as good as the
megapixels coming from
scanner. Slide scanners essentially have three CCDs underneath each pixel,
one for red, one for green, one for blue. The array of CCDs in a digital camera
is covered by a mosaic of red, green, and blue filters. Thus a digital camera
might produce a megapixel of luminance (black and white) information, but only a
third as much resolution in the area of color.
The process of mapping those megapixels, each a different color, into a
traditional computer RGB format is known as "demosaicing". The quality of the
algorithm used to demosaic will affect the final image quality. This is yet
another reason not to judge cameras by specifications alone.
To show that you can't judge an image by the numbers, compare the
The bottom line for us here at photo.net is that we're not satisfied with the
quality of the pixels as they come out of any digital camera. For Web (screen)
presentation we reduce the image by 2X and are much happier with the resulting
$4,000 or $500 and not much in between
Conventional marketing wisdom has it that there are only two types of camera
consumers: (1) the average person who just wants to push the button, and (2) the
professional photographer who needs control and will pay virtually any price.
Thus, if you want to control exposure, change lenses, use the lenses from your
existing Canon or Nikon 35mm SLR, expect to pay $2500-4,000. Part of the reason
that these cameras cost so much is that a 35mm camera lens paints an image 24 x
36mm in size. Digital camera sensors are essentially computer chips. The larger
the computer chip, the more likely it is not to work. This is because a single
flaw in the silicon wafer may ruin a chip. The larger a chip, the more likely it
is to enclose a random flaw in the wafer. Very expensive chips such as Intel
Pentiums are usually no larger than 20mm square and these have the benefit of
huge manufacturing volumes and enormous capital investment. Making a flawless 24
x 36mm chip in small quantities is going to result in enormous costs.
What should engineers do? Swing to the opposite end of the spectrum. Make a
physically very small sensor. A small sensor can be covered by the image coming
out the back of a small lens. This makes it tough to build a true wide-angle lens
but easy and cheap to build a mid-tele zoom. Most consumers will be grateful that
they've not been burdened with excessive weight, size, and cost.
deciding whether to compose vertically or horizontally
deciding whether an image is good enough to frame
choosing a frame molding shape
choosing a frame material
choosing a mat size
choosing a mat color
and explain my preference for the 6x6 cm square format because it lets me
defer the vertical/horizontal decision until I'm comfortably ensconced at home in
front of the light table.
Digital cameras not only force you to make all the choices that you have to
make with a 35mm camera, but you also have to edit in real-time. You can't run
Italy for two months, come back with 60 rolls
of film, let them sit in your files for another two months, then start to pick
Essentially film comes with its own built-in write-once storage medium for the
bits that it records. Digital cameras have limited storage space. If you're
traveling, you'll have to spend every night figuring out which pictures are worth
preserving on a laptop computer's hard drive. The really great ones you'll have
to make sure that you e-mail back home or risk losing them if the laptop is
damaged or stolen.
Consider the picture at right, the chess master in Harvard Square, taken with
an old manual Nikon. Had I been forced to
edit this in real-time, I'd probably have tossed it. Yet upon close inspection,
the upper-right corner of the frame reveals a contorted photographer! A perfect
image for photo.net! I didn't really notice it until many months after I took the
Guide for Shoppers
Here are some
Canon S100 (Digital ELPH) is a
remarkably small camera that works about as well as any other $600 camera. For
$200 you can get a Canon-brand underwater housing for the machine. I've tested
the camera and the housing and both work very well, though the image quality is
very poor in low light unless you use the built-in flash. Also see the Sony
Canon G1 and
Nikon 995 are the best mid-priced cameras if you want
to use off-camera flash. They can control the full range of Canon and Nikon
(respectively) strobe equipment.
Olympus E-10, which started at
$2000 in the fall of 2000, is a very nicely engineered single-lens reflex (SLR)
digital camera with a purpose-designed lens built in. One nice thing about
non-interchangeable lenses is that it keeps dust off the sensor.
If you're got a big line of Nikon F-mount lenses, the Nikon D1 and Fuji S1
are nice digital SLRs. If you're bought into the Canon EOS line, the
D30 is the best choice.
Displaying Digital Images
Once you get those images on your hard disk, you'll probably want to