BOOT CAMP 395 (25/10/05)

Pictures on your PC, part 1


Sales of digital still cameras are expected to rise sharply over the next few weeks in the run up to the festive season. This year the market has changed slightly with a new breed of high-performance camera phones but the end result is the same and more people than ever will be downloading photographs from their digital cameras onto their computers.


Over the next few episodes of Boot Camp we’ll be looking how to store, manage, view, manipulate and print your digital images. We’ll also show you how to avoid loosing them and what you can do to prevent your PC becoming the high-tech equivalent of a shoebox full of photographs.  


But first a few words on choosing and buying a digital camera. The first and most obvious thing to say is that digital cameras and mobile phones with built-in cameras are no different to their film-based counterparts and you get what you pay for. The bottom line is that you are not going to get a decent digital camera for much less than £100 and if you want to avoid disappointment you should really be thinking of spending between £150 and £250 for one that’s going to do the job, last the course and keep you interested.


It’s difficult to say how much you need to spend on a camera phone since there are so many different deals and tariffs on offer at the moment but the most important component in any type of digital camera is the image sensor, and how many picture elements or ‘pixels’ it has.


Digital camera sensors with fewer than 2 million pixels (2 megapixels) are okay if you only want to view images on a PC screen but when printed they tend to lack depth and detail, colours will look less lifelike and whilst you might just get away with a 6 x 4 print any larger and it will look grainy and mushy. Cameras with 2 megapixel sensors and above are usually capable of producing quite acceptable prints comparable with the sort of photographs you’ll get from a budget compact APS or 35mm film camera. However, if you want crisp, sharp pictures that you can enlarge then you should be aiming for models with 3 to 5 megapixel sensors. Between 5 and 8 megapixels is starting to get quite serious and above 8-megapixels you are venturing into pro camera territory. 


Needless to say the lens has a vital part to play in determining picture quality. On most budget and mid-range compacts you can expect a simple fixed-focus or a pop out motorised zoom lens with 3 to 5x magnification. It’s important to distinguish between optical and electronic zoom as the latter will seriously degrade the picture and at higher magnification levels it becomes increasingly difficult to avoid blurring the image through camera shake. On models with an optical zoom it’s useful to have this coupled to the optical viewfinder so you seen more or less what you are shooting, and on the subject of optical viewfinders I find these are definitely worth having as LCD viewing screens can be difficult to see in bright sunlight.


As you move up the price and performance ladder lens quality naturally improves and on the more serious mid-range and top-end cameras there’s a choice of SLR designs that can be used with a range of interchangeable lenses, making them a lot more flexible. A good general rule of thumb is that the best lenses are to be found on models made by traditional camera and lens manufacturers, The better known consumer electronics companies often buy in their lenses from camera manufacturers.


Virtually all digital cameras have integral flashguns and these are fine for close-ups and group shots but not much use for illuminating subjects more than a few metres in front of the lens. Not all camera phones have a flash, so bear that in mind if you want to take pictures indoors. Some models compensate with low-light shooting modes but the results tend to quite grainy and slow shutter speeds can make it difficult to get a blur-free image without the use of a tripod.


The sophistication, or otherwise, of any camera that you buy is entirely a matter of personal choice. Point and shoot models are pretty good nowadays and can take an acceptable photograph in most conditions but if you want to get creative or take more control over your photography then shortlist models with a range of manual controls. Even the most advanced models have fully automatic shooting modes so even if you don’t use them straight away they will give you scope to develop your skills.


Finally we come to the question of storage media and memory cards. There are at least half a dozen different types but the format really doesn’t matter too much as they all do the same job. The important feature is capacity, which determines how many images the card or device can store. Normally the cards supplied with cameras are quite small, sometimes as little as 8Mb or 16Mb, which is next to useless. Budget for one or more extra cards and with memory devices so cheap nowadays there’s no point in skimping and a 256Mb or 512Mb card is the smallest you should buy. It is worth buying a memory card reader that plugs into your PC’s USB socket, these cost from £15 to £20 from PC and camera suppliers. Multi-format types are the best bet as this means you can read cards from other cameras you or your family might buy.


NEXT WEEK -- Pictures on your PC, part 2





Advanced Photographic System – film camera format with easy to load cartridges and improved creative facilities



Picture-Element, a single light sensitive element or a dot in a digitally generated image or display. The greater the number of pixels the more fine detail there will be in the image.



Single Lens Reflex -- type of camera where the image passing through the lens and focused on the film or image sensor is also seen through the camera’s optical viewfinder



Never buy a digital camera purely on price, specification or looks. It is important to actually handle it, get a feel for the controls and take a few test pictures. If you are not technically minded and can’t figure out how to switch it on and take a picture without reading the instructions it’s probably best to give it a miss. Don’t be swayed by fancy creative features that you will probably never use.  Note how long it takes for the picture to be taken after you press the shutter button; on some models this can be up to a second and you run the risk of missing a moving subject.




© R. Maybury 2005, 1910

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