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The process of choosing a camera...


Picking a digital camera can be a daunting experience, particularly if it's your first excursion into the world of digital imaging. We've tried to assemble a complete set of tools here to help you make your decision, but realize that we often may overlook key issues, or gloss over things we take for granted that the neophyte may not.
One of our (remarkable) Imaging Resource readers and "friends of the family," Barbara Coultry, took the time to jot down her experiences on the journey to the camera that was just right. We share with you here her thoughts on the process, a distinctly different "take" on things than the dusty, dry technical gabble we tend to produce on our own. Along the way, you'll find some key information on how to set up AOL to display the sample images properly, how to print them out to see apples-to-apples comparisions, and much more.
This is such a great thing, and so much what we hoped would eventually happen with The Imaging Resource: Readers helping each other along the road, sharing from their own experience. Our most heartfelt thanks to Barbara for taking the time to contribute to the community that is The Imaging Resource!

Choosing a Camera: Training the Inner Child

By Barbara Coultry

When we were kids, we often ignored our toys in favor of pretty stones, discarded lumber, bent spoons, garden dirt, and the occasional snake. Imagination easily left our toys in the dust. Now and then, however, a commercial gizmo would grab hold of us, refusing to let go, and we'd wax eloquent on the glorious benefits of this not-to-be-believed toy. Mostly, we'd harass our parents. I still remember the day I first saw that shiny blue bicycle at a downtown store. I patiently explained to my parents how they'd no longer have to drive me places and how much exercise and fresh air I'd get and how I could do science projects on the (safe-to-ride) back roads where there were birds to watch and plants to study. They knew better, but they bought the bike anyway because I was the last of the children on the block to have my own two-wheeler.
That child came with me when I grew up, but she'd been quiet for a long time. I had taxes to deal with, meals to prepare, a child of my own to raise. Then I saw a digital camera. Deep within began a whiny monologue about all the important, creative things I could do if I just had this camera. I mean, when was the last time I'd asked for anything big? Years ago, right? I nagged, I begged. My eloquence was truly heartbreaking. Finally, from sheer desperation, I gave in just to shut myself up. With a sigh of relief, my adult self regained control.
Harrumphing at the wheedling voice (I want it, I want it, I want it now), I buried myself in printouts of manufacturers' specs. I planned on spoiling my "kid," but I was going to do it intelligently. I'd buy the biggest-bestest camera I could afford. It would have enough pixels to wrap around the world twice, its bells would ding-dong Beethoven's Ninth, and it would whistle both Dixie and My Country 'Tis of Thee-at the same time.
One fine day while playing hopscotch across internet links, I tumbled into Imaging Resource. In spite of my inner child immediately bursting forth, in spite of initially doing everything backwards and upside-down, my journey here gave me the confidence to choose a camera appropriate to my needs.
What follows is everything I did, not the first time around, but the second time when I calmed down enough to do it all in the proper order.
Learning to Read
I read every article on this web site, starting with Finding the Right Digital Camera, going on to More Than You Ever Wanted to Know About Camera Testing, then Introduction to the Digital Darkroom, and ending up with Batteries for Digital Cameras. I was no genius when I'd finished reading the last word, but I knew a whole lot more about what I was supposed to be looking for in a camera, and it wasn't all pixels decorated with whistles and bells.
After the articles, I dallied in the in the News, then Hints, Tips, & FAQs and, lastly, in the Q & A Forum. The Forum is an excellent source for miscellaneous information that doesn't necessarily fit anywhere else. It's also where you can post questions you haven't yet found the answers to.
Then I stopped. I wanted all this information to age, to develop into sufficient knowledge for deciding which camera I actually needed (and wanted) and what sort of features would satisfy (and thrill) me.
Multiple-Choice Quiz
Pretending I'd made no previous decision to buy the biggest-bestest, I started thinking of all the things one could do with a digital camera and what features would be necessary to do these things. Here is the boiled-down list:

1.Attach photos to brief e-mails instead of writing real letters
2.Create a web site for selling polka-dot teakettles
3.Produce snapshot photo albums to show guests who won't leave
4.Enhance a newsletter dedicated to tic-tac-toe enthusiasts
5.Transfer baby's picture onto Aunt Edith's t-shirt
6.Enlarge photos for covering stains on the wall

For the first two, I wouldn't need a megapixel camera. For 3 through 5, I'd do better with something more than 640 x 480 pixels. For number 6, I'd definitely need megapixels.
The list helped me chose a resolution that was right for me. It all came down to whether I wanted to take a snapshot of Grandpa in the teahouse doorway or I wanted to blow up the whole danged outhouse.
Then I made a second list of features and options including things like metering, lens, zoom, storage, method of downloading, white balance, red-eye reduction, speed, etc. Again, I checked off the must-haves. After reading everything on this site, you should be able to compile your own such list.
Reviewing for Finals
Rather like pressing my nose against a toy store window, I began reading Imaging Resource's reviews. Before I go on, a comment on these reviews is in order. Unlike many others, these reviews have little subjectivity in them. Each camera has its good and bad points, and each camera is perfect for a certain group of people. The reviews won't tell you which camera to buy; instead, they'll help you come to your own decision.
I read the reviews only for those cameras matching my personal specifications, and I did so offline, finding it easier on my eyes to print them out. Also, I could scribble notes across the pages while eating a bagel and sipping coffee. (You can't make important decisions without sustenance.)
All this reading and reviewing revealed an important fact: These cameras usually come a la carte. Want a case? That's extra. Want batteries and a charger? Add it to the price. How about a second memory card? You guessed it-it's extra. Suddenly, I had to recalculate what it was going to cost me.
Looking Forward to Saturday at the Toy Store
Kids do it a lot. They head for the toy aisles, then touch, lift, poke, and if they can get away with it, actually play with some of the toys. This was where I was going, only here it's called the Comparometer. I was about to play around with pictures taken by very real digital cameras.
Then I remembered a note about AOL sitting on the bottom of the home page. Hmm... My internet provider was AOL, and the note had something to do with how AOL compresses graphics, thus affecting the quality of photos on the screen. I went back to re-read the note, then promptly followed the directions. Just in case you're also an AOLer, here's what you should do:
There's an icon at the top of your screen called "My AOL." See it? Click on it, then on "Preferences" in the drop-down menu. You'll be presented with a window that looks like this:

 

Click on the fourth icon from the left in the top row that says "WWW" (for World Wide Web) and, when presented with the next screen, click on the tab that says "Web Graphics."

 

 

Click the checkmark in the little white box to turn off the compression feature, then click "OK." That's all there is to it. Turning off this feature may slow down the loading of graphics, but be patient-you need as clear a picture as possible. When you're all done with the comparisons, you can easily reverse things by rechoosing compressed graphics.
Near the Toy Store (Somebody, Please Get Rid of This Adult!)
I took one look at the photo choices to use for comparisons on the Comparometer and went right back to More Than You Ever Wanted to Know About Camera Testing. Why? Because I'd forgotten the reasons for choosing one photo over another. I would rather have played with the toys, but I obediently went back to refresh my memory. My ability to endure delayed gratification was sorely tested, but it survived this additional side trip. Besides, I might have chosen just one or two photos based on how much I liked them rather than basing my choices on what would best reveal those qualities I wanted in a camera. (You can easily reach this article from the left-hand frame of the Comparometer at the bottom where there's a choice entitled Test Descriptions.) For instance, I knew I'd be taking many pictures of people. Therefore, I needed the photos of a live model.
Finally-Saturday at the Toy Store
Because of its wide range of color and because it had representatives of three different races (and just because I felt like it), I chose the "Musicians" picture for my initial comparison. I clicked on it, then scrolled through the choices above the left window until I came to the first camera I was considering. I clicked on it, then waited forever for the photo taken with that camera to load. (Remember: I use AOL and had to turn off compression). When it was finally loaded, I went to the camera choices above the right window, scrolled down until I found the second camera of my dreams, clicked on it, then waited some more.

 

 

Next, I adjusted the screens until they both showed the same woman. Now I could judge which camera's version looked better on my monitor. After choosing, I downloaded both images onto disk. (An aside: I can be truly dense at times. It took me a while to realize that all I had to do to download was to right click on the image, then choose "Save as" from the resulting menu. Anyway, that's how it's done on a PC.) (Ed. note: On a Mac (at least in Netscape), you just click and hold down on the image - you'll get a popup menu asking what you want to do with it. Select "Save this image as...")
Keeping the image on screen that I liked better, I replaced the other one with the third camera choice. Again, I went through the comparison and download process, first noting which camera I thought did a better job.
Before arriving at the Comparometer, I'd whittled my choices down to three cameras. You may have more or less, but whatever the case, don't abbreviate the time spent here. Some of the cameras aren't overly expensive, but others can end up costing well over a thousand dollars. This is not the same as squeezing melons in the produce aisle.
I finally had all the test photos neatly tucked away on disk. I rubbed my hands together and whispered, "Oh boy!" Not long after, it changed to "Uh-oh." Why? Because I needed to resize the pictures so I could print them on 8 x 11 paper, and they all needed to be similar enough in size so the comparisons could be objective. After much mucking about, I learned that care must be taken when resizing a photo or else the program ends up "resampling" the image. To explain this arcane process to myself, I decided to think of resampling as the act of adding pixels where there aren't any or of taking pixels away from where they used to be. Since I wanted to see exactly what each of these cameras was doing rather than what my photo program was doing, I needed to prevent the loss or gain of pixels.
For example, I had three versions of the "DaveBox" done with three different cameras. Each photo came down the 'net pike onto my disk sporting 72 ppi (pixels per inch). Though I don't remember their precise measurement in inches, I do remember that I needed to cut their size by half if I was going to print them on 8 x 11 paper. After much back-and-forthing plus help from Dave (head honcho here), I understood that, if I halved the dimensions, I needed to double the ppi. In Adobe PhotoDeluxe (to be replaced by Adobe Photoshop whenever the adult in me relents) I clicked on "Size" and was presented with a screen where I could alter width, height, and resolution.

 

 

I checked the box for retaining proportions so that, if I halved the width, the height would be halved automatically. I also checked the "constrain file size" box, which alters the resolution for you. Without this option, I could have manually doubled the 72 ppi, ending up with the desired 144 ppi. Dave said (we should build a statue in honor of Dave) that if the size of the file is the same before and after altering it, then resampling hasn't occurred. Though everything seemed to work just fine, I saved each of the resized images to a new name so I'd still have the originals to fall back on in case of disaster (or in case I had this uncontrollable urge to change the photo into a mezzotint).
Next, I zoomed in on a specific target in each of the three photos. Choosing the human eye, I compared the same eye in each of the images, looking for places where pixels were missing or colored oddly. I took note of which camera seemed to have the least of this. I also compared color, both for realism and saturation.
Perhaps you're not as easily deceived as I am, but in my case, it was imperative that I include the "DaveBox" and the "resolution target" in my comparisons. Neither of these was likely to distract me with its pretty face or lovely foliage and I could, therefore, concentrate on color, cleanness of line, resolution, and high/low lights. I also changed the resolution chart to grayscale to eliminate the oddball bits of color.
Somebody Broke All My Crayons
Oh, goody, it was time to print. This was, of course, when Murphy's Law kicked in. My color cartridge was nearly out of ink, and its best efforts looked like they'd gone through the wash 2000 times. I had to drive way across town to buy a new one. I could have gone to the nearby Wal-Mart, but I knew an even cheaper place. Nevermind that I spent the difference in gas getting there. Regardless, don't even think of leaving near-death cartridges in your printer.
One thing I knew from fiddling about in a darkroom is that the color of the paper affects the brightness of the photo. If the paper is cream-colored, then so are the photographic highlights. I didn't want soft and atmospheric; I wanted absolute clarity. Because inkjet pigments aren't opaque, a bright white background will reflect more light back up through the ink. I took the cheap copy paper out of my printer and replaced it with 37-pound coated paper specially made for inkjets. It had a brightness rating of 92, which was pretty darned white. The heavier weight helped keep the ink from bleeding through, and the coating prevented the ink from seeping into the fibers and spreading out, thus blurring the image.
I clicked on the print button and sat waiting for what felt like an ungodly length of time, but I finally had something I could actually touch. I oohed and ahhed and then got out my magnifying lens to really study the pictures. I inspected skin tones, highlights, shadows, color saturation. I picked and poked at resolution (using the resolution target photo). I looked for things I didn't even have names for. I figured this was my best chance to make the right decision. Once I'd bought a camera, it would be too late. I wasn't going to play the shoulda-woulda game with money I'd taken some pains to save up.
Growing Up and Entering the Real World
Though I thought I'd never get there, I was now ready to buy my camera.
Deciding which camera had been fun; comparing vendors and prices was not. Have you ever noticed there's no logic to street prices? A camera with a thousand-dollar suggested retail price can be gotten for $750, $850, or $932.27. I traveled the internet for hours, found a vendor with a good price, then discovered I could get the camera, but several of the accessories I wanted would have to be back-ordered. Phooey. So I squinted at the back sections of several photography magazines and ended up ordering my camera the old-fashioned way via an 800-number. It was kind of nice. I talked to a real person who told me all about his daughter, his two grandchildren, and how he'd be getting off work at two and going to see them.
And They Lived Happily Ever
I have my camera now and I love it. It does everything I want it to. Its idiosyncrasies are no surprise because, after reading its review, I expected them. (Figuring out the software, on the other hand, was a trip through purgatory.) I know that next week, next month, or next year they'll come out with a new must-have camera toy, but if I'd waited for that one, then I wouldn't have had all the fun I'm going to have with this one. Besides, in the computer world, nothing remains static; there will always be something newer and better.
One more thing: I've discovered that Imaging Resource mutates. There's a new review or a question answered on the forum or perhaps a new link to another informative site. I expect to return periodically just to see what's happening.
And now, hugging my toy possessively, I'm going home to play.



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