Friday, April 07, 2006

Chris Barton: Snappy shots getting better

It's been four years since I took up with a digital camera. What have I learned?

I still take lousy photos much of the time. But when I do I immediately delete them, so I now have no lousy pictures, a lot of mediocre ones and an occasional few that pass muster. Slow progress, I know, but I am photographically challenged.

The next stage of my photographic development involves the purchase of a new camera. Actually - having done my market research - I was poised to hand over about $600 when I spotted a similar-but-different model on special.

I hummed and hahed comparing the two, trying not to sound like a moron to the sales guy who didn't really help.

"This [the one on special] is aimed at the prosumer market," he informed me. I felt inadequate and fled the shop buying nothing. Anxiety took hold. Was I ready to step up to the prosumer (professional consumer) role? Did I want to? Did I even know what one was?

Four years is an epoch in the digital camera world. When I bought my Panasonic Lumix DMC-F7 (2 megapixel 2x optical zoom) in 2002 its retail price was $1299 and a 16MB SD storage card cost about $100.

Today I can get a 5 megapixel digital camera with 12x optical zoom for about $600. And a 512MB SD card can be had for about $80. In short you get a heck of lot more for half the price - making my F7 look quite pathetic.

But as we all know (and have the discarded hulks of numerous PCs and attendant peripherals to prove it) these are the rules of the digital age.

Time and technology wait for no man. What you buy today is already on tomorrow's scrapheap.

On reflection I decided I didn't have the patience or inclination to be a prosumer - all that fiddling with manual controls sends me insane, mostly because I have no idea of what I'm doing. Point and shoot are the instructions I understand.

But I quickly became confused again when I learned that the $600 camera I was originally looking at is, depending on your definition, also apparently prosumer.

As far as I can figure out, the term means better than a compact-point-and-shoot but not as good as a digital SLR (single lens reflex). More on the taxonomy of camera types here (Wikipedia.org).

By now I didn't know whether I was a pro or a con, so I went back to first principles. What did I want? I found this site (DP Review) very useful in sorting out my priorities, which were really very simple - better-quality pictures and more zoom, but keeping the compact size for ease of carrying.

I've become obsessed with having more zoom on my camera ever since I snapped the flip of a whale's tail while at Kaikoura. The problem was that even though it was a marvellous shot capturing the moment of the whale beginning its dive, the image is terribly disappointing - a tiny blob amidst a vast expanse of sea. And because it was only 2 megapixels, the image quality deteriorated as I tried to blow it up. So more megapixels are also on my shopping list.

But the question you'll never get a straight answer to is: "How many megapixels is enough?"

Ultimately it comes down to the size you wish to print your images. If you want them really big, more megapixels is better. But there's also a point where - looking at a postcard size printed image - many people wouldn't be able to tell the difference between a 3 megapixel and 6 megapixel photo.

Then there's the issue of blurry shots - something I'm particularly adept at. Some of this is down to my poor technique and camera shake, but it's also because of shutter delay - that annoying pause between depressing the shutter button and the click of when the photo is taken.

I have learned that half-depressing the button - which makes the camera choose focus, colour balance, and exposure - helps a lot.

As this interesting story (robgalbraith.com) about a professional photographer using a point-and-shoot while in the Congo and Iraq shows, the boundaries between professional and consumer, like too many of my photos, are becoming very blurred.

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