Fast Forward's Rob Pegoraro Discussion:
Digital Photographer Jim Hawk
Friday, May 28, 1999 at noon.
Given that digital cameras cost between two and five times a decent SLR "analog" camera, why would anybody want to use one? My guest, amateur photographer Jim Hawk (below), will explain why--and for whom--it can be worth the trouble. He also shares his tips on making digital photography work for you, and when it's best to stick to plain old film.
Jim Hawk has worked in radio for the past 20 years in Washington, both as a local newscaster and on national networks; he has also written about computers since well before the Internet. He has been exploring digital imaging for the past year.
Please submit questions now. For background, read a March 1998 special report on
digital cameras. On Friday, read related articles by Jim Hawk in this month's special Fast Forward section:
Good morning, er, afternoon. My name is Rob Pegoraro and I'll be your waiter today. Our special today is digital cameras and, by extension, digital imaging in general--ways to take and print pictures without film. With us here is Jim Hawk, the author of today's feature on this technology.
I'll get things started with a question of my own: Are the current crop of high-res digital cameras--like the ones we reviewed today, from $400 to $600--really cheap enough, even considering the money you can save on film and developing? How many snapshots do you have to be taking each month to start seeing recouping these costs in a serious way? (I leave out any psychic benefit to be derived from owning a cool toy, however...)
Also: If y'all have questions about other stories in today's pullout section, or our regular Weekend page, send 'em in.
Rob Pegoraro: And so, on with the show. Our guest replies:
Jim Hawk: I'd reccomend today's crop of cameras, even on a cost basis. I've found it's about 50 cents a picture, once the cost of the camera is removed.
lexington ky: what are the best cameras for the money currently out there for a high end user?
Rob Pegoraro: Hmm... I suspect the answer is "how much money do you have in your bank account?" (Professional-grade digital photo equipment, like what the photo department here uses, costs more than most used cars.)
Jim Hawk: Exactly, Rob. It's just like stereos - you can spend as little as a couple hundred or thousands (and thousands!)...
Somerset, MD: What about travelling with a digital camera - extra memory cards?
Rob Pegoraro: Good question. How many extra to take probably depends on your own appetite for picture-taking--are you going to shoot every station in the Tokyo subway system, or just grab a few pictures of shops and buildings and parks? Bear in mind that you can junk the shots you don't like. Jim, how many extra cards would you take on, say, a one-week vacation? And what kind of care do you need to take with these things to make sure that they survive the trip? I assume airport x-rays are OK, but what else?
Jim Hawk: I'd probably take enough memory for say, 2 to 300 pictures. But that's preusuming I'd keep every one, which I wouldn't. The beuaty is you can review your pictures immediately and delete the ones you don't want. Also, it brings up the issue of a laptop and uploading each day's pictures to it. Many laptops can let you plug-in a memory card directly.
Fairfax, VA: Image size question. I have a choice of taking a pictures at 1600x1200, 1024x768 or 640x480. I want to print the pic at small size -4"x6"-. Would I see more detail by taking the picture at a larger size and resizing it down later or initially take the picture at a smaller size to begin with?
Rob Pegoraro: FYI, those numbers are pixel ("picture element") measurements. A 14-inch monitor is about 640 x 480; 1024 x 768 is about what fits on a 20-inch monitor.
Jim Hawk: I always shoot at highest resolution, just because I never know whethr that 4x6 might be so good I'd want to make an 8x10. Also, the finer quality gives you the option of "zooming-in" with picture-editing software later. I ofen end up cropping photos to make my pix look better than they really were.
Laurel MD: What causes a "thin white line" across the photo sometimes when it's printed?
Rob Pegoraro: I'll pass this on to our guest... sounds like it could be a printer glitch, but I'm not sure. Jim?
Jim Hawk: I'd check the original photo (maybe a flaw in the camera itself), but I'd agre with Rob about a probable printer problem. It may be something as simple as a printer driver, or even a cable connection. I found an Epson doing that because I was trying to run it thru a piggyback-paralell connection.
Rob Pegoraro: A follow-up question on the travel issue: How much should you expect to spend on memory cards to store, say, 200 pictures?
Jim Hawk: Well, 200 pictures with the new crop of two-megapixel cameras demands a lot more memory space than a "VGA" or 640x480 camera. The Nikon 700 we featured would need a couple of the new 96 megabyte cards, while shooting in "basic" would only require a single 32mb card. Bottom line is expect to pay about 3 dollars a meg - but at least they're reusable
Silver Spring, MD:
What printers have slots for SmartMedia and-or FlashCards?
Rob Pegoraro: Ugh. This is why I hate serial ports. If I recall correctly, you'd need to buy an adapter cable. Not too expensive, but certainly annoying.
Jim Hawk: There are some new printers that incorporate a "card reader" in them. Lexmark, Epson and Olympus all have 'em. But I still prefer to dump my images into permanent storage on the computer first. Forget serial cables entirely - go with a "card reader" - new ones will read BOTH SmatMedia and CompactFlash.
Fairfax, VA: Is there a "shelf life" or usable life on the CCD used in digital cameras?
Jim Hawk: The CCD imager (the actual "film", if you will) generally lasts longer than the mechanics on the camera. BUT, if it's been exposed to direct sunlight too much - there could be a burn-in. But I've shot into the sun many times and never noticed any damage...
Lexington KY: Reply to reply: For instance, I am currently working for a University where we are in charge of instructional technology for faculty and staff. We currently have both a kodak DC120 and DC40... how would you rank these in a professional setting and what are the advantages of higher end cameras?
Jim Hawk: The Kodak 120 is a good "staff camera" for taking quickie web pictures, and just about anyone can use it. That DC-40 must have some miles on it - I think it's one of Kodak's first digital cameras. You might consider upgrading for "photo quality" results.
I'm looking to purchase a digital camcorder. Which tape format to choose; Sony Digital 8 vs. DV. Other than size, is there any quality difference between the two formats.
Rob Pegoraro: I've got Daniel Greenberg here on the phone. He says: "The advantage to Digital 8 is the backwards compability with Hi-8 tapes. You can take your old analog tapes in the new camcorder. If you're not already a Hi-8 user, I'd recommend DV because of the smaller size (which means your cameras can be smaller. The arm-fatigue factor of this Canon, which uses DV tapes, is nothing compared to the Sony."
Jim Hawk: The Sony Digital 8 is an amazing end-run around the more expensive DV camcorders. How Sony did the research and got products out without anyone else knowing must be quite a story. Digital 8 gives you great video quality, and even "VGA" quality stills from a frame grabber. DV is the same quality (or marginally better), also at greater cost.
Washington DC: I am interested in the digital video portion of your Picture Motion article. I want to play the digital file on my computer. Can you convert a DV file 720x 640 to an MPEG-2 file -same resolution-? If not are there cameras that record in MPEG-1 or 2 that can transfer the MPEG file to a computer via fire wire?
Rob Pegoraro: Dan Greenberg says: "MPEG-2 makes much larger files than the original MPEG. It makes much larger files and it's much more complex encoding--this is what's used on DVD." Bottom line: No. As for the second question, Daniel answers: "They record in a special digital format and then it's brought over via FireWare in proprietary forms of compression. Nothing records directly in MPEG. All the conversion happens once it's captured on the computer, when you run the right software." MPEG, for the uninitiated, is a way to compress video, the way MP3 is a way to compress sound in a digital file.
Jim Hawk: I complain about digital STILL images taking up a lot of computer torage, but video is a much bigger challenge. You need gigabytes of hard drive capacity - say 20 minimum - to handle DV video of any appreciable length. I'm waiting for Firewire to become a front-panel option on computers before I jump in...
Wash, DC: What is the best medium to store digital pictures, zip drive, cd rom? Would you know what the best software program would be to organize these pictures. Thanks
Rob Pegoraro: Personally, I'd use a CD burner to archive old pictures--it'll be readable on any machine out there. Your preference, Jim?
Jim Hawk: As far as software to organize your photos, a hareware program called "Thumbsplus" is most-often reccomended in digicam circles. It works a lot like "Explorer", but each picture is an actual thumbnail of the bigger picture...and it runs FAST. As far as long-term storage, and keeping in mind you can shoot a 100 megs in a weekend, I'd highly reccomend a CD read-write, or "CD-RW" drive. The blanks are down to a dollar each these days!
Washington, D.C.: Would you know how to take pictures of fireworks. I used to do it with slr camera, using bulb feature,..how would you do this with an Olympus D-400 digital camera. Thanks for your time
Rob Pegoraro: Excellent question for this time of year, eh? How well do digicams work in these kind of screwy low-light situations?
Jim Hawk: Fireworks are a toughie for digicams, because they offer relatively low ISO's of 64 to 100, whereas you'd want at least 400-speed film. I'm not sure about manual settings on the Oly 400, but I'd first experiment with the automatic exposure setting. It may produce a "trailing" sort of image, but that may give you nice "artsy" look ! I'm amazed at how well digicams take a still of a TV picture, wheras film cameras always made it tricky.
Takoma Park, MD:
Just wanted to add a few ideas here. I've been using digital cameras for about 5 years, and just started getting back into my film-cameras.
Rob Pegoraro: Excellent point there, Tacoma Park. It's hard to learn when the grades, so to speak, don't come in until weeks or months after you take the test.
Jim Hawk: Yes, I'd agree digicams are NOT the cheapest, or even easiest way to go. BUT, the instant feedback you get is invaluable....even for the most experienced photogapher. What I really like to do is hand a digital camera to a kid and ewatch them light up when they see the picture a few seconds later. Even adults like that feature. The new crop of two-megapixel cameras are just the "second generation" and I'm getting some amazing results from the best printers - even up to 8x10 size. I guess it's a matter of whether you want instan gratification :)
Washington, DC: What are your thoughts concerning personal film scanners. Is the resolution markedly better than the average flatbed scanner? Furthermore, is it worth the time and hassle to use a film scanner or is one better off making Photo-CDs at development?
Rob Pegoraro: Here, if I understand correctly, we're talking about scanners that read negatives via a slot in the front. Traditionally an expensive, professional-use only gadget, they're now coming down in price like, well, everything else in computer-dom. But they're still a lot pricier than plain old flatbed scanners.
Jim Hawk: Yes, MUCH more pricey (two thousand for a good one). But the new lower-end ones are getting better all the time, and the ones that take the new "APS" film-cartidges are slickest of all. I guess it comes down to whether you wan to control the whole process yourself and not deal with developing. "Going digital" really renewed my interest in photography because I had control from beginning to end. (and complete privacy, I might add)
Have cameras gotten any better as related to battery life. Cameras that I have seen used a set of batteries in very little use.
Rob Pegoraro: A lot of this depends on how you use the camera. For instance, the color LCD screens on these things suck battery juice; if you can turn them off and use a plain old optical viewfinder (which most digicams let you do), that should save energy.
Jim Hawk: True enough, Rob - it's that LCD screen (and the little flourescent light behind it) that really gobble those batteries up. Everyone switches from Alkalines to rechargeables almost immediately. The NiMH kind hold up much better in a digicam because they're designed for "high drain" applications like that. NiCads give up the ghost a lot sooner.
Jim just raised an important point there: the whole privacy angle with digital cameras, versus paying somebody else to develop your film. One of my friends in college worked at a MotoFoto and used to tell stories...
Fairfax, VA: Are compact flash cards all about the same speed? I notice that Microtech cards are advertising a "new C-4 processor" which they claim is faster.
Rob Pegoraro: BTW, Jim wrote about some of the quirks of these storage cards for us last year: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/tech/ffwd/1098/feature02.htm .
Jim Hawk: Those speed claims all depend on what kind of camera you're using. If it's one of the older, slower models - there won't be any difference at all. But if it's a newer, faster model like the Nikon 700 we tested - yes, you can tell a little bit of a difference. The new CompactFlash cards also have better "software" built into them (the main reason for the speedup).
Fairfax, VA: How can one tell how much picture quality is lost when the camera saves the picture as a jpg file?
Rob Pegoraro: JPEG (short for "Joint Photographic Experts Group," if acronym anxiety has been keeping you up nights) is what's called a "lossy" compression format: parts of that image that are considered redundant get thrown out. There are different degrees of JPEG compression, though, which can make the quality loss become more obvious. Look in areas of solid, dark color, for instance, and you'll often see a faint pattern of speckles resulting from heavy JPEG compression.
Jim Hawk: And some cameras maker seem to have better compression mthods than others - it's computer-rocket science to me. I prefer "fine" mode, or the least compression, but many of the new models also will save the picture as an "uncompressed" file. Only problem: the filesize is HUGE (up to 6 megabytes per picture) and it slows the camera way down.
Rob Pegoraro: When you looked at these five cameras, were there any features that you wished the manufacturer had included? What's the next big, or little, advance in digital-camera technology? And how much should we expect prices to drop? (At least with film cameras, I guess, you don't have that "d'oh!" feeling when the manufacturer replaces the thing you bought with a better, faster, cheaper model two minutes after you leave the store...)
Jim Hawk: Digital cameras (mini-computers in a camra-like box) are priced just like computers. Today's latest and greatest will cost HALF as much in a year (or less). You have to ask yourself "do I need (want) one NOW ? I waited on the sidelines for a couple years as we went from VGA to X-VGA, etc. Finally, I had to say, alright - GIVE me one, and haven't looked back since. I've got three exposures on a film camera I've been meaning to shoot for months now... As for the next big feature - it's the two megapixel cameras. But on the low end, watch for "starter" digicams under 200 dollars and some even a hundred dollars in the next year.
Laurel MD: What is some really good but inexpensive photo paper to use on a Deskjet 870 Cse printer?
Rob Pegoraro: I haven't used this model myself (if I remember correctly, it's a somewhat high-end color ink-jet, about $100-$200 more than the color printers we reviewed). Jim, what should Laurel do here?
Jim Hawk: H-P has a good line of papers for their own printers - that usually is the best bet for top-quality reuslts. I experimented with H-P paper on an Epson, however, and came away disappointed. The most amazing thing to me are the HUGE price differences between "office superstores" and online sellers.....up to 100 percent on some varieties. So, buy the best paper for the printer...but shop around.
I am the web manager for a small federal agency and am considering asking my agency to purchase a digital camera. We receive many requests from our affiliated agencies across the country for photographs of our target population -older people-. My thought is to train some staff in using the digital camera and send them out to senior centers etc to take photos which we would post on our web site for use by local agencies in their publications -brochures, newsletters etc.-.
Rob Pegoraro: Can we give our government some help here, Jim?
Jim Hawk: I think you could do better on the price, but I think that's a perfect application for digital cameras. I think senior citizens will enjoy seeing their own pictures pop-up instalty, and it makes web stuff vastly easier and faster. If its web-only pictures, consider a camera even in the 200 dollar range and buy two or three for the same money!
Rob Pegoraro: Thanks for stopping by, everybody--and thanks to our guest Jim Hawk as well. (Unfortunately, all this discussion is starting to make me wonder if I shouldn't invest in one of these things, and I've already got too many toys on my wish list :) If you have any questions we didn't get to, you can e-mail me at email@example.com. Enjoy the holiday, everybody...
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