Why You Should Buy a Digital Camera

And What to Buy Once You're Convinced!

I’ve a had some time to play with my new digital camera, and it has changed the way I think about photography. So much so that I thought I would take a moment to preach to those of you who are still among the great, unwashed, film-using masses.

I’m going to look at what I consider to be the main considerations in buying and using a camera, to best illustrate why “going digital” is an absolute no-brainer. Then I’ll give you a few suggestions on what camera to purchase. If you have any questions, or think of something I haven’t addressed here, please just send me an email.

Purchase Cost. Digital cameras are expensive. Sometimes in the order of three times as expensive as a similar film-based camera. There are two main reasons for this: firstly, digital cameras are way more complicated to build than film cameras, and secondly, compared to film technology, digital technology is still its infancy (or maybe its early teens), so the cameras have to carry the cost of all the preliminary research and development that went into their design. A minor reason for the higher cost is the cool factor: people will pay to be able to whip out a digital camera and have their friends go, “cooool.” Keep in mind that over time, digital photography is much cheaper than film photography, as I will illustrate shortly. What this means is that the camera will eventually save you money over its lifetime of use.

Film. These days, film isn’t that expensive. If you shop around, you can usually score a value pack of name-brand colour film, at a per-shot cost of about 5 cents. But let’s dig a little deeper here. Every time you buy film, you’re paying for not only the film, but also the cartridge (the thing that holds the film), and the box, and the shipping. If those basic costs, that really have nothing to do with the film, only add up to a few pennies per roll, you’re still paying those pennies every time you want to take more pictures. With digital photography, you buy a memory card with a certain shot capacity (I’ll get into that later). You can copy the pictures to a computer, or have them “burned” onto a CD for safe-keeping when you get your prints made, and then clear the memory card and start all over again. Essentially, you buy “film” once, and then never pay for another shot again. When you look at memory cards, they might seem expensive, but if you do the math, they’re actually an incredible bargain. A 64 MB card, costing around $40, can easily hold 24 high-resolution images (I’ll talk about that later). $40 will buy you 800 shots of traditional film, which makes your 801st digital shot, and every digital shot thereafter, free. Larger memory cards store more pictures and are more expensive, but unless you’re going travelling and won’t have access to a computer or a photomat, you won’t need more than one small card. If you’re like me, and have access to your computer every day, you won’t need anything larger than a 32 MB card (like the one that came with my camera for free). Also remember that memory prices are continuing to drop.

Another thing to consider is your shooting intention and conditions. You may want to shoot some pictures in black and white. Or maybe you’ve moved indoors, and want to use temperature-balanced film so that the pictures don’t come out green because of the fluorescent lights. Maybe you need to shoot in darker conditions, or use a faster shutter speed for sports photos, which requires a film with a higher ISO rating, like 400 or 800. With film cameras, all of the previous issues require you to change the film in your camera, and unless you’ve just finished a roll, this means you’re likely going to have wasted frames (and then prints) for that roll. With a digital camera, you just push a couple of buttons to change film effects (black and white), temperature (fluorescent) and ISO (800). Done. And then you can change back with your very next shot.

Developing and Printing. Getting pictures from film to paper is a complicated process involving toxic chemicals, precise times and temperatures, and several phases, but because the market is large enough, it has been automated to a high degree and needs little human involvement. These factors keep the price reasonably inexpensive, ranging from 25 to 40 cents for each 4″x6″ print. By contrast, digital printing is orders of magnitude simpler: the image is already “developed” on the memory card, ready to print. The main issue is that the technology is still very new, and the equipment to print from digital files reflects this investment cost. Expect to pay anywhere from 50 cents to $1 per 4″x6″ print. But competition is rapidly increasing, and the equipment becoming ubiquitous; expect the price to drop below that of film printing within five years. (You can even print photos at home with the right printer and paper, but if you do the math you’ll find that this actually winds up being more expensive than having your pictures printed in a lab.)

One other thing worth mentioning is print quality. Just like film prints, digital print quality will vary shop to shop. On top of that, digital cameras store pictures at a certain resolution, which limits their enlargement potential. This same problem applies to film, but not as seriously. Normal 35mm prints look pretty good until you get bigger than 20″x30″ or so, when they start to appear “grainy.” This is noticeable, but if the shot was worth making that big, it probably won’t look too bad (some people even like the look of grain). When you enlarge a digital photo too much, it gets “pixelated.” Every digital picture is made up of millions of picture elements– “pixels”– that are each nothing more than a single square dot of colour. Like pointillism. When these square dots get big enough, they are not only noticeable, but they look really, really ugly. What’s worse is that most consumer-level cameras can only store about 3 million pixels per shot, which is enough to print a nice 8″x10″, but you’re pushing your luck if you try to go bigger. The reality is that few people ever make enlargements bigger than 8″x10″, so unless you’re one of those people, you can forget this entire paragraph. If you are, the good news is that every year brings us more pixels, and there are now consumer-level cameras that can make larger prints than 35mm film. In fact, in a few years, shots from professional digital cameras will easily be detailed enough to be blown up for use on highway billboards.

Batteries. In a film camera, you only need to replace your plain old AA batteries about once a year. Maybe twice if you use the flash a lot. Without the chemical reaction of film, digital cameras rely on electricity to capture and store an image. What’s more, normal alkaline batteries don’t last very long in “high drain” devices like digital cameras. The answer: get a rechargeable nickel-metal-hydride (NiMH) system. Make sure you buy enough batteries to have your camera loaded, with a backup set toasty warm in the charger, ready when you need ’em. Some cameras come with their own “proprietary” lithium-ion rechargeable batteries; these usually last longer than NiMH, but they’re way more expensive to replace. Also, if you’re out in some remote spot and you run out of battery power and have nowhere to plug in your recharger, you’re screwed unless your camera takes AA’s, which can be purchased in every corner store on the planet.

Features. Some people believe that film cameras are much more flexible than digital cameras, giving you better control of flash, shooting modes, manual features, and the like. This is completely untrue. Not only do many full-featured digital cameras exist, they are usually smaller and more competitively priced than their film counterparts. For example, a consumer-level, full-featured single-lens-reflex film camera with a 3x zoom lens costs around $600. The same versatility can be found in a smaller, $900 digital camera (Compare the Canon EOS Rebel2000 film camera to t
he Canon Powershot S45, for example). This price ratio is only 1:1.5, much less expensive than the 1:3 ratio that is common among point-and-shoot models.

Getting the Shot. The whole point of taking pictures is to document your experience. Perhaps for some people it is also about making beautiful images, and creating art. In both cases, all you really want is to capture the image your eye is seeing, when it sees it. This means that first of all, you have to “pull the trigger” and take the shot. Film is cheap, but most people have a hard time firing at will; either they don’t want to waste film, or they want each shot to be perfect. The end result is that they wind up missing great pictures because of their hesitation. Second of all, you have to properly frame and expose the picture; your camera may not have judged the scene the same way your eye did, but you won’t find that out until you get your film developed, potentially thousands of miles from where you took your picture. Digital cameras have a screen on the back that lets you see exactly what you just shot. Some even let you zoom in to check the focussing and details. If you don’t like it, you just erase it and try again. Imagine being able to take that group family shot and KNOW that nobody had their eyes closed.

Total Cost of Ownership. Here’s a simple table comparing the costs of buying a new camera and making your first 800 prints, showing the worst possible case for the digital camera:

Film Digital
Camera $150 $450
Film $40 $40
Prints $200 $400
Batteries $10 $50
Total $400 $940

Now here is a more realistic table comparing the 2-year costs for a digital camera that includes a lithium-ion battery and memory card. Professional photographers are happy to get 2 good shots on a roll of 36; most people aren’t that picky, but if you’re like me, the large majority of your pictures don’t need to be printed. So this table also takes into account that you’ll likely only print about 20% of the photos you take if you have the ability to preview them on your camera:

Film Digital
Camera $150 $450
Film $80 $40
Prints $400 $160
Batteries $10 $0
Total $640 $650

Suddenly “going digital” doesn’t seem like such an expense, does it?

Show-stoppers. There are some things digital cameras can’t do yet, but they aren’t common problems for most photographers. Still, if you need these features, you’ll have to hold off on making the switch.

  1. You can’t shoot infra-red images. Infra-red photography requires special film, and only a few high-end film cameras are capable of using it without ruining it. There are currently no consumer-grade digital sensors capable of capturing light in the infra-red spectrum.
  2. You can’t equal the colour depth of slide film. Magazines and other publishers rely on slide film to provide the realistic, eye-popping colour you see on their pages. Very few non-professionals are shooting slide film anymore, but even so, I anticipate it will only be a few years before we see digital cameras with settings that accurately reproduce slide film on demand.

Bonuses. There are lots of things digital cameras do that film cameras can’t. Not every digital camera has these features, but they’ve become standard in the latest products:

  1. Geeky Details. With each shot, a digital camera will also record the time and date (without having it burned disgustingly into the picture), aperture and shutter settings, as well as any other tech details the camera can track. When you’re learning about photography, being able to see what aperture and shutter speed you used (or the camera chose) is key to understanding why the picture was over- or under-exposed.
  2. Sound Clips. Ever want to write down some information with your pictures? Where you were, who that guy in the clown mask was, or the phone number of the cute red-head who let you take her portrait? Add a sound clip to your photos, and you can even hear her voice.
  3. Movies. Most modern digital cameras have a movie mode, that will let you take decent movies with sound. You’re time-limited by the size of your memory card (another reason to splurge on a big one), and the camera, which may have built-in design limitations of 30 seconds, or 3 minutes, or whatever. The movies can’t compare to the quality of a dedicated digital video camera, but they’re good enough to capture somebody blowing out their birthday candles, or throwing up in the sink a few hours later.

The Environment. I wanted to give this issue its own paragraph, because I believe it’s a very important consideration now that there is an alternative to using film. The process of creating and developing film requires a lot of very nasty chemicals. Most labs are responsible about the disposal of these chemicals, but many people who don’t know, or don’t care, pour them straight down the drain. Digital photography requires no developing, and therefore no harsh chemicals. Prints made using soy-based inks and archival paper last as long, and are indistinguishable from, those made in a lab using environmentally harmful materials. The current trend is moving aggressively towards digital photography, as reflected in the plummeting stock prices and earnings of Kodak and Fujifilm. Your decision to add to this momentum by purchasing a digital camera is a win-win: for your picture taking, and the environment.

The Paradigm. At the beginning of this article, I mentioned that digital cameras have changed the way I see photography. With a traditional camera, photography is a continual expense, and often a disappointment when the results come back from the lab. The human response is to become frugal with the trigger finger, and horde exposed rolls of film for months before handing over the dough to have them developed and printed. There is a feeling of anxiety (and some might say excitement) associated with the process, a certain element of magic, and a lack of control. If you like this, stick with film. Digital photography frees you to snap at everything and anything. You can experiment with your timing and framing until you know exactly how to capture action shots, portraits, night pictures, and whatever else you like to shoot. For free. There’s no cost associated with documenting your life, making wonderful pictures out of accidental moments, and seemingly innocuous scenes that would have gone otherwise uncaptured. Digital cameras will improve your love for, and practice of, photography.

What to Buy. So you’re convinced. But there are dozens of digital cameras out there, and even the salespeople are baffled about each one’s features and limitations. You don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on a purchase you’ll regret a few weeks later. To help you out, I’ll explain to you what you need to know about digital cameras, what I consider to be the must-have features, and which cameras I think are the best bang for the buck.

If you’re the normal picture enthusiast, you’re concerned about price, simple features like zoom and picture modes, and making occasional, conservative enlargements. You may also want to buy brand name, and want something small, since portability is another great feature of digital cameras. If you want zoom, don’t go any smaller than a 3x optical zoom (ignore the “digital zoom” number, because it works by enlarging the pixels instead of magnifying the image, which leads
to that pixelation I was talking about earlier). A tip for using zoom: always take portraits at the 3x position, since it tends to make faces look more flattering. If you want picture modes, make sure you get a portrait mode, an action or sports mode, and a landscape mode. These modes give you indirect control over shutter speed and aperture: portrait mode blurs your background, action mode uses the fastest shutter speed, and landscape mode gives you a large “depth of field” (the distance between the nearest and furthest points that will appear in focus). For enlargements, don’t go smaller than 3 megapixels, which will produce nice 8″x10″ prints. As far as brand goes, I’m partial to Canon products, but I also like Pentax and Sony for their design and small size. Nikon is a well-respected maker of film cameras, but their consumer-grade digitals are awkward to use and produce average images. The Pentax Optio S is an amazingly tiny camera (it fits in a tin of Altoids), but the controls are so small that more than one salesperson has described it to me as a “girl’s camera.” While playing with my friend’s Optio S, my fat man-fingers kept hitting the wrong button and recording audio when I was trying to view the next picture. The best overall value out there today (2003-09-06) in my opinion is the Canon A70, which uses AA’s, has full manual controls, point-and-shoot picture modes, 3.2 megapixels and a 3x optical zoom. It won’t quite slip into a pocket, but the A70 is still smaller than most film cameras. All for under $500 Canadian. Don’t take my word for it: this camera is so popular that most stores can’t keep it in stock. If you want to make bigger enlargements, go with the S50; at 5 megapixels you’ll be good well above 11″x14″. If you want a smaller size, check out the Pentax Optio line and the smaller Sonys. The Canon Powershot 400 (which I bought) is also a great pocket-sized camera, but considering that it has absolutely no control over picture modes, aperture or shutter speed, its $689 price tag is a bit high.

Well, if you’ve gone to the trouble to read this far, I hope you learned something about digital photography. If you’re interested in learning more, and comparing other digital cameras out there, visit any of my favourite photography websites:

Digital Photography Review
Steve’s Digicams

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