Friday, October 10, 2008

Digital cameras - which is best, and for whom?

Today I'll be answering two readers' questions, both of them good, and well worth answering on the blog here.

I can satisfy in a paragraph; the second will take a good bit longer:

Q: When will HELLGATE be finished?
A: 2009. All of it, right to the end. The whole series will be finished and out in paperbacks and ebooks by Christmas '09, and you'll also be able to buy it in three big hardcovers, if you want something swank for your bookshelf. Makes a hell of a gift, too. We'll also be able to offer a package, where you can order all the ebooks in one Zip archive, at a special price. doesn't do package deals or gift vouchers yet, but they might start offering this, in the next twelve months. Also (and this is breaking news -- we won't even be making a big announcement for a few days yet), Keegan is in the process of going to At last. So in 2009 you might be able to get some kind of bulk deal with Amazon, who do offer gift vouchers and so forth. (The Amazon trade paperback editions will be produced by, not -- but we WILL be keeping the Lulu editions up too, because the CreateSpace editions are very expensive for Aussie and Kiwi readers ... not the books, the postage. More about this later.)

Next -- the important question:

DIGITAL CAMERAS - which would I recommend?

The question was fired at me because I spent years as a professional photographer, back in the days of optical and film. I've made the transfer to digital of necessity ... optical became vastly too expensive, and I like to grab up to 1000 frames on one "shoot" and sort them out later. With digital, this just means a couple of full flashcards. With optical, it means 40 rolls of film, which would cost upwards of five hundred bucks ... sorry, Kodak, but I've got better things to spend money on these days. Like, a whole new camera for that price.

So, which camera are you going shopping for?

It's a simple question to ask, but a lot more complex to answer. I'll try to be brief. Which camera is the "best" depends on two basic questions: 1) What you want it to do; 2) What your budget is.

If you're a wannabe professional (I won't say pro here, because if you're a pro, you're not asking this question, nor as you reading this post: you already know the answers!), you need to get a digital SLR with the best computerized body and power system you can afford, plus one or more lenses suited to your line of work.
Sports and wildlife photography demand long lenses. You'll want something in the 1000mm range ... and the bad news is, the lens could easily cost more than the camera body. Model photography (meaning young people in scanty clothes, rather than Tamaya and Airfix planes and tanks!) demands very sharp lenses with a zoom in the 25mm - 300mm range (wide angle to moderate telephoto). This lens would also go a long way towards doubling as news photography equipment, but it's too short for wildlife, and too limited to do well at air shows. Equestrian and grand prix events are within its capacity, though, so long as you're careful and know what you're doing.

What brand do I recommend, if you're shopping for a top-end camera with a view to selling your work? For myself, I'd go with Canon or Pentax, though other professionals recommend Nikon. In fact, it's "six of one, half a dozen of the other." Depends what you're familiar with.
As a ground rule, get the BEST camera body you can possibly afford. Also, as a general rule, don't buy a second hand digital SLR body, because you can't know if it's been dropped, hit, drowned or cooked. Heat, moisture and impacts hurt the electronics. They can "go intermittent" and work, sorta-kinda, for some time after the accident ... long enough for them to find their way onto the secondhand gear shelf, and into the hands of an unsuspecting newbie. Buy new, as per the body ... look at secondhand to save money on the lenses.
(Very good lenses will be starting to change hands around now, because there isn't a lot of work for professional photographers these days; and everyone, everywhere, bar none, is feeling the pinch. A top of the range, 1000mm lens could cost (!) five grand. Used ... I'd look at $2000-$2500 as a decent price. But shop around -- and don't forget to look for Internet specials.

On the other hand...

If you're a semi-pro or keen amateur, you could do a hell of a lot worse than look at the top digitals, just short of the SLR bracket. You're looking for 6 megapixels or better, and a 10:1 optical zoom, or better.
TIP: Don't pay money for big digital zooms, because all the camera is doing is electronically enhancing pixels in-camera ... something you can do at home, with fantastic FREE software like Irfanview ... ... Pay money for extra pixels in the capture and/or display, or features such as manual focus, a bigger, sharper screen, a wider range of exposures and virtual film-speeds, the ability to shoot 640x480 video, and record sound. In-camera editing is not worth extra bucks, when you're going right home (or back to the hotel) and will be loading the whole shoot onto the computer.

Makes and models? When you're up around the 6-8 megapixel range, they're all pretty much of a sameness, so you need to look at features, price, and also the comfort factor. How does it fit your hand? Is it too heavy? Is it too small? What do YOU feel comfortable with?

The camera that fits my hand the best is the Fuji FinePix S6500fd. It has 6MP, a 2.5" screen, a 10.7 optical zoom, an extremely crisp lens, and manual focus. The downsides are, it takes XD cards which, being Olympus proprietorial technology, are a good deal more expensive than other cards ... and it's noticeably heavy -- a lot heavier than the 5500 model (I have one of those too), which feels like a feather by comparison! For me, the extra weight is a a good trade-off, because the manual focus makes possible photos we thought we'd never get again, since we laid our optical SLRs to rest. The 6500 has gadgets and features galore, some of which are useful, some of which are "touristy" stuff which you won't use. It's also robust: I confess to having bounced mine several times, and stood on it once (accidentally!) and it's none the worse for wear.

Price-wise, you can turn one up for about $500, which makes it the best dollar-value, in my own experience. (It's little brother, the 5500 -- with 5MP and a smaller screen, and no real manual focus -- is available at about $350. If you can't use a heavy camera, look at the 5500.)

If you can afford to go to about $700 or so, do take a look at the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ18, which has 8 MP and an 18x optical zoom, and uses SD cards, which are cheaper. The camera is a beauty, though stuffed with touristy features which you're paying for though you might never use them; and it's a little small. For those of us who are used to the "feel" of a big SLR body, and can therefore handle the Fuji comfortably, the Panasonic Lumix could take some getting used to. However, one drools over the Leica lens! The camera is not quite as sturdy as the Fuji ... you can also get it in silver as well as black. To me, cameras are black, so I've pasted in the catalog pic that shows this little number in black.

As per examples of the work from these two cameras, I can't show you anything from the Panasonic Lumix, but I can certainly show you a good cross-section of work from the Fuji ... and I'll be doing this tomorrow, since for today, I just ran out of time!

Ciao for now,

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