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Megapixels Keep Developing


December 1, 2001
By Pulp & Paper Canada

Since we last discussed digital cameras about 18 months ago, there has been rapid development in the models available, outpacing developments in most other aspects of computers. It is interesting that…

Since we last discussed digital cameras about 18 months ago, there has been rapid development in the models available, outpacing developments in most other aspects of computers. It is interesting that the two leading producers of traditional photographic film, Kodak and Fuji, both produce a range of good quality digital cameras. Polaroid is also in the digital camera business, with nine models listed on their web site. I expect that film will be largely eclipsed by digital photographs in a couple of years, just as faxes eclipsed the Telex in the 1980’s, after fax equipment became well-standardized, easy to use and moderately priced.

For the ultimate clarity, it is still difficult to beat photographs taken by an expert with a high quality camera on film, and carefully massaged in the darkroom. However, the better digital images come very close. A number of magazines will accept digital images for cover photographs, which would have been unheard of a couple of years ago.

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As well as being useful for personal use, journalists etc, digital cameras are useful tools around a mill, or for people responsible for sales and after sales support to mills. Most mills have used Polaroid cameras for years to facilitate communications on engineering and maintenance issues, but today, digital cameras are far better for such purposes. Polaroid in the US has filed for “Chapter 11” protection from creditors in early October, further confirming the move away from film.

WHICH CAMERA?

As with computers and cars, there is a whole range available from marginally acceptable units at the bottom of the price scale to Rolls Royces.

At today’s prices, I would be not to consider a camera with under 2 megapixel resolution, although some users are satisfied with 1.2 megapixels. This will produce excellent prints up to about 4″ by 6″, and acceptable ones to at least 8″ by 10″. One of the reasons to have a reasonably high resolution camera, is that often you wish to print only part of the image.

While the megapixels are the most advertised feature of cameras, a number of other features are at least as important. Lens quality and exposure control are difficult to judge without expertise, so if you lack the know-how, you have to rely in published reviews, inspecting pictures taken by each camera, or the manufacturer’s reputation. When looking at prints for digital cameras, remember that the quality of the printer is at least as important as the camera.

For equipment with reasonable resolution, the most important feature is the zoom capability of the lens. It is often impossible to get far enough back from an object to photograph the parts you want, due to buildings etc. A wide angle lens is a great help here. Conversely, it may be impractical to get as close as you want, so a long-focus lens is useful.

The better digital cameras have lenses that can be adjusted to vary the focal length, thus varying the magnification of the image, just as 35 mm cameras can. This is known as “optical zoom” in digital camera parlance. Many offer 3:1 optical zoom, which is quite useful, and normally ranges from the equivalent to a range of about 35 mm to 105 mm in a traditional single lens reflex camera. Sony makes a few models with 10:1 optical zoom capability, but this comes at the price of greater bulk and weight. Their MVC-CD1000 has 10:1 zoom, and weighs about a kilo, whereas their more recently introduces MVC-CD300 is much lighter, but still too large for your shirt or pants pocket, and limits you to 2:1 zoom.

Interchangeable lenses are available for many digital cameras which extend the zoom capabilities, but the variety is much smaller than for traditional SLR cameras.

Most cameras store the photographs on CompactFlash memory cards, as discussed in the September 2000 issue, but Sony offers some models that use CD storage. This has some advantages for a camera that is used by several people in the office for various purposes, so that each can have his own CD. However, it can require several seconds to store each photograph on disc, which is a nuisance if you wish to take several pictures in quick succession.

My preference for storage is still the CompactFlash, with the CompactFlash Adaptor for the PC we discussed in September last year. Unfortunately, most vendors include a small CF card (8 or 16 Mb) with the camera. 64kb or more is preferable, so you may have to buy a second CF card.

When purchasing a camera for use in the mill for developing training manuals, recording the condition of equipment, of status of construction projects etc, the users will not be professional photographers, and only occasionally experienced amateurs. The camera should operate in “point and shoot” mode, with little skill required beyond a good understanding of what information has to be collected. Fortunately, all the cameras available today can operate fully automatically, although the better ones give the knowledgeable user a wide range of tools.

My choice would be for either the (heavy and bulky) Sony for its wide zoom range or one for the very small units that fits easily in a pocket.

For the small unit, I would avoid Sony due to their use of the proprietary Sony Memory Stick for storage. My first choice would be the Canon S300 Digital Elph, because it is very small, (about 230 grams) and still offers 3:1 zoom lens and 2 megapixel resolution.

There is an interactive camera buying guide at http://www.zdnet.com/special/stories/sc/camera/reviews/0,12102,2628327,00.html which presents specifications and reviews for most of the cameras on the market, as will as pointers to dozens of vendors, with prices. Almost all are in the US, but they will, of course, ship to Canada. Be sure that prices quoted include rechargeable battery and charger, and if you wish one, spare battery and larger CF card than the basic 8 or 16 Mb normally offered.

SOFTWARE

All the cameras come with software for editing photographs, which is adequate for most purposes.

If you are rather more ambitious, Adobe’s Photoshop is the top-of-the-line photo editor, but costs about $1000 and takes some considerable time to learn to use well. Adobe recently released “Photoshop Elements” for about $150. It is a powerful photo editor that is easier to use than Photoshop, and includes the ability to stitch multiple shots together. A free 30-day trial can be downloaded from www.adobe.com.


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