Digital Cameras

Tom Davis
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Last Modified: January 3, 2006.


Snowy Egret Every day digital cameras are getting better. There are still some advantages to film cameras, but with each passing year, it is harder to find those advantages. Even though I never would have believed it a couple of years ago, I have converted almost completely to digital photography, have not taken a shot with a film camera for almost two years, and have sold all but one of my film bodies.

If you can afford a decent digital body today, you should probably forget about film. The only exception I can think of is if you're primarily interested in black and white photography. If that's the case, be sure to read my notes on digital black and white photography.

The image of the Snowy Egret on the right was taken with a Nikon D2x. Click on it to obtain a larger version, and even that larger image is still scaled down by a factor of three.

For reference, I own and have experience with three digital cameras: one point-and-shoot and two Nikon SLR bodies.

The Sony DSC-S85 is a high-end digital point-and-shoot (or was high-end when I bought it). It originally cost about $800 and can take photos with 4 million pixels. That camera is now out of production, although the price dropped to about $500 before Sony replaced it with new models. From what I can tell, equivalent cameras today cost about $300.

Nikon D2x Body My other cameras are a Nikon D100 body and a D2x body that can use almost all my old Nikon lenses. The D100 has a resolution of 6 million pixels and cost about $1700. Don't be fooled into thinking I made a mistake and only got 2 million pixels for more than doubling the price; the Nikon pixels are "better" as I shall describe later in this document. The D2x cost around $5000, and has a 12 million pixel resolution. I have only had the D2x for about a month, but I used the D100 heavily for about two years. The funny thing is that in the month that I've had the D2x, I have already taken more photos with it than I did in the entire two years with the D100.

I still have more experience with film cameras, but by now I and starting to feel very comfortable with the digital cameras. If you'd like to see some of my digital work before reading on to make sure I can walk the walk as well as talk the talk, I've got some example web pages. The best shots by far are taken with the D2x:

Birds at the Palo Alto Baylands

Here are a few others:

Costa Rica 2002 volunteer work
Costa Rica 2002 as a tourist and
Burning Man, 2002

were taken with the Sony.

The Nikon SLR has now made a few trips and you can see my first digital SLR attempts on these pages from:

Costa Rica 2003
Palo Alto Baylands and
Burning Man, 2003.

What is a digital camera?

Here we're concerned only with digital still cameras. Digital video cameras have many of the same features, but add another layer of complexity that I'd prefer not to discuss at this time. (I do own a video camera as well, but have used it far less than my still cameras and do not feel competent to discuss the topic.)

As a first approximation, a digital camera is basically identical to a standard film camera except that in place of the film, the incoming light shines on a CCD (charge-coupled device) that senses the incoming colors electronically. Then, instead of recording on film, the data from the CCD is written to some sort of electronic memory. This may be something like a memory card, a small disk drive, or even an optical CD. In the field, instead of changing rolls of film, you'll change to a new memory card or a new CD when you fill one with photos.

But unlike standard film, after you have copied the data from your memory card to a computer or something you can erase that card and reuse it. In fact, you can review each photo as soon as you take it, and erase it immediately, in the field, if you do not like the results.

Depending on the cost of your camera, it may be equipped with most of the same options that a standard 35mm camera has: zoom lens, macro setting, flash, exposure control, auto and manual focus, exposure locks, et cetera.

In addition, some are equipped with various electronic filters that can be applied to the photo to produce things like black and white, vignetting, solarization, sepia prints, et cetera. In my opinion, these features are worthless--why not do your digital retouching at home on your computer where you can see what you're doing and no doubt have far more powerful image processing programs?

Often the camera (this is true of digital point-and-shoots, especially) has the ability to record short MPEG movie clips, including sound if you want. I didn't think this would be too important, but have actually found a few nice uses for this feature.

Here is the best example I know of. I was in Costa Rica and one of the people in our group was a professional photographer who has helped produce films for the BBC, et cetera. We saw a nice line of leafcutter ants and I wanted to get a photo, but the photographer was filming, and I got in his way. He's a really nice guy, but he started joking about what he would have said if he were a real photographer. At that point I silently changed my camera to record an MPEG video while he demonstrated what a real photographer would say. Ignore the video in this mpeg clip; I had the camera sideways and all I really cared about was the audio.

What are the pros and cons of digital cameras?

We'll begin with a list of the advantages of digital over non-digital cameras: OK, those are the advantages. What are the disadvantages?

Digital SLRs

I now have a fair amount of experience with one of these (the Nikon D100) and am very happy with it so far (after a bit more than a month). I suspect that most of what I say applies to other digital SLRs, but I'm not positive. Here are a set of observations and comments, so far in no particular order:

Nikon School

I recently took a class at the Nikon School on digital photography that was pretty interesting. Here are my notes from the class.
Return to the beginner's guide.

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