19 June 2009

Is my camera good enough?

The answer is probably yes...

My old Nikon SLR 35mm camera which I paid a fortune for about 10yrs ago and had about 6 lenses, expensive flash guns, filters, light meters, massive padded bags the whole kit (I was rich before my kids came along!) It is pretty much obsolete now, it's in my attic, collecting dust but knowing how to use an SLR has really helped me to understand how to best use my compact digital camera.

I currently use a very normal 4yr old Olympus Camedia C-765, it's a very middle of the road compact camera but it has a lovely bright lens, 4 megapixels and some great manual functionality, which most digital cameras have now.

Which Functions do I really need?

Here is a list of functions that I think are really important to achieve great photos, some are vital and some you can get round by other means.

  1. A 'Bright' Lens
  2. 4+ Megapixels
  3. Macro Settings
  4. Tripod Mount
  5. Self Timer
  6. Manual Exposure Settings
  7. Spot Metering
  8. White Balance

1.) A Bright Lens ( or big aperture)

I used to sell cameras and all anyone seemed interested in was how big the zoom was, 3x, 4x, 10x - well the length is unimportant in this instance it's how big the hole is that matters! The aperture means how big the shutter opens to let in the light.

On your camera there will be two numbers by or on the lens that tell you how big the aperture is firstly when the camera is at its widest (not zooming) and secondly when it is at its full optical zoom, they will look like this 1:2.8 - 3.7 or f/2.8 - 3.7 or very similar. These numbers are called f numbers or f stops, and just to make it complicated the lower these numbers are the more light your lens can let in and capture.

Lens quality can make a huge difference in the quality of your images and the flexibility of your camera especially if light is low. There's an awful lot more to know about aperture and f-stops but I'll leave that for a later post. Think about how the pupil of your eye gets bigger and smaller in different light - it's a really important part of being able to see and focus!

2.) Megapixels - 4+ Please

The number of pixels affects the resolution of your pictures, anything above 4 is plenty! This is really important if you're going to be cropping pictures, the more mega pixels the better. Each pixel captures a little tiny dot of light on the image sensor, the more of these you have the less likely you will be able to notice them as individual pixels when you zoom in to an image (pixelation = bad). If you're buying new you'll rarely see less than 8 megapixels. If you have less than 4 you will really need to concentrate on getting your framing right so you don't have to crop the image too much, which can be a bit limiting. These beads look terribly pixelated when I crop in this close from the original image but if I had an 8 megapixel camera they may look fine.

3.) Macro Setting

This is really important if you want to take sharp close up pictures and record detail, I use mine more often than not when I'm photographing my bead kits! You can get affordable cameras with minimum (macro) focal distances of 1cm which is pretty much having the lens against the object! If your camera doesn't have a macro function it's important to know that you can't get closer than say 30cm before the image will be a blur.

4.) Tripod mount

Having the ability to attach your camera to a tripod is important as a tripod can be the difference between being able to take pictures by a window on a rainy Tuesday and having to wait for perfect wind free weather conditions so you can get outside to take your pictures. It's about flexibility and light! Even if you don't have a tripod now, you may find you need one in the future (trust me you want a tripod!) so if you're buying a new or 2nd hand camera make sure it has a tripod mount sometimes known as a tripod bush... (hee hee)

5.) Self timer

This can really help to minimise any shake. Whether you're using a tripod or you've balanced the camera on a pile of books when you press the shutter the camera may still shake or move slightly - this can alter the focus and/or cause blurring if you are pushed for light. Also, I don't often have anyone to help me take my pictures so it leaves me hands free - in this picture I was both holding a reflector and being a hand model!

6.) Manual or Aperture/Shutter Priority Exposure

This isn't essential but the flexibility that having control over the aperture (how much light is getting in) and shutter speed (in digital cameras this is how many seconds the sensor is on for to collect the light) make it a very desirable function as these settings can affect your final image so much and to an extent that can't be changed in photoshop.

On some digital cameras there are shooting modes for night, high speed action, portraits, distance and so on, they are really just pre programmed settings controlling the shutter speed and aperture for various light conditions - these are better than nothing but with a little understanding of how the aperture and shutter affect the final image it is far better to be able to control them yourself. I will cover this in a later post, at length!

7.)Spot Metering

Having the ability to change the way your camera measures light can be an extremely useful tool. Most cameras take an average light reading across the whole scene but with some cameras you can adjust this to 'spot' metering and you can also choose which spot on your picture you want to be exposed just right. If you are taking images of small objects on a white background this function really comes into it's own. with this flower (Herb Robert) the opposite is true, I wanted to ignore the dark background and record the petals so I metered accordingly.

8.)White Balance

I don't currently use a lightbox, most of the tutorials online to build one are lit by household lamps... so unless you have studio lights and you're looking into making or buying one then it's important that your camera has white balance settings and that you know how to use them. Light from household bulbs has a very warm cast, it makes whites appear yellowy or orange. Some cameras over compensate if you use the automatic settings and you can end up with a blue tinge which isn't good either, again being able to control it manually can be a real help. White balance can also be ammended when you're editing. (more on light box pro's and con's later).


If you're buying a new camera it's well worth checking out the camera selector programme at http://www.jessops.com/

In the next post I'll look at the kit you need for photographing your crafts, so it will be tripods, reflectors, light boxes - they're not all necessary so don't get your credit card out just yet...