The confident shopper's guide to digital cameras
From the Print Edition:
Tom Selleck, Nov/Dec 2007
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A more exacting option is full manual control. For example, if you want to freeze action while shooting a race, you'd crank up the shutter speed setting. To keep as much depth in focus as possible, you'd ratchet down the aperture setting. With manual control options, you can manipulate these settings to fit challenging photographic conditions, while letting the camera's automatic settings handle routine shots.
This year's hot digital photography trend is face tracking, an extraordinary demonstration of just how smart and computerized cameras have become. With the face-tracking feature enabled, the camera analyzes the scene and identifies the faces in the frame. It then automatically adjusts the lens and exposure settings to keep those faces in focus and well lit. The system handles individual portraits and group shots, and by and large works well. Recent refinements to face-tracking technology make it even more practical. Canon offers a mode that doesn't just focus on faces on-screen, but lets you pick the one that matters and then tracks that face as it moves, making adjustments accordingly. (It's found on the G9 reviewed below.) Basically, it's the perfect tool to capture your little darling at her dance recital, without worrying about the other dozen Shirley Temples tapping their little hearts out.
One limitation of current face-tracking technology: the camera needs to see two eyes to recognize a face, so people in profile might as well be birch trees as far as the software is concerned. Fujifilm has demonstrated an upgrade that promises to solve the problem, though cameras sporting this feature weren't available for testing in time for this roundup.
And Panasonic has taken the concept of camera smarts a step further with its new Intelligent Auto system, found in several of its Lumix cameras (including the FZ18 reviewed here). This system can analyze the scene and decide what special mode best suits the subject, whether it's a portrait, a scenic vista, a close-up and so on. It's an interesting way for casual photographers to take advantage of settings tailored to a particular situation instead of settling for the one-size-fits-all settings applied when a camera's set to Auto.
Fixing basic flaws in your photos on a computer is easy enough. But what about all those people who just want to take the memory card out of the camera and stick it directly into a printer, or hand the card to a smiling store employee and pick up a stack of prints later? Should these computer-free snap-shooters suffer with red-eye portraits, poorly composed shots and unattractive lighting? Heaven forfend! With the right camera, they can make adjustments right on the LCD screen.
The most common in-camera fix is red-eye removal, a quick cure for that fiend-from-hell glow that reflects in your subjects' pupils when flooded with flash. Some models let you crop parts of the picture, make a lower-resolution copy of an image for e-mailing, and optimize lighting to brighten a dimly lit shot or tone down overblown highlights.
Most digital cameras store images in a file format called JPEG. The advantage of this standardization: all the computers, printers, online services, digital photo frames and other photo-related devices you might use accept JPEG files. The disadvantage: JPEG images are compressed to keep file sizes relatively small. That's really not a problem if you're going to use the image pretty much the way it comes out of the camera. But if you want the freedom to make lots of adjustments to your digital photo on the computer, there's an alternative to JPEG worth considering, called a RAW file.
The RAW file stores the digital data exactly the way it hit the camera's image sensor—no compression, no in-camera adjustments for color, white balance or other settings. That gives you the freedom to manipulate the image to your heart's content on your computer without introducing the imperfections that come from fiddling with a compressed JPEG file and then recompressing it when you save the edited file. It's a fine point, not really important to casual snap-shooters, but if you're serious about photography, a camera that can shoot both JPEG and RAW files is a good choice, and they're available now in both compact and SLR formats.
"What a Great Camera"
In my family, I'm usually the guy who brings a camera to family events and snaps away during the proceedings. I'm certainly not among the pros, but I've learned a few of their tricks, most notably to just keep snapping away, taking lots of shots, and then select only the good ones to share later on. When I shot film, this was interesting advice but entirely irrelevant to my cheapskate existence. Now, with a digital camera, each additional shot adds zero cents in incremental expenditure, so I keep my finger on the shutter and increase the odds of getting a great candid astronomically.
And when the party's over, after crawling around the floor in search of intriguing angles of the tykes in attendance, cropping and Photoshopping and removing shots with truly horrible facial expressions from the "keepers" folder, I post my pictures for my family to see and receive the same response: "That's really a great camera." And while I'd prefer they praise my fine craftsmanship and not the tools I use, I have to admit they're not entirely wrong.
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