Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Monday, December 6, 2010

Camera basics for genealogists -- types of cameras

Film cameras are a dead issue. Back in June of 2009, Kodak announced that it was discontinuing production of Kodachrome Color Film after 74 years. Even the widely acclaimed photographic magazine, Arizona Highways, began accepting digital images in 2008. Like may others, I had either purchased or inherited a variety of film cameras over the years. Checking online at E-bay shows that even the market for used film cameras has collapsed. Even very expensive film cameras sell for a few dollars, almost none for more than $100 and these are cameras that cost up to thousands of dollars originally.

The whole photographic world has gone digital. The reason is obvious. Digital cameras entirely avoid the cost of film. If I had to pay for film for all of the thousands of digital images I have taken with my cameras, I would be broke. Drug stores and grocery stores even sell throw away digital cameras. Photographic film is still available, but there is almost no where to get it developed. That fact creates an interesting problem. Because digital cameras are basically a specialized type of computer, there are hundreds and hundreds of digital camera models to choose from. Companies that never made cameras previously, now have dozens of models and all of the traditional camera companies have even more models to chose from. For example, Canon, one of the most prominent camera companies, currently (2010) sells 38 different models of digital cameras.

If you are a genealogist (and not a professional photographer or have any desire to become one) what should you look for in a digital camera?

There are two major divisions in the digital camera world that also reflect historical differences in film cameras. Traditionally, cameras were either classified as range finder cameras or reflex cameras although there were always exceptions, such as large format view cameras where the view was established by looking at the open back (usually with a glass plate) of the camera looking directly through the lens. In a range finder camera the photographer composed the picture by looking through a view finder, an optical window in the camera that approximated the picture that would be taken by the camera lens. Many of the less expensive digital cameras today still use a view finder, but to some extent the view finder has been replaced by an LCD screen, so that in some models, there is no longer a view finder at all. On the other hand, reflex cameras and most popularly, single lens reflex (SLR) cameras are more expensive but give you the ability to compose your picture by looking directly through the camera's main lens. Because they are more complicated, SLR cameras are usually more expensive.

A note here about parallax. Any time the picture you see through the view finder is separate from the picture seen by the camera lens, what you see through the view finder will be slightly (or more) shifted in its view point from the main lens of the camera. This is the same thing that happens when you shut one eye and then the other eye and see close objects apparently move. Cameras that used to take advantage of this change in perspective to focus the main lens are called range finder cameras. If the photographer did not compensate for the parallax, close objects would end up cut or cropped. It was common with range finder cameras to have the tops, sides or bottoms of photos cutting off part of the picture. Even modern digital cameras will have a parallax problem if the LCD has a separate lens from the main lens of the camera.

Photography has always been part technology and part art. Obtaining a well composed, focused and appropriately lighted picture has always been a challenge. Because of the electronic revolution in photography the picture taking process has been virtually automated. All of the things photographers used to have to do manually, like focus the camera and make adjustments for light conditions, have been largely eliminated. Most cameras today have some sort of simple scene selector from close up to bright sunlight and all you do is push the button and the camera automatically measured the light, makes adjustments, focuses on the subject and takes the picture. Now, does this mean we all take marvelous pictures? No. Because the technology portion is more automated, the whole process is now more about the "art" of taking good pictures. All the technology in the world will not make a bad photograph good.

OK, back to technology, in addition to simplifying the process of taking a picture, the newest technology fully integrates your camera with your computer and/or printer. You can skip the computer altogether and print your pictures directly from your camera. You can also take your camera to a nearby Walmart or Costco or other outlet and have your pictures printed while you wait. All of this can occur with a camera that cost much less than $100.

Making a choice on what type of camera to purchase today involves one basic questions.

Am I a photographer or a genealogist? Or both? Your decision to purchase a certain kind of camera will be determined by your interest in the craft, profession and art of photography. If all you want to do is take basic pictures for the information content, then buy a point-and-shoot camera for under $300 and go to work. If you want more from your photographs, start reading and studying and spend what you determine you need to do the job.

If you want to stay with equipment that works and has all of the features available today in a camera, then buy one of the more popular brands. It should not be surprising that a "best selling" camera is best selling. One last word of caution, don't buy the camera on sale at whatever discount outlet. It is will almost always be the last year's discontinued model. Unlike cars and many other consumer items, new cameras, like new computers, really are better, faster and have more features.

Stay tuned for the next installment.

1 comment:

  1. If, by chance, you run out of topics, could you touch upon where to get photos developed? I had 50 done at a mail order CVS store, and the prints were terrible. Any ideas? Thanks, and as always your posts are excellent.