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What Is a Good Digital Camera Setup?

by Amir Frank of Keeble Schuchat, Palo Alto

SCVWS wishes to acknowledge and thank Amir Frank and Keeble & Schucat for submitting this article, first published in our April 2003 Member newsletter.

I don't consider myself a photographer. I have, however, spent the last five years shooting and experimenting with digital photography. I am currently employed at Keeble & Shuchat Photography in the digital department. Many of our customers are professional photographers and artists that want to make the leap into digital. Some switch because of the time and money digital photography can save them. Others switch because their clients and printers request a digital format. For whatever reason you decide to turn to a more digital environment, there are some things you need to take into consideration.

Choosing the Right Equipment

Probably the most advertised feature of a digital camera is its megapixels. A pixel is simply a picture element. Pixels are all the little squares that combine to make up the picture. One megapixel is one million pixels. Today, $800 will buy a five-megapixel camera and $4500 will buy a fourteen-megapixel camera. How many megapixels you need, should be determined by the final size of the output. Printers have, traditionally, recommended 300 pixels per inch or ppi. What does that mean for the final size of the output? Well, a five-megapixel image is approximately 2560 pixels wide by 1920 pixels high. If I divide 2560 by 300 I know that the maximum width of my print can be about 8.5 inches. 300 ppi is great for photographers, it'll produce a very sharp picture. Some people, myself included, think that anymore then 300 ppi is wasteful because the difference is insignificant. Painters, on the other hand, can usually get away with much less resolution because they are painting over, or from, an image. Resolution as low as 150 ppi would be sufficient for most painters. This would allow a painter with a five-megapixel camera to increase the final size of the output to 17 inches wide.

Many artists have traditionally sent their printers a transparency to scan in order to print giclées. With digital cameras, the scanning process is completely eliminated. The camera is, essentially, a scanner that digitizes the subject framed in the viewfinder. Most printers except a digital format put on CD or some other popular portable storage device. If the final image does have to be on film, for any reason, don't use a digital camera. It is possible to print from a digital file on to a 35mm or larger format transparency. However, the process is very expensive and the results are not as good as they would be if a traditional film camera were used. The type of film camera used is only dependent on the size of the film needed. For 35mm slides, use any 35mm SLR film camera. SLR cameras have interchangeable lenses and the manual modes needed for product photography. If four by five transparencies are required then any four by five view camera will work.

Digital cameras offer an assortment of features, most range from moderately to not so useful. Some features, however, are very important. These are the same as the features found on most traditional film cameras. Program, shutter priority, aperture priority, and manual are the most important features for any product photographer. These features are not found on every camera though, only some of the more advanced consumer and professional models that start at about $500. Cameras with bodies that twist, like the Nikon Coolpix 4500, or LCD screens that flip out and pivot, like the Canon G3, can also be useful. For example, if your subject is on a table at about waist level, a camera with these features can be set on a tripod at the desired height and angle with the screen set to the most comfortable position for the photographer. This prevents the photographer from moving into awkward positions.

After buying their first digital camera, customers quickly realize the camera kit they bought is missing two things, enough battery and enough memory. This is true for all cameras regardless of the price. Some cameras use AA batteries, this makes it easy to find a replacement set if the existing set should die. For the cameras that offer a AA battery solution, it is highly recommended to buy a set of rechargeable batteries and a battery charger. Rechargeable batteries will typically last 8-10 times longer than any non-rechargeable alkaline set. The cameras that don't use a standard battery system use a proprietary one. This means that replacement batteries are going to be a little more expensive. However, these proprietary battery systems usually last between 10-12 times longer than alkaline. To give you an idea of what this means, an average set of alkaline batteries will last about 10 pictures and then begin to fail. Cameras will slightly differ in their power consumption, and some will vary from these figures. All cameras offer an AC power adapter. Using the AC power adapter means that the camera will never run out of battery power, but the camera is also tethered to a wall outlet by a six-foot cable. Memory is also an issue that buyers need to take into consideration. The cameras come with enough memory to give the user the ability to take about 8-12 high quality pictures. Clearly that's not enough. All the cameras I sell have removable memory, which means that a second or third memory card can be purchased. The price of memory recently dropped. Now a 128 megabyte, or MB, card costs only $59. How many pictures will fit on a 128MB card though? The number of pictures that fit on a given card can vary. For example, a four-megapixel camera, at the highest resolution, saves a 2MB image file. This means that on a 128MB card, a four-megapixel camera can fit 64 pictures. A two-megapixel camera stores a 1MB image file and can fit 128 pictures on a 128MB memory card. The cards are reusable and once the pictures are downloaded, the card can then be erased to allow for more picture storage.

The next step, after choosing a camera, is deciding on the best lighting system for your subject. With two-dimensional subjects, large or small, the best system requires two Tota lights at equidistance from the subject. A Tota light is a type of halogen socket made by Lowel, a popular lighting company. These are continuous lights that are powered by a 110 Volt wall outlet. Several different halogen bulbs can be purchased for the Tota light, each with a different watt rating. Two stands, one for each light, are also required. Tota lights are relatively lightweight, so any two stands will work. Each light should be at an equal distance and angle from the subject. In order for the light to not reflect back into the camera, creating glare, an angle of about 30º to 45º is recommended. The Tota lights offer a very wide light source, however, every light creates a slightly concentrated hotspot. For that reason, it's recommended that the hotspot be aimed just past the opposite side of the subject to ensure even continuous light. In other words, don't center the beams on the subject, because a hotspot will be created. Crossing the beams creates smoother edge-to-edge light. Since this will be indoors and Tota lights will be used, it is important that there isn't a lot of ambient light. The best time of day to shoot in a room with windows is a dark time of day. The advantage to providing a light source is being able to control the color temperature. When ambient light of a different nature is introduced, the color temperature changes. That can make it more difficult to reproduce accurate color. Digital cameras are engineered with day light in mind. Tota lights are tungsten, which cast a much warmer color tone. All the digital cameras I sell have, what's called, white balance. White balance allows the photographer to correct for the warm tones generated by tungsten lights. Regardless of the color temperature, either the digital camera or the image editing application, preferably Adobe Photoshop, can correct for the colorcast.

Post Processing

With the right digital camera and lighting system, you're ready to start taking pictures. After the memory card is full, use either the USB cable supplied with the camera, or a USB card reader to download the pictures. I usually recommend a USB card reader to my customers, because it speeds up and simplifies the downloading process for about $29. Once the pictures are in the computer, you're ready to process, print, and/or burn to CD. At this point you may notice that the color on your computer monitor is slightly different from the original subject. This may have to do with the computer's monitor profile. In order to best judge the color that was captured by the camera, the monitor has to be properly profiled. There are different ways to profile a monitor and some are better than others. Any tool that requires the user to visually judge color is not going to produce very accurate results. That's why there are companies like ColorVision manufacturing products like the ColorVision Spyder. The Spyder is designed to view the color a monitor is outputting and create a profile correcting that color. Currently the best monitors used to achieve accurate color are the larger "tube" displays such as, Lacie, and Sony Artisan.

For customers that print themselves, regardless of the image source, I always recommend Epson printers. They have a full line of printers that produce high photo-quality prints. All Epson printers come with software that makes it easy to print different sized images and greeting style cards. Since all the Epson printers I sell have close to the same color and quality output, the only way they differ is in their width and archival abilities. The printers are either, 8.5 inches wide, or 13 inches wide. These printers also have the ability to use roll paper and print an image up to 44 inches long. To any photographer or fine artist that is selling the work he or she is printing, I recommend the Epson 2200, 7600, or 9600. These are all archival printers, which means that a print from them will last at least 50 years. With some papers the print can last up to 100 years. The major difference between these printers is the size. The Epson 2200 is 13 inches wide, the 7600 is 24 inches wide, and the 9600 is 44 inches wide.

I never tell my customers that digital photography is going to be easy. Like many things, this too has a learning curve. However, I think the rewards can be very gratifying. I just recommend asking yourself a couple questions before making the leap; why do I want digital, what are my goals for digital, and what are the final outputs of my images going to be? Having these questions answered, will be a big help when coming into Keeble and Shuchat Photography. The digital department employees at K&S are well versed with all aspects of digital photography and are eager to share their knowledge with interested customers.

Keeble & Schucat Photography
261 California Avenue
Palo Alto, CA 1-800-854-8996