Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Photography for Elearning Developers - Choosing a New Camera

If you’ve followed this blog long enough, you’ll remember that I’m no big fan of stock images. No, I don’t hate them - in fact I use them quite often. That being said, I think there’s significant disadvantages to stock photos - my primary gripe with them being the fact that they’re so inauthentic. People just aren’t as pretty as they look in stock images, except of course you lot that’s reading this post. And then again, they don’t strike cheesy poses. Most importantly, stock image models are so far removed from the real world that the credibility a real colleague’s photo brings just doesn’t come through with a stock photo. In my presentations and learning programs I’m using more and more of my own photography and I can imagine this could be a really useful thing for other elearning designers too.

Over the next few weeks I’m going to do a few posts on basic photography that’ll help you take high quality photographs for your learning materials. Of course, I don’t proclaim to be an expert and well it’s going to take far more than my posts to be a really good photographer. I’m sure though that learning about the art and science of photography will help you develop the craft in case you have an interest for it. In today’s blogpost, I’ll show you how to select a new camera - after all, that’s a prerequisite to awesome photographs!

The best camera is the one you already have

Photography geeks can keep going on and on about the best equipment. Is the A77 the best DSLR ever? Or is it the monstrous 46 megapixel Sigma SD1? Well no one cares. I for one don’t have the budget to buy the best gear on the planet. And then again the deal with photography is this - your existing equipment is good until you run up a limit. So if you have a point and shoot and you need more creative control on your images then you perhaps should get a prosumer camera. On the other hand if you’re looking for lightning fast response then you may have to choose a DSLR. Often you may be already shooting with a DSLR and you need to capture a small object with all its details. You may then need to upgrade to a macro lens. All this said, if you have to always remember - if you don’t see a problem with the results you’re getting, your existing equipment is just good enough. I am however going to tell about the different types of cameras in the market so if you did have to purchase a new one you can make an informed decision.

Equipment Geekery

I like to look at cameras in three different categories. Let’s take a look at each of these:
  1. Point and shoot cameras: Compact and pocketable in size, these are the cameras that a lot of us have. I have one too. They take decent pictures and are meant for exactly what the category is called - point and shoot. Your cellphone cameras also fall under this category. Most people will say that these cameras aren’t meant for serious photography, but hey - look at these photographs from the iPhone 4! For a lot of photography, a little pocket device is adequate. The downside of these cameras of course is that they aren’t really versatile for various purposes and because of their small imaging sensors, the image quality often isn’t as good as you’d like it to be.

  2. Prosumer cameras: Prosumer cameras are a little more advanced than compacts. They essentially have similar or slightly larger sensors and theoretically are capable of producing better images. More importantly, some of these cameras allow you to shoot in the camera’s native format a.k.a RAW which gives you a lot more control to tweak your images after the fact. This apart they’re equipped with more versatile glass that can zoom into far away objects or often shoot really wide landscapes.

  3. Digital Single Lens Reflex cameras (SLRs): SLR cameras start to go into the realm of serious photography. The ability to shoot at rapid pace, to choose from a wide range of lenses and accessories and to be able to come up with high quality, tack sharp images is something a lot of photography enthusiasts prefer. Amongst DSLRs there are full frame cameras that are fitted with image sensors of the same size as good old 35 mm film. This means that if you were to put any lens on top of these cameras, your picture would be similar and true to the 35 mm film format. These large sensors help you reproduce vivid colour and detail and well that makes these cameras quite costly - anywhere between $2000 and $8000. There are also what we call crop or APS-C format cameras which have smaller sensors than the full frames and produce a cropped image in comparision to those big guns. They’re still pretty good and I own two of those. You can get your hands on one of these for as little as $450. There are also newer variants such as the mirrorless micro-four-thirds cameras and the single lens translucent (SLT) cameras. I’ll leave it to you to find out about those.

If you’re looking to buy a camera for your elearning photography, I suggest you go for a DSLR. I’m a Canonista and I strongly recommend the EOS 600D as your first camera. I’m pretty sure Nikon produces good cameras too - I just don’t know about them. The advantages of the DSLR are aplently. The fact that there’s only one moving mirror which projects to an optical viewfinder, you have a WYSIWYG experience with photography. Plus you can keep adding equipment to the base system as you want to expand your photography repertoire.

Beware of the myths

If you’re buying a prosumer camera or a point and shoot, do remember that there’s a scam in the market. I call it the megapixel and optical zoom scam. You can guess what I’m referring to. Manufacturers, regardless of whether they’re well meaning or not, need to have some way to keep selling you new models of their devices which don’t necessarily add much value beyond what you already have. Don’t believe me? Check out the story of stuff. Now with cameras, technology doesn’t really change by much each month. Yet there are new models in the market every month. The one way that camera manufacturers can lure you into buying something new is by providing you a quantitative metric to evaluate your purchase. The easiest one is the megapixel count.

Now remember I told you that point and shoot cameras and prosumers have very small sensors in comparison to DSLRs? Think about it. Pixels are finally dots on your final image. To reproduce these dots as they appeared in real life, you need to lay out several mini-sensors on your sensor area. Therefore as you’ll notice from the diagram above, while a DSLR sensor area has these mini sensors laid out quite comfortably, the point and shoot has them fighting for space. The more megapixels you pack into a point and shoot, the more mini sensors you need. The more mini sensors you pack in, the more squished they will be. The more squished they are, the more they’ll interfere with each other and produce poor images. So if you’re picking up a new point and shoot camera or for that matter any other camera, be mindful that more megapixels doesn’t always translate to better pictures. For all you care, you’re likely to get better pictures from a camera with a lower megapixel count!

The other scam that camera companies run is that of optical zoom. Remember those numbers you saw at the store - 4x, 10x, 15x? Does a 15x camera lens have a better zoom reach than a 4x camera lens? Not really. X here signifies the ratio between the highest focal length of the camera lens, to its lowest focal length. So a camera that goes from 20mm to 300mm is a 15x lens. Now let me tell you that several wildlife photographers use the following professional lenses for super long reach:

  • 100mm-400mm; just 4x
  • 200mm-400mm; just 2x
  • 400mm, 600mm, 800mm primes which are just 1x!

As you can see the x value is nothing but a hoax to make you buy a new camera and doesn’t really mean anything without knowing the focal length of the lens on the camera. Also remember that it takes great engineering to build lenses that operate at various focal lengths. This is the reason that most professional lenses are either primes or 2x or 4x. A camera lens that operates at a focal length multipliers of 15x, 18x and 30x is surely cutting corners with image quality.

There’s perhaps heaps more technicalities to know about with photography. In my next post, I’ll try to clarify some of the technical jargon you’ll hear thrown around in the space. After that we’ll start getting our hands dirty with some neat stuff. Deal? See you next week then.

Camera image credits: Individual manufacturers. Title photo credit: FOTOCROMO
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