Welcome to Get the Picture,
a new column on taking digital photos and video. Every other week, I'll be talking about digital cameras, camcorders, and all that cool photo and video gear that perennially tempts me to blow my next paycheck. That said, this isn't going to be a column just for gearheads. Get the Picture is for everyone who likes to take pictures and shoot videos, whether they're snapshots of your kids or artier or more-ambitious projects. To get started, I'm going to talk about something that can make the difference between crossing your fingers and knowing that you got the shot you wanted: still-camera viewing systems.
A room with a view
Recently, not far from where I live, photographer Vera Lutter built a big shack on top of an old Pepsi factory, poked a little hole in the wall, and let the light stream in to project a room-size image of the scene outside--now that's a viewing system. In the world of digital cameras, you won't find anything quite that extravagant. However, you have a few options, and it's important to choose the viewing system that's best suited to the way you use your camera and the kinds of photographs you want take with it. (If nothing less than a 20-foot camera obscura will satisfy you, check out this site.)
How can you tell which point-and-shoot photographers in a crowd are shooting digital and which are using film? Look at how close to their eye they're holding the camera. Most consumer models are viewfinder cameras, which means that they have an independent optical viewfinder. But digital cameras also let you preview your photos on an LCD screen, an option just about everyone prefers. If you have a point-and-shoot camera, you know the reason: As viewing systems go, the optical viewfinders on most consumer cameras are pretty crummy.
One of the main reasons why those viewfinders aren't very good is that although they work in tandem with the lens, they're separate from it. When you zoom the lens, the viewfinder zooms too, but it doesn't show you what's in focus, and the closer you get to your subject, the less the image frame you see through the viewfinder resembles the one the lens will capture (an effect called parallax error). Most optical viewfinders show you only 80 to 90 percent of your image, and the cheaper ones will give you a bit of a Coke-bottle distortion effect.
An LCD, on the other hand, displays virtually 100 percent of the image frame that the lens will capture and shows focus accurately, if not in enough detail for critical focusing. It also displays changes in exposure and color settings as you make them. On a few recent point-and-shoots, the manufacturer has dispensed with the optical viewfinder entirely, making room for a bigger LCD. Sony's popular Cyber Shot DSC-T1 is a good example.
My advice to point-and-shoot camera buyers is to find a model with a good LCD and not worry too much about the optical viewfinder. If you find a nice, bright viewfinder with framing marks for working around parallax error, that's great. But you'll probably end up using it mainly when bright light makes the display hard to see or when you need to conserve battery life. Look for a big, sharp LCD that's easy to view in both bright and dim light. If you can get one that folds out and swivels, all the better. Advanced viewfinder cameras such as Olympus's Camedia C-5060WZ and Canon's PowerShot G5 often have articulating LCDs, but you can find them on a few less sophisticated--and more affordable--models, notably Canon's PowerShot A80 and Pentax's Optio 33L.
Advent of the EVF
Eight-megapixel cameras are all the rage this year, and--unless you make the leap to a $4,500 pro SLR--they're all electronic viewfinder (EVF) models too. EVF cameras have been around for a while, but the recent convergence of high-res sensors, high-zoom lenses, and a high demand for compact design has really made this viewing system take off. EVFs on digital still cameras are a lot like the ones on camcorders: you look into an eyepiece and see a video image.
EVF cameras aren't just for advanced photographers looking for the highest resolution available. If you want a big zoom range, your options will have EVFs instead of optical viewfinders. Their resolutions and feature sets run the gamut from those of relatively basic 3-megapixel snapshot cameras, such as Fujifilm's FinePix S3000 and Olympus's Camedia C-740 Ultra Zoom, to those of very sophisticated models, such as Nikon's 5-megapixel Coolpix 5700. The biggest optical zoom range in the current consumer market is offered by an EVF camera, Panasonic's Lumix DMC-FZ10PP.
If you're deciding between an EVF camera and a point-and-shoot with an optical viewfinder, the EVF may be the way to go. Instead of providing a little window to squint into, it essentially gives you a second LCD that's shielded from bright light, uses less battery power, and offers a through-the-lens view of your whole image frame that shows both exposure and focus changes.
Of course, there are drawbacks, and many photographers who are used to an optical view just don't like looking at a video image. I have yet to see an EVF that shows me the kind of detail I need for critical focusing, though many of them will pop up an inset enlargement of the area I'm focusing on to give me a better view. If you're into macro photography or take a lot of portraits, consider a single-lens-reflex (SLR) camera instead; it will give you the critical focusing capabilities you need.
Whatever you do, don't buy a camera with a low-quality EVF. If it doesn't refresh fast enough to follow moving subjects without producing a jumpy image, or if its resolution isn't high enough to show you a reasonable level of detail, you'll have a frustrating experience using it. If you like to photograph sports or frequently use a continuous-shooting mode, be especially careful. A lot of the EVFs on the market today just don't refresh fast enough to keep up.
The venerable SLR camera
I'll lay my cards on the table: I'm partial to SLRs. If you put a viewfinder camera, an SLR, and an EVF model on the table and told me to pick one for an afternoon of shooting, I'd take the SLR, hands down. In a couple of weeks, I'll be back to tell you why and to go over the advantages and, yes, disadvantages that an SLR viewing system presents when compared to that of the latest high-resolution EVF cameras. If you're trying to choose between a 6-megapixel SLR and one of those new 8-megapixel models, stay tuned. I'll also let you know about some special features to look for on all three viewing systems if, like me, you peer through your viewfinder with four eyes. But in the meantime...
Into the digital studio
Taking the picture is only half of the digital imaging process (some would say less). Between getting the shot and showing it to the world, you have a lot of options--and a lot of opportunities for hair-pulling. Next week, my colleague Lori Grunin will help you give your coiffure a break with the first edition of Pixel Perfect, her notes on imaging from the digital studio and darkroom. We're both eager to read your own notes from the field and studio, so send them along and let us know which digital imaging topics you'd like us to take on in future columns.