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Camera Issues - 2008

Camera Requirements -- Sicily 2008
Journalism 391R, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Camera technology is in a rapid transition from film based imaging to digital and we find ourselves with quandary this year.  Up until now, I have insisted that the photographers in the class use film based, single lens reflex cameras for their photography in Journalism 391R.  I have based this requirement on several issues with "point and shoot" digitals:

Low Quality Images: Most of today’s “Point and Shoot” digital cameras don’t record images that meet the file size and quality requirements for professional photojournalism.

Control:  Most digital cameras don’t offer the photographer enough control over camera functions such as aperture, shutter speed, and depth of field.

Viewfinder Accuracy:  Most digital cameras have notoriously inaccurate (viewfinders.

Shutter Lag:  Shutters on most of these cameras have a delay that can be infuriating when the “moment” is critical.

No Accessories:  Most digital point and shoots don’t let you change lenses or use filters and lens shades – a serious deficiency.

Risk of Loss:  Digital image storage is subject to catastrophic failure.  Hundreds of images can be lost in a microsecond when something goes wrong with the memory card – a real tragedy when one is traveling and making irreplaceable images (that you’ll be graded on at the end of the semester!).

Image Review: This “feature” of digital photography is mostly a myth.  The review screen is tiny and impossible to see in bright daylight. 

However,camera manufacturers have been introducing Digital Single Lens Reflex cameras that are actually useable, produce high quality images, and are becoming affordable.  This is our quandary:  If you need to buy a camera for the course, you would be choosing between a lower priced, film based, SLR or a higher priced digital. 

The choice is complicated by the fact that the film camera will require you to buy film and pay for processing for as long as you use it.  While in Sicily you could shoot 12 –15 rolls of film representing an additional expense of $150 to $225.  Now the camera doesn’t seem so cheap.  If you continue with your photography, you’ll have this recurring cost for the life of the camera and you’ll have to digitize your negatives (or have them scanned) to do anything with them in Photoshop.  (FYI: last year, I had to go to 3 photography stores to find 15 rolls of slide film to take to Sicily.  Film availability is quickly becoming an issue as well.)

Let me address my above list of digital complaints in light of the newest technology:

Low Quality Images: This is not a problem anymore when we look at the newest cameras with 8 to 10 Megapixel imaging capabilities.  Not only have the file sizes gotten bigger, the image quality is quite acceptable as well.

Control: With digital SLRs the photographer has the same control of camera functions that are available with film-based models.  Actually, there are more options available for creative control of the images than with the film models.

Viewfinder Accuracy:  Problem solved.  The viewfinder uses the camera’s lens to show the photographer what he or she is about to take – just like the film-based cameras.

Shutter Lag: Imperceptible in the new models.  You regain control of the moment.

No Accessories: Lenses, filters, shades, external flash – all available.

Risk of Loss: This one hasn’t gone away, but there are now more options for safe storage.  For instance, some iPods will store the contents of memory cards with the addition of an inexpensive adaptor.  There are battery powered, portable, DVD burners (we will have one with us for the course) that allow one to write images to disk while traveling, thus creating a safe back-up of work while still on the go.

Image Review: Screens are bigger and brighter but still hard to see in daylight.  However, with accurate viewfinders and shutters, it becomes much less important to constantly review your work on the fly.  The large capacity memory cards that are now available and affordable let you take many shots and edit later when you can see.

And then there’s airport security.  Film is a constant problem as we try to escape or reduce the exposure to the x-ray machines.  Hand inspection these days is probably out of the question.

Conclusions:

If you already own a newer (last 10 years or so) film based, autofocus, Single Lens Reflex camera, then you are fine.  We have 2 Nikon film scanners to convert your negatives to digital files for use with Photoshop.

If you don’t, then I can no longer recommend that you buy one.  The initial cost, plus the ongoing expense of feeding it will quickly add up to more than the purchase price of a low-end digital SLR - maybe not during the Sicily course, but with certainty if you continue to use it.

So we are in an odd time.  You could buy a film camera, pay for film and processing and do it for less than the price of a new digital SLR.  However, you’ll own a piece of technology that is quickly becoming obsolete.  If you continue with your photography, the ongoing costs will soon exceed the cost of one of the above digital SLR cameras.  It’s a tough choice when money is scarce, but it’s an investment that you will appreciate for several years to come if you choose the digital route.

 

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