NEClimbs - information for New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont rock and ice climbers
IceCON 1. Climbs just coming in or only in upper elevations like Ravines.
1 out of a possible 5
Buying A Digital Camera ,
by Al Hospers
 Article List
• Making A V-Thread
• Another Day At Ducks Head (a.k.a. Trollville)
• Getting Your (Ice) Rack Together
• Buying A Digital Camera
• A Climber's Library (part 1)
• A Climber's Library (part 2)
Although I consider myself an avid outdoor photographer, I'm hardly a pro. Hey, I've always disliked climbing with a camera larger than a pocket-sized point-and-shoot rig! Full-size 35mm cameras are just too heavy and unwieldy for my taste. And with 36 frames in a film roll and no surety that you’ll have anything to show for your efforts, traditional, film-based photography is not exactly a win-win proposition in my book. The introduction of the digital camera has always seemed perfect to me: they’re compact, easy to use, take hundreds of shots in a single session, and have no up-front processing fees. With no negatives or slides to lose or damage, you can back up the images on CD-ROM, send copies to your friends via e-mail, use your computer to edit and fix a variety of exposure problems, and get reasonable-quality images from your inkjet printer. Sure sounds like a win-win to me!

From a financial perspective, the savings in film processing alone can offset a significant chunk of the cost of a digital camera. Traditional film processing by a reputable photo house can run around $10 per 24-shot roll for single 3x5 prints, and slides can cost significantly more. With a digital camera, if your shots aren’t up to snuff, you simply delete them from the memory card even before you download them to your computer. Digital images can also be converted to slides, but even at five-megapixel resolution (currently the high-end resolution of consumer cameras), a digital photograph is not as detailed as a properly exposed slide (still the main disadvantage of digital). In a conventional printing process, a slide can typically be blown up to 11x17, while a five-megapixel image (which is typically 2560 pixels wide by 1920 pixels high) will only scale up to 8.5x6.5 before beginning to loose quality.

By February 2001 I was so taken with the idea of digital photography that I took a single 2.1-megapixel digital camera as my only camera for a 10-day Canadian Rockies outing. I did several long ice climbs with a variety of partners, even on frigid, stormy days, and never had a problem with the camera. That’s not to say that every image I took was wonderful mind you, but the camera handled the conditions with aplomb. The best part was returning to the hut at night, scanning through the day's images on the camera’s LCD screen, and deleting any I didn't like, freeing up room for more. I was hooked.

How it works
A digital camera is conceptually very similar to a standard 35mm single-lens-reflex (SLR) camera. With a digital camera the light of the image enters through the lens, but instead of being captured on film, the light strikes the CCD (charge-coupled device) located behind the shutter and aperture. A CCD contains millions of minute sensors, each recording the amount of light that hits it. The more sensors there are on a CCD, the higher its resolution. The sensor information is converted to a digital signal, composed into an image, and sent to an internal memory buffer where it is (usually) compressed into JPEG format. Then the image is transferred to the camera’s memory card, where it’s stored until you retrieve it.

What to look for
All major 35mm manufacturers now offer digital cameras. The plus about buying a camera from a Nikon, Canon, Olympus, or the like is that you get the benefit of those companies’ longtime lens-making expertise. That said, others such as Sony, who’s been making video cameras for years, are also producing excellent digital cameras.

You’ll find a plethora of features with digital -- in some cases more than you’ll care to comprehend. However, there are two primary characteristics you need to consider: image resolution and type of lens. Image resolution, measured in mexapixels, directly correlates to image size -- the more megapixels, the larger your image is. If you simply want photos to e-mail and display on the Internet, a three megapixel camera will suffice, but if you want quality 4x6 or larger prints, you’ll want a camera in the four to five megapixel range. If you’re looking to go beyond five megapixels, you’ll have to go for a professional digital SLR, which can take you all the way to the 11-megapixel range.

For the lens, go with a camera that has at least a three-times (3x) optical zoom. The amount of zoom varies with each manufacturer, but all range from some degree of wide angle to moderate zoom -- generally around 38mm-108mm. Some companies, like Nikon, offer optional fisheye, wide-angle, and telephoto lenses that allow for a greater degree of flexibility. In the film-camera world you can purchase third-party add-on lenses that are of good quality and economically priced. That’s now happening in the prosumer end of the digital photography world, so you aren’t forced to buy extra lenses from the manufacturer at a premium price. Still, the lenses offered by the major manufacturers are generally better than the third-party alternatives. Do some research before you make that purchase.

Beware of the “digital zoom” marketing ploy. While a digital zoom is useful for seeing detail on your LCD screen, it’s simply a magnification of what the optical zoom sees at its longest telephoto view. The result is often a poor quality image. The lens on consumer cameras will typically be protected by a simple lens cap or retracts into the body of the camera and be housed behind a sliding cover. Make sure it fits snugly and has a retaining strap.

Almost all digital cameras have a built-in flash, typically with the same fill and redeye controls as a point-and-shoot 35mm camera. Read the specs closely to ensure that the flash will meet all your needs. A few higher-end models include a hot shoe for an external flash unit, but you should check to see what kind of battery options are available for powering an external unit as it will suck your internal batteries dry posthaste.

A liquid-crystal display (LCD) screen that can be used as a viewfinder or to review images is also typically standard on all cameras. However, these displays are next to worthless in daylight (you can shade them to a certain degree with your hand or a cloth) and use up batteries like crazy, so you’re often better off shutting it down while you’re shooting. In addition, some LCD displays are slow to update the image shown and the color is often not realistic. Make sure that any camera you get has an optical viewfinder (just like you’d find on a film camera) that follows the zoom, so you can see exactly how your image looks. There are a few cameras that are LCD-only and should be avoided.

Another important item to consider is the burst rate or recycle time, i.e. the camera’s computer processing time between photos. The processor inside the camera has to write the image file to the memory card every time you click the shutter. After you shoot a picture, it can take anywhere from one to 10 seconds for the camera to be ready to take another, a significant drawback with action photography. You want to purchase the fastest memory card you can afford to minimize the write-time. Rob Galbraith's web site has reviews of many cards tested on a variety of cameras which can help in making a decision on which card to purchase.

Some cameras incorporate a special “burst mode” which allows you to capture images more quickly, but generally at the significant expense of image quality. More expensive cameras sidestep this by incorporating a generous memory buffer in the camera itself, allowing you to take more pictures before the camera needs to write to the card.

Some cameras use standard-size AA batteries, while others have special lithium-ion cells designed for energy-sucking electronics. Either way, you’ll need to have spares. It’s more expensive to buy a special battery for your system than to get rechargeable ni-cads at the local Wal-Mart, but that special battery often lasts much longer than alkaline or ni-cad AA cells. It’s important to note that using the built-in flash or LCD display will drain the batteries rapidly and increase recycle time.

Like everything electronic these days, there is a product at every price point and the prices are always in flux. Currently a three-megapixel camera with zoom lens goes for $200-$400, four megapixel $300-$550, and five megapixels sell for $450-$700. The low-end of pro-level digital SLR bodies are in the $1000 and up range. Professional quality bodies start around $1500. The real plus with a SLR body is that you can purchase a wide variety of lenses and accessories both from the original manufacturer and third party sources.

Prices on all digital cameras are highly competitive and heavily discounted. Research your features and shop around before you buy. There are a number of websites that have reviews and comparisons of a wide range of cameras. If you find a price that’s much lower than others, make sure that the unit is not grey-market (no U.S. warranty) or refurbished. If you decide to buy grey-market, work with a reputable firm that offers its own warranty. If the deal seems too good to be true, it probably is!

Necessary accessoriesAll cameras should come with a comprehensive manual, small- to medium-capacity memory card (16 to 32 megabytes), a Universal Serial Bus (USB) cable for downloading images to your computer, and one or more CDs of drivers and associated programs that perform basic photo editing tasks like re-sizing, exposure correction, and red-eye reduction. We have seen a new tendency of some manufacturers not to include a memory card with the camers, thus allowing them to sell the unit at a lowwer price. As you will need to purchase a card before you can make use of the camera, be sure to factor that into your budget.

Take special note of the way your camera hooks into the USB cable: While the end of the cable that attaches to the computer is almost always the same for all manufacturers, the camera may have a proprietary connection, meaning that you’ll want to purchase a spare, as you may have a hard time finding a replacement cable on short notice. A few cameras also come with battery chargers or cables to charge an internal battery. You might get a rather flimsy carrying strap (fashion your own out of perlon), but rarely a carrying case.

The best editing program typically included in packages is Adobe Photoshop Elements, so check to see if this is available. A scaled-down version of its high-end (and expensive) big brother Adobe Photoshop, it has enough meat for most users and you can upgrade to the big brother if you need additional features.

Beyond the box
If your computer wasn’t manufactured in the last 3-5 years, you might not want to bother with a digital camera. The real advantages of digital photography is the ability to instantly review your shots, download them to the computer using its built-in USB interface, send copies to friends via e-mail, post them on the Internet, send them to a service to be printed, and even manipulate them in an infinite number of creative ways. If your computer is outdated, it may not be up to these tasks.

Besides a computer, there are a number of accessories that will make life in the digital fast-lane easier: additional memory cards (you can never have enough memory), a USB or Firewire memory-card reader so you don’t have to attach the camera to the computer, a battery charger if the camera requires it, and a water and dust-proof carrying case.

The number of pictures you can take and save in a shooting session is directly related to the size of your memory card. Many cameras come with a 16 megabyte card that can hold approximately 50 images at 1280x960 pixel resolution in “Normal” JPEG quality, dropping to 24 images at “Fine” quality, and to two-four high-resolution shots in RAW or TIFF format. Use at least 256-megabyte cards, or 512 megabyte or even I gigabyte ards if you find a good price. You don’t want to miss that great shot because your card is full! You also should be taking pictures in the highest resolution your camera has to offer. If your camera supports a RAW format, you should use this. While you will need to convert the pictures to JPG for printing, you’ll appreciate the control over the final image. Let’s face it, you never know when that once in a lifetime shot is going to come along!

There are three main types of memory cards used in cameras: SmartMedia, CompactFlash, and Sony Memory Stick. CompactFlash and SmartMedia are very competitively priced, while Sony Memory Stick is still more expensive. If you have a MP3 player, it may be able to use the same card as your camera so there may be some savings if you stay compatible. Prices are constantly dropping, so be sure to shop around.

If you get fully hooked on digital imaging, you’ll likely want to get some software to make your life easier. While the software that came with the camera will get you started, a top-shelf image-editing program like the full edition of Photoshop or Paint Shop Pro can be well worth the investment. A program like Breeze Browser for Windows or iPhoto for Macintosh can make the process of moving images from your camera to computer, and converting them to a usable format, more efficient -- converting your 200 images from that trip to Joshua Tree can be a very time consuming task. The longer you take digital pictures, the more you’ll have around, and the more likely you'll need to have a way of storing and backing them up. It won't take long before the hard drive in your computer will fill up. Having an external USB or Firewire drive to store your images is a very useful thing. In addition a CD or DVD burner will allow you to back up your important images in case of a system failure. As many experts say, it’s not IF you’ll suffer a hard drive crash, but WHEN!

There are several choices available when you’re simply dying to have those physical prints. If you have a modern inkjet printer and glossy paper, you can get a very respectable printout from your own computer; the late Galen Rowell proofed all the archival, high-resolution scans of his slides on a basic consumer Epson inkjet printer. In addition there are the new dye-sublimation printers, which can come quite close to photo-quality at a very reasonable price. Be sure to check out the cost of the consumables (ink and paper) when you’re comparing printer costs.Perhaps the easiest solution is to upload your image to an on-line service bureau such as dotPhoto, Ofoto, PlanetFoto, or ShutterFly. These “digital photo labs” will generally host your on-line gallery for free, and print your photos and mail them out for you for a modest fee. Friends can view your pictures on-line and choose which ones to have printed themselves. All images are printed on standard photo paper and are at the maximum quality of your image. However, if your Internet connection is slow, this could be a very tedious process, as uploading several images could take hours depending on file size.

A few useful thoughts and questions
You’re probably not going to be able to take a camera out for the day to shoot, so you’re going to be making a decision based on what you see in the store. Hold each camera and see how it feels in your hand. Do you think that you can manipulate the camera and take a picture one-handed while safely belaying or repelling. Is the camera designed only for right-handed people? Are you a lefty? Is there a place to attach a sturdy piece of perlon to the camera so that you can’t drop it off the side of the cliff? Does the camera have a tripod mount? Are the dials, knobs and on/off switch in places where they won’t get accidentally pressed or conversely where they are easily found? Can you understand the icons?

There’s never been a better time to free yourself from the limits of traditional film. If you’re really into photography or simply want to take lots of snapshots of your family and friends, now’s the time to make the jump to digital. Your up-front investment will easily pay for itself within a few months, and you’ll have a much greater degree of control over how your images turn out.

Useful web sites
Fred Miranda - great forums, reviews and useful software
Steves Digicams/ - excellent reviews and buyer’s guides
ShutterFreaks - excellent forums and tips

CCD -- short for charge-coupled device, the CCD is the part of the digital camera that receives the image coming though the lens

FIREWIRE – (a.k.a. IEEE-1394) a very high speed format for connecting a variety of peripherals to your computer. While most often seen on Macintosh computers, it is now available on PC’s as well.

JPEG -- short for Joint Photographic Experts Group, this file format is used to compress the memory/storage size of an image, from high-quality print ready photos to low-rez web-only pictures.

Megapixel -- one million pixels; a measure of the size of a digital image, determined by multiplying pixel height and width

Megabyte -- one million bytes; a measure of file size.

RAW -- A compressed, high-quality file format

USB -- short for Universal Serial Bus, which can connect an array of peripherals to your computer including cameras, printers, speakers, and hard drives; nearly all computers manufactured in the past five years have at least one plug-in point for this kind of cable.

TIFF – short for Tagged Image File Format, this file format is used for high-quality images

by Al Hospers

© 2005
all rights reserved
NEClimbs on Facebook
NEClimbs on Facebook
RSS Reader Feed
RSS Feed for NEClimbs, the New England rock and ice climbing resource
The Cranmore Mountain Lodge
International Mountain Equipment
Bagels Plus
Equinox Guiding Service LLC
Mooney Mountain Guides
The ACCESS Fund, Protect America's Climbing
NorthEast Mountaineering
Mount Washington Valley Climbers Cooperative
Friends Of The Ledges
the American Alpine Club
International Mountain Climbing School
Savage Mountain Gear
Sponsors & Donors
View Current List