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Digital cameras

Digital cameras were inferior in image quality to analogue film cameras, then they caught up, now they're superior. And they're on their way back again, as the megapixel craze (how many pixels can you get into a picture) has led to higher amounts of pixels than the CCD (the chip that takes the picture, and that all the pixels have to fit on) can handle, leading to noise and the need for more internal digital processing of the snapshot. That is the great advantage of any digital camera: digital internal processing. The layman might think that one photographs what one sees, but the camera is not a human eye, and pictures may come out very different than expected. So if the camera is known to make pictures look too blue, it's good to have an internal function to remove the bluish cast from the snapshot just after it was taken. Digital cameras come with several such functions.

My decision to switch to digital was also financially and environmentally motivated. If I wanted pictures of anything, the usual procedure was to buy a roll of suitable film, stick it in my camera, then quickly use it up, because film does deteriorate, and film unused for more than a year is best thrown away. The pictures taken, the roll had to be carefully extricated - if any light touched it, the pictures were ruined - and handed in to be developed, which cost a pretty penny; more than the film and, if it was cheap enough, camera together. Developing film takes a lot of chemicals that don't qualify as nature-friendly. Then if I want the pics on my computer, which I generally do, they have to be scanned, which means more editing to rotate the image if its edges aren't straight (which they never are) and correct the colours, and more loss of detail and picture quality. A digital camera has digital images that can be sent straight to the computer; if I really want printed photos, I can print them myself.

Trust Familycam 500
Comment: forget about close-ups

I needed to take a photograph of some roof damage and bought a very cheap 1,5 megapixel camera. Let's just say it was sufficient for the job. Photos taken with this camera seem okay when not looked at too closely, but if I want to capture something with lots of detail, like a shopfront window, I find I can hardly make out what it is I tried to photograph when looking at the resulting picture. Good for holiday shots of beautiful sunsets, nothing more. When I photographed a big spider sitting on the wall (just to record for posterity what monsters have lived in my house) I found this camera incapable of close-ups. There are two settings for taking pictures, more and less detailed, which produce more and less huge .jpg files with a slight case of the jaggies, but those disappear when the pictures are shrunk in a graphics program (unless you want images larger than your screen?) which has the added effect of blurring out more detail. The camera needs two AA batteries and has no memory card, so if the batteries run out, which they apparently do very quickly (I haven't used it enough to be able to tell) say goodbye to all the photos. According to the manual, this camera can also be used as webcam; that is probably the best thing to use it for.

Canon Powershot A610
Comment: Great while it lasted!

I bought this camera at reduced price, meaning it was still quite expensive, because a newer model had already come out, after some websearching for a camera that does do close-ups well. Canon cameras are known for high picture quality, and I was not disappointed. This model "only" had 5 megapixels, which for the casual photographer is simply all that's needed. What made me very happy is that it uses four AA batteries, rather than some proprietary battery which I won't be able to get a replacement for when it runs down. What also makes me happy is the viewfinder, a LCD screen on a hinge that flips round when you want to use it, and can be moved to the side like a rear view mirror; when not used, the screen lies against the camera casing, safe from scratches. It's bulkier than the typical consumer camera but will fit in a pocket wide enough, and, like any proper digital camera, has a "take photos" (lens moves out) and "view photos" (lens moves back in, protective covering slides shut) mode, so dud photos can be removed instantly instead of being developed in the darkroom first, another advantage over film potography. After carrying it in my pocket in "take photos" mode, ie. with the lens out, I found that the lens was a bit damaged; not really scratched, but a kind of film (like the layer on spectacle lenses treated against condensation?) had worn off. And this just from rubbing against trouser fabric. Note to self: when carrying camera in pocket and not wanting to turn it off (which it does by itself if left unused for a few minutes), switch it to "view photos" mode. Not that it matters, as the camera is now broken. When I turn it on, the photos on its SDHC memory card can still be viewed, but the viewfinder is black, and so is any photo taken with it. This happened quite suddenly, after the camera had been lying unused for weeks wrapped in a cloth for protection (ie. NOT after rough usage) and when I did a websearch for an explanation, I found that Canon cameras are susceptible to this because of a bad batch of CCDs used in cameras made around 2005, and there has been a recall for a number of models (not the A610, but A610 users have reported it too). Another possibility is a faulty shutter, also a problem typical of some models. Of course the helpdesk, when I sent an email, instantly fobbed me off with "send it to a repair centre for a quote to get it repaired (which will cost as much as the camera itself)" but after a bad scanner and a bad laptop, I've had enough of hardware that is faultily made so that the consumer can be billed for repairs later. There are people who have had the CCD replaced for free after making enough noise. I decided to not bother and just never buy Canon again.

When it worked, it worked like a charm. It has all the functions present on the average digital camera today, from which I made use mostly of the "scenes" and the closeup feature. Most photographs come out well, but closeups of in particular a small white flower with pink lines saw the pink disappearing; my fault for lazily using "scenes" settings rather than thoroughly reading the manual and learning to adjust focus, colour etc. manually. My only complaint about the camera, one I've seen elsewhere too, is the flimsy little soft-plastic lid covering the USB jack for directly transferring photos to the computer. That lid is just waiting to snap off. The hinged hard-plastic lid covering the memory card slot is much better. Photographs are stored and transferred as .jpg files. There may be a setting to make that exif files, but I haven't found it and haven't looked too hard, because the .jpgs are fine. If I use a superfine setting and then look at the resulting huge .jpg images, I see details I hadn't even noticed when taking the picture - a huge improvement over the Trust camera.

Samsung S760
Comment: Ideal newbie camera

So the Canon camera was broken and I wasn't about to cough up cash to have Canon's mistake repaired. But I did want a camera. Disillusioned with the hardware market, I checked what was selling cheap and if it was worth my money, and got the already cheap Samsung S760 at a discount, with a one-month warranty, which means that unlike most consumer products today, it might outlive its warranty by a year. One tries to see the positive side of things...

Being newer than the 5-megapixel Canon camera, this is an 8-megapixel camera, although there is a setting to switch back to 5 megapixels, should I want to. It is a "point-and-shoot", one of those flat pocket-sized bricks with a smallish, hopefully less easily damaged lens. Sadly, the nicely big LCD screen can't be flipped round and is vulnerable to smudging and scratching precisely from being carried in pockets; it really needs a protective case. It has the same flimsy soft-plastic lid covering the USB port - is this some sort of camera design conspiracy? It also has the "scenes" and other settings I recognize from the Canon camera, except the close-up setting where I can focus for the sharpest image, or maybe I just haven't found it yet. What I did find, which allayed my pessimism about expected picture quality, was the "auto scene" for producing the perfect picture: just point and shoot, and the camera will calculate all the settings including focus for close-ups, and what seemed a blurry pic through the viewfinder becomes a nice, crisp, sharp photograph, especially at the superfine picture quality setting. Beware, though, that the settings wheel is easily knocked out of place and instead of the scene of one's choice, one may have been shooting an AVI, which would explain why the LCD is flashing "too little memory", especially when the internal memory has not been supplemented by a nice fat 4Gig SDHC card. Or one may be photographing in "portrait" mode, and wonder why closeups are so blurry.

Although the Samsung may be a perfect point-and-shoot camera, Canon made superior close-up photographs because the focus could be adjusted manually. Samsung simply can't handle subjects very close to the lens. It also won't shoot nice sharp close-ups if there's too much or too little light, which for the Canon just wasn't a problem.

Getting the pics from the camera works in a counter-intuitive way. The Canon could simply be plugged in. When I plugged the Samsung in, nothing happened and I couldn't get at the files, even though I installed the USB driver twice. By coincidence, I discovered the trick: turn camera OFF, connect to computer with USB cable, now the camera viewscreen offers a choice between Computer and Printer; choose Computer, now the photographs can be downloaded with the camera's own Samsung Master, Windows Explorer or any other file manager. Needless to say, I couldn't find this in the manual.

The Samsung camera, smaller than the Canon camera, "only" needs two AA batteries. Reviews of this camera mentioned that the batteries are used up awfully quick. They are used up rather quickly, but it doesn't matter, as I use reloadable batteries. On the upside, the On button has to be pushed with some force to turn the camera on, so there's little risk of the camera being turned on by accident and using up its batteries without the owner knowing.

Over time, the Samsung developed a quirk alarmingly like the Canon: I turned it on and its LED would light up, but otherwise it didn't respond. What happened is that it would be "half on" and the only way to turn it off would be to open the battery compartment lid so the batteries would lose contact. After re-securing the batteries, the camera would turn on properly. I learned to check the date setting after doing this, since everything would reset itself to factory defaults if the batteries were left out too long. The camera finally died through no fault of its own: it popped out of my pocket to fall face down in the mud. Particles got inside the casing, jamming the camera when it tried to slide out the zoom when turned on; finding it was jammed, it would simply turn off again. Since repairing a camera costs as much as buying a new one (else, I would still be using the Canon) I am once again looking around for a cheap but decent camera.

Canon PowerShot A495
Comment: An even more ideal newbie camera

The situation reminded me of scanners and printers: three cameras in the house and I can't take pictures! I'll have to buy a fourth one. Now the Trust camera doesn't really count, but the other two were sorely missed. So how ironic that the next cheap deal should be another Canon PowerShot. With a higher model number than the first one, although that doesn't necessarily mean a better camera. It's a point-and-shoot much like the Samsung, with the same big, easily smudged viewfinder, a very similar menu structure and set of buttons (although, mercifully, no settings wheel that gets knocked to a different setting while carried in one's pocket) and again a flimsy plastic cover on the mini-USB and audio jack, although I've stopped caring as I no longer transfer photos via USB at all, instead just putting the memory card directly in the PC and copying the pictures off it. The advantage: no need to install camera drivers and software for a camera that dies shortly after installing them anyway... However, even if it was another cheap buy, and a Canon (which I never wanted to buy again), I hope this camera lasts a little longer. It is a 10-megapixel camera with a more advanced "auto" setting than the ones before it; I now have it set to "auto" by default, and as I carry it around with me, I hear the lens constantly whirring as it adjusts itself to whatever it happens to be pointed at. Its close-ups are better than the Samsung's - sharper, and I can get closer to the object without losing focus - but not as good as the ones made manually with the first Canon Powershot. But that was a model for photography cracks, and this is just another pocket camera for tourists. Although I bet it makes better holiday snapshots than most.

Something worth mentioning: the camera needs two batteries. That's normal for a point-and-shoot. I have reloadable batteries and since the house is a mess, any batteries not inside the camera itself seem to have retreated into cracks and crevices. So when the batteries were empty, my only option was to leave the camera "empty" while reloading them, which took over 14 hours. After so much time, I fully expected the camera to have lost its settings, but it switched on with the right time and date, and all its settings intact. I don't know if that's normal in today's cameras, but it's certainly convenient.

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