Digital Camera Notes    Edward Frank
   Dec 16, 2005 20:22 PST 


Many of you have a camera that you use in the field. Others are
considering buying one in the near future. I put together this list of
suggestions and recommendations for what to look for in a digital camera
for a friend. I thought I would pass it on to the group as a whole to

I have a Nikon 8700 digital camera. The pictures I took this summer are
fantastic! I sent it back for repairs soon after MTSF this falls, so
those photos are not representative of the quality of the images from
camera. It has a fixed lens, 8 MP image.

If you have $4-500 to spend on a camera this is what I would suggest:

1) Camera, at least 5+ megapixels, the more pixels the better. In
the $300- 400 range you can find them from 5 to 8 MP (There is an
Olympus compact camera with 8 MP for $297 at Wal-mart). Right now 8 MP
is something to shoot for. The Canon Digital Rebel for about $900 with
interchangeable lenses.

2) Get an extra memory card, 512 KB should run $30-50, a 1 Gigabyte is
better and can be found on sale for as little as $60 - The best prices
in local stores I found at Staples.

3) Batteries- get an extra battery. I would strongly recommend 2
sets, and a charger that works from a car lighter. Some cameras have
proprietary batteries, and hence they cost more. This is one of the
biggest limitations of a digital camera, running out of power in the
middle of a shoot. If the camera uses standard sizes, like AA, look for
rechargeable batteries at someplace like Wal-mart. I bought some AA
size NimH batteries (I think they were anyway) and a charger for $29.
These were special ones that could be recharged in 15 minutes- a big
plus if you suddenly find yourself with dead
batteries. If they have proprietary batteries, get generic quivalents.
A good place is Often the generic ones have more
capacity than the cameras manufacturer's and are much cheaper. Look to
pay $30 -50 for this necessity. The bigger capacity the better.

4) Get a tripod. This will improve your pictures more than any other
accessory. Get one that is fairly heavy, and extends to 5 feet or so.
Heavier tripods shake less, and taller ones give you a chance to take
pictures at near eye level. In darker areas such as the forest, the
exposures on these digitals will be relatively long because their lenses
are small and have small apertures. Exposure lengths in the 1/4 to
1/30th second are not uncommon - too slow to handhold a tiny camera
without bracing or a tripod. You don't need an expensive one, but you
should have a dedicated tripod. Cost around $30- $70. I plan to buy a
good one for both video and still shots and am looking in the $300-400

*****These things above are not suggestions, but things you must

What to look for in the camera:

a) pixels - at least 5MP, try for 8 MP in this price range.

b) batteries - what does it use? see above

c) Does it have a panorama mode? Pretty much a necessity to get good
tree pans. Panorama mode locks in the same exposure and other settings
for all of the frames in a panoramic sequence so they can be pasted
together without creating seams causes from different settings on
adjacent frames.

d) Does it easily allow you adjust exposure? In forest setting auto
exposure always wants to burn out the images. Manual adjustment is a
must. It should be easy to use button on the camera, not down a series
of menus. Not having this is a deal buster. The more manual adjustment
the camera allows you to do, the better.

e) Can you turn off the stupid pop-up flash? It is annoying and if it
goes off, unless you are doing a close-up, it will guarantee that you
will get a badly underexposed picture. If you can't disable the flash -
don't get the camera.

f) There are SLR's which you look through the lens, range finder where
you look through a hole in the camera body, and EVF electronic
viewfinder. I prefer the EVF cameras they show the image as it will be
captured by the camera. You can see before you snap if the exposure is
right, if it is framed right, if the color balance is right. The SLR
ones are passable, the rangefinder ones are terrible.

g) Software - most cameras come with software that lets you download
the images to a computer, including usb cord. They usually have some
basic picture editing software. See if what you get with the camera
works before getting any other software. A nice free photo editing
program is called inrfanview.exe and can be downloaded from I really like Thumbs Plus ($80). I also have
Paint Shop Pro, Adobe Photo Elements, Microsoft Image Composer, and a
few others. I use Thumbs Plus for the vast majority of my photo

h) Optical Zoom - the greater the optical zoom the better. Also
consider how wide of an image you can get. Digital zoom simply blows up
a portion of the image, and thus degrades the image quality
significantly. Ignore the digital zoom values as they are useless.

i) I find that I use the wide angle end of the zoom far more than the
telephoto. Find out how wide the lens will go - look for the equivalent
of a 35 mm cameras 28 mm wide angle lens, or at least the equivalent of
a 35 mm wide angle lens.

j) How close does the lens focus? Macro photography is very useful. I
shoot many macro shots and it was an important consideration in choosing
my camera.

k) Can you adjust the focus manually? My camera doesn't let me do it
manually, but has a series of zones for the autofocus. So I need to
switch focal modes depending on the distance to the subject. Full
manual adjustment of focus option would have been better, but I can live
with the annoying limitations.

k) The controls that are adjustable from buttons on the camera body the
better. You want to easily adjust exposure, and turn of the stupid
flash at least.

Things that are nice, but not deal-busters:

a) A shutter cord release option. On a regular camera this is a hole
with threads in it on the shutter button. You can screw in a cord and
push a plunger on the cord to set off the shutter. That way you are not
touching the camera and are less likely to cause vibration when you do a
longer exposure. I often use the timer option on the camera in lower
light settings. That way the vibrations from pushing the button die
down before the shutter goes off - (not useful unless you are taking
still photos rather than action shots)

b) Threads on the front of the lens that allow filters. If it does, get
a clear glass filter to protect the lens from dirt and scratches and
keep it on the camera at all times ( maybe $25). A polarizing filter is
a very useful filter as well and runs maybe $60. There is no big need
for any other filters for the camera, although a few might be useful for
special circumstances. Most filters I feel actually detract from the
final image rather than enhance it. (I super-glued a step up ring
adapter to the front of my lens shroud to enable me to use screw on
filters with the camera - If you do this watch for vignetting - i.e. the
edge of the filter ring showing in the image when using the lens at its
widest setting.)

c) Do you have a cd or dvd burner? If not you need to get one, a cd
burner costs $30 or so, a dvd burner that does both cds and dvds costs
maybe $60. You need to archive your images somewhere and cd-r is the
way to go. A stack of 100 blank cd-r disks will cost $18 or so on sale.
I just bought a stack of 100 dvd+r for $25. Again Staples is a good
place to buy.

The point is don't spend all your money on a camera and then not buy
these other items. You need these items to make the camera work in a
practical situation. Your spending limit on the camera is hatever is
left once you factor in buying these other items.

One thing to consider with a digital camera, that most people used to
using film have a hard time getting through their head, is that you can
shoot a dozen photos of a single scene searching for the perfect frame
or exposure - it doesn't matter it costs nothing to shoot the images. I
take pictures of interpretive signs, signs listing the names of the
geyser at Yellowstone, anything with useful information, trail maps,
whatever, Why Not? When you download the images to the computer or
disk you will then always have access
to this information - if you don't print them, they cost you nothing.
When in doubt take more photos.

A final comment about choosing a camera. Get one that has the features
you want on it (perhaps the ones I recommended?) and don't bother with
recommendations from sources like Consumer Reports. Most of their
advice on technology items is outdated by the time they publish, even
the online versions, and I think much of the time they have their head
up their magazine when it comes to technology. If you are buying a
camera for taking photos in the field of nature and trees, you do not
have the same requirements in a camera that people wanting to take
birthday snapshots. Consumer reports is geared to people taking
birthday photos. Outdoor Photography magazine or Digital Photography
magazines are better sources for camera information than Consumer

As stupid as it may sound, I highly recommend reading any of the nature
or landscape photography books by John Shaw - get one from the library
if you don't want to buy. I know you think it is a waster of time. You
will pick up a few hints that are useful if nothing else, but the aspect
that is important is the approach he takes to photography - sort of the
"Philosophy" of nature photography. I really believe his words and
ideas stick to you as you set up to take photographs in the field.

Read the operators manual that comes with your camera - donít just try
to wing it. Take the users manual with you in the field (or at least in
your car) until you have mastered the use of the camera or I guarentee
you will regret it.

Ed Frank

"What you see depends mainly on what you look for." Richard J. Vogl
RE: Digital Camera Notes   Paul Jost
  Dec 17, 2005 08:28 PST 


I would add one note. Ed mentions the desirability of having a macro
focus function. I would actually limit my choices even more. Some
cameras have macro or close-up focus distances with minimums of 12-18
inches while others will focus as close as 2 inches. If you plan on
taking pictures of small objects like lichens or wildflowers, opt for a
camera with a macro mode that allows pictures to be taken at distances
of less than 6 inches with 2-3 inches preferable. Close ups are taken
without zooming in, so with 5 or more megapixels and a 2-3 inch macro
mode, you can take some excellent photographs of some of the smaller

Paul Jost
RE: Digital Camera Notes
  Dec 17, 2005 13:16 PST 

one thing, sometimes (not always) more MP means smaller photosite per pixel which means more noise at higher ISO and forests are often dark, then again one probably should use a tripod anyway (although in practice it can sometimes be a pain).

c) regarding panorama mode just a note:
DSLRs will never have such a mode listed, however you can just use exposure lock or switch it into manual and get the same thing.

f)  Regarding Manual focus, SLR, and EVF viewfinders:
manual focus is almost impossible with the limited res of EVF.  coming from a serious photography background I would rank DSLR with their look through the lens with your eye by far the best and EVFs way down, but to each their own. if by any perhaps unlikely chance anyone here also wants to shoot sports, DSLRs with their lack of shutter and no viewfinder lag are certainly the way to go. they also have much, much better high ISO performance (although you can always use tripod and use lower ISO with a point and shoot EVF camera, but the DSLRs also have greater dynamic range which really can improve forest and nature scenics, get more shadow detail with your highlights still high). DSLR certainly are bulkier and more expensive once you get the proper lenses. if you are really into photography and getting the single bestiamges I would go for a DSLR, otherwise P&S's are more compact and might suit the casual better. 

Do make sure the P&S has a wide enough wide-angle, some only give the equivalent of
a 35mm (or even only 48mm or more) lens FOV on a 35mm camera which is only
passably wide others can get you to 28mm equivalent, not sure if they have any that go to 24mm equiv.

Regarding  filters:  some of the really cheap filters can degrade the image, lots of camera shops try to make their money on stuff like this and will sell some nasty piece of glass for $20-30 (sometimes for same price as mail-order places have the good HOYAs and B+Ws for) with no anti-relfection coatings and warpings in the glass. HOYA SHMC and B+W MRC are really, really good, the regular HOYA and certainly B+W
are not bad.   polarizer can sometimes be useful, occasionally half neutral density.

a DVD can usually burn 4.7GB of pics in teh time a CD burner will only burn like 1GB or less, I would go for a DVD burner, certainly if you get a higher MP camera, or DSLR or ever shoot in RAW mode.

Larry Baum

RE: Digital Camera Notes    Edward Frank
   Dec 17, 2005 22:21 PST 


I don't really disagree with anything that Larry or Paul has said in
these posts. A couple of points for clarification I want to mention -

1) I think you should always use a tripod unless in really bright light,
so more megapixels may be a tradeoff in light sensitivity, but not a
problem when using a tripod. If you are into sports a more expensive
DSLR may be a better way to go.

2) Panorama Mode: My Nikon calls it Panorama mode, so you may see it
listed as such in the camera descriptions. Essentially it is like Larry
says: An exposure to lock to assure that all the frames in the sequence
are exposed the same way. So it may be called panorama, exposure lock,
or something else.

3) Certainly the overall performance of DSLR are much higher than the
cheaper EVF cameras - but they are much more expensive as well. My
notes concerned primarily the cheaper models in the $300 - 500 range.
For focusing a SLR is vastly superior. Often you can't tell if a photo
is blurry or not using only the EVF viewfinder. You don't notice bad
photos until you see the image full sized. In this price range you are
not going to find a DSLR camera - your choice is a rangefinder or an EVF
and I think EVF is better. Most of these cameras have autofocus, for
better or worse, so the biggest problem in these photos is exposure.
EVF is better for seeing exposure than are SLR viewfinders.

I anticipate that within a year I will be buying a higher end DSLR
camera, but a cheaper one as I am discussing is a good place to start
until you decide to jump in full tilt. I would not have even considered
buying a higher end DSLR until I had used a digital for a period of time
as a trial camera.

4) I agree with Larry's comments on filters 100%.  My original figures for the 
costs of the filters were much understated in my original post.  I don't know 
what I was thinking.  The one on my camcorder for example cost about $80.

5) Paul talked about macro ranges. I certainly would not consider
focusing at 18 inches to be macro - proper macro is in the less than a
couple inches range. This is something to watch for when a camera touts
its macro capabilities - is it really a true macro lens or something
totally unsatisfactory.   Buyer beware on this - don't just jump at the
words macro, actually check on how close the camera will actually focus.

Ed Frank