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Digital Cameras

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I am often asked to recommend a digital camera for orchid photography. Here are my thoughts on what is important in a digital camera suitable for taking photos of orchids. I must warn that this is only my opinion and your needs may vary from my recommendations. In addition, these recommendations are for general home orchid photography, not professional photography.

Digital Zoom Not relevant. The only thing you need to know about digital zoom is whether you can disable it. Most cameras allow you to disable digital zoom.

Digital zoom is a marketing tool which has little practical use in the real world. Should you wish to use digital zoom, it is far easier and more flexible to alter the photo on your computer after the photo is taken.

Optical Zoom Not relevant. Optical zoom is useful for general photography to get close to the action, but is generally not that useful for orchid photography. It is sometimes useful for getting in close to those orchids at the back of displays, but in practice, other factors usually prevent this working.
Digital Effects Not relevant. Many cameras now come with digital effects like titling, sepia effect, etc. These features are not relevant for orchid photography and should be ignored. If you should wish to use such effects, it is much easier and effective to apply these effects on your computer, not in your camera.
Video Mode Not relevant. While most cameras now come with a video mode which can be useful in general use to video the kids/grandkids, this is not useful for orchid photography.
Macro Extremely important. If you only wish to photograph large flowers such as exhibition Cymbidiums, you can do without a good macro, but if you wish to photograph small flowers, a good macro is essential. Ideally, the macro should be able to photograph at distances up to 5cm or better to be able to successfully photograph those tiny flowers.
Flash Essential. Many photos you will take will be inside or at night, so a flash is essential. As you will generally photographing close to the flower, the power of the flash is not particularly important. Virtually every camera now comes with a flash, so this part of the requirement should not be a problem.

What is important is to be able to use the flash with macro. ie. use the flash when very close to the flower. Most cameras cannot do this. To be able to photograph inside or at night, you must be able to use the flash with macro. Without this, your camera is only semi-useful.

To easily test the macro flash capability of a camera, take a photo of a ring on your hand using macro and flash. (A camera will automatically use its flash inside a camera shop, so just put the camera in macro mode.) Most cameras will wash out the skin to totally white. A camera which can use flash with macro will photograph the skin tone correctly.

Click to Enlarge Click to Enlarge

Example of good macro photo taken using flash

Example of washed out macro photo taken using flash.

If the camera you are testing cannot take a macro photo of your hand using the flash, it will not be able to take macro photos of orchids with flash without washing out the photos. A camera which cannot take macro photos with flash is not particularly useful for photographing orchids.

Ring Flash This topic is included more for completeness than necessity. A ring flash is relatively expensive and used by serious/professional photographers who should know enough about cameras not to be reading this article.

If you look at the good macro example photo above, you will see that the hand is not evenly lit. The top of the photo is less brightly illuminated than the bottom. This is due to this photo being taken with the camera's inbuilt flash. A camera with a single point flash will always suffer from this problem when taking macro photos. For home use this uneven illumination is not a problem, but for serious/professional photographers, this uneven illumination is unacceptable.

To avoid this illumination problem, you require illumination from multiple points around the lens. You can either use multiple flash units (too bulky for macro photography) or use a ring flash.

Pheonix RL-59 Ring Flash

This is a typical ring flash. (This one, a Phoenix RL-59.)

The flash unit (lower centre) mounts around the lens while the flash controller unit (upper left) mounts in the camera hot shoe and is connected to the controller unit by a cable (upper right).

A ring flash mounts around the camera lens and illuminates around its entire circumference. A ring flash will illuminate the subject evenly from all angles and avoid the uneven illumination problem experienced with a single point flash. A ring flash, however, is quite expensive and will only fit a limited range of digital cameras.

Nikon Macro Cool-Light SL-1

As an alternative to a ring flash, Nikon make a Macro Cool-Light SL-1 (ring light) which fits some of the Nikon digital cameras. This ring light performs the same function as a ring flash in that it mounts around the camera lens and evenly illuminates the macro photo subject. It is not a cheap option at around $300, but it will fix the uneven illumination problem experienced with a single flash point.

In addition to providing even illumination, this ring light will illuminate the macro photo subject allowing the camera to autofocus in low light.  Thus, using a ring light will overcome the lack of autofocus light (see next item) on many Nikon cameras when taking macro photos.  It will not however, overcome the lack of an autofocus light for non-macro photos.

If you are serious about your orchid photography, you will need to invest in either a ring flash or a ring light to provide even illumination of your orchid flowers.  Home photographers should not worry however, as the improvement in illumination is not worth the additional money.

(If you consider that the uneven illumination of the example macro photo above is a problem, I do not consider you a typical home photographer and thus, you should not be following this advice!)

AutoFocus light Essential. When photographing in low light conditions, the autofocus light illuminates the subject allowing the automatic focus of the camera to operate. This is an essential feature for photographing at night or in a dim hall as without an autofocus light, your camera will not be able to focus in low light situations and thus, you will not be able to take a photo. Most cameras now come with a autofocus light, so steer clear of any cameras without this feature.

Even after stating an autofocus light is essential, I add this exception. Most Nikon cameras do not have an autofocus light but Nikon has done a very good job at allowing their cameras to autofocus in low light situations. Although I still have some reservations about their autofocus ability in all low light situations in general use, their low light autofocus ability seems to be sufficient for use in normal orchid photography situations. Thus, I would not rule out a Nikon camera (or any other camera without an autofocus light), but definitely check the reviews closely and do some personal testing on their low light focus ability.

LCD Screen Essential. An LCD screen to view the photo to be taken is essential. As you will often be using the macro, you cannot use the viewfinder to align the photo due to parallax error. You will also need the screen to check the photos after they taken. Virtually all cameras now come with an LCD screen, so do not consider one which does not.

Some cameras now have screens which can be swivelled.  These are very useful when taking macro shots at strange angles, but certainly not essential.  This is nice to have if you can afford the extra cost.

Resolution One of the major selling points of cameras today is resolution. Entry level cameras are now 3 megapixel with 5 megapixel common in low end cameras. Apart from the hype, resolution is not that important for home orchid photography.

A 2 megapixel photo is larger that what most computer screens can display. Thus, a photo larger than 2 megapixel is not required to display the image on the screen. A 2 megapixel photo can print a normal postcard size photo at the best quality of a professional printer. Higher megapixel photos cannot print a better quality postcard photo than a two megapixel postcard photo as the printer is capable of no better.

If you wish to print larger photos, eg. 10 x 8 inch, then a higher megapixel photo is required to use the maximum quality of a professional printer, 7 megapixel for a 10 x 8 print. (A 2 megapixel photo can be printed 10 x 8, but it will not be printed at the maximum quality a professional printer is capable of printing. It will be acceptable, but not quite as good as a 7 megapixel print.)

Thus is summary, for orchid photography, the resolution of the camera you require depends on the maximum size of photo you wish to print.  The formula to use is

Resolution = Photo width (inch) x Photo height (inch) x 0.09

For example, for a 6 by 4 inch print, you calculate

6 x 4 x 0.09 = 2.16

Thus a 2 megapixel camera is sufficient to print a 6 by 4 photo which is all most people are likely to use for home use.

Printer Resolution Slightly off topic but relevant, is printer resolution. From the resolution discussion above, it is clear the camera resolution you require depends on printer resolution. Professional printers generally print at 300 dpi (Dots Per Inch). Home printers print at around 200 dpi.

Many people will immediately say 'but my printer says on the box that it prints at 2400 dpi'. This is true, but unfortunately, this is measuring a different type of dot, so is not comparable. Professional printers print at 300 dpi with 2000 or more colours per dot. Home printers print at numbers like 2400 dpi, but generally less than 64 colours per dot.  Because home printers print much lower colours per dot, this effectively reduces the real dpi they print, to generally around 200. This obviously depends on the printer, but they are less than professional printers which print at 300 dpi. Modern home printers are now getting close in quality to professional printers, so if you assume 300dpi for all printer resolution, you won't go too far wrong.

Battery Door One aspect you might not consider is the strength of the battery door.  As digital camera consume batteries very quickly, you will be regularly removing the batteries to recharge. Thus, the battery door will be opened and closed regularly.

Unfortunately, many cameras have cheap fragile battery doors. If the door breaks, there is little that can be done but buy another camera as most cameras are not worth repairing.

Have a good look at the battery door and steer clear of cheap flimsy door construction.

Batteries As digital cameras use batteries very quickly, a spare set of batteries is very useful. Rechargeable batteries are essential.

Many cameras use proprietary rechargeable batteries but many use standard AA or AAA batteries. Standard batteries are more convenient as they are cheaper to purchase than proprietary batteries and in an emergency, you can use standard alkaline batteries purchased from almost any store to keep you photographing.

The use of NiMh or Li-Ion rechargeable batteries is strongly recommended. (Check you camera battery compatibility in the manual before purchasing batteries.) Most digital cameras either come with NiMh or Li-Ion or can use them.  NiCad rechargeable batteries are not recommended due to their memory effects, but very few cameras now come with NiCad batteries.

DO NOT use rechargeable Alkaline batteries in your digital camera. These are fine for many uses, but they are not suitable for digital cameras and you will find that these batteries will only power your camera for a few seconds after being recharged.

Memory Virtually, all digital cameras store their photos on memory cards. Most cameras come with memory when purchased, but this is usually only enough for 4 or 5 photos, not enough for practical use. Thus, you will need to purchase additional memory with your camera.

There are currently 3 popular memory standards, CF (Compact Flash), XD and Sony Memory Stick. Each performs the same function as the others, but all are incompatible. You will need to purchase the correct memory type to suit your camera. CF memory is about half the price of XD and Memory Stick memory, so a camera using CF memory will have a price advantage when purchasing memory. CF memory retails for about $1 per megabyte while XD and Sony Memory stick retail for around $2 per megabyte. (Memory prices change regularly, so this is only a very rough guide.)

Memory cards come in sizes in Megabytes of 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256 and 512. Memory cards can be interchanged like film cassettes in a film camera, so you can use multiple memory cards in the one camera if you wish.

To an estimate of how much memory is required, you need to use this formula.

Memory = Camera Resolution x Photo Count x 0.5

This formula is not exact as many factors affect the 0.5 factor, but this gives a rough indication of the amount of memory required.

For example, for a 5 megapixel camera storing 100 photos will need approximately

5 x 100 x 0.5 = 250

Thus, a 5 megapixel camera needs approximately 250Mbytes of memory to store 100 photos. You would need to purchase a 256Mbyte memory card for this camera to store 100 photos.

Quality Another aspect of concern is photo quality. Photo quality is due to lens quality, CCD quality and electronic processing. There are many web sites devoted to camera photo quality should you wish to do the research, but basically, all digital cameras now take extremely good quality photos, so this should not be a major concern for home use.
Other All other aspects of a digital cameras are basically personal preference.

Thus, in my opinion, the most important qualities of a digital camera for orchid photography is a good macro and the ability to use flash with macro.

When I investigated cameras for my use, I only found one camera which meet these criteria, the Canon A200. This camera is a bottom end (sub $300) 2 megapixel camera from Canon, which is now unfortunately obsolete. Despite it's low cost, this is an excellent camera taking good orchid photos in all conditions. If you should find one of these cameras, I would highly recommend it for orchid photography.

Digital cameras are improving very quickly with new models released all the time, so there are probably other cameras which can do the job by now, or soon will be. If you are after a higher end camera, some of the Nikon cameras which take a Cool-Light look very interesting. Frequent your local camera shop, ask lots of questions, read the reviews, think seriously about what features you really want and don't be railroaded into purchasing a top end camera if you only want bottom end features. (There is a lot to be said for the modern point and click photography.  Do not pay for high end manual control overrides unless you are a serious photographer who wishes to use these manual settings.) If you do your homework, you won't go wrong with your digital camera purchase.

For further information have a look at these web sites.

Digital Photography Review This excellent site includes the features of all digital cameras available with indepth reviews of many cameras. This site tends to be very technical, but the information is invaluable.

Even if you cannot understand the technical information, the user feedback on each camera model is often very informative and definitely worth a read before purchasing any digital camera.

Ring Flashes For serious photographers who should not be reading this article, this site has quite a good discussion on why ring flashes should be used and the effects of not using a ring flash.

Graham Corbin


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