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Buyers Guides > Getting the most from your Digital Camera

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Camera Essentials

It is a commonly held misunderstanding that the greater the number of mega-pixels the better the camera. All digital cameras have a CCD (Charged Couple Device) within them. The CCD replaces traditional film, and is measured by the number of Mega Pixels (1000's of Pixels) that it can detect.

Whilst you should always aim for a camera with more than 3 Mega Pixels, it is the lens that actually makes the difference. Ideally you would hope to have a fully optical zoom (digital zoom is not a good thing!) and fast media for storage (xD or high speed Compact Flash)

A good example of a low cost, high quality digital camera is the Fuji Z10FD. The Fuji can be purchased for around £140, and this is indicative of cameras of this type. This camera has 7 Mega Pixels, with a large scratch-resistant LCD screen for reviewing your pictures. We stated before that digital zoom is a bad thing, and there is a good reason for this. When you zoom in on an object using optical zoom, you do not lose any resolution. When you use the digital zoom feature of a camera, a process call 'interpolation' occurs. This essentially means that the camera will use fuzzy logic to fill in the gaps between pixels where the resolution is not great enough to detect the image in its full resolution. Although the Fuji is not a true SLR digital camera, it does provide many of the features you would expect on a much more expensive camera, and this model provides 3 x Optical zoom - more than adequate for most subject material.

Make use of you camera's built in features

Most modern digital cameras have a variety of shooting modes. Instead of having to set shutter speed and aperture size (as you would on old SLR cameras), you can either set the camera to 'Auto' mode, or select Night, Action, Macro (Close up shots) and even apply basic filters such as Sepia in order to give your images a rustic yellowed look.
Red-eye mode is quite prevalent on digital cameras, but you may still need to edit your images after in order to remove all the red-eyes when taking family shots. Some cameras even provide 'anti-shake' or 'anti-blur' in order to clear up badly taken shots, but remember the golden rule of picture taking, breath out, wait one heart-beat, and then gently press the button before breathing back in again.

Transferring your pictures

Whenever you take a picture on your camera, the image is stored on the memory card within the camera. Transfer of these images to a computer or printer is a relatively simple task these days. There are various methods of transfer and printing that almost all cameras now support;

- USB Data Drive (The camera emulates a 'memory stick' or 'thumbdrive')
- PictBridge (The camera talks direct to the printer over a USB lead marked as 'PictBridge')
- Card Reader (You place the camera's memory card in a reader which makes it appear as a drive)

In addition to these methods, Windows XP and Vista both have 'Wizards' that help with the transfer of the images and setting them out in a suitable format for printing.


Online Storage

Now that we are in the Internet Age more and more people want to share their images online with family members and friends. Years ago this would have been fairly black art, and only achieved by computer boffins. Now that we have social networking sites and personal Blogs, the software and websites to achieve this have matured into seamless 'point and click' style applications. A good example of this is www.Flickr.com - now part of the Yahoo! Group of websites. This site allows you to upload (send) your pictures to their website. The pictures can then be placed into 'Groups' and you can tag them with keywords and comments. The advantages of doing this are twofold; firstly you have a 'backup' of your images online, and secondly, you can allow members of your family or your friends to see your images without you having to email them to everyone. There are many online storage sites out there, but you should be aware that many of them have a limit for 'free' usage, or are tied to a marketing engine that will bombard you with spam email.

Offline Storage

One thing that many people forget is to make regular backup's of their pictures. In the 'old days' we would have negatives of our precious pictures, but nowadays we simply transfer them onto our laptop's and never consider that the computer on which we have stored our images could break or be stolen. CDR's (Compact Disc Recordable) are an extremely low-cost backup medium, and store around 700Mb of data which equates to approximately 150 images at normal resolution. If you use DVD-R (Digital Versatile Disc Recordable), this increases to over 1000 images. In addition to providing a secure backup of your pictures, many domestic DVD players will allow you to view these discs on your TV like a giant digital photo frame. Always remember to make several copies of your most precious images.

Image Editing

Editing images is something that we all need to do from time to time. There are many reasons for this, from removing 'red eye' from the family portraits, to air-brushing out your registration plate when advertising a vehicle for sale.
Editing images is not a particularly easy process. The problem with digital pictures is that it takes a human to interpret them, and decide if something is required or can be removed. Modern editing software can distinguish certain elements of a picture (for instance, eyes), but generally it does require a fair degree of work by the user to edit a picture.
There are many image manipulation applications available online for free, the most famous of these would be "The Gimp". This application can be downloaded from http://www.gimp.org – the website has tutorials, and will work on both Windows and Linux.

Another area where image editing and manipulation is essential is when you are creating a website. In order for images on a website to look their best, various considerations need to be made; Image size, colour depth, image type.
If you consider that the average digital camera's image file size is around 4Mb (over 4 million bytes of data), and the average image size on a website is more like 20Kb (around 20,000 bytes) you can see we have a problem!
Most images taken on a digital camera are in the JPEG file format, whereas images on websites tend to be a mixture of JPEG and GIF formats.

The GIF image type is preferred by many web site designers as it incorporates an element of the image called 'transparency'. This allows the designer to mark a certain colour within the image as transparent. When the image is displayed on the web page, the transparent elements of the image will show the underlying page content. Transparent GIF files are used mainly for items such as 'buttons', 'icons' and 'banners'. Instead of having a horrible white background around a button or icon, you can set the background colour to transparent and allow these images to blend into the page more fully.

Another reason for using image editing software is to reduce the image file size. When using digital picture frames, you may want to reduce the image size or resolution in order to squeeze as many photos onto your frame as possible.
The resolution doesn't matter so much on these as the LCD frames tend to have a much lower resolution than that of a screen on a computer or ink-jet printers.
A good tip is to save your images with _x at the end of the filename to signify that it is not a full size, full resolution image.

Original: PIC0001.jpg 1280 x 1024 Compression Factor 1 4.1Mb
Saved image: PIC0001_x.jpg 800 x 600 Compression Factor 20 220Kb

As you can see the file sizes decrease when the image is saved. This is not just because of the change in dimensions, but due to the in-built compression that occurs when you re-save a JPG image. Another aspect of JPG files is the level of compression. This is called the 'compression factor' and is set in the range of one to ninety-nine. A compression level of one will produce an image with no compression at all, and ninety-nine will be maximum or 'lossy', but a much, much smaller filesize. A good compromise between file size and picture quality would be a compression factor of twenty.

You should also be aware that different file formats might have the same resolution, but less visible colours. As an example, if you save your image in GIF format, the file size will be much smaller, but the colours are reduced to 256 unique colours as opposed to the 16 million discreet colours that a JPG file can accommodate.