Digital camera choices

Wave off Sea Otter Cove, Vancouver Island

We purchased our first digital camera, a Canon PowerShot Pro90 IS, in 2002. Many of our pictures are taken from a boat, with the subject often at a distance. So we wanted a long lens to successfully get those distant shots. Since light conditions in the Pacific Northwest can be poor, and we’d often be using a long lens, image stabilization could make the difference between an interesting picture and a missed shot. We decided against an SLR for a couple of reasons: a good image-stabilized SLR lens was expensive back then, on the order of $2,500, and the complete camera packages were heavy and bulky. For our use, we wanted a reasonably compact, lightweight package that was easy to use, carry and stow. A minimal SLR setup, with a body and two lenses, is a fair bit of equipment to carry around. Also, since many interesting shots happen quickly, we might lose them because we didn’t have the right lens on for the shot. The early SLRs had an additional disadvantage of not being able to shoot movies. The PowerShot cost about $1,000, was image-stabilized, could record movies, and had a wide zoom range from 37 to 370mm. With an inexpensive camera, we could afford to upgrade it every few years as technology improved, or if we damaged it. Although the PowerShot picture quality wouldn’t be as good as an SLR, this seemed like the right way to go for our usage pattern.

Another problem with an expensive SLR camera is that losing or damaging one is a pretty significant financial loss. We frequently take pictures in extreme conditions, in pouring rain or in rough water while taking waves, and have damaged at least two cameras this way. For example, the wave pictured above was taken in a 9-foot dinghy in 40-knot winds off the northwest coast of Vancouver Island, and the one below was taken in the Broughton Archipelago during a winter snowstorm. And here is a video we shot of breaking ice into Princess Louisa Inlet during a winter visit. For the wave picture in particular, we would not have been comfortable taking camera equipment costing more than $4,000 out in those conditions (you might argue that we should not have been comfortable taking ourselves out there either). Ironically, we got a great picture almost because we didn’t have good equipment.

Claydon Bay, Broughton Archipelago

 Over the years, capabilities have improved dramatically and prices have fallen. Here’s the digital cameras we’ve owned:

In addition to lens and image stabilization, big improvements also have been made in quality and speed of electronic focus systems. Our current camera, a Canon PowerShot SX40 HS, is respectively fast, produces good pictures, and has an incredibly wide zoom range from 24-840mm. And at $400, if the camera is damaged by operating in extreme conditions, it’s not the end of the world.

One thing we’ve found valuable is a lens hood. This helps protect the lens, keeping rain and snow off when taking pictures, and, without putting the lens cap on, we can quickly stuff the camera inside a coat for protection from weather or bumping.

We revisited the SLR decision with the second camera, but since then haven’t bothered, and have generally just upgraded every few years. You can see the improvements in picture sharpness, color quality and white balance in this collection of our best and favorite pictures taken over the past decade.

Butchart Gardens during snowstorm

 


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8 comments on “Digital camera choices
  1. Thanks for the feedback Jeann. Your trip on Lilipad sounds excellent.

    –jrh

  2. Jeann Gardner says:

    Thanks Jennifer for this timely and most informative post regarding cameras. We just returned from a trip aboard a friend’s N55 (Lilipad from Seattle) in Mexico and missed many a wonderful photo opportunity due to not having a small, convenient camera.

  3. Thanks for the pointer to Understanding Exposure Richard.

  4. Richard Q says:

    I would highly recommend the book "Understanding Exposure" to anyone that wants to learn more about photography. Whether you are new to photography or want to take your photography to the next level, this book will put you on the right path!

    It’s an easy read filled with large pictures as examples. The principals in this book apply to all types of photography.

    There are "countless" great photography books on the market. This is always my number one recommendation.

    Current Edition Title:
    Understanding Exposure, 3rd Edition: How to Shoot Great Photographs with Any Camera
    http://amzn.com/0817439390

  5. Annette, you are right, speed is a widely used term in photography ranging form a lens ability to admit light, to support ISO levels, to auto-focus and shutter release speeds. In this, I was referring to focus speed and shutter release speed. Getting focus is 1/4 to 1/2 a second and, once focused, shutter release is sub 1/10th of second. In the example you gave, you could focus on the batter, wait for the pitch and have a reasonable chance of getting the shut.

    The motor drive (rapid consecutive shots) isn’t that quick. Canon advertise 2.4 frames per second. It seems slower but it may be that i would hit 2.4 frames/second using faster storage media.

  6. Annette says:

    Hi,

    Nice post! I’ve been trying to decide on a new camera.

    I’m intrigued by your current camera. You mention it’s fast. Fast can mean several things. How does it do with respect to when you click to take a photo and the camera captures the image? Some cameras will take 3 quick photos in succession, but the first one is delayed by camera processing.

    This is important to me because we’ll have the camera not only while out cruising, but also to take kid sports shots. With my current camera, I’ll grab the camera when he is up at bat in baseball. If I shoot when he swings the bat, the photo captured has the ball already at the pitcher … or beyond. That type of speed.

    Thanks for the insight.

    I found your blog because I’m a member of Poulsbo Yacht Club and the URL was on the flyer. Can’t make it Monday because it’s a school night for my son. But my husband will be there.

    Thanks again!

  7. Thanks for the comments Richard. Its good to hear from a professional photographer.

    All of our shots are in program mode as you recommend. I use it for several reasons: 1) it allows time lapse for dusk, dawn, and night shots, 2) it allows locking the ISO down low — the auto system will try to avoid camera shake issues but selecting an ISO setting beyond the real capabilities of the camera which yields a pretty grainy result, 3) it allows manual exposure control of a couple of stops in both directions, and 4) it allows flash control both when it fires and when it doesn’t and flash brightness control. Some night shots are better without flash and some day shots profit from some fill flash.

    Thanks for passing along your thoughts and for those of you reading this that would like to see some of Richard’s pictures, check out: http://photos.digitalq.com/. They are exceptional.

    –jrh

  8. Richard Q says:

    Great post! I can’t agree more with the notion that the best camera is the one you have with you! Most professional photographers carry a point and shoot at all times, rarely are we without some form of a camera. I rarely bring my "real" gear out on the boat, but I never leave the dock without my point and shoot, it can always be found within arms reach. As a result, I have ended up with several "accidental" published photos that paid the fuel cost for the weekend just because I had it with me!

    As a side note, one thing that’s getting better for boaters with respect to the point and shoot is the low light (or high ISO) capabilities. This not only allows for photography in low light, but allows for you to shoot at a higher shutter speed when zoomed in as we often are when out on the water. Even in full auto modes, the higher shutter speeds (due to higher ISO capabilities) will result in fewer images lost to blur from movement.

    If someone takes the time to learn just a little about their "Point and Shoot" their photos will instantly begin to improve. For example, instead of the full "Auto" mode, just look for the "Program" mode, normally associated with some little icons that represent for example a night scene, a person running, a party or a portrait. If a little time is spent becoming familiar with those modes (one step up from full auto) the average person with no desire to learn much about photography can improve their shots dramatically. It’s digital, experiment!

    Keep up the great posts!
    ~Richard

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