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Selecting a Digital Camera for Photographing Jewelry

This article assumes that you are buying a camera to photograph your jewelry for the internet.  If you are simply looking for a camera to take snapshots outside, you won't go wrong with this advice, but this article wasn't written for that.

The features that your camera should have:

A good point-and-shoot camera should be adequate, provided that it has certain features.  It is not necessary to buy a digital SLR.  The advantage of digital SLRs is that their pictures are cleaner (i.e., less grainy or noisy) and have more accurate colors.  However, a good point-and-shoot compact camera will take good-enough photos if you use enough light.  Pictures that are taken for the web are always shrunk to a smaller size, and in the process of shrinking, most of the noise gets blended away.

Please note, however, that I said a good point-and-shoot camera.  Not all of them are equally good.  There are quite a few name-brand camera companies that make poor-quality point-and-shoot cameras.  Olympus, for example, makes some excellent digital SLRs, but some of their point-and-shoot cameras are quite poor, in my opinion.  Canon, for the most part, makes good point-and-shoot cameras, although I think their cameras have actually gotten worse lately.  I especially like the Canon A-series of cameras.  I use a Canon A620, which is no longer available.  (Please note that I am no longer so happy with that camera because it doesn't seem to capture colors accurately.)

The camera you buy should have these features:

A sensor ( or "CCD") of at least 5 megapixels.  The sensor is the chip that records the photo.  These days, most PAS cameras have 7 megapixels or more.

Reasonably low noise with minimal noise-reduction up to ISO 100 or 200.  The sensors in point-and-shoot cameras are very small, and that means that each "pixel" (picture element) on the sensor captures only a small amount of light.  All sensors have a small amount of electrical leakage from one pixel to the next, and that results in the noise mentioned above.  To combat noise, cameras use in-camera noise-reduction programs, but those programs can, ironically, introduce their own kind of noise.  They can also apply so much smoothing to the image that fine details can be lost.  The only way to know if you are buying a camera with low noise is to read the reviews and recommendations on the web sites mentioned below.

ISO refers to the light sensitivity of the sensor.  All cameras have variable ISO settings, usually starting at 50 or 100, and going up to 800 to 1600 (or higher for DSLRs).  As you increase the ISO setting, the sensor becomes more sensitive, meaning that it can be used in lower-light conditions.  If the camera you choose has ISO 50 as the lowest setting, then it should also do a good job at 100 (and preferably 200) in order for you to photography jewelry in ambient daylight (which is what I recommend in another article).  If the camera you choose has 100 as its lowest setting, and has low noise at that setting, then you are all set (although, again, it will be good if it does well at ISO 200 as well).  My own camera (the Canon A620, which is no longer being made) does a good job up to ISO 100, but the ISO 200 setting is too noisy.  Only when I am photographing very dark beads is ISO 100 sometimes inadequate.

An uncompressed Fine or Superfine setting.  Some cameras especially Kodak cameras use a high level of compression that can't be turned off.  Over-compressed photos can look noisy or blurry.  However, even cameras that don't have a Fine or Superfine setting may be adequate for web photography.  As I said above, when the pictures are shrunk, many of the imperfections disappear.

Good automatic exposure performance.  You'll probably be using your camera on Automatic or Program mode.  In each case, the camera decides which aperture and shutter speed to use.  If the camera doesn't make good choices, then you will have to learn how to set those things for yourself, which is a lot of trouble.  The reviews that you read (on the sites mentioned below) will tell you how good the automatic settings of a given camera are.

A macro mode for taking close-up pictures.  All cameras have a macro mode, but some are better than others.  A good macro setting will allow you to take clear photos very close to the subject.  You should be able to get the camera within 6 inches.

Exposure compensation.  This feature allows you to lighten or darken your photos a set amount at the time you take the picture.  Photos in which most of the elements in the picture are light-colored (such as a piece of jewelry on a white background) will usually come out looking gray.  To prevent that, you need a camera that will allow you to increase the exposure compensation.  You can always lighten a photo after you have taken it, but the results don't always look natural.

Adjustable white balance.  This feature isn't absolutely necessary, but it is helpful.  White balance means settings for different kinds of light, such as incandescent light, fluorescent light, sunlight, ambient daylight, etc.  If all your camera has is automatic white balance, that's not a huge problem.  That means that the camera is deciding for you which light setting to use.  If your pictures come out looking slightly yellow or blue, you can fix that later in your photo-editing program.

Some manual controls are nice, such as Program and aperture-priority settings.  I personally use the Automatic setting on my camera, but it is nice to know that the manual features are there if I need them.

An optical viewfinder is not necessary (I rarely use it).

Optical zoom is not needed, although most quality cameras have it.  Note:  Many photographers use optical zoom when photographing in macro mode.  Frankly, I don't understand this practice because it means that you have to put more distance between yourself and the subject in order to get a clear focus.  From what I know about cameras, I don't think that any manufacturer designs their macro mode so that it has to be used with optical zoom.  My advice is, take your macro shots without zooming.

What to do next

Armed with the list of features above, the next step is for you to do some reading.  There are many sites on the internet which review cameras, and you should read the reviews of any camera you are considering buying.  The sites below usually have their own list of recommended cameras.  Look at their recommendations for point-and-shoot cameras, and then read the reviews of cameras you are interested in to see if they have a good Macro setting.  A good Macro setting is absolutely essential.

www.dcresource.com (my favorite of the sites)

www.dpreview.com (more emphasis on high-end cameras)

www.imaging-resource.com

www.cameralabs.com

www.steves-digicams.com (in my opinion, the reviews on this site are not as unbiased as the reviews on the other sites)

Overview of different camera types

If you are really new to cameras, this information should help.

Point-and-shoot cameras.  PAS cameras are made to be small, or at least smaller than professional (DSLR) cameras.  They have small sensors which generate a lot of random noise.  When viewed at 100%, the pictures don't look so good.  However, when shrunk or printed, they often look fine.  How good the pictures are depends on the quality of the built-in lens (PAS cameras do not have exchangeable lenses), how good the sensor is, and how aggressive the noise-reduction program is.  PAS cameras are not good for taking pictures in low light (such as indoors without flash or outside at dusk).  PAS cameras usually come with an optical zoom lens which can zoom in 3x (three times) or 4x (four times).  PAS cameras come in sizes from very small (small enough for a shirt pocket) to medium (small enough for a coat pocket).

PAS cameras don't always have an optical viewfinder.  If they do, you are not looking through the actual lens, but through a smaller separate lens devoted just to the viewfinder.  Thus, you cannot see exactly what the final picture will look like because you are not looking through the main lens where the light enters to reach the sensor.  The solution is to always use the LCD, but the LCD won't give you a sharp, clear view.  In other words, one of the drawbacks of PAS cameras is that you can't see exactly how your picture will look, and you have to trust that the camera is getting it right.

Price range for a good camera:  $200 to $500

Ultra-zoom cameras.  These cameras are the same as PAS cameras but they have a lens that can zoom 10x or so.  The more a lens can zoom, the less likely it is to give very sharp, clear pictures, so ultra-zoom cameras usually sacrifice some picture quality for the sake of the zoom.  Because of the larger lens, these cameras are usually larger than other PAS cameras, but not as big as DSLRs..  In every other way, they are like other PAS cameras.

Price range for a good camera:  $50 to $100 more than other PAS cameras

Digital SLR cameras.  These cameras produce less-noisy pictures because their sensors are larger.  They also have exchangeable lenses, so you can attach any kind of lens you want (a macro lens, a zoom lens, etc.).  The lenses can also accept filters which create various effects.  Most DSLRs do not have "live view" via the LCD.  Thus, you must look through the viewfinder.  However, an increasing number of them do have live view, but the live view feature doesn't work as smoothly as on PAS cameras.  DSLRs are generally large and bulky and must be carried in a bag, although they are becoming more compact.

SLR means "single-lens reflex".  When you look through the viewfinder, you are looking through the main lens (not through a separate, smaller lens, as in the case of PAS cameras).  Thus, you are seeing exactly what the final picture will look like.  That, and the increased picture quality and flexibility from exchangeable lenses, is why DSLRs are used by professionals.

Price range for a good camera:  $600 to $1500

A new kind of camera:  Sigma DP1

A company called Sigma has just released a new and different kind of camera.  It is a point-and-shoot camera that has the same large, high-quality sensor as their digital SLR camera.  Not only that, but they use a sensor design which is unique and results in astonishingly sharp images.  However, the camera is poorly designed in many ways:  slow operation, no zoom, a poor flash, and a macro mode that requires you to be at least 11" from the subject (so it will not be good for photographing jewelry).  The poor flash may not be a problem because the large sensor allows you to take pictures without the flash in dim light.  I haven't yet purchased this camera, but I intend to in the next few months.  When I do, I will post my impressions here.  Cost:  $500 to $700.

A new kind of camera:  Panasonic G1

Like the Sigma DP1, the Panasonic G1 is a hybrid between a DSLR (a large sensor) and a PAS camera (smallish body).  It's features are better designed than the Sigma DP1, but in my opinion the image quality is only average.  Cost:  $800.