Journal: News & Comment

Friday, December 13, 2002
# 12:48:00 PM:

Which digital camera for the office?

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A friend of mine asked for advice today on a new digital still camera for her office. She wrote:

We need one at work that will take good quality ID (passport-size) photos, and also headshots appropriate for our public website. The biggest problem with our current digital camera is lighting -- we get a shadow-halo around the back of people's heads. The person who takes the photos at work thinks this is because the flash isn't good enough to compensate for the lack of proper lighting. Unfortunately his solution is a $2500 (Cdn), 5-megapixel camera, which isn't within our budget.

The catch is, it would be nice if this could also be used for events occasionally, so it's not really just headshots. However, these would be posted on the web too, so we're still not talking about print photo quality.

What should a camera like this cost, and do you have any recommendations?

She knows how to pick a topic for a long answer from me.

Almost any decent current digital camera will take photos high-resolution enough for head shots on a Web site. You're likely right that the flash is causing the halo problem, but the easiest way to avoid that is to take the photos in a location where you have the right kind of lighting in the first place, i.e. somewhere with oblique front lighting and a fairly neutral background (grey being better than white, but white will do).

To avoid a shadow halo, try putting the subject farther away from the wall, or standing outside, or with some strong lighting (such as a desk lamp) aimed at the wall from the side so that the shadow isn't as harsh.

You do not need to spend $2500, or even much more than 20% of that.

Four things help:

  1. A reasonably powerful flash, which not all small digicams have.

  2. Being able to increase the sensitivity of the light sensor (CCD or CMOS chip) in the camera. Most let you do this, but the tradeoff is that more sensitivity means more noise in the photo -- there's usually a good tradeoff somewhere around ISO 200 equivalent, which is the same as 200 speed film. My digicam defaults to ISO 100, which is good for outdoors, and some higher-end ones default to ISO 50, but if you adjust them upwards for darker situations, it should help the photos.

  3. An accurate electronic exposure and focus system. This is the hardest to judge from the specs, and you sort of have to go from the reviews and trying it yourself.

  4. A "fast" lens with a wide maximum aperture. Most digicams (like mine) have maximum apertures of f2.8, with lower numbers being better. f3.5 and up is too slow. Some have lenses as fast as f2.0, which lets in significantly more light and will get you better pictures when there's not as much natural light around, like in an office. However, only higher-end digicams ($1000 and up) like the Canon G2 and G3 and the Panasonic Lumix LC5 have f2.0 lenses. Not worth pursuing for general head shots and Web photos, I don't think.

A few months ago I wrote my recommendations of a few different digicams on my site. Though things have changed, any of them would probably work well for typical office use.

For what you need to do, the Canon PowerShot A40, probably the best current 2-megapixel model, seems like a good fit. It costs about $400 right now, though you should also budget an extra $50+ for some rechargeable AA batteries and a charger, since I think it comes only with regular AAs, which all digicams eat for breakfast. Also, you'll want a bigger CompactFlash memory card (64 MB or more, about another $50-65), but that's an expense for every digital camera, since none come with anything remotely large enough. So look at $500-600 by the time you're done.

The design is now getting long in the tooth (nearly a year old), but that means the price has come down. It does have a reputation for being a bit power-hungry, but if you're using it in the office where outlets are always at hand, and you get maybe a couple of sets of rechargeables, you'll be fine. The other nice thing about AAs is you can use Energizers or Duracells in a pinch.

My little 3-megapixel camera takes pictures that are probably about the same quality despite the extra pixels, and it uses up its tiny proprietary battery far quicker than the A40 does, I'm sure, yet I'm still happy with that.

Tha A40 is more expensive than other 2-megapixel (1600x1200 pixel photo resolution) cameras, but it's also better in many ways, especially photo quality, and I expect it would do what you need for not huge amounts of money. It will make good prints up to 5x7, and even 8x10 if you don't crop at all. I have a lovely 8x10 of my oldest daughter taken with a 2-megapixel Nikon CoolPix 800 in 1999, and it's better than many of the 8x10s from my Nikon film SLR.

I recommend talking to London Drugs photo specialists, rather than actual camera stores -- the LD guys seem to know digicams better. The big electronics LD stores (Broadway near Oak, Granville and Georgia, Brentwood, etc.) seem to have the best selection and knowledge. Try using a demo model to take some head shots like you want to, and see how they look on the camera in the store.

Make sure you have a tripod for portraits.

One final tip: try taking the photos for the Web in black and white, or converting them to black and white afterwards. You can often get much better looking results than by trying to match sometimes diverse colour profiles of different photos on a page. Plus it looks classy, and the files are smaller.

You might also want to look at the Fuji FinePix 2600 or 2650, the Panasonic Lumix LC20, the Pentax Optio 230, the Sony DSC-P51, and the Toshiba PDR-2300. All have optical zooms, which I think is essential. I recommend the Canon over them, but one might appeal to you better.

And while I really like Nikon SLRs, their low-end digital cameras (the Coolpix 2000 and 2500) have the nasty flaw that they lack an optical viewfinder -- you can only use the LCD panel on the back, which isn't good in bright light or many other situations, and increases battery use.


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