Cover Story: The Tools of the Trade

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Digital cameras are at the top of their A-Game. Among the devices that have had some of the most interesting developments, digital cameras are the ones taking us by surprise. We see image sensors and lenses being bundled in packages of all shapes and sizes. We see in camera functions and features that eliminate the need for you to post-process on a PC. We see cameras doing things we’ve never imagined they would be able to do, like connect to the Internet and have games and apps built into them. The photographer-whether pro, hobbyist or noob-is now capable of doing much, much more.

Here we go into today’s most popular types of digital cameras, who and what they’re for, how they work, and the whole heap of things we can do with them.

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Cameras are one of the gadgets that I’m not too familiar with-at least as far as the inner workings, specs, lenses and the like are concerned. I do, however, take a lot of photos, and for that purpose, I prefer the point-and-shoot camera. For the casual photographer, point-and-shoot cameras don’t require much effort or experience to take the perfect shot they don’t require you to change lenses based on your subject and best of all, they’re highly portable due to their lighter weight and smaller size. As people bring more and more gadgets with them that can also take photos, the point-and-shoot seems to be the popular choice for people who want a gadget dedicated to snapshots.

Use of the point-and-shoot camera is rather self-explanatory: just point at a subject and then hit the shutter button. In most point-and-shoots, the shutter button is located on top and a little off to the right. If you tend to have shaky hands, a lot of point-and-shoot cameras have image stabilization built in, so the image quality won’t suffer too much. With advances in technology, you can even take HD videos with point and shoot cameras, so you don’t have to have a whole other device just to take HD video. The point-and-shoot especially comes in handy if you’re new to photography and want to get in some practice before upgrading to a digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera, where a lot more customization is possible and the image quality is higher.

You can easily fit point-and-shoots in your pocket, making a camera bag unnecessary. However, for protection’s sake, I use a case which fits at least one spare battery. The batteries in point-and-shoot cameras may be either disposable or rechargeable. Since the latter are becoming more common, it is wise to carry one around just in case you find yourself taking more pictures than the battery life will allow. Point-and-shoot cameras are used for a lot of occasions, but I find that they most often pop up at family gatherings, parties, vacations, and while traveling. Obviously, many people who aren’t photographers enjoy the portability and ease of use of the point-and-shoot camera. As someone who has traveled frequently, the point-and-shoot camera has been a mainstay In my gadget arsenal for years. You can take It out, take your picture, and put it back into your pocket or case quickly, or move on to the next shot if there are chances for multiple shots while you have your camera out.

With point-and-shoot cameras approaching their more advanced cousins spec-wise, investing in one can also save you some money without significantly sacrificing image quality. Just as there are accessories for the more advanced cameras, there is also a wide array of accessories for point and shoot cameras, such as carrying cases, spare batteries, memory cards, and even tripods, so if you find yourself in one place for a while, you can also use the same tripods that the larger cameras use. Some of the more uncommon accessories that one would not think that a point-and-shoot camera would have include flash diffusers, interchangeable filters (which are more common in DSLRs), camera docks that will take your photos for you, and underwater pouches, just in case you’re a fan of marine life or are really into swimming.

Another advantage of the point-and-shoot camera is that practically every camera maker has a point-and-shoot offering, so you don’t have to give up your personal favorite brand just to buy one. It will come down to what you’re willing to pay for, but most point-and-shoots are still far cheaper than their DSLR counterparts. It’s largely personal preference if you want to use a point-and-shoot or another type of camera, but for portability’s sake and for the fact that I’m not a photography expert. I prefer the point-and-shoot to capture the important moments in my life.

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The best device is the one you have on you at all times. It’s simple. If you always carry it with you, you’re certain to have it with you when you need it. lt might not give you the best solution to your problem, but half an answer is better than none at all. This applies to everything and, in a very special way, to cameras. The best cameras-features and quality-wiseare, without a doubt full-frame DSLRs and their variants. But on any given day, if you’re a regular Joe, would you really lug around a DSLRjust to take casual snapshots and the odd self-portrait or two? Probably not. This is where the smartphone camera really shines: the ability to be right there, in your pocket, when you need it. If it’s a quick shot of a poster, plate number, business card, or any scene that you don’t intend to turn into a billboard, the average smartphone camera is bound to do just fine.

Smartphone cams have gone a long way since the QVGA snappers available on the first mobile phones. Sensors routinely hit and, in fact, go past the 5-megapixel mark. Couple this with the kind of software smartphones have in the camera department, and you have more than enough to take a shot to share, keep or post. There are a lot of really great smartphones out there that take amazing shots, and while not everyone is going to buy a phone for the camera it packs, it is still a big factor to consider. For digital photography right in your pocket, here are a few great bets to get you started.

NOKIA 808 PUREVIEW

This Is, hands-down, the mega pixel king of all mobile phone cameras. Where most other manufacturers would make a phone first, then build a camera around it the Pureview, with a 38-M ega pixel sensor can best be described as a camera that just happens to make phone calls. It has a very sharp carl Zeiss lens that allows it to take crisp photos and make the most of the insanely high pixel count, plus a massive sensor at about four times larger than your usual compact camera. The secret to the device is called pixel oversampling which, thanks to the large sensor, allows several sensor pixels to combine into one, higher-quality image pixel. Pixels within a pixel, if you like. While it runs on Symbian because of some hardware and compatibility issues (which was one of the reasons it didn’t completely dominate the smartphone market), it is still an excellent phone that has a spectacular camera well worth looking at.

SAMSUNG GALAXY CAMERA

It was bound to happen. The flexibility of the Android OS in the hands of a phone/camera manufacturer was bound to spawn a hybrid device such as the Samsung Galaxy camera. While it isn’t the first point-and-shoot to run the OS (Nikon beat them to it}, it’s by a wide margin, the most known. The Galaxy Camera (GC, for brevity) is a nifty little device that is mostly screen,  lens and OS in a clean, albeit bulky package. While novel in its approach and very handy when It came to sharing options, since It runs an OS that was made to be connected more or less constantly, it comes at the cost of some heft and worryingly short battery life. It does take great pictures, and lets you view them very comfortably through Its massive 4.8 Inch screen, as well as share through Wi-Fi and 3G, plus play Angry Birds, although it does need a little more refinement. Still, if you want a dedicated snapper that can do more or less all the other handy stuff a phone can do, this Is a solid option for you.

HTC BUTTERFLY

This is a gem of a phone. It does everything you would want a phone and dedicated camera to do. You have a huge five-Inch screen to use as a viewfinder, a wide-angle 8 megapixel camera that takes startlingly sharp photos that give amazing colors, and features that you would normally find In a dedicated point and shoot. As far as a camera-taking mobile phone goes, this is hard to top. The Butterfly lets you take fuii-HD pictures and video, comes brimming with options such as slow-motion video, panorama shots and an extremely handy•slghtseelng•mode that puts the phone In an active sleep that is instantly ready to take a shot once the power button is pressed to wake the device up. The fuii-HD screen makes sure you see the picture exactly for what it is, with no loss in fidelity, thanks to441-pixels per inch and that massive screen we mentioned earlier. HTC achieves all this by including a dedicated imaging chip to handle photography duties, so it doesn’t compromise anything when taking that shot. Even the front camera on the device is a wide-screen deal that makes sure nobody gets left out of the shot.

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Everyone takes photographs these days. How we take our photographs, though, differs from shutterbug to shutterbug. Some are content with their smartphones. While others prefer to lug convenient point-and-shoot cameras, Just In case, and others still would like to have all the bells, whistles and extra features at their disposal and use DSLRs. As for me, I like having a device that will give me a little bit of everything. This Is the niche where mirrorless Interchangeable-lens cameras (MILCs) excel the most Think about shooting with a camera roughly the size of a point-and-shoot but with the quality of your DSLR: you could take it anywhere you want. And still shoots without compromising your creative needs.

For a start, MILCs can be considered the offspring of compact cameras and DSLRs. The absence of the mirror In MILCs allows for smaller and more compact bodies as opposed to DSLRs. This does mean, however, that MILCs no longer have exactly the same image from the lens to the viewfinder, but rather a viewfinder In which the Image is reproduced. MILCs also have Interchangeable lens mounts equipped in their small, compact bodies, allowing for a variety of lenses to be used in a variety of situations.

The sensor size usually follows the compactness of the camera in question and so varies considerably. For example, MILCs that use the Micro-Four Thirds (MFD system have roughly the same sensor size as the Four Thirds system used for DSLRs which, when you set them side-by-side, is larger than a typical compact camera sensor but smaller than full DSLRs.

The MFT system standard pioneered by Olympus and Panasonic was created for the development of camcorders and MILCs. As mentioned earlier, the MFT system shares the original Image sensor size with the Four Thirds system of DSLRs, but does not have a mirror box or prism that reflects light to the viewfinder, thus reducing the body and lens size and weight. Since MFT system cameras are more compact due to the missing pieces above, the lens sits closer to the film plane (or sensor, in this case), reducing the inner focal distance. Because of this, MFTs need smaller and, therefore, cheaper lenses compared to those of DSLRs. The Interchangeable lenses still allow the user to equip zoom, prime, manual, macro, fish-eye, 3D, digiscoping and pinhole lenses, giving the user more creative control.

Considering my lifestyle and shooting style, most MILCs give me everything I look for in a camera. l have my image quality, features and lenses that allow me to experiment creatively-all In a compact camera that I can carry more comfortably than any DSLR. Despite having fewer external controls, it gives me enough freedom to shoot what I like anywhere I go. Plus, the side benefit of fewer moving parts is that it is sturdier-Ideal for a klutz like me. Armed with an MILC, I never have to worry about missing a snap-worthy shot taken at my own creative terms. Clearly, it’s a win-win situation, and we don’t get a lot of that in this Jumble of technological compromises

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Digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras are bulkier than the rest. there’s no doubt about that. They’re also the most challenging to operate and the most expensive of consumer still-cameras. In terms of portability and convenience, point-and-shoot cameras and smartphones seem to win the game, but DSLRs are definitely the flag-bearers in performance and quality.

BUILT FOR THE PROS

Obviously, DSLRs are for more advanced users-those who are into serious photography, not just happy snapping. DSLRs feature better-quality optics compared to point-and-shoot and micro-four-thirds models, and are also faster machines, which is why they are generally more expensive than their smaller brethren. These devices are truly tailored to fit the needs of professional photographers as it has more controls that allow one to fine-tune the intricate details of one’s photos.

Despite the presence of advanced controls, DSLRs are not too difficult to use. Many models have been made more newbie-friendly, offering full and semiautomatic modes, as well as in-camera guides that will help users learn to operate the device.

BUTTONS, DIALS, AND OTHER THINGS YOU CAN TURN AND PRESS

A DSLR has two main parts: the camera body and the lens. A standard camera body hosts a viewfinder, an LCD monitor, a menu button, a playback button, an EV compensation button, a control dial for tweaking exposure settings, a power switch, a shutter release button and other necessary controls. Unlike most point-and-shoot cameras, DSLRs not only have a built-in flash, but also a hotshoe for an external speed lite.

The lens can be removed from the camera and replaced by another lens with the same mount. A telephoto zoom lens lets one zoom in and out of a scene, while a prime lens Is one that has only one fixed focal length. Macro lenses are especially made for shooting subjects up close, while wide-angle lenses enable the photographer to shoot at a wide perspective. There are also special lenses that provide effects, such as fish-eye lenses.

WHAT GOES ON INSIDE

As mentioned, the lens and the camera body are the two main parts of a DSLR. Inside the lens is an aperture unit. which controls the amount of light admitted through the lens. In photography, aperture Is measured in values called F-stops. The bigger the F-stop, the larger the opening of the lens is. The aperture unit closes by 50 percent as the F-stop values go up.

As light enters in the lens, it hits a mirror. The mirror will then bounce the light upwards, and it will project itn image onto the ground glass. In order for the photographer to see the Image on that ground glass, the light bounces around through a prism system and through a diopter, which is where one looks through the camera in the viewfinder. This briefly explains why we are able to see exactly what our camera Is pointed at when looking Into a DSLR.

Now that you know how the viewfinder works, you might ask. “How does it take pictures?”Well, when you press the shutter button, the mirror flips upward, moving out of the way so that the light can make its way to the image sensor.

Before the light hits the sensor, however, it must pass through the shutter. The shutter is a two-part system: there’s a first curtain and a second curtain. Upon hitting the shutter release button, the mirror flips up and the first curtain swiftly pulls apart from the second, allowing light to hit the sensor.

This “exposes” the sensor to light. in the same way thata filmstrip is exposed in an analog SLR. The second curtain then comes down to close the shutter and block the light off. Shutter speed is the measure of how fast the shutter opens and closes. Setting a shutter speed value of 1/2000, for instance, means that the speed at which the shutter will open and close is two-thousandths of a second. As the shutter closes, the mirror pops back down and returns the image to the viewfinder. The sensor records the image onto the storage medium, and in about a second or so, you’ll be able to see the image on the LCD screen.

WHAT ELSE CAN IT DO

Since the release of Canon’s EOS 50 Mark II, Full HD video recording has become an industry standard in DSLR technology, but the incorporation of high-resolution video recording capabilities was just the beginning of a new era for the DSLR. Since then, there have already been a lot of new additions to the list of what a DSLR can do.

Translucent mirrors are one of the most recent developments In DSLRs. What’s tricky about DSLRs is that one cannot see what’s going on in the frame while the camera is taking the picture because the mirror moves out of the way each time the shutter release button Is pressed. With a translucent mirror on board, the light that passes through the lens can reach the sensor even if the mirror remains fixed. Instead, the light penetrates the mirror as it makes its way to the sensor. Since the translucent mirror doesn’t budge, the viewfinder doesn’t black out when you hit the shutter button and users will be able to see exactly what they’re taking a picture of. The use of a translucent mirror also reduces camera shake brought about by the flipping of the mirror, and Increases the frame rate for continuous shooting.

Many DSLR models nowadays feature wireless capabilities. Some of these models enable users to transfer photos directly from the camera to their smartphones and tablets, while others already have built-in apps that let users upload photos to Facebook or email them directly from the camera. Some incorporate GPS technology, which means that when you upload your photo on Facebook, the location where the picture was taken will be indicated. DSLRs with wireless capabilities usually come bundled with apps that enable users to use their smartphone or tablet as a remote viewfinder.

One can only wonder what the next step manufacturers will take to make these trusty DSLR better, handier and, most importantly, relevant. Judging by the pace of things, I think a long wait won’t be necessary for us to find out.

First published in Gadgets Magazine, April 2013

Words by Jose Alvarez, Ren Alcantara, Cla Gregorio, and Racine Anne Castro