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Digital Photography: Take Your Best Shot

When you decide it's time to take your own digital images, a good place to start is with still photography. With a relatively low investment, you can set yourself up to take non-motion, still images such as studio product shots. Let's review the basics of setting up a studio to capture digital still images.

Camera and accessories: tools and features

Must-Have Camera Features. Make sure your camera supports these basic requirements for shooting images for print.

  • Megapixels. Bigger CCDs make for larger high-resolution printed images possible. Get the biggest you can afford!
  • Threaded Lens Connection. Make sure your camera is designed to allow other lenses to be attached to it, as the examples below demonstrate.
  • Optical Zoom. Optical zoom uses tiny, motorized lenses to deliver more detail and better sharpness to the CCD. With only a digital zoom, the image gets coarser the more you zoom. Digital zoom enlarges the pixels you have, but captures no additional detail, just like working in Photoshop to resize an image.
  • Standards. Look for Compact Flash or Smart Card and support for USB2, and threading support for both lenses and a tripod. If you plan to shoot stills, look for remote control!

Ready For Your Close-Ups? Many of your still shots may be of subjects where you need to get a shot that's really close. Use a macro lens to keep close-up subjects in focus. The lens screws onto the camera body or main lens via universal threading found on higher quality cameras and lenses. In fact, both ends of these add-on filters/attachments are threaded, so you can add other items as needed. For example, add a halogen lamp and hood onto the macro lens for light that is brighter and softer than the built-in flash and is meant for use when shooting close-ups.


Filters Fantastic. With just a twist, you can attach lenses and filters, if your camera supports threaded attachments. While there are many filters available, start with polarizing and color filters to boost contrast and tonal range. Try to find filters with the same diameter as your camera's built-in lens or its optional lens converter; otherwise use a step-down ring to connect mismatched sizes, like the 58mm-55mm rings to the left.


Lighting Options. From soft boxes to barn doors, there is a light or light accessory for just about every situation. Lights, along with lenses, are the bulk of your non-computer investment in digital photography. The more you control the light, the better your images will be. Here are a few accessories to consider for starters.


Tripod & Barn-Doors. Another must-have, especially for doing product stills is a tripod. It makes all the difference in the world in capturing crisp, sharp images using longer exposures than is possible if you hold the camera. Finally, consider getting a set of barn-doors for your starter lights. They will really help you control and direct the light for your shoots.


Understanding megapixels

What does a megapixel measure? 'Megapixel' refers to the size of a camera's charge-coupled device (CCD), the part of the camera that is exposed to light to measure the pixels' color values. The size of a CCD is calculated by multiplying its width in pixels by its height in pixels. As of this writing, the Canon G7 camera, for example, has a CCD measuring just over 3,648 x 2,736 pixels. Multiply them, and you get around 9,980,000, hence a ten-megapixel camera.

How do megapixels relate to print? If you plan to save your images at 300 DPI for commercial printing, divide 3,648 by 300 DPI (just over 12") and 2,736 by 300 DPI (just over 9"). With a good camera that captures sharp images, you may be able to enlarge originals another 25% to 50%. Based on this required resolution, a ten-megapixel camera can easily create a full-page 8.5" x 11" image for high-resolution print. Use this formula to calculate your camera's maximum image size.

Digital photography glossary & reference

There are a number of informative websites, books, and magazines to help you make a good decision when you are ready to buy. Each is updated frequently, which is critical with the pace of change in the digital camera industry.

www.dpreview.com, it's by far the most informative and comprehensive site on digital cameras, with in-depth reviews of most camera models by a very experienced photographer. Bookmark this one site if no where else.
www.amazon.com, can't beat the selection.
www.mysimon.com, a great place to search for the best available price. Be careful though, read the small print for shipping, make sure the camera isn't "gray market" from offshore it voids the warranty.

Digital Photo, on the web at www.pcphotomag.com.
Digital Photography Made Easy, one of several outstanding publications from the U.K. You can find it and others at larger bookstores or news stands.

There are hundreds of books on photography and easily dozens on digital photography. Three of the most helpful books we've come across are:

How to Do Everything With Your Digital Camera, by Dave Johnson.
The Photographer's Guide to Filters, by Lee.
Using Filters, published by Kodak Books.

Acetate. Clear plastic-like sheet often color tinted and fitted over studio lights.
Ambient Light. Natural, outdoor light.
Barn Doors. Set of four flaps that fit over the front of a studio light to control the direction of the light.
Boom. Long arm fitted with a counterweight allowing studio lights or reflectors to be positioned above subject.
Continuous Lighting. Sources that provide steady illumination, in contrast to flash which fires briefly.
Diffuser. Any kind of accessory which softens the output from a light source.
Effects Light. Studio light used to illuminate a specific part of the subject.
Fill Light. Studio light for reducing shadows.
Flash Head. Studio lighting unit which emits a quick and powerful burst of light.
Kelvin. Scale used for measuring the color of light. Daylight and electronic flash is balanced to 5500K.
Key Light. The main lighting source.
Light Meter. A light-sensitive device that is built into most digital cameras to determine the light level(s) prior to exposure of an image. Cameras uses these readings to determine the exposure length.
Reflector. Metal shade around a light source to control and direct the light, or a white or silvered surface used to redirect light. Ring flash. Circular flash tube which fits around the lens and produces a characteristic shadowless lighting.
Scrim. Any kind of material placed in front of a light to reduce its intensity.
Snoot. Black tapered cone that concentrates light.
Soft box. Popular lighting accessory that produces extremely soft light. Various sizes and shapes are available; the larger they are, the more diffuse the light.
Spot. A directional light source.
Swimming Pool. Large soft box for lighting.
Umbrella. Lighting accessory used to bounce a light source from and onto a subject. They come in a range of colors. The larger the umbrella, the softer the light.

Aperture. The circular area behind the lens that opens to allow light in and expose the film or digital CCD. Most cameras can vary the aperture's diameter to control the amount of light reaching the exposure plane.
Depth of Field. The difference between the nearest and furthest in-focus objects. The smaller the aperture, the larger the f/stop value. With a larger f/stop, more of the background will be in focus (greater depth of field).
A measurement of the diameter of the aperture's opening during exposure. The lower the f/stop, the larger the aperture will open and the more light will be sent to the sensor. For example, if you set the aperture to f/2.8, it is larger than f/8.
Film Speed/ISO. The sensitivity of a given film to light, rated by ISO [International Standards Organization] set standards. The higher the number, the more sensitive or faster the film becomes. Some digital cameras have an ISO setting that emulates film ISO by varying the CCD's light sensitivity. The digital image can be made to appear as if shot with a film with the corresponding ISO level.
Focal Length. The distance between the film and the optical center when the lens' focus is set to infinity.
Infinity. The farthest-away position of focus.
Optical vs. Digital Zoom. Optical zoom cameras rearrange and move internal lenses to achieve magnification. Digital zoom enlarges the image via pixel interpolation, like Photoshop, resulting in a lower-quality image. Because digital zoom doesn't generate any new image data, you don't see extra detail when compared to optical zoom.
Over- and Under-Exposure. Too much or too little light reaches the exposure plane. Over-exposure results in a light image with lost highlight detail; under-exposure results in a dark or muddy-looking image with lost shadow detail.
Shutter Speed. The time a camera's aperture remains open during exposure of an image. The slower the shutter speed, the longer the exposure.

8-bit vs. 16-bit. The amount of data (28 vs. 216) that can be used to describe the grayscale tone gradation for red, green or blue, for each pixel. An 8-bit image has 256 levels of tone description of each color for every pixel in the image.
CCD. [Charge Coupled Device] The light-sensitive instrument that records the image. Made up of thousands of pixel-sized sensors, each of which typically read only red, green or blue. The camera's "megabits" represent an approximate rounding of the size of the CCD array, which is determined by multiplying its horizontal pixel-sensors by its vertical ones.
Pixel. [Picture Element] The building blocks of a digital photo, and single unit of light capture.
RAW Format. The uncompressed data as it comes from the CCD. This may contain additional detail that can improve image quality when compared to saving in the JPEG format.
The density of pixels per measurement unit, expressed as a number of horizontal pixels by a number of vertical pixels. "300 DPI" scans measure 300 horizontal x 300 vertical pixels for a total of 90,000 pixels per square inch.


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