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Becoming digitally aware (11/09/2003)
By Tom Hirsch
A major difference between film and digital photography is the monitor on the back of a digital camera that provides immediate feedback to the photographer. The LCD display can be used either as a previewing device after pictures have been taken or as the picture-taking viewfinder. This imaging device is great as a representation of the final picture, but shouldn't be considered image-quality. The number of pixels that make up the LCD image is far less than that of the recorded image, so the monitor must be viewed as a device for getting only an approximation of the final image.

On some digital cameras, mostly the older and less expensive ones, bright sunlight washes out the LCD display to the degree that it's virtually useless as a viewfinder or monitoring device. If the problem exists, covering your head and camera with a sweater or jacket can provide enough darkness. Some of the newer digital cameras have brighter screens and/or brightness controls in the menu options for enhancing the image on the monitor.

Also, the LCD monitor uses battery power quite rapidly. To conserve power, use the optical viewfinder whenever possible. Reserve the monitor for previewing your images and for close-up shots, or when precise cropping is desirable.

Speaking of menu options, most digital cameras provide a great variety of choices in several categories, such as JPEG and TIFF or RAW, or some other mode. Other choices might include exposure options commonly found on higher-end film cameras.

One option might be Program Mode. This is used in general shooting when there are no lighting challenges that would throw off the exposure. The camera would arbitrarily choose the aperture and shutter speed.

In the Aperture-Priority Mode, you select the aperture. For example, in close-up work you might select the smallest aperture provided by the camera (such as f/8, if it's available) in order to provide maximum depth-of-field. As a matter of fact, at a given aperture, digital cameras give greater depth of field than film cameras anyway.

Shutter-Priority Mode is another option. On some inexpensive digital cameras, 1/100 second is the default shutter speed, with 1/400 being the maximum. Some high-end digital cameras might go as high as 1/8000 of a second, or even higher.

Another option is the ISO selection. You can in effect increase the camera's sensitivity in low-light situations. This is appropriate when shooting at dawn or dusk in available light conditions. You're not exactly changing the ISO. This is a term used in film photography to designate the film's relative sensitivity to light. Since digital photography doesn't utilize film, the term is used for comparative purposes.

White Balance Control might be another option. With it, you can balance the coloration of the picture for the color of the light under which it is shot. For example, fluorescent light will create a greenish cast, and tungsten lights can make things look yellowish. Your camera might have several ways of adjusting for the correct balance under various lighting conditions. Read about it in the camera manual.

Many digital cameras offer two types of zooming: optical zooming through the viewfinder, and digital through the LCD monitor. Optical zooming creates a true zoom effect. The image is enlarged while the pixel count remains constant. In digital zooming, the pixels are enlarged along with the image, so fewer pixels make up the final image, resulting in a somewhat lower quality picture. Optically zoom whenever possible.

If you do your own printing from images collected on a digital camera, there is one fundamental rule that should never be broken: Never alter a JPEG image on the computer because valuable pixels will be lost. JPEG is called a "lossy" mode. Always save the image to be worked on in another format such as a BMP (Bitmap), TIFF, or some other "losless" format. I confess that I once broke this rule, and I was sorry later that I did because I needed a good quality image from it, but the original quality was forever gone. Bummer. 


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