Behind The Lens

By Team Digit | Published on 01 Apr 2005
Behind The Lens
Digital cameras are fast replacing their film-based cousins. Digicams have quickened the process of clicking and viewing images, and their costs have also come down substantially. This southward trend continues as newer and better cameras flood the market. All this has made the digital camera the instrument of choice for amateur photographers.

What Goes Into The Making?
Though it's physically smaller than many other computer peripherals, the digital camera is not a simple piece of technology. From the lens and sensor processor, to the memory, and finally the storage device, everything works in sync. The final result is there for you to see on the LCD screen within a matter of seconds. Here, we go a little deeper into each of these components to see how their functions affect the overall quality of the camera-and that of your pictures.

The Lens
The lens is the eye of any camera. It is what focuses the image and projects it onto the sensor, which in turn captures it. Image quality, therefore, depends on the quality of the lens.

Digital cameras come with either a fixed focus lens or a zoom lens. A fixed focus lens doesn't give you the option to zoom in on distant objects. A zoom lens, on the other hand, can zoom in on objects depending on the optical zoom capacity of the lens. Therefore, if you are planning to buy a camera for outdoor shots, especially landscape photography, it is advisable to opt for a model that has at least 5x optical zoom.

Nature photography enthusiasts need to pay attention to the macro focus range of the camera. A smaller macro distance will enable you to move closer to the object. Digital cameras also have a digital zoom option, which is nothing but software interpolation of an image. They do this by cropping the central part of the image and reducing its resolution, thus making it appear as if it's been zoomed into. However, the quality of the image suffers heavily because of this reduced resolution.

The sensor's function is to capture the light coming in through the lens. This information, which is in the form of light, is converted into a digital signal and forwarded to the processor for reconstruction. A high-quality sensor will reproduce a crisp image.

Cameras with a low cycle time are easy to use when images have to be captured in quick succession, for instance, in wildlife photography

Sensors are of two types: CMOS (Complimentary Metal Oxide Semiconductor) and CCD (Charge Coupled Device). Low-cost CMOS sensors are found in low-end cameras. CCDs, on the other hand, are found in most mid-level to prosumer-class cameras. CCDs offer better image quality, but at the same time, are expensive to manufacture. CMOS is cheaper to produce, consumes lesser power, and current improvements in quality have helped it find a place in high-end digital SLR cameras such as the Canon 350D.

The Processing Engine
The camera's processor gets its information from the sensor and starts reconstructing the image. Here, speed is of prime importance, you wouldn't like to sit idle for a full minute while your processor crunches numbers. The start-up time and time interval (cycle time) between two shots depends on the processing engine. Cameras such as the Sony DSC-P100 boot up very quickly, and you don't have to wait long after clicking one pic to click the next. The Canon IXUS400, with its DIGIC processor, is another camera with a low cycle time. Cameras with a low cycle time are easy to use when images have to be captured in quick succession, for instance, in wildlife photography.

The small pieces of plastic that store captured images are called memory cards. The speed at which an image is stored depends on the card's read-write speed. Thus, a card with a fast write speed reduces the time interval required between two shots, and a lower read time means faster image transfer to a PC. MultiMedia Card (MMC), SecureDigital (SD), Compact Flash (CF), xD-Picture card and MemoryStick Pro are some of the widely-used memory card formats. SD cards have one advantage over the others: they are compatible with MMC. Many models, such as the HP Photosmart R707 and the Samsung V5,support both formats.

An important point to note, however, is that the camera writes the data onto the memory card at a certain speed, say 12x. Thus a faster card, with a faster write speed-say 40x-need not mean improved performance if the camera cannot handle it.

The Interface
USB is the interface of choice for digital cameras. The newer generation cameras come with the faster USB2.0 interface, which can transfer data at a maximum speed of 480 Mbps. Of course, to take advantage of this, you need a USB2.0-compatible PC. Digital cameras also come with the A/V port, using which one can view images on a television set.
Usability Does Matter
Since most low-end digital cameras come with some level of manual override, getting to any feature using the menu needs to be easy. As you move towards better cameras, the complexities increase. High-end cameras have more features and manual overrides. This in turn means a deeper and more complex menu structure. Navigating through such a menu can be a problem if it is not well laid out. The problem gets compounded if the buttons aren't placed intuitively. Therefore, while checking the other aspects of a camera such as the megapixel count, number of flash modes etc, make sure that the menu is easy to navigate and buttons are easily accessible.

Kodak cameras have menus with the easiest navigation. Every feature is neatly arranged and the sub-menus are just a few clicks away. Also, the menu is standardised for all their cameras, so an upgrade from a low-end camera to a higher-end one is easy.

Sony, on the other hand, has a cumbersome menu with tiny captions, which takes a while getting used to. One needs to remember that a  compact camera will have tiny buttons, and menu navigation will therefore get a little tedious.

What Size And Shape Suits You?
With the reduction in size, the form factor of a digital camera has also changed. If you take a look at the current generation of digital cameras, you will notice that they are not plain boxes with a flash and a shutter button. Nowadays, you have ergonomically-designed cameras such as the Sony DSC-P100, and the Exilim from Casio, which is thin and fits snugly in your pocket. Even heavy-duty, performance-oriented cameras such as the Kodak 6490 with 10X optical zoom have extremely compact bodies, and are not very heavy.

The digital camera, however, is not devoid of its share of problems-first and foremost, storage capacity and battery life. Most cameras come with very little memory-usually 8 to 16 MB. This makes it difficult for shutterbugs, as a 16 MB card cannot hold more than 20 images taken at a 3-megapixel resolution. So, if you are planning on an extensive outdoor shoot, it is advisable to spend some extra money and get a 512 MB memory card.

Battery life is another major area of concern: if the camera has a regular Li-Ion battery, you need to purchase at least one extra battery pack. But this is not going to help you much if you are on vacation and do not have a power source to recharge your batteries. If your camera runs on regular batteries, you can carry as many extra batteries as possible. This, however, will prove expensive in the long run.

The Current Market
The grey market is still the market of choice for most digital camera buyers in India. The obvious reason for this is price.

Vendors' Contact Numbers 
  • Sony India Ltd: 1600 1111 88
  • Kodak: 1600 2249 49
  • Canon: 39010101
  • HP: 1600 447 737

The Nikon Coolpix 5100 is the best example of the price difference. The camera, if purchased from an authorised dealer, would set you back by Rs 20,800-but is available for just Rs 11,750 in the grey market. On one leading online site, the same model is priced even lower-at Rs 10,500. The HP Photosmart, which we tested in October 2004, had an official price tag of Rs 29,990, and the grey market price is Rs 14,000. Companies such as Kodak, however, sell their cameras at competitive prices, making it difficult to find their models in the grey market.

With big brands such as Sony, Canon and HP having already set up shop in the country, and with duties on electronic goods decreasing after every Budget, it makes sense to buy a genuine product from an authorised distributor. This gets you a warranty, which takes care of any damage to your camera within the warranty period, and even a replacement if there is any serious flaw in your camera.

Companies have also come up with innovative ways to wean the consumer off the grey market. For instance, Sony sends a representative to your house to walk you through the various features of the camera. This service is, however, limited to only a few cities. Then there's also Kodak, which has a toll free number to help you arrange for a professional photographer.

The price factor is still very important in India, than in some other countries-so how the 'white' market fares vis-a-vis the grey market remains to be seen.


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