GFF's guide to selecting and using a digital camera
Please notice that this article series was started in 2002!By Martin Joergensen (supported by Henning Eskol)
Back then digital cameras were few and far between, and film cameras, macrom lenses and scanning your flies in a flat bed scanner was the order of the day.
Today most people have a digital camera (or even a phone), which can do decent macro shots, and much of what you can read here is very out of date. But the general methods and advice still holds, and the articles should still be worth reading.
Update to the update to the update
- March 2010
It should be obvious considering the development within digital cameras during the recent years, that I have had no chance to keep up. I myself have eaten my way though several generations of digital cameras, and although I have kept to Canon Powershots, the model I have today (D10) can both do video in decent quality, does excellent macro, delivers 12 megapixel images in stunning quality and is waterproof on top of that! Most modern compact digital cameras will deliver great images these days, and all I'm concerned about regarding fly photography is the macro. The closer the better, and a macro limit of about 1 inch or 2-3 centimeters seem to be the standard for the best cameras. Aim for that and you will be fine. And then enjoy the text below and the ancient cameras - the message is still true, but technology has outrun the gear.
Update to the update
- June 2005
This section of the article "From Feathers to Bits
" was done in early 2004 in a feeble attempt to keep the article current with the development in digital cameras. Needless to say that the effort has been almost fruitless. The cameras mentioned herein are now several generations old and no longer available.
My recommentation to people who want to acquire a digital camera for macro work is to heed the general advice given here and read reviews from a more current source such as Digital Photography Review, which in my opinion is the best site on the technical side of the subject.
Much water has run under the bridge since this series was first published many years ago. Most of it still withstands the sharp teeth of time, and apart from a couple of Photoshop upgrades and a few niftier and less expensive scanners, what was said in the original article is still very much true - except for in one area: digital cameras. When this article was coined there was no digital camera on the market that could offer justice to flies in the quality we demand. That has changed!
The new breed
The first digital camera I played with for a longer period was an Agfa ePhoto 780, which was a wonder when I got it, but with its 640*480 pixels pictures, slow reaction times and enormous appetite on batteries, was somewhat an torment to use. And its macro capabilities were non-existent.
It was impressive anyway, but just not for this particular use.
After the Agfa came many other models. I have tried Nikons, Olympuses and Canons by the score, and over the years their performance got better and better.
The Nikon 99x's (990, 995 and later 4500) were the first ones I saw with really good macro facilities.
The digital camera I use now is a very modest Nikon CoolPix 775. At just 2 megapixels it will impress no one these days, and the current model (Nikon 2100) is available at very reasonable prices - about US$ 200.- in the US or € 200.- in Europe - a bit more these days.
It still has what I need: good facilities, sufficient resolution, good optics, compact measures and first of all that really great macro mode.
All this just to say that a skimpy, inexpensive 2 megapixel camera will enable you to take some really nice pictures, both for web and print use.
This said I have to add that my good friend Henning just bought a Canon PowerShot A80, which has a resolution of 4 megapixels. And indeed, there is a difference. His camera more than doubles the quality of what I can produce with my slightly dated Nikon. Were I to buy a camera today, I would definitely consider nothing less than 4 magapixels.
(PS: I actually did buy a Canon PowerShot A80 after having written this, and I'm very happy with it.)
What to look for
I will exclude the digital SLR's. People who buy these expensive and complex cameras usually need little advice from guys like me. They are nice cameras, but still out of the price range for most of us.
I also part with the idea of buying an pricey high end camera without an interchangeable lens. If I were to spend that much money, I'd buy a true SLR anyway.
That leaves us with a bunch of low and mid range compact style cameras from a whole bunch of manufacturers.
When you go looking for such a digital camera for fly photography, consider the following aspects:
- lens quality and zoom range
- macro facilities
- memory type, amount and limits
- physical format and layout
- battery type and capacity
- flash capability
You want as much as you can get and at least 3 or 4 megapixels. The best high end compact cameras offer 5 and 6 megapixels - even 8. Nice but no necessity if your aim is to publish on the web. For print work 6 megapixels is great, but I have had 2 magapixel pictures printed with good results.
Still, there is no reason to go for 2 megapixels or less. Prices are low enough to justify better. If you are so inclined, last year's 2-3 megapixels model may do it for you - as it has done for me for a long time. Most of my digital fly pictures here on GFF have been taken with a 2 megapixels camera, and for web use that is more than sufficient. If you want pictures for print, 4-6 megapixels will be nice.
Lens quality and zoom range
It is not for the sake of your blue eyes that manufacturers advertise Carl Zeiss lenses and multi layer coatings or mention good lens quality and high light sensitivity.
The lens is the first step in the light's path to the good picture, and it has to be good. Many of the less expensive cameras have mediocre lenses with distortion, blurred edges and corners and other optical errors. Avoid them.
Notice the lowest aperture of the camera. The lower the better. 2.8 is excellent. 3.5 is good, but 4.5 or even 5.6 may give you a hard time when light levels are low.
Also make note of the zoom range of the camera. Get the information as 35mm equivalent - meaning "as it would be on a 35mm (24*36) SLR camera".
Wide should be wide - 35 mm or less and tele should be 100 mm or more.
Ignore all praises of "digital zoom" and 12 or 20 times zoom ranges. This is nothing else than a cropping of the picture followed by an extrapolation, and gives inferior quality.
Digital zoom is much better performed by a good photo editing program than by the camera - and is best avoided altogether.
This is the same section of the fly enlarged to almost the same size - exactly 200 percent of the original for the 4 megapixel picture and exactly 300 percent for the 2 megapixel. The enlargement has been done with very close attention to maintainin the original detail level and the pictures have been saved in high quality JPEG-format. Hold your mouse cursor over the picture to see the high rez picture and move it out to see the low rez.
You can click here to see the full, unmodified originals as they came out of the cameras:
Nikon Coolpix 775 (2 megapixels) and Canon PowerShot A80 (4 megapixels)
If you want to do fly pictures - which I assume you do, because you are reading this article - you need a proper and well above average macro mode.
This means a close range of about an inch preferably less and certainly not much more. A subject 5 or 10 inches from the lens will never be close enough to be close up. You need to get so close that a fly size #6 or #4 will fill out the whole picture. If you want to depict even smaller flies - like #22 midges - you need a really good macro or an additional closeup lens.
Many cameras are sold with macro facilities that are not nearly good enough for fly photography. Make sure that the closest range in macro position is close enough for your needs by testing and reading specs and reviews.
Memory type, amount and limits
Cameras use a number of memory types. Almost all come in the form of exchangeable cards that can be inserted and removed from the camera.
Avoid all cameras with built in or fixed memory. You will need to be able to exchange and expand memory.
What type you select is a matter of taste - and partly price.
The least expensive type is Compact Flash. These cards come in many capacities from 16 megabytes to 4 gigabytes and even more. Some cards even contain small hard disks! The format is common and widespread.
Less common are Sony memory sticks, SmartMedia and the recent and fast emerging SD cards.
Personally I opt for the Compact Flash because of their price, availability and versatility. A lot of cameras use them, and my Minolta Digital SLR uses them. My family's two Canons and a Nikon use them and they all share cards, which again can be shared with a bunch of friends whose cameras also use CF cards.
And how much memory do you need? Well, that depends on how lazy you are and how often you can empty the card. For table top use the 32 Megabytes card that comes with many cameras can be fine.
But for more flexible use get at least 128 Mb no matter the resolution. That will give you about 130 pictures in a 2 megapixels camera and half of that in a 4 magapixels model. I prefer cards, which have room for at least 50 pictures, and 100 is even better.
Buy several cards in stead of one large if you have the need for more pictures. 4 cards of each 256 Mb will yield one Gigabyte and probably cost you less. It will diminish the risk of loosing all pictures on one card due to breakdown or theft. Loosing a quarter of your production is bad enough.
Physical format and layout
There are a number of different physical formats on cameras ranging from true SLR's with interchangeable optics over ordinary compact camera formats to the very compact, ultra small cameras. In between - or outside of that range - we find the radically differently designed cameras with tubular bodies or parts that swing and turn in different ways.
I personally prefer an ordinary, not too small, compact camera if I cannot get an SLR.
Midrange and top-of-the-line compacts have LCD screens that are swivelled and can be swung out and angled - much like we see it on modern camcorders. These are extremely convenient, especially if you do a lot of macro work, where the camera often will be mounted low, and an LCD on the back side of the camera will be hard to see.
I also like a small hand grip and a large shutter button, but your mileage may vary on this.
Battery type and capacity
Most cameras still come with rechargeable batteries and a charger. But as competition gets sharper and prices fall, even the large manufacturers choose to leave out rechargeables and go for standard AA or AAA batteries.
No matter what, you will need rechargeable batteries. If your camera don't come with them, buy a set. Make sure that you get high capacity cells (1800-2300 mAh) and an intelligent charger that can recharge them in less than an hour - and maybe even goes in a plug in your car. Low capacity cells and slow chargers will kill you.
Standard battery sizes are nice because you can get them everywhere, but only use them as a backup if you are not able to charge the rechargeable ones.
Some cameras come with an AC adaptor, others have this as an accessory. If you shoot a lot of fly pictures on a table top, this might be a good solution for keeping the camera working for long hours without battery wear.
The facilities in even modestly equipped digital cameras are so numerous that it is far beyond the scope of this article to cover them.
I will stress three factors that are useful in fly photography:
Macro again. Macro control must be above average.
White balance. Make sure you have many setting and a manual override.
Manual settings. Not a must, but certainly nice to have. Aperture control is particularly nice if you want a good depth-of-field.
Remote control. The ability to operate the camera from a computer is very welcome when you do alot of fly pics. This can save the whole transferring step.
Apart from that, you need to be able to shut off the flash on purpose and a delayed shutter is also nice to avoid shaking the pictures.
I don't stress this aspect very much. You will not need the flash for fly photos. Ambient outdoors light or a good set of lamps is a much better option, and the built in flashes in smaller cameras are no good for macro photography anyway.
Some cameras have hot shoes or sockets for external flashes, and with a couple of good flashes and some care taken in the setup, you can get some good results.
But lamps are easier to control, and the reddish tint of their light can easily be adjusted in the camera or in a photo editing program.
You will need good light for good pictures - and plenty.
The sun is a very good source if used properly. Some of my best fly pictures have been taken on the porch under a large white sun shade, which softens the sun perfectly. Hazy days are also good, and thin clouds with weak sun seeping through is also OK.
There are only a couple of disadvantages: you have to wait for the proper light and you have to get outdoors.
Artificial light for photography used to mean flashes or large, specially designed lamps. But you have two things working for you here: the size of the objects you want to photograph and the white balance control of digital cameras.
These two things mean that smaller, inexpensive lamps will do fine. My coauthor Henning bought me three cheap, 50 Watts halogen lamps at less than 6 $US a piece. These are now my studio lamps. Combined with various cardboards for backgrounds, tin foil and black and white sheets of paper, they form a perfect little micro studio, well suited for fly photography.
I use the iridescent light setting or use a standard grey card to adjust white balance, and fiddle with the manual settings for aperture and shutter to get the right light. And I take dozens of alternative pictures of the same fly until I get what I want.