What You Might Want And What You Really Need; A New Column On Making The Right Purchasing Decisions

My friend wanted to begin shooting digital images of small objects for his company’s website, so he asked me to get him a deal on an expensive, full-frame D-SLR. The images were to be used primarily online at low resolution, and occasionally in an HTML e-mail newsletter. They were using a professional photographer to shoot the artwork for brochures, packaging, and their trade show booth. His plan was to supplement these efforts by handling the down-and-dirty, low-res stuff himself. He has no aspirations of unseating the pro.

There’s nothing unusual about someone asking me to help them buy a piece of photo equipment. Friends usually broach the subject by asking if I can “get them a deal” (by which they mean a bargain price). But getting the best deal doesn’t necessarily mean getting the lowest price. Getting the best deal means buying the most appropriate product to satisfy a specific need.

In this case, the camera my friend had chosen was gross overkill for the project he had planned, and I told him so. He simply didn’t need to spend that much money. His project had a very low-performance threshold—many modestly-priced cameras had more than enough horsepower to do the job he had outlined. In fact, I told him he should be more deeply concerned about the shooting environment—the lighting and background in particular—than the megapixel level of the camera.

To my surprise, he gave me an argument, and parroted—nearly word for word—what the manufacturer had posted on their website to promote the camera. He’s a smart guy, mind you, with years of experience in consumer electronics. Nevertheless, he had accepted the manufacturer’s advertising propaganda and embraced the marketing message.

And that got me thinking. We could all use a dose of straight talk now and again to help us separate the objective facts from the hyperbole. The photographic marketplace is fiercely competitive, and manufacturers rightfully do their best to present their products in the best possible light. And because we are such enthusiastic consumers, we convince ourselves that it’s necessary to upgrade our gear every time something new is introduced. There is absolutely nothing wrong with always buying the latest model and maxing out on specifications—it’s just not always necessary, that’s all. Even if you have unlimited funds, overbuying can lead to disappointment. And if you’re trying to make your budget go further, it’s helpful to know where you can save a buck—by buying smart—without compromising value.

Buying smart—that’s what this series is all about. Every month or so we’ll take a close look at a different category of photo products. We’ll consider everything from single-use batteries to underwater housings, from backpacks to ball heads. We will examine the facts in an objective and realistic way, without emotion or exaggeration, so you can make an informed buying decision.

Now, this doesn’t mean that we’ll automatically recommend against trading in your Canon PowerShot G9 for a G10. But it does mean that we’ll tell you it’s a bad idea to do so if the only reason you’re considering it is to gain a couple megapixels. The G10 has a 14.7-megapixel CCD and that’s cool, but there won’t be enough improvement in resolution to justify parting with your 12.1-megapixel G9. On the other hand, if you absolutely positively need the 28mm wide angle lens that the G10 features, we’ll tell you to go for it. And you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you scrutinized your options from all angles and made an educated purchase decision.

Since we’re on the subject of standout point-and-shoots, we might as well begin with them. I often hear questions like this one: if you are considering a high-end compact camera—a point-and-shoot model that delivers results nearly as satisfying as the images you routinely get from your D-SLR—how many megapixels do you need? To me this question is as ill-conceived as asking, “How many grapes are necessary to make a great-tasting wine?”

By definition, compact cameras are small, and so are the imaging sensors within. Most point-and-shoot models in the 7- to 10-megapixel range have CCD sensors that measure around 1/2.3” diagonally. That confusing fraction is actually 1 divided by 2.3, or 0.43”.

The Fujifilm FinePix F31fd, which was discontinued a couple of years ago, has a sensor that’s 1/1.7” (or 0.59 expressed as a decimal). It’s “only” 6 megapixels, but those 6-million photosites are distributed over an area that’s roughly 50 percent larger than the sensor found on the average 10-megapixel camera. You can see where this is going. When many pixels are packed into a small area, the pitch, or distance between pixels, is necessarily smaller. That’s inescapable physics. The result is noise. The noise increases as the ISO setting increases. The Fuji F30, by comparison, delivers silky-smooth, noise-free images even at higher ISO settings—which helps explain why Fujifilm F-series cameras fetch a high price on the secondhand market.

Manufacturers program noise reduction algorithms into the camera’s digital signal processing ASIC (Application Specific Integrated Circuit) to eradicate the noise. Unfortunately, that process often diminishes sharpness along the way. Some camera makers do this better than others. Fujifilm, in this example, does an exceptional job, thanks to their Super CCD technology. But to begin with, on some models at least, they have the mathematics in their favor, and that’s the point. A camera that has 6 megapixels of photosites spread out over a large area will likely produce results that are overall more desirable than one that has 10 megapixels confined to a smaller area.

That’s not to say that megapixels do not matter. They do. People who disbelieve this should do some shooting with a VGA (640x480) resolution camera. A higher resolution image file will produce a larger print, for example. And it’s much easier to satisfactorily crop a higher resolution image.

As with many things, there is a performance threshold for camera resolution. Once the threshold is surpassed, there is little (if any) discernible improvement in performance. The example I often use is Microsoft’s Word, the de facto standard word processing application. Would you pay $20 more to buy a program that delivered twice as many features as Microsoft’s Word? If you’re like me, you’re only using about 20 percent of Word’s capability anyway. You’d be spending $20 for unhancements. (We all know what an “enhancement” is, right? Meet the “unhancement.” It’s a feature that costs more but doesn’t really do more.)

Getting the best deal on a compact digital camera means buying the model that most appropriately meets your needs. What is most important to you? Raw image files? Pocket-size portability? Rank your priorities before you pick your product. Keep megapixels in the proper perspective. That’s buying smart.

You can read Jon Sienkiewicz’s Blog at: www.shutterbug.com.