Al Campbell, Field Editor

September 30th, 2002

Photography Up Close
Digital Photography
By Al Campbell

As I mentioned last time, another tool that can be used to take close-up photos is a digital camera. Like any method, there are advantages and disadvantages to using a digital camera. Depending on your needs, either a digital camera or a film camera might be the best choice.

The first and possibly greatest advantage digital cameras have over film cameras is the fact that they don't use film, so you don't have to visit a photo developer before you can use your pictures. Simply snap your pictures, download them onto a computer, then crop, edit and otherwise manipulate the pictures as needed. Since you don't use film, there are no developing costs to worry about and your pictures are ready for use almost immediately.

Close Up Caddis

Digital cameras store all their images either inside the camera or on thin disks about the size of a saltine cracker. What seems amazing is, depending on the capacity of the disk, each disk can store as many pictures as three or more rolls of standard 36 shot film. Airport x-ray machines don't alter the characteristics of the images on digital film, and a pocket full of digital cards is equivalent to way more than a pocket full of standard film.

Grasshopper Head

The next advantage most digital cameras have over traditional film cameras is their ability to balance your existing light to create correct colors. Incandescent and fluorescent lamps create a color shift on film that can ruin a picture, but that color shift can be balanced out on a digital camera. The result is a picture with correct colors, all with common lighting implements, even a flashlight if that's all you have available. If you use artificial light with film, you either have to use expensive and sometimes very hot lights, or you have to use an expensive flash array. Digital lighting is far less complicated.

Yellow Jacket Antennae Many digital cameras have excellent macro modes and can take surprisingly clear and detailed pictures up close. I can get close enough for pictures of a bee or grasshopper that show individual specks of pollen on their body or head. If you want to count the barbs on the leg of a caddisfly, a quality digital camera is a good place to start.

The key to detailed digital pictures is a high pixel count. The best digital pictures are produced from cameras with the highest pixel count. If you want decent 4X6 pictures from your digital camera, you need a pixel count of 2 megapixels or higher. A camera with 3.2 megapixels or more will produce nice 8X10 pictures. If you want magazine cover photo quality, you want a camera that has a 4 to 5 megapixel count or higher.

Horsehair ribbing on size 20 fly

Perhaps the greatest macro advantage I've found with digital cameras is the increased depth of field I get in the macro mode. In some cases, that depth of field is three times as deep as the depth I get with a film camera and my best macro lens. Increased depth of field provides sharper pictures that are in full focus on both sides of the fly. I like that.

I use a Nikon digital camera with a 3.2 megapixel count. As long as I don't crop the picture, it produces very nice 8x10 prints. It can magnify an item to several times its real size in the macro mode. A bonus is the fact that my camera is small enough to fit in a shirt pocket. The colors it captures are incredible. For anything close, it's my favorite camera, especially if I'm using artificial lighting.

Digital has a few problems you need to be aware of too. They are very, very susceptible to damage from moisture. Even a little saltwater will destroy these machines, and a drop of freshwater in the right place will send you looking for another camera. Maybe someday soon somebody will create quality digital that is waterproof, but that hasn't happened yet and I don't know of any in the works. In the meantime, protect yourself and get an Aquapac waterproof bag. (See the Sponsor page.)


Another problem with affordable (under $1000) digital cameras is the fact that most don't have interchangeable lenses. You're stuck with the lens and optical telephoto range of the camera. Some companies offer magnifying lenses that fit over the camera's lens, but they are nothing more than magnifying filters with all the depth of field and lighting problems associated with that type of device.

If you don't have a fast computer with plenty of Random Access Memory (RAM), manipulating your digital photos will either be a pain in the backside or impossible for you to accomplish. Most photo developing companies now offer digital developing, but it is just as costly or maybe even more costly than regular film developing, and most won't manipulate the image for the best color or details for you. If you want to get the most out of your digital photos, you need a good computer and a good photo-capable printer to go with it.

Squash Bug

Finally, if you want to publish your digital photos or get them published, you need some good imaging software to go with your good computer. There are several good ones on the market with Adobe PhotoDeluxe on or near the top of the desirable list, but that software will empty your wallet of about as much cash as the camera cost. Other brands of software can do a good job, but you won't get the ease and full features the costly software offers. (Castwell uses U Lead Photo Impact for this website.) The software that comes bundled with your camera is usually just a minimum-featured program; good for web sites and family photos, but useless or at least difficult to use for publication.

Caddis Pupa

I won't try to tell you which camera to buy or what is on the market right now that will deliver the best pictures. I know there are several companies that make digital cameras that will deliver great photos and I believe that the guys who already produce good film cameras are either at the top or at least close to the top of the list. Considering the fact that Sony has teamed up with Carl Zeiss to provide a digital camera with Zeiss glass, I'd have to list them near the top too. I won't say one brand is better than the other; but I do think my choice of Nikon camera equipment was a good one based on the quality for cost equation.

Nikon CoolPix 880

My personal equipment includes a Nikon CoolPix 880 digital camera. At 3.2 megapixels, it is capable of producing crystal-clear glossy pictures that cover half a page in printed magazines. I also have a 1.2 giga-hertz computer with more than 720 meg of RAM and four hard drives to manipulate and store my images. I use five different types of imaging software to tweak and adjust my digital photos. I have a Canon FS-4000US slide scanner that scans slides at a density of 4000 pixels per inch (that's better than many magazines have). My HP Deskjet 5550 color printer can produce color photos from my digital images that will rival anything you can get from a photo-developing company. My newest acquisition is the Nikon 5700 below, I'm still experimenting to see what it will do.

Nikon 5700

That said; keep in mind that I'm a professional writer and photographer who has the advantage of deducting the cost of his equipment from his taxes. I roll virtually all of my writing and photography income over into more and better equipment to keep ahead of the game. As Hans Weilenmann might say, "your mileage may vary." If you don't have, and can't afford that type of equipment; get the best you can afford. Cutting corners on the quality of your equipment will only limit the quality of your photos and increase the time and frustration it takes to get the results you want.

Next time we'll look at lighting and how you can improve the look of your photos with the right lights in the right places. ~ AC

Previous Al Campell Columns

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