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[at-l] Camera choices

Choosing between digital and film cameras for hiking is not an easy job. I
shoot pictures for a living, and even though I'm almost entirely digital, we
still have discussions in our office about shooting specific assignments on

At the consumer level, advertising and camera-store hype makes it seem that
digital cameras are always better than film cameras -- better images, easy
professional photo quality, easy prints.

At the professional level, there is still a strong bias toward film,
especially among editors and designers. In this view, film inherently has
more detail, more resolution, etc., and thus is always better.

Both views are, of course, wrong. <grin> No, really, the whole thing is more
complicated than that. At the most basic level, a point-and-shoot consumer
digital camera is still just a point-and-shoot -- the camera controls the
focus and exposure, and you're just along for the ride. At the pro level,
everything I shoot goes for 4-color printing, which means everything ends up
as a digital file at some point in the process. A digital camera is just
another tool for making images, and you choose it the way you choose any
other camera, based on the end use and the shooting conditions.

You can get perfectly good images from either kind of camera. So let's look
at your basic consumer point-and-shoot cameras, one film, the other digital.
With both cameras, you are going to get well-exposed, properly-focused
photos most of the time. They are both small and light, and easy to use. But
there are differences, so let's look at those:

Digital advantages:

No film and processing costs
Lots of pictures on one tiny memory card
Easy to email photos to friends or put on web page
Easy to get prints made at local lab (costs same as film prints)
Can edit shots in camera and save only good ones

Digital disadvantages:

Digital cameras eat batteries like you would not believe
Much more expensive initial purchase
MAJOR delay in firing the shutter
Generally more delicate
Requires extra memory cards (expensive)
Some learning curve for picture editing

Film advantages:

Film is very widely available
Easy to get prints made anywhere
Less expensive to replace when you drop it <g>
Easier on batteries
Can shoot slide film if you want to
Color neg film has a much wider exposure latitude than digital
Film really does have higher resolution (though you can't always use it)

Film disadvantages:

Film takes up much more space/weight per shot
Film costs money to purchase and process
More work to scan for web/email

Note that we haven't talked about all the money you'll save making your own
8x10s at home on your ink-jet printer. That's because you'll find it a lot
easier and better to take your images to Costco or Wal-Mart or anyone else
with a Fuji Frontier printer, which makes very nice actual photographic
prints from any kind of digital image -- the same machine makes prints from
your negatives, too.

One advantage of digital that I didn't mention is the freedom that it gives
you to experiment. I can shoot all kinds of funky/weird angles, different
lighting, etc., and it doesn't cost me any extra. I am much more cautious
when shooting film, because I am very aware of the out-of-pocket cost of
doing so. (I am speaking here of personal use, as in hiking.)

So, what should YOU take? Heck if I know. If you decide on a film camera,
then the Olympus Stylus series is excellent, and they are water resistant to
boot. I like the Stylus Epic with the fast 35mm lens, but I also have a
Stylus 38-80 zoom which works well.

If you decide on digital, I like the Canon A-40, the Panasonic Lumix LS-20,
and several of the Olympus cameras. IMHO, a 2.1 megapixel camera is fine,
and it will be smaller and lighter. Also, I would strongly recommend a
camera that takes standard memory cards, like Compact Flash memory cards
(the Canon does). Take two cards, at least 128MB each, mail them home for
downloading and have them returned in your mail drops. Finally, since
digital cameras really eat batteries, I would avoid any digital camera that
uses non-standard rechargeable batteries, and stick with cameras that take
AA batteries. You can use rechargeable AAs around town, and take Lithium AAs
on your hikes.

And what do I take hiking? My 20-year-old Olympus XA camera, a tiny
rangefinder with manual focus, manual film-winding, and auto exposure,
loaded with 400-speed print film. It weighs about 8 ounces loaded.

This probably didn't add anything to the discussion, but there it is.....

Big Cranky


Ken Bennett
University Photographer
Office of Creative Services
Wake Forest University
Winston-Salem, North Carolina, U.S.A.
Studio: 336-758-6009
Visit Wake Forest on the Web: http://www.wfu.edu
Ken's home page: http://www.wfu.edu/~bennettk