November 1, 2004 / Photography / Winter 2004

Digital Cameras Within Reach

Written by David Stedwell

Lower camera prices and higher pixel counts over the past couple of years have brought yearbook photographers out of the darkroom and into the light of computer monitors.

There is good news for staffs trying to decide if digital cameras can produce yearbook-quality images. It is getting harder to tell the difference between them and 35mm film cameras.

So, is it finally time to retire that aging assortment of 35mm film cameras, cancel next year’s film order and convert the darkroom into much needed storage space? The darkroom may be seeing its last late-night deadline rush of prints through the chemical trays, but do not put the 35mm film cameras up for sale on eBay—yet.

That trusty 35mm camera and high-resolution film are still the best choice for large group photos; large, high-quality color photos; and night football games. For most other assignments the new crop of mid-priced digital cameras can produce quality images and save the time and cost of darkroom processing.

Until recently, buying a digital camera that was up to the task of handling challenging yearbook assignments meant spending the entire photo budget. Cameras that were within the budget were point-and-shoot, low-resolution models that produced great images for the web, but lousy images for the yearbook.

That was yesterday. Today, staffs have a wide choice of digital cameras that are up to the task of producing yearbook-quality images, and doing it within the budget. Two factors have finally come together to make digital cameras a smart option.

Better Cameras at Bargain Prices
There is a megapixel war out there, and yearbook staffs are the winners.

Camera manufacturers are scrambling to produce cameras with higher resolution at lower prices. For yearbook photographers, that means a digital camera that can produce larger, high-quality images with pixels to spare for cropping.

The number of four- and five-megapixel cameras on the market in the $500 to $1,000 range has exploded. It was not that long ago that a camera with the same image-capture capability came with a hefty $2,000 to $5,000-plus price tag.

Higher image resolution is not the only benefit offered by the new, lower-priced cameras. The manufacturers have added a number of critical camera controls and features that match them to the demands of yearbook photography:

  • Manual exposure control options in addition to automatic/program
  • More sophisticated and accurate metering systems
  • A wider range of ISO-equivalents from 100 to 800-plus
  • Lower image noise (distortion) at higher ISO equivalents
  • Higher, maximum shutter-speed equivalents
  • Sharper lenses with greater optical telephoto capabilities
  • More accurate auto-focus in low light
  • Greater control over image size and resolution (image compression)

For staffs with more money to spend after they eliminate their film, paper and chemical costs, the recent competition to produce 35mm-sized digital cameras with interchangeable lenses has opened up exciting possibilities. Several manufacturers have introduced single-lens reflex, interchangeable-lens cameras in the $1,000 to $1,500 price range. In a move that promises even lower prices, Canon has just introduced a digital camera based on its popular Rebel film model for less than $1,000.

Although most of these cameras have the same megapixel count as the lower-priced, fixed-lens models, they provide some advantages for yearbook photography, such as:

  • More of the advanced electronics and metering capabilities of an advanced, 35mm film camera
  • A larger image-capture area for higher quality images
  • Interchangeable lens options that include wide-angle and telephoto as well as zoom (These lenses often offer a wider aperture for low-level available light photos
  • A “feel” and control layout similar to 35mm film cameras
  • Reduced “lag time” between pressing the shutter release and image capture
  • Increased image-burst capabilities, similar to motor drive on a film camera

Keep in mind, most of these cameras are priced as “camera body only,” and adding the new generation of lenses designed for digital cameras could easily add another $500. The good news is that newer camera lenses for the same make of 35mm film camera will often work on the digital version with only a minor loss of edge sharpness.

Better Flash Capability
Digital camera manufacturers have finally seen the light.

Too little power from a little, fixed flash has been a nagging problem with lower-priced digital cameras. This was a big problem for yearbook photographers trying to light a wider area at a distance or trying to avoid harsh, direct flash.

Those problems are a dim memory as more manufacturers add flash shoes and sophisticated flash electronics to their mid-priced digital cameras. In most cases, the recommended auxiliary flash units are the same, time-tested models that were produced for electronic film cameras. They allow the addition of a powerful, automated bounce flash that gives the yearbook photographer a variety of lighting options:

  • Longer flash range and wider coverage
  • Bounce-flash capability
  • Flash exposure control integrated with the camera
  • Auxiliary flash combined with the in-camera flash for fill light
  • Wireless, off-camera use of the auxiliary flash

So, What’s The Bottom Line?
Intense competition in the digital camera marketplace is finally making it possible to recommend a reasonably priced digital camera for most yearbook assignments. That is great news for staffs that want to eliminate film, paper and chemical costs. It is also great news for staffs that want to streamline their photo process and bring their photographers out of the darkroom to interact with the editors who select and work with their images.

Sure, prices for digital cameras will get lower, and film cameras are still great for some assignments. But this may be the right time to consider adding digital cameras to the equipment inventory, and finding a film processor who can convert images to CD format. The days of the darkroom as the center of yearbook photo activity are fading fast.

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David Stedwell