How to Buy the right digital camera.

Ok you want to take pictures of birds, bees, butterflies and other wildlife, or maybe some flower pictures. The old film camera just produces fussy shots of a blurry, off color image. Which, of course you wouldn't find out till you dished out the money to get them developed. You know o those ones you show to a friend and they say 'what is it?'.

Now I'm NOT an expert, just a person like you that took the prints to a good photo shop and spent $250 to get one usable picture. Through trial and error I've gotten better. But I still take some awful shots, and still miss many good ones that I can see, but can't catch.

Most of the pictures on this website were taken by me in one of my gardens.

A male Anna Hummingbird is full color, Red coloring is shown to intimidate, he can 'turn it off' or down when when he wants to. - grid24_12
This picture of an Anna's hummingbird was taken with a Fuji Finepix 3800 digital camera.

Here's what you need.

1. A small camera

You cannot carry a camera that's as big as a toaster and expect to whip it out and capture a butterfly, you'll never carry it, and you'll not get the shot from the car.

2. A Sensitive Camera

The way I understand it, the bore of the lens, the lens itself, needs to be wide to allow more light in, and the better the media the little computer is using to capture light, the less time the camera has to suck light. The higher the quality of the light sucker and the bigger/shorter/clearer the lens, the darker the conditions can be when you're taking the picture. Most of the birds and wildlife are active in morning and at dusk, a slow camera (ISO 100) doesn't work, a faster one (ISO 400) does. ISO of 6000 is in some of them, but it's an expensive camera and/or a toaster. The higher ISO results in noticeable graininess, but you still have a picture. A 6000iso camera should have a much better 400iso shot than a 400iso camera. With unlimited money, get the higher ISO, it is generally more important than shutter speed, particularly with a big lens.

3. Fast Shutter Speed

There's all sorts of things out there to take pictures of.

Fast shutter is good, minimal shutter lag is a must. Shutter speed of 250th of a second is fine, even 100th second will get you in the ballpark. The longer the shutter stays open, the longer the light is captured by the camera, and the more likely you or the flower moved. So a really fast shutter is really not needed for most landscape photos, but a slow one is limiting. Shutter lag of more than a second will make you CRAZY? You get the bee in focus, click the shutter button and, zoom the bee is long gone, then you hear click. Usually you'll have many pictures of your foot. I couldn't even take a picture of a flower swaying in the wind. So my daughter got that camera (an HP). Insane, rocking the tripod like a metronome, rear swinging outrageously, getting leg cramps, back cramps but no usable pictures. The neighbors would have thought i was crazy if we had any.

4. Good, but not too good, Zoom

You'll need a good optical zoom. Digital zoom is about as good as Enron stock. Six times optical is a most, 10X is better, 20+ is great. And you can't use a tripod unless someone is paying for you to be out there all day, setting behind a bush waiting. I've tried that, it really is a waste of time. About like fishing in a bucket of water (with no fish). Wildlife know you're there and will avoid you unless you've been there as long as tree and you don't move. Tripod is ok for flowers, but even flowers are difficult to get a good picture without standing on you head.

5. Tripods are a pain with wildlife

I've found tripods are only good for really difficult long shots of bird baths. Set up the tripod in an open window (screen removed) and do something else until you see the prey coming for a bath, then sneak over and turn on the camera and take your picture. The birds will usually think you're still wherever you were, for at least a few seconds. And your family will know you're nuts. Trying to take pictures in your garden or out in the wilds is nearly impossible. The bird, butterfly, etc. doesn't stay put! You end up sneaking around with the tripod, trying to be quiet and not move to quickly ,while the tripod's legs are getting stuck in shrubs and of course the ground is never level so you are trying adjust those stupid little legs all while the bird or butterfly is trying to get a away from the crazy cursing human. Don't spend much on a tripod, $20? Some cameras have no way to attach a tripod.

6. A Medium f Stop

F stop represents how large the whole that lets in the light is. The larger the number the smaller the hole. In the old Brownie type cameras you could actually see the holes the light was going through to hit the film. f22 is the size of a pencil lead, f8 is like the size of the pencil itself, f1.4 is the size of a quarter. f of 3.1 to f7 is really needed, f2.9-f9 is desired. The little hole (like a f12) produces a picture with the focus extending well beyond your target. A big hole (f3.1) has no depth of field and all you'll be able to see is the target, nothing in front or beyond will be focused.

Acorn woodpecker,  Melanerpes formicivorus - grid24_12
This picture of an Acorn Woodpecker was taken with a HP photo smart 850 digital camera.

7. UV filter or color enhancer

Lens, all I have is an UV filter screwed on the front so stuff doesn't fall into the lens mechanism and dirty up the works. A colored filter set can also be useful. This is for trying to get the color you see to show up in the photo, but for field work, I doubt you'll use them.

8. Replaceable camera

The camera needs to be relatively cheap and within your ability to replace it. If the camera costs a months wages, you're not going to pack it on your hip in the rain, snow or desert. Technology is constantly changing, so go for the $400 camera that is almost perfect instead of the $1000 perfect one, and use it as much as possible.

9. Fast start up

The startup needs to be fast, VERY fast. Like a gun slinger in the old west, you've got 3-5 seconds to whip out the camera, bring up the telephoto and click the picture. In 5-7 seconds you've missed the shot.

10. A few Megapixels

I don't know, I've never needed more than 4, but some seem to think you need fifty. The larger the mega pixels the better the rest of the camera has to be to still give a fast shutter and shutter lag can be noticeable. There was a slightly lengthened shutter lag from the 3 megapixel to 4 megapixel for me. But that shot of your shoe is sure in high quality! Email a 5 mega picture to a friend with dial up and an old CPU, and they may have to reboot their machine, as many email servers gag at 2meg. Getting everything right gives a great picture, even at 2meg, but that's the hard part isn't it?

11. Image stabilizer

Image stabilization is not good for flowers and wildlife, picture is not as sharp, BUT, if you're using a long lens it will not work without a tripod, or image stablization. Again fast is better. High iso and shutter speed can compenstate for a shaky hand and long zoom.

12. What Brand?

I'm on my fifth digital camera. (I pack my camera on my hip next to my pH meter. I know I'm a nerd.) The first one I turned quickly and the camera was flung from my hip into a rock wall, everything was purple from then on. GET A GOOD holster, one made for the camera and put it on your belt (so it can't swing). The second one I caught one of the buttons on the side of my chair. Take the camera out of the holster when you set down, dumb, really dumb. The third one I just flat wore out. Probably took 10,000-15,000 pictures. Most of the Pictures on the website came from that camera (Fuji Finepix 3800). Then there was the slow shutter HP that I gave to my daughter, some of the butterfly and wildlife pictures she took with it. Her method is to walk around for thirty minutes sneaking up on stuff, kinda works as she's small and sneaky. The latest camera is a Fuji S5100. I almost bought an Olympus 765, but the camera had a longer shutter lag, the image had much better specs., but two different reviewers complained about picture quality, The Kodak might be better for first timers as it takes a decent picture without much thought. But my other Fujis were tough and took sharp, clean pictures with great color. One of the 'reviewers' thought the picture was too sharp. I thought, whats a matter with you? Take off your glasses and you'll have the picture you want.

13. What Software?

Use the Photo editor that you like. I use Photopaint in Windows (I'm almost never in windows) and Gimp in Linux. The software that comes with the camera is usually very minimal. If you really need to do something, read about a few editors before learning how to use the one you select. Keep it simple, just find one that will compress, do simple thing likes sharpen, crop and scale, fast. Some of the packages can do world class art, but take hundreds of hours to learn.

14. Some Manual settings

You need at least some simple manual settings, shutter speed, focus, Exposure Value (EV) and ISO are good, All auto is real bad. Auto is setup for mostly humans, and maybe sporting events, not plants and animals. Everything is overexposed and/or murky. Most of the outdoor pictures you have to take them with the exposure meter (if you're lucky and have one in your view finder) barely registering. If you can adjust the settings for auto, that helps, but outdoor photography has such huge variables you can't use auto very often. (see the pictures below)

15. Macro

Macro is a must, using the telephoto, a small butterfly from six feet may need macro to focus!

16. How to get the digital picture

Remember you're making all these decisions on the second picture, the first one was whip and click. Then take lots. With slower cameras you won't actually be taking what you see when you are clicking the picture. The subject has already flapped its wings or moved its head. So take lots of picture, as many as you can before it flies, hops, scurries or runs away. You can always delete the ones you don't like.

17. Some tips on how to store, send, and put online you digital photos

All these landscape photos are compressed to 21% (some software does that backwards, 79%) of normal. Some of the browsers couldn't open the pictures when compressed greater than that. These photos are about 250k with no compression, 35k with compression. Pay attention to the image quality as you compress. Some photos do not compress well, the algorithm just can't get the edges, depth or colors right. But then, sometimes compression makes no visible difference (rarely) and other times the landscape photograph actually looks better. Leaving these pictures huge takes up space on your computer, takes hours to email, and may crash the recipients computer. If you are putting them online they will take forever to load and the viewer, unless they really want to see the picture, will take off.

ISO setting examples

ISO settings are not the problem for regular daylight shots you're going to email to friends. (I'm trying to keep the exposure meter at the same location on all.)

A Ceanothus arboreus taken at iso64 - grid24_12
ISO64 -- photograph of a Ceanothus arboreus with an ISO setting of 64 with a Fuji S5100
Ceanothus arboreus at ISO100 - grid24_12
iso100 -- photograph of a Ceanothus arboreus with an ISO setting of 100 with a Fuji S5100
Ceanothus arboreus, shot at iso200 - grid24_12
iso200 -- photograph of a Ceanothus arboreus with an ISO setting of 200 with a Fuji S5100
A Ceanothus arboreus taken at iso400 - grid24_12
iso400 -- photograph of a Ceanothus arboreus with an ISO setting of 400 with a Fuji S5100

There is more grainy in the 400 than the 64, but the problem is the flower is pale blue. You can sometimes get the blue in the morning, or evening, sometimes not at all. Now I know polarized filters and colored filters can correct this, but I have just a few minutes of time for anything and there are usually tons of other more pressing things than pretending I'm a photographer, I'm not, and many of the blue Ceanothus and Sages are almost impossible to get a true blue.

F stop Examples

F 3.1(iso200)

The open lens blew out the contrast

A f3.1 picture of Ceanothus arboreus - grid24_12
Photograph of a Ceanothus arboreus with an ISO setting of 200 and an F value of 3.1 with a Fuji S5100

The moderate 5.6 (iso200) lens seemed to get closer to what my eye was seeing.

BUT this background is closer to what it should look like.

a F5.6 shoot of a Ceanothus arboreus - grid24_12
Photograph of a Ceanothus arboreus with an ISO setting of 200 and an F value of 5.6 with a Fuji S5100

The smaller lens f9(iso200) gave me fits because I had to move the shutter speed to 1/200 or 1/100 sec. to get anything and my hands shake just enough to blur the details.

But the pale blue is kinda showing.

F9 setting on the camera. - grid24_12
Photograph of a Ceanothus arboreus with an ISO setting of 200 and an F value of 9 with a Fuji S5100

Where is the color I see?

I spent three days taking ten or twenty pictures each day of Ceanothus 'Julia Phelps' trying to replace a even worse picture from the year before. The blue flowers looked like the Ceanothus arboreus pictures I showed you for the ISO test.

Checkerspot on Ceanothus Julia Phelps - grid24_12
This picture of a checkerspot butterfly and a Ceanothus Julia Phelps flower was taken with a Fuji Finepix3800 digital camera.

The orange of the Checkerspot Butterfly apparently allowed the camera's little brain to see the blue. On the other hand it also blurred the edges of the butterfly's wings doing it.

The cheaper cameras also seem to have real problems with reds and bleeding . No edges of the flower, just a lipstick smear.

This is the color my eye was seeing on Ceanothus Julia Phelps.

Wild flower photography is mostly trying to get the image in focus as the wind blows the flower back and forth, and getting a color that at least is the same as you're seeing. Contrast, details like color depth and fuzz on the stem are a luxury. Sometimes the flower is moving three inches with each gust as you're trying to stand there holding it, and not get blown over. Many a cramp later you pick it and bring it inside, to have your spouse yell at you for picking her/his prize flower.

Same landscape plant without the butterfly and out of focus as there was no butterfly to focus on.

Sorry-the camera is showing it's age. - grid24_12
Same landscape plant as above but without the butterfly and out of focus as there was no butterfly to focus on.

The blurs and washed out blue were a constant problem with both the Fuji Finepix3800 and S5100, unless you got lucky (about 1/60), or had a butterfly land.

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Edited on Mar 24, 2022. Authors:
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