Saturday, September 13, 2014

Where's Your Camera?

There's an historical tragedy going on around us today, a tragedy that most of us won't recognize until it's too late. We're neglecting to adequately document our lives. Really? Even with the gazillions of Facebook photos everyone's posting?

While smartphones have become ubiquitous, digital cameras have virtually disappeared. When was the last time you took a digital camera on vacation or to a graduation or to a milestone birthday party? What many of us will learn eventually is that smartphone photos are not the same as digital camera photos. Not even close.

Ironically, we're shooting more pictures than ever before, thanks to the smartphone. But smartphone images, even those produced by the very latest smartphones, are still inferior to the photographs you took with your film camera fifteen years ago.

Why does this matter? Because if you intend to do anything more with your family photographs than post them on social media web sites, you'll be disappointed with the quality.

Apple's latest iPhone 6 produces an 8-megapixel image. That's high-resolution for a smartphone camera, but it's less than half the resolution of some of today's least expensive digital cameras. For $110, you can buy a Nikon Coolpix S3600 that produces 20.1-megapixel images, large enough to produce a sharp 8x10-inch print. The 8-megapixel image from an iPhone will produce a 4x6-inch print of the same quality—theoretically. But there's still another catch...

Compare the lens on the smartphone to the lens on the $110 digital camera. Even without knowing anything about lenses, it's pretty obvious which one is the real deal.

When you use the zoom-in feature on a smartphone camera, it's a digital zoom, not an optical zoom. Digital zoom is done with software, and it essentially reduces the image resolution as you zoom in. Inexpensive digital cameras give you a choice of optical or digital zoom. You may not notice the difference on the camera screen or the computer screen, but you most certainly will when you try to have a print made.

There's no question that smartphone engineers have made extraordinary advances in smartphone camera technology, but make no mistake about it: a smartphone camera is not a substitute for a real digital camera.

Photography has always played an important role in my life. I inherited this trait from my mother. For her, maintaining the family photo albums was of critical importance. It served as a way to mark the passage of time and the growth of her five children. Looking at those albums reminded us of the significant milestones in our lives and helped us define a path into the future. I've maintained photo albums of my own kids' lives—until I began shooting with a digital camera. Then I took the photo album idea one step further...

I shoot my family photos with a 24-megapixel Nikon DSLR and store them on my Mac in iPhoto. Whenever our television is turned on, but not in use, a slide show appears on the screen—a random selection of the 1,300+ family photos in my collection. (This is easily accomplished with a $99 Apple device called an Apple TV.) Because the images were taken with a real digital camera and not a smartphone camera, the image quality on the TV is stunning. Having this random show on display in our home has definitely affected my kid's lives, giving them visual reminders of how they got to be the people they are. That's huge.

So don't hesitate to pull out your smartphone camera for that funny shot of the dog, but for anything historically important, pull out a real digital camera instead.

And please don't forget this...

Make absolutely certain that you are making backup copies of your digital images! Just imagine losing years of historical documentation all at once. This can happen very easily with a hard disk failure, a stolen laptop or a house fire.

You should never make backup copies on the same device that contains your original images. There are backup services that will archive your files to a "cloud" server. This is the best bet for maximum safety. Another option for those who follow schedules is to periodically backup your image files to a CD or thumb drive and put it into a safe deposit box at the bank.

Think about those tornado aftermath scenes you see on TV. What's the one thing people most hope to find in the rubble? Photographs.