Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

The Gift of a Digital Camera!

Okay, this is amazing! One of my readers, who shall remain anonymous unless that person chooses to reveal him(her)self, has sent an Amazon gift certificate to me to purchase a digital camera. WOW! So I ask you, dear readers, which digital camera do you recommend? I want to take close-up pictures of birds (and insects and flowers) as well as pictures of birds that I am looking at while birding, which requires some sort of distance-focusing ability. I assume I should also have a fairly large memory card for those wallpaper sized images that I hope to share with you .. but you are the experts here, you are the ones with experience with digital cameras and can advise me as to what would best fit my needs, so please share your expertise with me!

[This was the suggested camera]


  1. #1 The Ridger
    October 31, 2007

    You probably want the next step up in the Lumix series – if you want a Panasonic; it’s what I have and I like it. (I can’t remember the model.) It’s got macro and 10x zoom. I took that butterfly picture you posted last week with it, and you can look at my blog for others. You might prefer something else, though, like a Canon; I’m no expert.

  2. #2 Matt Penfold
    October 31, 2007

    Personally I like Canon’s digital camera. Having a look on Amazon I found this one:

    I have not used that model but I have used the previous model and found it very good. However the one originally suggested to you looks good as well. Do you have a computer shop near you where you could look at some before ordering at Amazon ?

    One word of advice: Go for the biggest memory card your chosen camera will support and you can afford and take the photos using the maximum quality settings. You use more space on the card but photos can always be reduced in file size and quality but going the other way is hard.

    What ever you decide it is a lovely present!

  3. #3 Albatrossity
    October 31, 2007

    As with all questions, the answer is

    It depends…

    Do you want a point-and-shoot? Do you want something with interchangeable lenses?

    If the former, there are plenty of options.

    If the latter, there a fewer, but they will be more expensive, and will require you to think about what other lenses etc you might eventually want/need. Personally, I think that the Canon SLRs are top-notch, and the Canon lenses for those bodies are top-notch, both in terms of choices and in terms of optical quality.

    I look forward to seeing the pictures of Hrm!

  4. #4 "GrrlScientist"
    October 31, 2007

    Albatrossity; what are the advantages of interchangeable lenses on a digital camera? i used such lenses on my old film-based Pentax camera (the one that was lost when i moved from seattle to NYC), so i am familiar with the concept of interchangeable lenses, but i know next to nothing about digital cameras, so cannot make (m)any reasonable decisions in this regard.

    on the other hand, perhaps a point and shoot (with a manual override) would be best to start with? i mean, i am not a beginner with a camera, but i certainly AM a beginner when it comes to digital cameras.

    does that help?

  5. #5 Emory K.
    October 31, 2007

    What’s the absolute ceiling on how much you’d be willing to pay? There are too many cameras to consider without knowing this first.

    For photographing wild birds, you’ll need a _lot_ of OPTICAL zoom, such as the 10x recommended in a previous post. Ignore “digital zoom,” which is a scam. Digital zoom is just cropping the image and thus throwing away pixels, and if you have to “digitally zoom” it’s better to do that in your computer, not in the camera.

    You don’t need many megapixels to completely fill a computer screen. Too many cameras boast about a huge number of megapixels, but that’s an advertising scam if you’ll mostly be viewing and showing your photos on a computer – You’ll throw away the majority of those bazillion megapixels when re-sizing to fit a monitor. (And some of those compact models actually have more megapixels than their little lenses can resolve.) Given the choice between more megapixels vs. a camera with better low-light performance, less noise, and a higher-quality lens with more optical zoom, CHOOSE THE LATTER. Completely ignore the stupid Megapixels Arms Race unless you always shoot from a tripod and then make lots of _gigantic_ poster-sized prints.

    Image stabilization is worth the money.

    For outdoor photography, a cheap camera with a lens hood and a polarizer will out-perform a thousand-dollar camera stupidly used without a lens hood and a polarizer. Look for a camera that takes these accessories.

    The Panasonic Lumix series already recommended are good cameras. Simply picking the best Lumix model you can afford that has a lot of image-stabilized optical zoom wouldn’t be a bad decision. For a more careful decision, at least also take a look at the many excellent Canons. But those aren’t the only two manufacturers with fine products…

    You ideal dream camera might be a Canon S5 IS, but that might be out of your price range.

    Check out the web site for detailed expert reviews and camera vs. camera comparisons.

    Let me know if you have any further questions – I’m a part-time pro with formal training.

  6. #6 Anne-Marie
    October 31, 2007

    I bought a Canon A620 a couple of years ago and have LOVED it. I’ve taken it on all my field research trips and it has proven pretty sturdy. I’m definitely an amateur photographer, and it makes it easy to “point and shoot” but also has manual modes as well. My only complaint was that it came with a tiny memory card, although I suspect you’ll need to upgrade that with any camera you by.

    One major piece of advice, no matter what brand/model you’re looking at: get something that uses AA batteries. I have so many friends who have missed out on great pictures while in the field because they had noplace to charge the special batteries that came with their cameras. AAs are ubiquitous, you can get them anywhere in the world, and you can get rechargeable ones if you want, it saves you a lot of frustration to avoid the overpriced lithium ones designed for a specific camera model.

  7. #7 "GrrlScientist"
    October 31, 2007

    the upper limit for camera price is $300, and the upper limit for a memory card is $50.

  8. #8 biosparite
    October 31, 2007

    I am very pleased with the Fuji Finepix S700, although eventually I plan to step up to an SLR digital. Every photo I have sent you since June has been taken with the S700. I got my camera online at for about $200 minus shipping and then picked up a memory insert from a local photo shop. The Fuji uses AA batteries, too. Radio Shack is offering the S700 for $259, but probably without any memory beside the pitiful one that comes with the camera, so I would avoid that deal.

  9. #9 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    October 31, 2007

    Ditto on saving some of that cash for accesories. I would recommend: a bigger memory card than came with the camera. Two sets of rechargable batteries with a charger. Get a model with a USB port.

    Never take the camera anywhere without extra batteries. I always carry the set of spare rechargables and a set of spare alkaline, just in case. If you use the viewfinder rather than the LCD you can make the batteries last a lot longer.

    Changeable lenses are nice, but they are not within your stated price range. Get one with an optical zoom of at least 3X. Ignore any claims of “digital zoom.” You can blow them up on your computer. Since you like nature photos, including insects, be sure to get one with decent macro capability.

  10. #10 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    October 31, 2007

    Despite all the digital gewgawry, optics are still essential. Get a camera with decent quality lenses.

  11. #11 The Ridger
    October 31, 2007

    The Lumix has optical zoom, but they don’t have viewfinders and they use a proprietary battery. However, the battery has a long life unless you’re doing movies and you can buy a spare. If that worries you, you’re better off with something else.

  12. #12 Karl
    October 31, 2007

    From a raw amateur: My wife and I try to use our digital for bird pictures. We take pictures through our kitchen window of birds on our feeders. Even at that we frequently find that the delay between hitting the button and camera click is long enough that we get lots of pictures of feeders with no birds on them. It seems to us to be next to impossible to get a picture of a bird in motion with the kind of camera you’re thinking about. I understand that the newer digital SLR’s have faster reflexes, but they are more expensive. Sorry to be a pessimist, but that has been our experience. I would be quite happy for some of the more professional users to contradict me and explain how to use a digital to capture birds in flight.

  13. #13 Patrick
    October 31, 2007 is a good start.

    Canon S3, S4, and S5 are great cameras with 12x zoom, image stabilization, and outstanding macro (up to 0 cm!). I’ve been very happy with mine.

  14. #14 Albatrossity
    October 31, 2007

    Ok, that helps. SLRs are out of the price range, so what features do you need in a point and shoot camera?

    As others have mentioned, shutter lag time is a key parameter, but it seems that this parameter is not often mentioned in the specs available online at sites like dpreview. You will probably need to pick out some models that fit your desires and then head down to 47th St. Photo or some such place to check them out in person and see how long it takes from the time you hit the button until the picture is taken. It can be very frustrating if the lag time is long.

    Digital zoom, as others have mentioned, is a sham. Don’t worry about it.

    You probably don’t need more than 8-10 megapixels unless you are planning to sell photos, or print sizes larger than 11×14 inches.

    On-camera flash is a must.

    Viewfinders – I HATE cameras without an optical viewfinder. The stupid screen takes a lot of battery power when it is on, and it is often impossible to see in a bright-light situation. So if it was me, I’d make sure that the camera had an optical viewfinder, and that it was possible to TURN OFF the digital screen that most people seem to like to use. Can’t stand ’em.

    Memory cards are cheap and constantly getting cheaper, so that shouldn’t be a make/break parameter. If you get up to the limit on your price range and find a nice camera but won’t be able to get the memory card too, let us know and I suspect folks will chip in to buy you a couple of them. That is certainly true in my case, at least.

    Macro focus – depends on what you will use it for, but I like macro photography, so I’d go with something that focuses at least to the 5 cm (2 inch) range.

    Video capability – depends on how often you would use it. it is a nice feature, and really can be convenient, but may not be a deal-breaker for everybody.

    Batteries – Rechargeable batteries are a hassle, particularly when you are traveling, but are probably have a smaller ecological footprint than disposable alkaline batteries. Let your conscience be your guide 🙂

    Image stabilization is great, but not often available in low-cost point and shoots.

    Looking at the dpreview site, the Canon A720 IS may be worth a peek. Dunno about shutter lag time with this one. Anybody here have any experience with this beast?

  15. #15 Emory K.
    October 31, 2007

    Any interchangeable-lens digital SLR will be _way_ out of your price range, but don’t feel the least bit bad about that because very few people really need cameras that fancy, and DSLRs are massive bricks to carry around.

    A lot of pros buy their gear from, and they have some package deals that bundle a camera with the right accessories, saving you both trouble and money. For November, they have a $50 rebate on the outstanding Canon S3 IS, including a plenty-big memory card:

    Add another $30 to get the lens hood for this camera.

    They also have a kit for the equally excellent Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ8, again bundled with plenty of memory:

    Lens hood is included with the Lumix. It’s also available in silver.

    Either of these “superzooms” are about as good as you can do without going the expensive DSLR route. Add a Tiffen circular polarizer to either of these kits, and you’re really set to rock and roll.

    Try this features search at dpreview before making your final decision, but try $400 instead of $300 as your ceiling, because they go on “street price” which is higher than you’ll actually pay at places like

  16. #16 justawriter
    October 31, 2007

    I agree that megapixels at this point is fourth or fifth priority at this point. First would be an optical zoom. I think some of the Canon Powershots with a 10x zoom may be in your price range. (ah here’s one) The zoom is really necessary if you want to get wildlife photos. Image stabilization is very nice, especially for long zoom shots. You will probably need the battery pack for the camera because my experience is that cameras eat regular AA batteries like popcorn. Nikon, Canon, Sony and Panasonic brands will usually use decent or better quality glass in their lenses.

    $50 should get you a minimum 2 gigabyte and probably a 4 gig card. The 4 gig card will hold more than 1,000 photos. (That by the way, is the biggest difference between digital and film. No more changing film every 24 or 36 shots, paying for developing 100 mediocre shots to find that stunning gem of a photo, and you can tweak pictures on the computer before printing them)

  17. #17 decrepitoldfool
    October 31, 2007

    Handle the camera and see if the controls make sense to you. Does it fit your hands? Can you zoom easily? Can you see the viewfinder easily? Does it have ‘live preview’? (some SLR’s don’t and you can only shoot through the little eyepiece) If you are an advanced or semi-advanced photographer, is it easy to apply +/- exposure compensation? Can you apply image stabilization in any mode or are you forced to use an ‘image stabilization’ mode? Does it handle low-light without an obnoxious focus-assistance light? Can the lens make relatively undistorted images of straight lines? Macro? Do the images seem clear and natural-looking? Is it small enough to carry with you but have controls big enough to use? Do you LIKE the camera?

    Not important: massive megapixels and millions of “modes”. Important: good optics and enough optical (not ‘digital’) zoom to frame your favorite subjects. For instance, I like scenic and architectural, so wide-angle is good. If I did a lot of wildlife and birds, extreme tele would be better. You will do OK with the major brands Nikon Canon Olympus Pentax Lumix Kodak.

    Lots of detailed reviews at but remember the guy who writes them takes advertising AND he’s a fairly experienced photographer.

  18. #18 Albatrossity
    October 31, 2007

    Or maybe the Canon SD800 Looks pretty sweet!

  19. #19 arby
    October 31, 2007

    Fuji 6000fd. I love it. Excellent macro,(0.1″) and 300mm equivalent 10.7 X optical zoom. Image stabilization. Under $270,(from Amazon with a $50 Fuji rebate) cheaper than many point and shoots. Has ranked number 1 in Consumer Reports the last two times they have reviewed cameras, in the “SLR-like” catagory. (a small catagory) Lens not interchangable. That can be a good thing, you aren’t tied to a brand by thousands of dollars worth of lenses should you decide to get a new one. Amazing battery life, CR rates it as 400 shots using flash with every other shot. I seldom use flash (it has excellent low-light capabilities) and have never even gotten a low battery warning. Even on a three week trip where I more than filled the 2GB chip(under $45) Uses four (rechargable) ‘AA’ batteries, another advantage. 2GB chip will hold 600+ at highest res, or 30 min video. Fully manual capable, but plenty of preset options. I find that the ‘auto’ setting is just fine for most shots. The Consumer Reports from July can help narrow the choices and help you figure out what kind of camera you need. Has viewfinder, bright screen, very short shutter lag time and start-up time. Supplied with hood, USB cable and worthless alkaline batteries. And software that I haven’t even tried. I sent you some Viceroy babies munching on my parsley this summer, you can dig those shots out to see the macro capabilities. I’m sure you will enjoy whatever you get, have fun. rb

  20. #20 Karl
    October 31, 2007

    Another point. Unless you are going to be shooting continuously for quite a while, like shooting several hundred exposures without a pause, you don’t need very much in the way of an extra card. An advantage of digital is that you can review your shots and delete the useless ones right on the spot. So a 2 gig card, that will hold, say, 500 photos, can, in fact, be good for 2 or 4 or even 10 times that many exposures – since you delete as you go.

  21. #21 David Harmon
    October 31, 2007

    I don’t have much to add to the other commenters, except that all the shots I’ve sent you were with my Olympus FE-170. The biggest hassles I’ve had were:

    (1) slow response speed (that’s why I was shooting mostly fungi and other nonmoving targets)
    (2) low battery life (takes rechargable AAs, but only two of them)
    (3) no viewfinder (yeah, that screen is almost unusable in full sun.).

  22. #22 John
    November 1, 2007

    Optical zoom is definitely the key for shooting birds. 10x is the minimum for good bird photography, and for small birds you could use a bit more. Digital zoom sometimes produces decent results, but not nearly as good as optical zoom. A good macro function will help with insects. (My camera – PowerShot A520 – is deficient in both regards.)

    I second the recommendation for a camera that uses AA batteries rather than built-in or proprietary ones. Batteries have a way of dying at inopportune times, so it helps to be able to carry a backup set. I use Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH) rechargeables. They keep their charge for a lot of use between recharging.

  23. #23 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    November 1, 2007

    The stupid screen takes a lot of battery power when it is on, and it is often impossible to see in a bright-light situation.

    Hope on the horizon: IMOD technology from Qualcomm
    It uses the same technology tha colors butterfly wings to provide visible color display in bright sun and uses much less juice than LCD. Not yet in commercial production.

New comments have been disabled.