Digital Photography

Last updated April 8th, 2008.

For years, this file contained my thoughts on why a high-tech guy like me was NOT using a digital camera. This was hopelessly out of date and now I'm going to address that by time stamping this file and updating it more often. I'll organize this in reverse chronological order with the most recent information first.

Why not a digital camera?

I am using a digital camera now, although I did resist for a long time. Digital camera manufacturers use a slimy marketing trick to make their product look better than it is. When they say their camera has "4 megapixels" they are lying. In actuality a 4MP camera does not have 4 million pixels. It does have 4 million detectors, but half of them can only see green, a quarter can only see red, and the remaining quarter can only see blue. They play games interpolating the color between detectors so you appear to get full resolution in the final image. This is completely invisible to the end user, but it means that the color resolution is not really 4MP. Meanwhile, on a little piece of messy film emulsion, the color resolution is very good. I've heard that 35 mm film is as good as 4000 by 3000 full-color Pixels or 12 real megapixels! All the use-once outdoor cameras use ASA 800 film, so they probably aren't as good as 35 mm could be, but at least as good as the 1.5 megapixel scans I was getting on Kodak Picture CD. Those scans are REAL pixels where the color is measured individually at every one of the 1.5 million locations. All the digital cameras available to date sample only one of three primary colors at each location, so they effectively have one third the color resolution that they claim. If you measured a Picture CD in the same slimy marketing way that digital cameras are, you would call them 4.5 megapixel scans. Because of this, I stated for a long time that I was not going to buy a digital camera until I could get one that the marketing weasels called a 4 megapixel camera. It also had to be waterproof and reasonably inexpensive, so I kept using messy-film-based cameras for a long time. They had better resolution, come waterproof, and cost less. All these things are, of course, changing.

The ViviCam 6200w

2008: Target started advertising a waterproof 6 megapixel camera for only $129. It turns out this is identical to a waterproof camera called the Sealife ECO Shot 6.0 MP Underwater Digital Camera which lists for almost $200 more! I though it was worth a try to buy one of these. I could put it in the bottom of a drybag and use it as a backup camera if my 43WR (see below) fails me in the middle of a trip. The 6200w is a terrible waste of a 6 megapixel detector. It has a fixed focus lens that requires a lot of light to take a picture. Fixed focus does mean that there is no long delay between when you press the shutter and a picture is taken. Despite the resolution of the detector, the optics are poor and the resulting images are only good enough to shrink down to 1 megapixel images on the WEB. All the controls are very difficult to use, especially the lever that switches between focused on infinity and "macro" mode. But unlike a camera with a zoom, the macro mode on the 6200w cannot focus closer than 24 inches! The LCD display has a terrible blue cast to it that makes all the images look bad. When you look at them on your computer they are much better, perhaps they did this on purpose to make you appreciate the poor image quality more! The camera also doesn't have a viewfinder, but it runs on AA batteries and it is waterproof. I'm keeping it in the bottom of the drybag for emergencies or for day trips to take WEB pictures.

The Pentax Optio 43WR

2005: This is perhaps the best kayaking camera ever built. Pentax was on my good list for building the WR90 film camera (see below), so I'm not surprised they got this one right. It is very small and fits in the pocket of my PFD with room to spare. It runs on AA batteries so you can take it on expeditions and keep it powered. It is "JIS Class 7" water resistant. Not "water proof" or submersible to 30 meters, but after my experience with the WR90 I expected it to work well with rough use in a kayak. This has turned out to be correct. It has a 4x optical zoom. It has a viewfinder for composing pictures when you cannot see the LCD. On alkaline batteries it only runs for a day, which I found very disturbing. However, on Lithium Ion AA batteries this camera will run for one to two weeks and take around 600 pictures before you have to replace the battery!

Apparently I'm not the only person who thinks this is the best sport camera ever. I see used ones selling on eBay for more than list price! Pentax doesn't make it any more. Their newer models don't run on AA batteries and don't have viewfinders. I've been on trips where people had to charge these new Pentax cameras every night and they would wear down and stop taking pictures before the day was half over! The 43WR is still the best! I bought my first one used from a friend. When it broke (no fault of Pentax, I admit I abused it) I found a camera shop in Hong Kong that was selling their old stock (new in the box) for about $100 below list. I bought one for myself, one for my girlfriend and an extra one in case I broke another one! And I never regretted the money spent!

My first digital camera

Late in 2002 I was going to kayak down the Li River in China. My trusty rusty Pentax WR90 (described below) needed new gaskets and I didn't have time to have it serviced. I looked around at the digital cameras and finally picked one to buy. Choosing a digital camera is difficult for many reasons. One is that the manufacturers are coming out with new models every six months. You can read reviews, study specifications, come to a decision about a camera and then discover that it is already obsolete and no longer available!

I had a large list of features I wanted in a digital camera, one of which was AA battery powered. Most of the cameras I saw coming out in 2002 were powered by rechargeable batteries. The marketing force behind this was the desire for a camera to be smaller. But I cannot take a rechargeable camera with me on a two-week kayak expedition! There is no easy way to recharge these batteries on a long trip. Bringing extra pre-charged batteries was not a reasonable option either. Because these batteries are specially designed for each camera you have to buy them from the manufacturer. This makes them very expensive. Even if I was willing to spend the money, a rechargeable battery looses 10% of its charge every day that you do not use it. Half way through a long trip my pre-charged batteries would be worthless. Meanwhile, a handful of AA batteries in the bottom of a drybag would still be good after months of waiting. I had to restrict my search to cameras that would run off AA's and this drastically reduced the number of choices I had.

One feature I insisted on was a way to compose pictures with the LCD display turned off. In fact, I would prefer a digital camera without a color display on the back but nobody makes such a thing. Those LCD displays use more battery power than all the rest of the camera. So I need a camera that will let you turn the damn thing off and still has a viewfinder you can look through to compose your pictures. I have found that with the LCD off the batteries will last for days and weeks and for as many as 250 pictures before I have to replace them. Typically I replace them whether or not they need it every time I replace the memory card. The partially or even completely depleted batteries that the camera refuses to use any more will still power a flashlight for hours.

Another feature I insisted on was that the camera had to be waterproof. In 2002 there were no waterproof digital cameras yet, but some manufacturers made waterproof housings for their cameras. Canon makes a housing for almost every one of their cameras. The combination of the normal size of a digital camera plus the housing results in a large package. Too large, for example, to fit inside a PFD pocket like my old Pentax WR90 did. One advantage of these larger waterproof housings is that they are rated for diving to 30 meters. I also SCUBA dive and could use the camera diving, but the best thing about this rating is that it gives one confidence that the housing won't leak when you are plowed under by the surf or practicing an Eskimo roll.

Yet another feature I insisted on was the ability to turn a camera on and off inside the housing. This sounds silly, but I have a Sony camcorder that turns itself off after 30 seconds of no activity and when I put it in a generic housing there is no way to turn it back on again! Canon had a nice 3.5 megapixel camera I would have bought in a minute, but it was turned on and off by sliding a clamshell open and closed. To put it in the waterproof housing you had to turn it on first, and then there was no way to turn it off. Whether the batteries would run down from being on all the time, or the power saver mode would kick in and turn the camera off inside the housing where you could never get it back on again. (Opening the housing on the high seas to do this with salty wet fingers is of course unthinkable). I talked to some salespeople at several camera stores and none of them could tell me how to turn the camera on and off. I have since learned that there is a way, but they lost a sale to me because they couldn't answer this simple question. I need to buy a camera that I can turn on and off while in the housing to conserve my batteries.

Finally, I wanted at least 4 megapixels. But after rejecting cameras for lack of the above features, there were no cameras with resolution this good left on my list. I had to compromise on this and buy a Canon A40 camera that had everything else but only 2MP. I figured that I am hard on my equipment, I would drop it and leak salt water on it and in a few years it would die and by then a higher resolution camera might meet all of my needs. With three large memory cards and a waterproof housing this camera cost just over $600. Six times the maximum price I have ever paid for a film camera but that is life.

Actually there was another compromise I had to make with this camera. It has options to take pictures at smaller resolution and to compress images more. Both of these options save space on your memory cards, but I'd rather spend more money on memory cards. I set the size at the maximum and had to compromise on the compression since they had no way to turn it completely off. Every time I take a picture I cringe knowing that the camera is destroying detail in my pictures by JPEG compressing them. Even at the "highest quality" setting on this camera I can see JPEG crap on high contrast edges in my pictures. Some cameras have a "raw" mode where they will save the raw data captured by the detectors. You copy them to your computer and convert them to non-compressed TIFF files later. Since there are only two million detectors in my camera, it would only take 2 megabytes to store a raw picture. I could still store 64 pictures in a 128MB memory card. This still makes that memory card as good as two rolls of film. Unfortunately my camera always converts to color first making the image 3 times larger, then JPEG compresses them down to around 1 megabyte each. My next camera will have a raw or some other non-compressed mode.

Despite my reservations about the resolution being very low, a 2MP camera has turned out to be a good resolution. If you read the pundits on the WEB talking about this, they seem to agree with my original assessment that 2MP is inadequate. They say that you can use this resolution for pictures on the WEB and for 4x6 prints but no larger than that. However, I have found that if you treat the data with some care you can expand a 2MP image up to 8x10" prints that are quite nice. I have even stretched images up to 20" tall and been happy with the results. And 2MP has definitely produced excellent pictures for my WEB site, truthfully better than all the film-based pictures. I am no longer embarrassed about the pictures I bring back from beautiful locations. Perhaps I'll have to go back to come areas and take new digital pictures and toss out all the old ones.

Waterproof Film Cameras

For years before I finally broke down and bought a digital camera, I had a Pentax WR90. This is an amazing camera. I had gone through several "water resistant" cameras looking for a way to take pictures on the water. I have come to the conclusion that when most companies say "water resistant" this translates into "if you take this camera to within 10 meters of salt water, it will absorb water out of the air, start corroding inside and acting strange, then die and ruin the last roll of film at the worst possible moment". Lots of "water resistant" cameras have way too many holes in the case with poorly fitting O-rings in them. On the other hand, when Pentax said "water resistant" it turns out that their camera will survive dunking repeatedly in salt water, even being plowed underwater while attempting to surf. I have talked to many other Pentax WR90 owners and they tell stories about going river kayaking and getting trashed in rapids and going over waterfalls with a Pentax WR90 that took it all in stride and never leaked. The Pentax WR90 had few controls and all of them had membranes over pushbuttons instead of shafts rotating in O-rings. It was an inherently simple and robust design.

The Pentax WR90 had an optical zoom from 38 to 90mm, so I could stop taking panoramas and start zooming in on details I could not document before. There was a macro capability that allowed me to stick the camera in the face of a beautiful sally light-foot crab and capture the colorful detail of her shell. The WR90 earned by respect by being the smartest camera I had ever owned. It could tell, for example, when the film had not loaded properly. I had tried several auto-wind cameras before this that would fail to catch the film, fail to notice this, and blindly (literally) let you take pictures. Only after I had taken 40 exposures on a 24 exposure roll would it occur to me that something was wrong. The WR90 had sensors to watch the sprocket holes go by and warned you when they stopped! One day while taking pictures after sunset, the WR90 taught me a lesson about optics. I took a picture of the moon rising above Isla San Esteban in a beautiful sky. I thought the picture would look better if I zoomed in on it, but when I did the camera refused to take the picture. Why? Because when you zoom in you are collecting light from a smaller area and there wasn't enough light any more! I zoomed back out and was able to take more pictures. The camera was smart enough to teach me this!

The best thing about using a real film camera like the WR90 over a disposable camera is that I finally got a choice about the film resolution. The disposable cameras were ASA 400 when I first started using them but were starting to "upgrade" to ASA 800. Even on ASA 400 film scanned to Picture or Photo CD I can zoom in and actually see the grain of the film. I want to "upgrade" to film with a lower ASA rating and finer grain. A "real" camera was my chance to do this. I would no longer be embarrassed to go to beautiful places and bring back grainy pictures with the corners fading to dark because of the cheep plastic optics. I experimented with some high quality film but discovered that the WR90 is not a "fast" camera. It's optics require a lot of light so with low ASA film it has to leave the shutter open a long time and all my action pictures became blurry. I eventually compromised by using ASA 200 film for most of my pictures.

Of course by the time I bought a Pentax WR90 they were no longer being made. (There is a newer WR109 model that does have some new attractive features) I bought my WR90 used on eBay. It lasted for years of rough usage and hundreds of rolls of film. Eventually I began to think I should do something nice for this camera. There was sand in places I could not wash it all out and there were dings in the waterproof gaskets that hadn't leaked yet but were visible. I decided to send the camera off to the Official Pentax Repair Center in Sacramento. I emailed questions to them and told them my concerns about the gaskets.

They refused to just replace the gaskets unless I also paid for a complete refurbishing on a "camera that old". They gave me a guestimate that was more than I had paid for the camera. I didn't mind the cost. If this extended the life of the camera by replacing the gaskets it would be worth it. They called this an estimate only and refused to let me pre-pay them for more than the cost of return postage with the camera. But then when I sent them the camera, they refused to start work on it until I sent them money! Unfortunately, I had dropped it in the mail the day before I left for China for 4 weeks. I was happily expecting my camera to be waiting for me when I got back. Instead I found dunning letters from them saying if I did not respond and give them a credit card number they were going to mail it back to me untouched. I was furious about the delay and let them know that over the phone. I had repeatedly asked them if there was some way I could pre-pay and they had never mentioned the possibility of a credit card. So they tossed it into the back room and told the repair technician to rush this job and didn't bother to give him a copy of my list of concerns. So he never knew and didn't bother to check or replace the gaskets, the one thing that I especially wanted done. I was furious when the camera back with the same old worn gaskets on it. But what could I do? Send it back to the same idiots and have them start all over again?

I decided to wait to call the repair center back until after I had time to calm down. Perhaps in a month or two I would have been able to talk to them without calling them idiots. During those few months I went on a trip to Cabo Pulmo in Baha and brought the Pentax WR90 camera along for Kate DesLauriers to use while I was using my Canon A40. Kate never dunked the camera in the water, but it did get splashed on from waves and dripped on from the paddle. Salt water leaked in through the battery door, through one of the gaskets I had specifically asked those idiots to replace. A gasket that those idiots had not bothered to check or replace. The battery shorted out and filled the camera with corrosive rust-colored mist. My good friend the WR90 is now a complete and total irretrievable loss. Now it will take me a decade to calm down to the point where I can talk about the idiots at the repair center without calling them names.

Film conversion to digital

So if you still have film, how do you get it scanned and onto your computer? The process that I have used most recently and still recommend for film is one of the on-line developers such as The big advantage of these places is that they are willing to develop your film without forcing you to make prints from them. This developing is very inexpensive, although they expect you to use their printing services. However, you can ask them to send you an archive disk with all your pictures on it. The archive has all the pictures scanned using the same machine Kodak uses for Picture CD (as described below). The archive disks are a little expensive but I have found that when amortized over all the rolls from a single expedition it is cheaper than having a separate Picture CD made for each roll. Another benefit of this kind of developing is that it is all done through the mail. Ofoto sends you a bunch of pre-paid mailer envelopes. These are particularly attractive to me because I can keep some in my glove compartment and drop film into the mail as soon as I cross the border returning from a trip to Baja. In the past I would have to take the film home and remember to take to my local drug store. I would forget and sometimes it would be weeks before I'd finally get to see my pictures. Dropping them in the mail at the border sometimes meant that the film arrived at Ofoto before I got home and were already viewable on their WEB page!

The second best way to scan film to digital is Kodak Picture CD. You can take a roll of film to any drugstore in the USA (and probably elsewhere) and have it developed, scanned, stored on a CDROM, printed and sent back to you. There are a couple disadvantages to this service. Kodak will only do this for print film and they seem to be deprecating slide film these days. Another disadvantage is that they refuse to scan the negatives unless you also pay them to make one set of prints. I have tried writing "NO PRINTS" on every roll I sent and usually they ignore me or write a note that this is not allowed. The few times that they did as I asked, the cost was half that of the developing with prints.

Picture CD is scanned at around 1500x1000 pixels or 1.5 megapixels. That's one and a half megapixels. This seems low by modern (2004) digital camera standards, but go back up and read my flame about the slimy marketing language used to describe digital camera resolutions. Or let me repeat: 1.5 megapixels may seem small, but each pixel has the red, green and blue separately sampled at each pixel. Digital cameras only have one of the primaries sampled at each pixel, so it has one third the color resolution. If you used the same slimy marketing tricks for Picture CD that they use for cameras, they would call these 3.5 megapixel images. These images are quite good.

I used to use Kodak's older service, called Photo CD. They may still be offering this. Photo CD scans each picture at about 3000x2000 pixels, or 6 megapixels! This sounds as good as the best digital cameras on the market today and is in fact much better. However most of the film that I ran through this service was pretty low resolution ASA 400 film. The result is that Photo CD has more resoltuion than I needed. I could zoom in on the images and count the film grains in the picture! One other advantage of Photo CD is that they would accept slide film which Picture CD has never allowed. You can also take old slides and negatives to some places and have them scanned to Photo CDs. This can be rather expensive, $0.50 to $1.20 per negative the last time I had it done.

Kodak disposable cameras:

Kodak makes a use-once "recyclable" waterproof camera, so I started using those when I first wanted to take pictures from a camera on the ocean. They listed for around $14.95, but if you shop around and wait for sales at Longs, I have bought them as cheep as $9.95. It would take around 50 of these cameras to equal the cost of a single waterproof film camera and 50 rolls of film. Later, I found a lead on a used professional waterproof camera for around $250 that had interchangeable lenses. This would allow me to mount a telephoto lens, which would be nice. But by then I had gotten used to the convenience of having a second "back up" camera in my dry-sack when I went kayaking. I can switch cameras in a second, and not have to deal with opening an expensive camera on the high seas while I changed rolls of film. I decided that I could make do with plastic lenses and use-once cameras.

You are supposed to turn in the whole camera with film in them to be developed. But I soon had the pleasure of watching them "recycle" one of these cameras at "Photo Drive-Up" in Berkeley. The camera has a back that breaks in half and then peels off like the top of a can of sardines. This went straight into the trash can. But the camera cannot come out until you pry the film advance spindle off with a screwdriver. This spindle goes through a greasy O-ring that keeps water out. The shutter release is a rubber button that pushes through the waterproof box, so it doesn't get in the way of removing the camera. The entire waterproof box is clear plastic, with lenses formed into it as part of the viewfinder but not the primary lens. This box goes into the trash also. Inside is a camera wrapped in heavy paper that has the logos, ads, and instructions printed on it. The inside of this paper has black patches printed on it in places to help baffle light from getting inside. Inside the paper layer is a black plastic camera that is held together by little plastic fingers with barbs on them. The whole camera can be taken apart, spread all over a table, and snapped back together again. Loads of fun for a technophile!

These cameras are loaded in the dark; with the film loosely rolled up on one end, running over to an empty, but otherwise normal, 35 mm film canister on the other end. As you use up the film it is pulled into the film canister. In a normal 35 mm camera the film is pulled out, then has to be wound back into the canister before you open the camera. In these use-once cameras rewinding is not necessary. Because they are loaded in the dark, the extra film that would normally be required for a leader is never exposed to light and you get 27 pictures on the same roll instead of only 24. Also, if the camera is smashed and split open at any time, all but the last 1 or 2 pictures taken are safely in the canister and can still be developed. One silly drawback with this system is the numbering: The film is still labeled along the edges as if the pictures will be taken from the outside of the roll to the inside. So the first picture you take is number 27 and the last one you take is number 1. (Well, actually they count from 24 down to 0, then 00, and finally 000). Even Kodak is still confused by this and I always get my pictures in reverse chronological order on the Photo CDs.

So as I watched the guy at Photo Drive-Up open my camera, I was horrified at first as he pried the camera apart with a screwdriver. Out popped the canister and THAT ALONE was sent to Kodak for developing. I asked him about recycling as he threw the last of the shattered pieces into the trash. He said that Kodak will no longer take them back, and "requests all photo shops to please recycle the camera bodies". Meaning they have to sort the pieces and put them in local recycling bins. So almost nobody bothers. Ever since then I have been "recycling" the cameras myself. Mostly for the fun of taking the cameras apart and partially to save them with the hope of re-loading them with fresh film myself. I have never actually gotten around to doing this with one of the Kodak cameras.

Fuji Waterproof Camera:

Fuji also makes a waterproof version of their use-once film cameras. They cost about the same, so I tried a few of them out. The first thing I noticed was the shutter release: Kodak has a rubber button that pushes a little rubber nubbin through the waterproof box and presses the shutter release on the camera inside. This often requires a lot of pressure to get it to work. If you look at my WEB pages, you will see that many of the pictures are tilted a few degrees. This is from mashing on that button with gloves on and accidentally tilting the whole camera. Fuji has a long hard plastic lever on the outside that goes through an o-ring sealed hole to press the camera shutter. It is much easier to press this shutter release than Kodak's. Fuji's waterproof box has the shutter and film advance knob going in near the top, and a snap-off bottom. Under the plastic bottom, they have a foam gasket, but as a backup they seal the camera in with Mylar tape. Once the tape is removed, the camera slips out without having to break or pry any of the other parts off. Like Kodak, there is a heavy paper ad wrapped around the camera. This camera is held together with little plastic barbs also, but for some reason they also glue it in one place. This makes taking it apart and putting it back together a little more difficult. Of course, there is a little pry-open trap door for removing the film for developing.

Because of the glue, the Fuji camera looked harder to re-load at home. But because you don't destroy the waterproof box to open it, the box part looked easier to re-use. I discovered that Fuji used an almost identical camera body inside these waterproof cameras as their daylight outdoor use- once camera (the one without the flash). The only difference (besides the printing on the paper wrapping) was a hole in the wrapper and the top of the camera for the film advance spindle to get in. These two parts can be slipped off and snapped onto a day-use camera, slipped into the box, and sealed with packing tape. Now I can re-load my own waterproof cameras! If you shop around for sales on the day-use cameras, I have gotten them for as low as $3.99 each.

All text and images Copyright © 2008 by Mike Higgins / contact