View Full Version : Choosing a Camera

02-22-2012, 07:00 AM
T. Ashley mentioned that he would be interested in a series of posts on Photography and Scanning in a museum context so here is the first one, choosing a camera.

As everyone can guess, buying equipment entirely comes down to what your institution can afford. Any camera is better than none at all, but beyond that there are many, many options. If you are planning a new digitization project, don’t forget that you will also need a good computer with Photoshop or Lightroom, a good tripod, lighting equipment and some room on a server somewhere.

First, see what you already have. Many older lenses can be as good as or better than new ones. I often use a 30 year old 55mm Micro-Nikkor because it is a great lens and it was right there in the drawer. You can save some money by buying a camera body to fit your lenses.

Second, decide what you will need the camera for. If you are only shooting images of how crates are packed a good inexpensive Point and Shoot would be fine and in the hands of an “inexperienced” photographer a simple camera could save a lot of grief. However, if you are producing images of museum objects for high-end publication and/or intensive conservation treatment a $200 point and shoot will not be enough.

Now down to cost. You can spend anywhere from $200 to $50,000+ on a camera system. You’ll have to decide for yourself what you need out of your camera and thus what you need to spend. A note on buying used cameras: I would not buy a used digital camera body unless you really know what you are doing. There are too many things that could go wrong. However, used lenses and studio equipment are usually good deals.

Point and Shoot style cameras. The good things: cheap (you can buy 2 or 3 for large projects), small, they can usually get some sort of image in a wide variety of situations. Bad things: they have little to no manual controls so you cannot change things like shutter speed easily, they usually do not have manual focus (just try to shoot something without a lot of contrast with auto-focus!), you cannot change lenses for different situations, their lenses can be pretty poor for trying to shoot flat art (they tend to have a lot of fisheye distortion), and some will not let you shoot images in a RAW format. If this type of camera is what you are looking for despite the issues, I really like Canon’s small cameras. They pack a lot of features into a small package. For super cheap, try the PowerShot ELPH 100 HS ($130), for mid-range try the new PowerShot ELPH 110 HS ($250) and for higher-end (though for this price you can get a cheap DSLR body) try the PowerShot S100 ($430). I personally own a Nikon P300 and like it very much for the manual features (its successor, the P310 is very similar).

DSLR: This is probably the most versatile type of digital camera. There are a huge range of lenses available, you can get a full-frame sensor, they usually have complete manual modes, and they are mostly very durable. There isn’t all that much difference between Nikon and Canon, although Canon (especially the 5D) has very good video functionality. If you have a pile of Nikon lenses sitting around already, go for a Nikon body. For something in the $500-$700 range the Canon EOS Rebel T2i or T3i models are great for the price, however the kit lenses are not the best. The Nikon 3100 is pretty good too. In the $1000-$2000 category the Nikon D300 is a fantastic camera with a big DX sensor. The Canon 7D is also a good camera in this range. In the over $2000 range (for body only) you’ll be paying for options that you may or may not need in your particular situation, such as long battery life, high megapixel count, automatic bracketing, 5 different focus modes, and on and on. Unless you need some of this stuff, you may want to save your $ for a middle range camera and a few very good lenses. For $3300 the new Nikon D800 looks quite impressive.

Medium format cameras and/or backs: This type of camera is the digital solution to replacing the image quality one used to get from 4x5. They are fantastic cameras that take unbelievable images! Larger museums (that can afford it) almost all shoot medium format digital, usually either Phase One or Hasselblad. Phase One probably has the better digital technology and customer service, Hasselblad has great build quality and great lenses. But … how does that saying go? “If you have to ask how much it costs you can’t afford it.” Well, these cameras start at $18,000 and go up from there. You can get extreme detail, great color rendition, and, well if you are really in the market for one you shouldn’t need me to tell you the advantages. An interesting alternate use for these is that they can also fit on the back of a 4x5 view camera so you can get all the advantages of a view camera (swings, tilts, etc.) and use all your expensive 4x5 lenses with a high-end digital back.

Lenses: A zoom lens, no matter how expensive is not the best lens for shooting artwork, especially flat art. You’ll want at least one good Macro lens. These are designed to produce a flat field and (mostly) even focus across the whole image area. Both Nikon and Canon (and aftermarket manufacturers) make good macros. The disadvantage with a fixed length Macro is that as you are shooting different objects, you have to move the camera to frame the shot rather than zoom in and out. You can find great deals by buying a used lens, especially ones that are not Auto-Focus.

Tripod: Don’t scrimp on your tripod. A cheap one barely works as a paper weight! Every tripod has a weight limit so check that against your camera system before buying. A good one should cost you $100-$200 new. I like Manfrotto products. If you have a big enough studio and will be doing a lot of shooting, you may want to invest in a studio mono-stand like this (http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/187581-REG/Arkay_60242403_10MS_III_Mono_Stand_Sr.html). It will be much faster than a tripod and sturdy enough to shoot straight down (useful for flat art). But they are big, heavy and expensive. You may be able to find one used locally since nearly any photo studio has one or three.

Other: If your museum holds a lot of flat art, you may be better off spending some money on a good flat-bed scanner. Your artwork will obviously have to be in good enough condition to flip upside down to scan (photographs and prints usually), but a scanner can be very quick and can capture very detailed images. We have quite a few Epson 10000XL scanners with the Transparency Adapter.

Next post: Lighting

Jason Onerheim
Minnesota Historical Society

02-17-2014, 10:38 PM
Thank you Jason Onerheim for such informative post, I totally agree it comes down to your subject and what you can afford. I shoot weddings and by now I invested a lot of money into my gear, however i started humble with only couple of zoom lenses and one DSLR camera. I can say as my skills grew so my equipment needs, however the best part was once i made initial investment i was able to resell and upgrade. I totally love my kit now and i would never go back to zoom lenses, however it was a great starting point.

04-28-2014, 06:54 AM
Thanks. A quick update. We just purchased a Nikon D610 camera body (http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/1008264-REG/nikon_d_610_digital_slr_body.html) to take advantage of a full-frame sensor. The camera itself is fine, there are some quirks I don't like, but it is all about the sensor! It has really made things much easier shooting objects.