Digital Cameras for Online Product Sales

© Copyright 2004 by Stuart J. Whitmore

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Several years ago, I wrote a long email to a co-worker who was interested in buying a camera. I turned that message into a Web page on my personal site, in case others would find it useful. It was taken offline with the rest of my site for a short while. More recently, I ended up writing email to a former co-worker to give her my thoughts on shopping for a digital camera to use for selling her products online, and thought it might make sense to post it online also, along with the earlier digital camera shopping document that is more general and not biased toward product photography.

Get accustomed to ignoring features that don't support the main purpose for the camera. For example, many digital cameras have a "movie" mode -- this won't really be helpful to you unless you want to take a movie of the products, such as panning over a product to show it from multiple angles. Other "gimmicks" include things like in-camera effects (which are more wisely done on the computer, and which you may not want to do at all anyway), voice annotation (probably not helpful for product photos), etc.

The main things you'll want are clarity (sharp photos), good color rendition (i.e., to accurately capture different colors), and convenience (ease of use) both in how the camera is used and how you get the photos from the camera to the computer. Convenience would also include battery life, since constantly changing batteries will decrease your productivity.

The zoom factor on low-end digital cameras is typically weak -- but it may not make a difference. For product photos with my digital camera, the only times I've used a zoom is when I haven't had sufficient light and I needed to use my flash (which should be avoided anyway), but the flash was too bright so I had to back up to decrease the light hitting the item. If you ensure that you have proper lighting to begin with, and can thus avoid the flash, then you probably won't need the zoom feature.

The "macro" mode on digital cameras is often weak by comparison to a true macro setup with a film camera. Macro shots are good for showing product detail. Low-end digital cameras typically lack a macro mode, and they sometimes need a lot of room between them and the photo subject. For example, an under-$50 camera I gave a relative for her birthday requires 55" between the camera and the closest subject. That's not convenient for product photos and does not allow macro-type close-ups. On the other hand, with a sufficiently high resolution original image, you can crop the photo down to just the detail of interest and maybe get a macro-type shot.

The amount of memory built into the camera, or which can be added to the camera using a sold-separately memory device, will determine how many photos you can store. Whether that matters or not will depend on the number of products you need to photograph at any given time (or, alternatively, whether you want to be able to use the camera for other purposes that might require handling lots of images). The manufacturer will provide an (optimistic) estimate of how many photos can be stored -- often, if they stick to that estimate, it's by sacrificing the quality of the final image that fills up the memory.

Understanding resolution versus storage space will help you compare camera features regarding built-in or add-on memory and photo resolution. In a very literal sense, the "resolution" of the image refers to how many "square dots" (pixels) are used to build the image, and -- since each pixel is the same size -- this translates directly to the dimensions of the photo. For example, a 1024x768 photo uses 1024 pixels in each row, and there are 768 rows. Likewise, a 640x480 photo has 480 rows of 640 pixels each. If they both are of the same photo, the 1024x768 photo will contain more information because it can use more "dots" per area of the photo. This means it can "resolve" the details better -- think of a picture of your fingertip, the 1024x768 image would capture your fingerprint much better than the 640x480 image. Now, how does that relate to storage space? Think of the storage space as being an 8.5x11" sheet of copier paper, and you can cut it into either postage stamps or 3x5 cards. Which will you get more of? Well, of course, the smaller postage stamps. But, if you're fitting any given photo onto either a postage stamp or a 3x5 print, you'll be able to see much more detail in the larger image. So as your image quality and details increase, so does your usage of the available space.

You may run across the term "RAW" images. This means that every detail is stored exactly as the camera saw it. This uses up a lot of memory. You'll probably also run across the term "JPEG" images. JPEG shrinks the storage space needed for photos -- without changing the pixel dimensions --by throwing away some of the photo info. If I was doing high-end professional product catalog work, I would want to capture RAW images and work with those directly, and then compress them (maybe) on an individual and manual basis. But I've never needed that level of control and letting the camera capture photos into JPEG image files has worked fine for me.

If you're planning on displaying images online (e.g., on eBay or some other e-commerce site, whether your own or one run by somebody else), you'll want to have the pixel dimensions and the file size down to something manageable -- probably much less than the camera's native resolution. This is typically done after the photos are moved onto the computer, not by making the camera reduce the image directly, and usually the camera will come with some software that will help you accomplish that.

Price ranges on digital cameras run from about $20 up to several thousand dollars. With a budget of about $200, you can get a pretty capable camera -- below that, and it's more of a toy, although it may suffice if you're on a tight budget. The problem I found, when shopping for my relative, was that anything under $100 was in a sealed plastic container where I couldn't try out the camera before buying it. But if your budget is over $100, many stores have demo cameras that you can try out, which can be helpful. I haven't seen in-store ability to hook up the demo cameras to a computer to move the photos off the camera, though, so don't expect to get a comprehensive test of it in the store.