I use a Nikon 950 digital camera. I purchased this camera in 2000 for about $600. This model is no longer produced but comparable models are.
Optical ZoomThe Nikon 950 has an OPTICAL zoom of 3x. It also has a digital (electronic) zoom of much higher levels but that is cheating. If you zoom electronically you lose detail and the picture soon becomes blocky. Digital or electronic zoom capability on a camera is a total waste in my humble opinion. You can do exactly the same thing with any photo editing software on your computer. Get a camera with at least a 3x OPTICAL zoom lens.
LCD Color MonitorsThe Nikon 950 comes with a 2" LCD color monitor screen. Small monitor screens such as these are useless in my humble opinion. Yes you can use them to frame your shots, if the ambient light (read sunlight) is not too bright. But the optical viewfinder works much better and is more convenient in my opinion.
You can use the LCD monitor to review your pictures to see what you got but it is not big enough nor detailed enough to show you if the photo is actually in focus. Wildly out of focus pictures will appear good on the tiny monitor. It is not until you get home and download the pictures to your computer for viewing that you find they are out of focus and useless.
The monitor can be used to review and delete specific photos from the memory card in the field if you desire this. This is the only reasonable use I find for the LCD monitor. With small memory cards, or larger cards when using a memory hungry format, you can selectively delete a few unimportant pics to make room for something more important. But with the size and format I use I can get 120 pictures to a card so this is not a problem.
The LCD monitor is also used to select operating modes.
Any backlit monitor of this type will consume your batteries at a prodigious rate. It can be programmed to remain off or remain on or various times in between. I have mine programmed to come on only for 10 seconds or so immediately after each shot so I can glance at the picture to see that I actually got something.
Auto-FocusMy eyes are not what they used to be. I often have a difficult time trying to focus cameras. For me, autofocus (AF) is a must have. The Nikon 950 has a good AF system. It is not perfect but it is good. My primary purpose is to take pictures from within a moving locomotive. It is almost impossible to manually focus a camera while bouncing down the track in a locomotive even if you had perfect eyes. Several years ago I purchased a Canon Z135 35mm camera for this purpose. It has a 135mm zoom and autofocus. The problem is that the AF uses an infrared system. The camera shines a beam of infrared light (invisible) on the subject and tries to focus on the reflected infrared. Well guess what. The beam bounces back off of glass such as locomotive or car windows. That makes it useless for my purposes. It did a real good job of focusing on the windshield instead of what is outside of it. That infrared transmitter also gobbles batteries.
So when I was looking for a digital camera I wanted one that used an optical available light autofocusing system. The Nikon 950 fit that bill. It does a pretty good job of focusing except from a fast moving locomotive cab. In that case the entire scene outside appears to be moving towards the loco and the autofocus has a difficult time focusing correctly. Before purchasing it I expected that might be the case. Because of that and my experience with the Canon Z135 I wanted to be able to manually overide the AF to set the camera permanently at infinity focus if I desired. The Nikon 950 literature SAID I could do that. It turns out that is something of a mistatement. It is true you can program the Nikon 950 to focus at infinity and ignore closer subjects. But the camera still has to autofocus at infinity. It is not a preset lens setting. So setting the camera to infinity focus still does not work from a fast moving locomotive. Try and try as I may, there are some shots I just can't get to work.
BatteriesI have had cameras before that use exotic and expensive batteries. The afforementioned Canon Z135 35mm point and shoot camera used two CR123 lithium batteries. These darn things were about $7 each and it wore them out very quickly. Buying batteries was bankrupting me. So from now on I want electronic devices that use common AA penlite batteries. They are relatively cheap. In an emergency they can be purchased nearly anywhere. Built in rechargeable batteries may seem like a good idea but when they go dead you are out of luck until you can recharge them someplace. My Nikon 950 uses 4 AA cells. My GPS reciever uses 4 AA cells. My Palm Pilot uses 2 AAA cells. The Nikon will go through the 4 AA cells fairly quickly. Especially if you use the LCD monitor very much. I purchased 4 rechargeable Nickle Metal Hydride batteries and a charger. The whole thing was about $12. These batteries last a LONG time in the Nikon. Also the Ni-MH batteries do not self discharge in storage the way Nickle-Cadmium (Ni-Cads) do. Do yourself a big favor. Get a camera that uses AA batteries for easy field purchase and emergency replacement then buy yourself some AA Ni-MH's for normal use.
Resolution and DetailYou want a digital camera that has decent resolution. This means lots of pixels. Get a camera with at least 2 million pixels. And you want a camera that can save those large numbers of pixels to a removable standard memory card, not a disk or internal storage.
The 950 will take photos in 640x480, 1024x768, and 1600x1200 pixels format. Note that the most common size of 800x600 is missing. That is the size that I use for most of my photos published on the web site. This presents somewhat of a problem. So I use the next larger size which is the 1024x768. But 1024x768 is not an even multiple of 800x600 so if you shrink the final picture to 800x600 you lose some quality and get some "jaggies" where the original photo had no jaggies. It would be better if I were to use the 1600x1200 size which is exactly twice the 800x600 I want. But the super detail size of 1600x1200 takes about 1 MB per picture! That means that with the single 8 MB memory card that comes with the camera I can only take 7 pictures. By using the 1024x768 size I can get 18-21 pictures on the card. I have since purchased another memory card of 48 MB capacity. That card allows me to take up to 115 pictures at a time using the 1024x768 format.
When I use the 1024x768 format I usually try to take the pictures wider than I want. IE, I frame them with a lot of unwanted space around the subject locomotive or whatever. That way I can crop the final picture to 800x600 by selecting only the 800x600 pixel area of the photo that I want. By taking oversize and cropping by selection, rather than framing to the subject and shrinking the resulting picture, I get an 800x600 photo that has all of the original detail.
Well, most of the original detail anyway. The JPG picture format by design loses some detail EVERY TIME you save a picture. Therefore when you are cropping, shrinking, editing, and labeling a picture you want to do it all in one episode. Do not perform one operation then save that picture as a JPG then later reload that JPG and perform another operation and resave. You will lose quality. The more times you do that the more detail that is lost. Do it only once. Because the camera saves the original picture in the JPG format some quailty & detail is lost in that stage. If you then load that picture onto your computer and crop/edit/label and resave you will lose some more detail. However those two steps are almost unavoidable. Just avoid doing it a third time. Most of the pictures on my site are like this, what I call second generation JPGs.
Knowing that my published photos are at least second generation JPGs it should be obvious that the camera is capable much better detail. The Nikon 950 has one mode that captures and preserves its maximum capability. This mode takes a full 1600x1200 pixel photo and saves it to the memory card in the TIFF format instead of JPG format. Unlike JPGs the TIFF format is a NO LOSS format. You can save, reload, edit, save, reload, edit, to your hearts content without degradation. So why not always use TIFF? Because the photo files are HUGE. Each picture requires 8 MB. That means on the supplied 8 MB card you can only take ONE picture. On the 48 MB card I later purchased I can take only 5 or 6 pictures. So life is a trade off. I trade some quality and re-editing capability for smaller file sizes and more shots per card. For web publishing this is adequate but for other purposes you might want to consider using the highest resolution of the camera and storing the photos in the no loss TIFF format. Buy a bigger memory card or several of them.
SlowI have used or tried several digital cameras. All have some delay between pushing the trigger and taking the picture. Part of that is the camera attaining autofocus but part is inherant to the digital process. The Nikon 950 has about a 1 to 2 second delay.
SummaryOverall I am satisfied with the Nikon 950. I like its small size compared to a standard 35mm SLR. It takes little room in my grip and actually fits in a jeans pocket if need be if you wear loose fitting jeans. I would have been happier if the camera actually manually focused at a fixed lens setting of infinity.
Two years is a long time in the electronics world and digital cameras have no doubt made great strides in that time.
Update July 18, 2001Rugged. I would have said that it was very rugged based on the fall from C30-7 roof top level. See the text under the shot across the C30-7 roof in this essay. Since it survived that fall I figured it must be bullet proof. Wrong!
My camera broke today. I got off our stack train power while pumping air and walked over 10 tracks or so to photo a yard cleaner working. I took a few shots then put the lens cap on and walked back to my power. When I got there the lens cap was missing. I tried to back track my path looking for it but that was about impossible in the yard. It is only about the size of a quarter and black. I should have taken that as an omen. I put the camera in its case and laid the camera on top of my grip which was sitting on the cab floor. A few minutes later it fell off onto the cab floor. No big deal. Only about 14 inches, the case is padded a little. Well sometime later I tried to take a shot from the cab of the only remaining grain elevator with the "Best Out West. Sheridan Flouring Mills." logo at Wyola, MT. I found out the camera doesn't work anymore. Here at home I fiddled with it. It won't zoom and I'm not certain if it will focus. When you push the zoom button you can hear the little motor just run and run but nothing happens. All I can figure is that it must have landed right on the lens and shoved it back, breaking the drive? Great. Bet that will cost a fortune to fix.
Update September 3, 2001I got my camera back from Nikon. It has been repaired. $213.
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