Digital Cameras: A Great Business Tool

August 5, 2005
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Digital cameras seem to be everywhere, and for many good reasons. Put into the hands of a foreman on the job or an estimator viewing a project before preparing a bid, a digital camera used in conjunction with e-mail can save an HVAC contractor time and money and increase productivity throughout the business day, from bidding to final billing.

An estimator who snaps digital images while walking a job doesn't have to rely on memory to reconstruct the field conditions and, on second look on a computer screen, might discover a condition not noted on first view. As preparation of the estimate, the easy referral to digital images could save a return visit or facilitate a quick clarification of an observed condition.

The freedom to snap, snap, snap without concern for the cost of film and development is liberating. Depending upon the memory capacity, it is possible to take hundreds or even thousands of photos before a memory card is full. And if, upon review on the LCD screen, the angle or composition is not quite right, instant retakes are a snap.

Many Reasons For Digital

Once a project starts, images of jobsite problems such as a revealed hidden condition, damage caused by others, broken equipment, or wrong or defective materials photographed while the delivery truck is in the driveway can speed advice from management (who is saved a trip for a look-see) or expedite consultation with the engineer, owner, supplier, or other project participant.

Once the photos are downloaded to a computer (a process that takes just a few seconds), they can be attached to explanatory e-mails and sent over the Internet or can be uploaded to a company or project Web site.

Digital photos taken to show progress can be submitted as substantiation to justify requests for payment. And they provide a visual log of the ongoing work if a dispute goes to arbitration or court a few years down the line.

During a marketing proposal, digital photos displayed on a laptop, on the client's TV, or distributed on a CD can bolster the sales presentation with value-adding details. Onscreen photos could include product shots taken at the supply house showroom, as well as images of a recently completed project of the same type as the one being proposed. A sight and sound presentation featuring commentary, talk, and background music can be very engaging and convincing.

Explaining Digital

Digital cameras are classified based on size: ultracompact (between 5 and 7 ounces); compact (typically between 7 and 10 ounces), medium (approximately 10 to 12 ounces) and large (12 ounces and up). Ultracompacts fit nicely into a shirt pocket while compacts fit into a small case easily worn on a belt. Generally, the smaller units lack some of the features of the larger units, but results can be just as good.

Large units look like 35-mm cameras with through-the-lens focusing and aperture and shutter priority modes, but they lack an LCD screen and cannot record the mini sound video that the others can. All other categories come with either an LCD screen and viewfinder or just an LCD screen.

The most frequently advertised specification is the megapixel rating, which relates to the number of pixels or picture elements placed on the photo-sensitive chip in the camera that replaced the film. The more picture elements, the greater the resolution.

Today's cameras range from 3 megapixels to 8 megapixels, with 5-megapixel models probably the most popular size. Unless you are going to blow up photos to poster size, you don't need more than 5 megapixels because the larger files take up more camera and computer space, are slower to transfer, and 5-megapixel, 4-inch by 6-inch photos look great.

Furthermore, if the image is going to be sent by e-mail using a modem and viewed only on screen, you would need to use a lower resolution which provides quick transfer and adequate screen clarity. All models allow for lower settings.

Digital cameras generally ship with only enough memory (about 16 MB) to whet the appetite before needing to offload the photos to keep going. When figuring the cost of the camera, factor in the cost of a substantial memory card so you can snap away all day without worry about filling it. For example, with the camera set at normal resolution, a 512 MB SD memory card (about $50) can store over 250 5-megapixel snaps. With that same camera set to the lower TV megapixel resolution, it could store about 3,000 pictures.

Most digital cameras use rechargeable batteries. Some also work off (backup) ordinary AA batteries, which could be very handy on a long, busy day.

Generally, compact digital cameras feature 3X to 4X optical zoom, equivalent to about a 100-mm telephoto lens. User-friendly functions and conveniences include: a large LCD screen, through-the-eye viewfinder, which is very helpful in bright sunlight when it could be hard to see the image on the screen; and a generous range of preset modes that optimize the aperture and shutter speed for the subject and just about guarantee a clear, sharp image with every click. Some rangefinder or LCD screen-only units also include manual controls that enable users, themselves, to prioritize aperture or shutter settings.

Other handy features include: blur warnings that alert users when the images are out of focus, red-eye fix, image-stabilization that compensates for hand movement when the shutter stays open longer during low light conditions, in-camera cropping, and onscreen explanations of camera controls and functions.

Sidebar: Submitting Photos To The News

When submitting photos to The News, use the following guidelines. Be sure to use highest-quality setting to ensure the largest file size possible. In most cases, the art director can convert graphic files to be large enough for print publication. Final converted size should have a resolution of 300 dpi; be at least 5 inches wide for vertical shots, or at least 7 inches wide for horizontal shots. In general, the larger the picture, the better. JPG files are best to submit. If you would like a complete copy of The News' "Digital Art Spec Sheet," visit www.achrnews.com and click on "How To Submit a Press Release to The News."

Publication date: 08/08/2005

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