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Here at Make: Labs we’re all about documenting the testing and building of projects. Up until recently, we interns had direct access to a small digital “point and shoot” style camera that we would use for close up detailed shots and to capture images of life in the lab. The quality was OK and it got the job done, until it decided to stop working all of a sudden. Now we are on the hunt for a replacement camera that will be versatile and handy for use in a workshop setting but has the capability to take detailed shots and possibly video.

So we pose two questions to you, dear reader:

1. Does anyone have a connection with a camera company who would be willing to send us a camera to test and review for the lab?
2. What digital cameras have you used in your workshop to document your builds?

Here is a list of features that we think the ultimate project documentation camera should support:

1. Easily mounted above work station
2. Remote triggering (possibly something we could hack for use with a micro-controller or external switch)
3. Ability to remotely adjust focus
4. High resolution (10-14 Mega Pixel range should work)
5. Ability to swap lenses
6. Option to shoot video (bonus)
7. Durable
8. User friendly

Please share your thoughts below, and if you have a camera contact please forward their information to nick@oreilly.com.


Related

Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    I’m something of an SLR snob, but I actually prefer my cheapo Canon A570 compact for documentation. Compact to shove into nooks and crannies, wide zoom range, and – most importantly – drop-dead simple macro mode. Compacts are also easy to mount, since they’re light enough you can just hang them off the tripod mount. Speaking of Canon, CHDK makes all things possible, or so I’m led to believe. 

    If I were going to get a camera to dedicate to build documentation, I’d get a Canon A-series, hack an AC adapter into the battery case, and put an eye-fi card in it. That way if it’s mounted overhead, you can shoot forever without touching it, and it’s lighter than if it had batteries. 

    1. I’ll have to second you on that one. I’ve had a Powershot A560 since 2007 or so and it goes everywhere I go. I use film cameras (SLR) for “finer” photography because I happen to like them and I’m mentally overaged, but for project documentation the A560 is just great. CHDK really does make it do awesome things (like interval shooting). It also seems to be very durable or at least hasn’t yet let me down albeit spending countless hours in dusty workshops, humid conditions, cold temperatures (-10 F is pretty standard winter day around here).

      And yes, macro mode is simple and gives results that are easily good enough for weblog illustrations. The camera itself isn’t “too compact” in size so you can get a proper grip of it and it uses standard rechargeable batteries which can be found just about anywhere if they happen to die.

  2. Jordan Bridges says:

    I use a Canon SD780 IS for documentation and I really like it. It doesn’t meet every category on the list, but I think it’s worth consideration for a couple of reasons. First, it has a really good macro mode, and is capable of filming in macro mode in 720p HD. Second, battery life is decent, but replacement batteries are cheap. I use it for SCUBA diving (with a rigid enclosure) and always keep a charged spare. As far as quality goes, I just got through my first 10,000 pictures and it’s still going strong. Downsides are that manual focusing is tough and you can’t changes lenses. I’ve never made an effort to control it remotely, so I can’t say much one way or another on that. I posted a video a while back for a competition that demonstrates the camera’s video features if you’re interested (watch in HD!): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ig3UEd0val8&feature=channel_video_title

    Hope this helps and at least helps narrow down the search!

    1. Anonymous says:

      i just have fun

  3. Jussi Mäki says:

    We just bought a new camera at our hotel and I would recommend a Canon Powershot G11, its good quality photos and can be used easily, it also offers a lot of options to use. It doesnt have swappable lenses, but can be fitted with teleconverters and such.

  4. Rahere says:

    The overhead capacity is either a build-it-yourself or a function of the tripod – you need one where the central  shaft can be rotated to become a horizontal bar, like the Manfrotto I use for archive work. 

  5. I would go for a Micro Four thirds, Oly or Pana do’s not really matter, what you get is a compact system camera, a short flange back distance (makes for easy diy lens fun) and great range of lenses. 

  6. Peter Simpson says:

    When we were looking for a camera for our electrical engineering lab, we got a Canon Rebel Xti DSLR.  We’re glad we did.  We bought a very good macro lens for it and use it for circuit board close-ups.  We also bought a $150 Manfrotto tripod and use that with the camera when we take shots of PCBs…steadying the camera makes a big difference in shot quality and allows us to get better depth of field by using small apertures and longer exposure times than we could with a handheld camera.

  7. Eric Kotara says:

    Any good modern APS-C (1.6x crop) DSLR from one of the 3 major players will suit your needs just fine. Remote focus should be possible with each company’s tethering software but I am not certain.  As mentioned in another comment all cameras have the same mounting hardware so mounting above the workstation is a grip issue more than a camera issue.  My advice would be to pick up a nice C-stand with a boom for mounting the camera above a work area.  For what you guys seem to want to use it for, a kit zoom and a Sigma macro would be the lenses I’d go for.

    Camera companies in general are rather reluctant to openly send out product for review unless you have some sway in the industry.  In most cases these are also long fostered relationships.  It might happen, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.  Dealers might be more open, in which case I would call up B and H.

    Canon 5Dii shooter over here :)

  8. Eric Kotara says:

    Any good modern APS-C (1.6x crop) DSLR from one of the 3 major players will suit your needs just fine. Remote focus should be possible with each company’s tethering software but I am not certain.  As mentioned in another comment all cameras have the same mounting hardware so mounting above the workstation is a grip issue more than a camera issue.  My advice would be to pick up a nice C-stand with a boom for mounting the camera above a work area.  For what you guys seem to want to use it for, a kit zoom and a Sigma macro would be the lenses I’d go for.

    Camera companies in general are rather reluctant to openly send out product for review unless you have some sway in the industry.  In most cases these are also long fostered relationships.  It might happen, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.  Dealers might be more open, in which case I would call up B and H.

    Canon 5Dii shooter over here :)

  9. Stephen Cameron says:

    You didn’t list price as a criterion.  So that makes it pretty easy:  Canon 5d Mark II with some nice ‘L’ lenses should do nicely.

  10. Stephen Cameron says:

    You didn’t list price as a criterion.  So that makes it pretty easy:  Canon 5d Mark II with some nice ‘L’ lenses should do nicely.

  11. Silas says:

    I use the cheapest Kodak easy share cameras I can buy new or refurbished to “scan” drivers licenses or ID cards. Built a small portable PVC pipe mount and just lay the camera in it. Simple, cheap and very effective. OCR software converts the .jpg pictures to contact database.

  12. Silas says:

    I use the cheapest Kodak easy share cameras I can buy new or refurbished to “scan” drivers licenses or ID cards. Built a small portable PVC pipe mount and just lay the camera in it. Simple, cheap and very effective. OCR software converts the .jpg pictures to contact database.

  13. Anonymous says:

    I use an FZ100, its great, easy to use, and you can make a remote switch for it pretty easy.. Unfortunately its not multi-lens or remote focus, but otherwise I recommend it :) stood up to drops and sand and bumps and dings…
    Actually im looking forward to see who answers this :) :)

  14. Anonymous says:

    I use an FZ100, its great, easy to use, and you can make a remote switch for it pretty easy.. Unfortunately its not multi-lens or remote focus, but otherwise I recommend it :) stood up to drops and sand and bumps and dings…
    Actually im looking forward to see who answers this :) :)

  15. JamesW says:

    I’d go with a Pentax DSLR – KX if you can find a decent used one, KR if you can’t.  The prices are good and you can score old manual focus K-mount lenses that will work with it. There are some nice Macro lenses from the pre-autofocus days that can be had for a song and would be great for documenting projects.  Then hook it up to a laptop with a tethering app so you can see your pics on the big screen as soon as you snap ‘em.

    And I hope you are going to go ahead and BUY a camera for the lab, after you test some, to avoid any hint of editorial bias.

    1. I love my KR. I grew up with a knockoff Pentax SLR. I have an old manual focus macro lens, but I find myself using macro filters on the included zoom lens more often for close-up macro pics.

    2. I love my KR. I grew up with a knockoff Pentax SLR. I have an old manual focus macro lens, but I find myself using macro filters on the included zoom lens more often for close-up macro pics.

  16. JamesW says:

    I’d go with a Pentax DSLR – KX if you can find a decent used one, KR if you can’t.  The prices are good and you can score old manual focus K-mount lenses that will work with it. There are some nice Macro lenses from the pre-autofocus days that can be had for a song and would be great for documenting projects.  Then hook it up to a laptop with a tethering app so you can see your pics on the big screen as soon as you snap ‘em.

    And I hope you are going to go ahead and BUY a camera for the lab, after you test some, to avoid any hint of editorial bias.

  17. Chris Thorp says:

    I highly recommend the Canon T3i for this application paired with a something like the
    EF 50mm f/2.5 Compact Macro.  It’ll get you nice quality 1080p video and photos.  There are schematics for remote shutter and focus activation via Arduino or off-the-shelf hand controls.

  18. Chris Thorp says:

    I highly recommend the Canon T3i for this application paired with a something like the
    EF 50mm f/2.5 Compact Macro.  It’ll get you nice quality 1080p video and photos.  There are schematics for remote shutter and focus activation via Arduino or off-the-shelf hand controls.

  19. Garret Spargo says:

    I work as the director of the Telehealth Technology Assessment Center by day and as a bit of a photographer by evening.  We have been asked by our funding agency and customers to take a look at DSLR cameras for use in medical imaging, which means that we have taken in a huge pile of cameras, lenses, and lights to assess as devices for medical imaging.

    We have a total of 13 DSLRs, 2 Micro Four-Thirds, and the two full-manual point and shoots. We have pretty much everything from Canon (1D Mark IV, 5D, 7D, 60D, T3i, XS, G12).  We also brought in the 60 mm, 105 mm, and 180 mm macros, the stock 18-55mm zoom, and the 24-70 f2.8 / 24-105 f4.0 lenses.  We also have the Nikon D90, D3000, P7000, and a pile of lenses, the Pentax K-r and K-7, Sony a390 and a35, Olympus E30 and E-P2, and Panasonic DHC-GH2.  All of the cameras have their stock lenses and a macro in the ~100 mm range (or equivalent with crop factor).

    For lights, we have the Canon twin-light macro, 430 EX, Alien Bees ring light, Litepanels ring lights, Litepanels hotshoe mount LED panels, and an assortment of LED ring lights and panels – ranging from around $100 to $1000.  We are also using a three-point light with Pocket Wizards and two Vivitar 285s and a LumoPro 120.  Everything is being metered as we go.

    We went primarily with Canon for the comprehensive, top-to-bottom body
    review in part because I am a Canon shooter, and know their gear best. 
    That is only because I got started shooting with them, and not because I think they are any better than the others.  Our goal has been to show a vertical product line – all from one manufacturer, as well as a couple of horizontal bands in the entry-level and mid-level consumer range.

    We are shooting a huge pile of images – intraoral, wounds, faces, full profiles, etc, with each using the on-camera flash and stock lens (with / without flash) and the macro lenses with and without our nicer LED flash (the brightest LED unit, and it fit on all of our different lenses – DoctorsEyes, forget the model number).

    We aren’t done yet, but I do have a few thoughts.  Some of the cameras have been struggling to auto white-balance correctly when using the LED light with fluorescent overhead.  Most stock lenses won’t work nicely with a ring light, as their lenses extend and retract as you focus, and the weight of the nicer ring light kills the ability to focus.  LED lights are great for up-close shots, but struggle to provide sufficient illumination beyond a few feet.  Very single-purpose lights, really.  The manufacturers are doing a pretty good job offering similar cameras at similar price points.  If you go high price, some of the features get added and some of the functionality improves.  Differences exist, obviously, but very few of them are truly earth-shattering.  Good light and good lenses go a long way to making for a great image – the bodies all have their own quirks, strengths, and weaknesses, but the light provides an amazing normalizing factor.

    I will be honest, I have found a new personal favorite configuration, and will be using it while I travel for the next eight months (I am the outgoing director, mind you … the travel bug has bitten).  I love the Canon G12 with pocket wizards and external flashes.  I imagine I would be equally in love with Nikon’s version of full-manual hotshoe happiness, but again … I work with what I know (and have invested in).  This might not be the best for your shop’s needs, but does go to emphasize my point that good lights and some know-how can make for images that are great.

    Note that I do NOT in any way endorse any of these products, nor find any particular one to be heads-and-shoulders above their similarly-priced competitors.  I do endorse teaching your interns how to light things properly, as such a skill will serve them well when doing build documentation, off-site event documentation, etc.

  20. Garret Spargo says:

    I work as the director of the Telehealth Technology Assessment Center by day and as a bit of a photographer by evening.  We have been asked by our funding agency and customers to take a look at DSLR cameras for use in medical imaging, which means that we have taken in a huge pile of cameras, lenses, and lights to assess as devices for medical imaging.

    We have a total of 13 DSLRs, 2 Micro Four-Thirds, and the two full-manual point and shoots. We have pretty much everything from Canon (1D Mark IV, 5D, 7D, 60D, T3i, XS, G12).  We also brought in the 60 mm, 105 mm, and 180 mm macros, the stock 18-55mm zoom, and the 24-70 f2.8 / 24-105 f4.0 lenses.  We also have the Nikon D90, D3000, P7000, and a pile of lenses, the Pentax K-r and K-7, Sony a390 and a35, Olympus E30 and E-P2, and Panasonic DHC-GH2.  All of the cameras have their stock lenses and a macro in the ~100 mm range (or equivalent with crop factor).

    For lights, we have the Canon twin-light macro, 430 EX, Alien Bees ring light, Litepanels ring lights, Litepanels hotshoe mount LED panels, and an assortment of LED ring lights and panels – ranging from around $100 to $1000.  We are also using a three-point light with Pocket Wizards and two Vivitar 285s and a LumoPro 120.  Everything is being metered as we go.

    We went primarily with Canon for the comprehensive, top-to-bottom body
    review in part because I am a Canon shooter, and know their gear best. 
    That is only because I got started shooting with them, and not because I think they are any better than the others.  Our goal has been to show a vertical product line – all from one manufacturer, as well as a couple of horizontal bands in the entry-level and mid-level consumer range.

    We are shooting a huge pile of images – intraoral, wounds, faces, full profiles, etc, with each using the on-camera flash and stock lens (with / without flash) and the macro lenses with and without our nicer LED flash (the brightest LED unit, and it fit on all of our different lenses – DoctorsEyes, forget the model number).

    We aren’t done yet, but I do have a few thoughts.  Some of the cameras have been struggling to auto white-balance correctly when using the LED light with fluorescent overhead.  Most stock lenses won’t work nicely with a ring light, as their lenses extend and retract as you focus, and the weight of the nicer ring light kills the ability to focus.  LED lights are great for up-close shots, but struggle to provide sufficient illumination beyond a few feet.  Very single-purpose lights, really.  The manufacturers are doing a pretty good job offering similar cameras at similar price points.  If you go high price, some of the features get added and some of the functionality improves.  Differences exist, obviously, but very few of them are truly earth-shattering.  Good light and good lenses go a long way to making for a great image – the bodies all have their own quirks, strengths, and weaknesses, but the light provides an amazing normalizing factor.

    I will be honest, I have found a new personal favorite configuration, and will be using it while I travel for the next eight months (I am the outgoing director, mind you … the travel bug has bitten).  I love the Canon G12 with pocket wizards and external flashes.  I imagine I would be equally in love with Nikon’s version of full-manual hotshoe happiness, but again … I work with what I know (and have invested in).  This might not be the best for your shop’s needs, but does go to emphasize my point that good lights and some know-how can make for images that are great.

    Note that I do NOT in any way endorse any of these products, nor find any particular one to be heads-and-shoulders above their similarly-priced competitors.  I do endorse teaching your interns how to light things properly, as such a skill will serve them well when doing build documentation, off-site event documentation, etc.

  21. Garret Spargo says:

    Also, as to getting cameras for review, we used an online rental service to get them for cheap.  Set up a test plan, get the gear staged and ready, then blast through an assessment in a couple of days.  You’ll be out a few hundred to a few thousand, depending on what all you bring in.  If you want to pick our brains about how we have set up our lab, feel free to email me.

  22. Garret Spargo says:

    Also, as to getting cameras for review, we used an online rental service to get them for cheap.  Set up a test plan, get the gear staged and ready, then blast through an assessment in a couple of days.  You’ll be out a few hundred to a few thousand, depending on what all you bring in.  If you want to pick our brains about how we have set up our lab, feel free to email me.

  23. Anonymous says:

    Assuming that you’re shooting macro and near-macro photography, and that light levels will not be a constraint, a small-sensor camera has some advantages. Interestingly, both Nikon and Pentax have just released small-sensor interchangeable-lens systems (the One and Q, respectively).

    Aside from them, micro 4/3 is well-supported and diverse, so there’s likely to be a body and lenses to suit you, though without quite as broad a depth of field as the other, even smaller-sensor cameras.

    I don’t know if either the Nikon or the Pentax support remotely adjustable focus, but both should meet your other needs.

  24. Anonymous says:

    Assuming that you’re shooting macro and near-macro photography, and that light levels will not be a constraint, a small-sensor camera has some advantages. Interestingly, both Nikon and Pentax have just released small-sensor interchangeable-lens systems (the One and Q, respectively).

    Aside from them, micro 4/3 is well-supported and diverse, so there’s likely to be a body and lenses to suit you, though without quite as broad a depth of field as the other, even smaller-sensor cameras.

    I don’t know if either the Nikon or the Pentax support remotely adjustable focus, but both should meet your other needs.

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