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Basic digital photography in the surgery

You may not know your pixel from your macro but you can make great use of a digital camera ­ Dr Nicholas Posner has snappy advice

Many GPs will already have dabbled in the wonderful new world of digital photography, if only for family snaps.

This article is aimed at enthusing those who thought it was perhaps too complicated or expensive or indeed of too poor quality for clinical use.

Those misconceptions are easily banished and here is a guide to how to get started.

The aim is to have a basic system that any partner can use without any prior photographic knowledge. GPs are not looking for beautifully-lit high-resolution images but a basic record of what was seen in the consultation. The potential uses are obvious.

Your dermatology referrals will no doubt contain excellent descriptions but the consultant can make a more informed decision on the urgency of the matter if a photo is attached to the letter.

A record can also be kept in the surgery notes of the progress of conditions such as acne and psoriasis. You may also wish to record injuries.

Do not forget the non-clinical uses in the surgery: staff photos for the waiting room wall

or photographic records of any structural

changes at the practice.

Equipment needs

When it comes to choosing a camera you are immediately blinded by the choice of more than 100 digital models on the market. Your surgery pictures are never likely to be printed beyond postcard size so resolution is not a big issue.

The best-value models at the moment have three megapixels and these are ideal for everyday use. You will need a short zoom and a macro (close-focusing) facility. Don't worry, virtually every three megapixel model has these anyway. Stick with a manufacturer you have heard of and spend between £170 and £270 and you have the ideal surgery snapshooter.

The next issue is a printer. Choose one that is a designated 'photo printer' and you will not be disappointed with any of the top makes. There is no need to spend a fortune here ­ superb quality can be achieved at £150 and you may get away with less.

Many printers offer 'computerless' printing direct from the camera's memory card. This option is excellent for speed and simplicity after a busy surgery but you will need to connect to the computer if you wish to save the files in the electronic record.

This can be done either with the cable that comes with the camera or via a £10 card reader that plugs into the computer.

Ink and paper remain expensive but for the relatively small quantity you will use in the surgery this is not a great worry. This is where digital comes into its own ­ you only need to print the pictures you want and do not have the inconvenience of developing a whole film for just a few shots.

Use basic photo paper and proprietary inks and you will find the cost is around 30p for an A6 print (an A4 sheet cut into four). Use cheap generic inks at your own risk ­ there have been tales of printers irreparably damaged.

Taking the shot

Now, at last, to actually start taking pictures. Digital cameras have very short focal length lenses. This makes close focusing much easier than with 35mm cameras due to the wide depth of field.

Set the camera to the middle range of its zoom (usually the default when you switch it on) and the quality setting to 'medium'.

This will record a JPEG file, which has the ideal balance between quality and file size. Files that are too large will create storage and transfer problems and are simply not necessary for basic use. Find a plain background, usually the wall or floor for something large, or the paper on the couch for something small.

For close-ups (less than 20cm) you will need to select the macro setting. Leave the flash set on its default 'auto' setting. Hold the camera as steady as you can and frame the picture on the camera's screen (the actual viewfinder is useless for clinical shots, due to parallax error). Press the shutter button halfway and the camera will focus.

When it looks sharp press the shutter button fully and after a slight delay the flash will fire and the picture is stored.

Of course, you can immediately view the picture you have taken. In the event of any small problems, simply take it again.

The memory card that comes with the camera will be sufficient to store 10 or more JPEG files. When the card is full ensure the pictures you want are either printed or stored on the computer then delete the card and you are ready to take more.

The pictures on this page were all taken with our surgery's ancient two megapixel camera. They all use the point-and-shoot technique with autofocus and direct flash. None are masterpieces but they simply demonstrate how easy it is to make a visual record in a matter of seconds.

Remember, if you think that your pictures may be used in medical publications you must obtain written consent from the patient even when the picture is used anonymously.

My recommendations

to get you started

Camera

A 3 megapixel camera such as the Sony P52 for under £200

Printer

A photo-quality printer such as the Epson Stylus Photo 915 for under £150

Paper

Epson photo paper is good value at around £8 for 20 A4 sheets. Cut it into four and you have just 10p per postcard size print

Ink

The brand name ink will cost around 20p per print at A6 size

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