Many people are more concerned with finding a camera that will be easy to carry and take good pictures – whether it be happy snaps of family and friends or good quality travel pictures – than finding a camera with a thousand functions they will hardly, if ever, use. This article is for you…
The major features you should be concerned with are:
- FX, DX or APS-C digital capture sensor. This simply refers to the size of the digital sensor in the camera. A FX sensor is a full frame sensor – something that is very rare in point and shoot cameras and refers to more of a what you see is what you get approach. The FX sensor is still very expensive and is generally only found in upper level professional cameras. The DX and APS-C sensors are smaller digital sensors that do a very good job of capturing images. They are somewhere between ½ and ¾ the size of the FX sensor. The smaller sensors can go into more compact, lighter weight cameras. The quality of DX and APS-C sensors is very comparable, so either one really works well for our purposes. Since they are smaller versions of the FX sensor, you are still getting high quality digital captures. Things to look for in your digital sensor are the color depth level (8-bit, 10-bit, 12-bit, 14-bit or 16-bit), the higher the color bit level the better the color the camera produces, and ASA/ISO settings. The range of ASA/ISO or light sensitivity settings is a bet to let you know the quality level of the sensor. The best color is going to come from lower settings such as 100, 200 or 400 and the low light pictures will probably come from 800, 1600 or 3200 settings. Please note that grain and noise will increase as the ASA/ISO settings are increased.
- A good quality lens – preferably a glass or optical zoom lens. Some lenses are better than others and the quality characteristics are defined by the quality and clarity of the glass, lens coatings (to prevent glare and provide natural color) and aperture settings (the lower the aperture setting the more light can be captured). Newer lenses are coming with Vibration Reduction or Image Stabilization built in, which is a great feature to allow hand holding the camera in lower light or fast moving situations without getting camera shake.
- A good preview (LCD or LED screen on the back of the camera). Most point and shoot cameras are now operated at a distance with people looking at the screen on the back of the camera when they compose and take the picture. A good quality screen that you can see is a must. Most cameras are coming with 2.5 to 3.5 inch screens that offer an image you can still see well in bright sunlight.
- MegaPixels (size of the image it produces). A common misnomer is that the more pixels you have in the image, the better the image will be. This is only true if you want very large prints. A bad picture is still a bad picture, having it larger only makes it worse. A good quality 8×10 print can be made from 8 Megapixels. Most people will not print their photographs on paper larger than 8.5 x 11 inch (letter size) paper so the 8 megapixel (or anything above) quality should be fine. The more pixels (or Megapixels) you have the better the printed enlargements. All the cameras will produce a good image on your computer screen, it is the final print size that will dictate how many megapixels you need to look for when shopping fora camera.
- Format of the pictures. This refers to the digital format the camera generates and saves. Most cameras now offer (in order of quality) RAW, TIFF and JPEG. If you see Fine, Normal and Small, these generally refer to the size of a JPEG file. If the camera will allow you to shoot both RAW and JPEG at the same time it is usually a good camera. A quick word on RAW files… RAW simply stands for unprocessed file – so it really has no good viewing format other than the camera manufacturer’s software or Adobe viewing software. Unfortunately each camera manufacturer produces its own version of a RAW file – Nikon uses NEF, Canon uses CR2/CR3, Hasselblad uses FFF or triple F (a carryover from Imacon). The value of a RAW file is that it can be manipulated and output to multiple file formats at various sizes without affecting the original captured image. Think of a RAW file as the digital equivalent of negatives. JPEG files are the least quality files because they are compressed files, they are literally shrunk to be made smaller. JPEG files are also limited to 8-bit color maximum. Every time you save a JPEG file it is recompressed and looses a little bit of information. The JPEG or JPG file format was created to use less bandwidth when transmitting files over radio and Internet connections. It is a great way to share files and is the smallest supported format (so you will get more pictures on your flash card), but is the lowest quality file your camera will support.
- The ability to use at least some manual settings. There is a reason manual functions exist. We know that most people are lazy and if there is an automatic or program mode we will probably use it. In many instances pictures could be improved by using at least one manual function – being able to change the shutter speed to either stop action, prevent camera shake or to intentionally show motion; being able to change the aperture to get more depth-of-field (more in focus) so both the foreground and background are in focus for landscapes, or less depth-of-field for portraits to separate the person from the background. Setting the ISO/ASA manually is a benefit in many circumstances when you know what you want the end result to be. And the ability to turn off the automatic flash can be a picture saver in itself.
- Light Meter Settings – Most modern cameras come with two or three different light meters. These meters are very accurate compared to the meters we had 10 or 20 years ago. There are reasons to use the various light meters and having the choice between them is a feature I really like. The choices are generally Averaging or Evaluative (sometimes called Matrix or Honeycomb) metering where it takes many light readings within the scene and recommends or sets the proper exposure, Center Weighted Metering (where the camera only reads the light in the center 30% to 40% of the frame) or Spot Metering (where the meter only reads a 1% to 5% spot in the center of the frame).
- Tripod Socket – most cameras come with a tripod socket on the bottom. It will look similar to a screw hole, because that is how it is used – by screwing the tripod or tripod plate to the camera body.
- Flash Memory and Batteries – Please make sure to check what type of batteries your camera takes and make sure you get a second battery if you are going to shoot many pictures. And don’t forget that picture taking is contagious, so make sure you get at least two large fast flash cards for your camera. I highly recommend 4 Gig. flash cards that are at least 133x in speed – some go over 400+x in terms of speed, but that may be overkill for a budget camera. Check to see if your camera support Compact Flash or SD Flash before you buy. Download our pictures to your computer hard drive and back them up regularly. I also promote Adobe Lightroom as a viewing, editing and organizational tool.
- One last thought is to go to your local retail store – WalMart, Best Buy, Fry’s, Ritz, Showcase, etc. and physically hold the camera(s). Make sure it conforms to your hand and that you can easily access the features you want or need. Test several cameras to make sure you are getting the right one.
Recommended Cameras include:
Canon PowerShot G Series – currently the G10
Canon PowerShot SX series (several models)
Canon PowerShot A2100 IS
Nikon CoolPix P Series
Nikon CoolPix S series
Nikon CoolPix L100
Olympus Stylus 9000 Series
Olympus Stylus 7000 Series
Olympus E-P1 (pricy, but a beautiful mix of SLR and Point and Shoot features)
Kodak Z Series Cameras
Sony CyberShot HX1
Sony CyberShot H20