It seems every few days, somebody here makes the decision it is time to get a digital camera, and like me when I got my first one, knows little about them. What features are important? What are the differences? I’ve got a little experience through my own purchase and use of one, so I’m going to make a guide about digital cameras to try to help new buyers.
Digital Camera Guide
Features to Consider:
Megapixels are the number of pixels (length and width) a picture takes up. Larger number of megapixels means the photo file that it creates is larger. The megapixel number is a function of the area of the picture.
Here are a few for reference:
1280 x 960 (1.3 megapixel)
1600 x 1200 (2.1 megapixel)
1800 x 1200 (2.3 megapixel)
2048 x 1536 (3 megapixel)
2400 x 1600 (4 megapixel
Great page about Megapixels and what it really means to you.
Another nice write up about megapixels and print sizes
Taken from ACDCSystems Web Page, here are some tips about how many megapixels are needed to print various sized pictures.
The bottom line is that most “average users” won’t be printing ANYTHING larger than an 8” x 10” picture on their printer, so 3 or 4 Megapixel is really about as high as the average user ever needs to worry about. Anything over that is really more than you will ever use unless you plan on printing posters or something and who has a printer capable or printing larger than 8” x 10” or 11” x 14” photos anyway?
My advice, don’t waste your money on larger megapixel cameras. You will never use it…all it does is give you pictures that are so large in size you have to resize them to something you can see anyway. It’s just a waste of your time.
CCD is basically the sensors that are used to form the image. Although it is underdiscussed (probably because camera makers think users are too stupid to know what it is), this is truly probably one of the most important things to look at. The bigger the number, the more the sensors and thus the more accurate the image is translated. The CCD is often same/similar to the megapixels.
OZ is (in MY opinion) probably the 2nd most important feature. Digital Zoom is not very meaningful as digital zooming (blowing up) can also be done on a computer after the picture is taken. If you want to zoom in on things that you are not close enough to (which is often, IMO), then OZ is what you want to use.
OZ is true zooming by using the lens. DZ can pixelate when zooming in too much. Most digital cameras only have OZ up to about 3x, but there are some that go as high as 10x or even 12x and some others that are in the middle. I suggest to strongly consider a good optical zoom. But also consider that when using a high Optical zoom (telephoto), the camera must be held more still. If you want to use high zoom modes, then you may want to get a tripod also.
DZ is not that important, but it is not “meaningless” either. I used to think, “what is the point of digital zoom since I can do the same thing in Photoshop after I’ve downloaded the photos”. Then somebody pointed out an important fact. Although that is true, the DZ on the camera is digitally zooming BEFORE the image is compressed into the JPG format.
If you plan to use manual settings, then you want to know this. It would even help in a simple point and shoot, though you wouldn’t have control over it. The Aperture size (measured in F-stops) is the size of the hole that opens up when the picture is taken. The smaller the hole, the better you can get long distance (landscape) shots and the better the quality for far away landscapes. The larger number is better for close up focusing. So, you want as good a range as possible. My Olympus C-740 has a range from F2.8 - F8.0 if that helps you by some sort of comparison.
Shutter Speed Ranges
The shutter speed is the time the aperture is open for when the picture is taken and measured in seconds. Very fast shutter speeds are usually needed for action shots, and long shutter speeds are often needed for low-light shots (like night shots). Again as a comparison to judge by, my Olympus C-740 has a range from 1/1000sec - 16 sec.
Keep in mind that long shutter speeds also mean that the camera has to remain absolutely still for the entire time the shutter is open, so if you plan to do a lot of long shutter (night and low-light) shots, you definitely want to make sure the camera has a fixture to be mounted on a tripod and consider getting one. As before, you want a decent range on shutter speeds depending on the type of shots you plan to take.
Not very important unless you already have a lot media types from some other device you already own and want to use them so you don’t have to buy new ones.
Not very important either. Most cameras (all that I’ve seen at least) have an LCD screen. If size of the screen matters to you, then you can consider that. Just remember that using the LCD screen eats battery life significantly.
Some of the better cameras have a plug to use external flashes, like professional cameras have. If you think you may need this, then it is something you want to look for.
Most digital cameras have the ability to also record movie files. You want to know is it a limited time movie (like 8 seconds) or can it record as long as it wants based on available memory. Does the movie record sound also?
I mentioned this earlier when talking about shutter speed ranges. The main point to be made is that if you plan take many low-light shots, then you will be forced to (for picture quality) use long shutter speeds. Anything longer than about 1/4 sec or so, will probably force you to need to steady the camera because it is very hard to hold it that still. So consider a tripod mount. Maybe they all have tripod mounts, I’m really not sure, but you probably do want to make sure it has one, “just in case”.
This is a feature that will allow you have control of the balance of white light. This is almost mandatory if you are taking pictures in an office environment with fluorescent lights. You can use white balance to counter act the “greenish/bluish tint” of fluorescent lights to make the color look normal in the picture.
See what ISO/ISO equivalents the camera supports. The higher the ISO setting, the more “sensitive” the CCD (which is the equivalent of film in a digital camera) is to light. You can use an ISO of 400 and possibly reduce the shutter speed for low-light shots because the CCD is more sensitive to the light that hits it. Basically, the more ISO modes that are supported, the better off you are. I would make sure that it at a minimum supported ISO 100, 200 and 400.
A lot of the settings I’ve mentioned are for taking manual shots. If you are not trying to get into photography in anyway, but are just looking for a good point and shoot camera then the above features are still important, but you don’t want to have to tweak them manually. You want a camera with a lot of picture modes so it will adjust those settings automatically for the type of shot. If you are interested in point and shoot mainly, then look for the most possible pictures modes. Picture modes generally include things like portrait, landscape, night, action, macro, etc…
After Market Accessories
If you want to get into more serious photography, then you probably want to check ahead of time what kind of after-market accessories are available. Additional telephoto lenses (to increase optical zoom), wide angle lenses, polarizing lenses, color filter lenses, waterproof cases, etc…
Size and Feel
As with any camera, how it feels to you and fits to you is important. If a small camera that can fit in your pocket is important, then look for small ones (probably won’t get a good OZ though). It has been recommended many times so I’ll reiterate it. A very good idea is to go to your local electronic store where digital cameras are sold and find the ones you are interested in and hold them in your hands. See how they feel to you. Could you carry it around all day if you were on vacation? Do you want to carry it around bare, or is it ok to get a camera bag?
What about one brand over another? Well, I’m not going to go pimping one brand over another or start a debate about who is better. I can give you a good tool though. Here is a link to a professional photographer’s website who reviews MANY digital cameras and takes the same set of pictures with each. So if you can find the cameras you are interested in, you can compare the SAME pictures side-by-side to see which you like better.
Imaging Resource Comparometer
Imaging Resource Main Website
DP Review (reviews and forums)