Before we begin, it’s important to understand that almost everything about photography involves compromise, and nowhere is that more evident than when choosing a digital camera. Like any other tool, different cameras are best for different people and different kinds of photography. The goal of this article is to help you choose the best camera for you.
The number and variety of digital cameras available today is overwhelming, and it’s easy to spend a small fortune on a camera and accessories. When buying a digital camera, it’s important to consider not only the cost of the camera itself, but also items such as memory cards, extra batteries, filters, external flashes, lenses, and a carrying case. While some of these items may not apply depending upon your choice of camera and the type of photography that interests you, determining the total you’re willing to spend is a good starting point.
Compact vs. SLR
Another early decision is whether you’re looking for a compact or a SLR. If you already own a digital or film camera, you probably already know what you’re looking for. If not, the key differences are size, interchangeable lenses, and cost.
The predominant characteristic of a compact camera is that the lens is not removable. In practice this means that the camera is a less flexible tool simply because you can’t use different lenses, although some manufacturers offer add-ons that alter the focal length of the lens. However, many people compact cameras because they are smaller, simpler, and generally less expensive.
The term Single Lens Reflex (SLR) refers to the characteristics of a camera that allows the photographer to look through the same lens that is used to take the picture. Over time, the term SLR has become associated with cameras that have interchangeable lenses. This causes some confusion in the digital camera world, because many compact cameras also allow the photographer to see through the lens in real-time using the camera’s LCD display. However, in keeping with the terminology used by camera manufacturers, we’ll consider SLRs to be those with an optical viewfinder that allows through-the-lens viewing. In general, digital SLRs are more flexible tools and allow the use of various lenses, but they are also larger, heavier, more complex, and more expensive than compacts.
It’s also worth noting that some cameras don’t fit either category. For example, there are a few digital rangefinders available, and digital backs are also available for many professional cameras – they attach to where one would previously attach a film back, and effectively convert the camera to digital. However, most of these products are priced well outside the range considered by consumers.
If you only plan to spend a few hundred dollars, or you’re looking for a camera to fit in your pocket, purse, or briefcase, stick to a compact model. On other hand, if you’re a serious 35mm SLR user looking for a digital camera, you’ll probably want to consider a digital SLR, especially with some now priced in the $800 range.
You will probably hear that SLRs produce better quality images, and in general I agree. However, some higher end compact cameras also produce very good quality images. Perhaps more importantly, if your camera is to big and heavy to carry around, it defeats the purpose of owning one, so you need to consider where and when you want to shoot. Many SLR owners (including pros) also own a small compact camera for those times when carrying an SLR isn’t practical.
Once you have an idea of your budget and camera format, you might want to start by reading about some of the countless cameras that are available. While there are a log of good photo sites on the Internet, my favourites are www.dpreview.com and www.steves-digicams.com, and I wouldn’t even consider buying a digital camera without reading what these two sites have to say about it. If you find the choices overwhelming you might also want to stop by a good camera shop to get a better feel for the various cameras and how they feel in your hand. However, with all digital cameras, it’s critical that you do your research and avoid impulse purchases, no matter how hard that may be!
If you’re looking for a compact, you’ll find that price, size, zoom length, and other features vary greatly. I’ve tried to cover most of the major features later in this article, but keep in mind that you may not find the “perfect” camera and your decision will likely require compromise. For example, if you want a very small camera, you’ll likely have to accept a smaller zoom range and a weaker flash. On the other hand, if you carry your camera in a backpack when you travel, a larger zoom range may be more important to you.
If you’re looking for a digital SLR, there are different considerations. If you have a 35mm SLR, you might consider a camera that allows you to leverage your existing lenses. While most digital SLRs are available bundled with a lens, more advanced photographers may be better off buying the body separately and choosing the lens (or lenses) that best meet their needs. However, before we delve into SLR selection, let’s look at the details common to all digital cameras.
Megapixels Seldom Matter
Chances are when you go shopping for a camera one of the first things you’ll be told is how many “megapixels” (MP) the camera sensor has. In addition, many web sites categorize cameras by “megapixels”. For the vast majority of consumers, the number of pixels in the camera’s sensor doesn’t really matter, and here’s why: In order to create the digital image, the camera’s sensor samples the incoming light and records individual points called pixels. Obviously a camera that records a 3000 by 2000 pixel image is higher resolution than a camera that records a 1500 x 1000-pixel image, and you need a certain amount of data to produce a quality print. However, while 6 million pixels sounds more impressive than 5 million pixels, the difference between 2592 x 1944 (5 MP) and 3000 x 2000 (6 MP) is not significant. A 3 MP image can produce a reasonable 8×10, while a 6 MP image can be printed as large as 12×18 or a portion cropped to a high quality 8×10. Either will produce an image many times larger than the number of pixels on your monitor. If your photography usually consists of printing 4×6 or 5×7 prints with the occasional 8×10, the only reason you should consider anything higher than 6 megapixels is if it has other features important to you, otherwise you’re just wasting money, memory, and disk space.
Quality vs. Quantity
Far more important than the number of megapixels is image quality. Without going into all the technical details, you should know that all CCDs (the sensors in digital cameras) are not equal. Most compact cameras use a smaller, denser CCD, which is why they can get away with smaller lens diameters. Digital SLRs generally have larger and higher quality CCDs and can be used with better quality lenses.
Some lenses are higher quality than others, and this should be of particular interest to digital SLR users for two reasons: First, many beginners get it backwards and buy a high quality camera with a cheaper lens to keep the cost down. A good quality lens on a low-end consumer SLR will almost always produce a better image than a low quality lens on a high-end professional camera. Second, some digital SLRs use a CCD that is smaller than a 35mm frame. While this isn’t a problem by itself, it does mean that the camera may produce higher quality images with a lens specifically designed for digital use when shooting short lenses (less than a 35mm equivalent focal length of less than 50mm). For example, Nikon calls their digital sensor DX format, and offers DX format lenses for wide angles.
Regardless of the resolution of your camera and quality of the lens, if you can’t fit the image, you aren’t going to get your shot. One of the advantages of the SLR is that you can change lenses. However, most compact digital cameras have zoom lenses, and some cover an impressive range of focal lengths. Your challenge is to understand what the zoom range means in practical terms: Without delving into the technical details, different CCD sizes mean that different lens focal lengths provide the same angle of view. For example, a standard 50mm lens on a Nikon Digital SLR produces an image equivalent to a 75mm lens. When comparing digital cameras and lenses for digital SLRs, always consider the “35mm equivalent” focal lengths. Most manufacturers include this in their specifications, and if not, ask a knowledgeable salesperson or check the web. If you like to shoot landscapes, architecture, and group shots indoors, you want a wide lens, preferably at least 28mm. On the other hand, if you want close ups of your children or at the zoo, 200mm or longer is desirable.
One word of caution: Many digital cameras provide “digital zoom”. To accomplish this, they use only part of the sensor, and interpolate the image to simulate zoom. For purchasing decisions, you should only consider the optical zoom range. I recommend turning off the digital zoom feature if you have it in your camera. You will usually get better results by cropping the image later using your photo editing software.]
In the past, I have suggested that optical viewfinders should be considered mandatory, and I still hold that view for higher-end cameras. However, LCD technology has advanced to the point that many can be viewed in bright sunlight. If you are considering a digital camera without an optical viewfinder, and you’ll be shooting outdoors, make sure you’ll be able to see what’s on the screen and avoid disappointment later.
Batteries are a critical consideration when choosing a digicam. Most cameras on the market today use either standard AA batteries or proprietary Lithium Ion rechargables. The advantage of AA batteries is that they are readily available, in both disposable and rechargeable form. While it can get expensive, in a pinch you can walk into almost any store and buy some. On the other hand, Lithium Ion rechargeable batteries hold much more energy, allowing you to shoot many more images than on a set of AA batteries. All things being equal, I prefer Lithium Ion rechargeables, but I recommend that you purchase at least one extra battery (usually $60-$80) for your bag.
Flash memory cards come in a number of different formats, including SD, xD, Compact Flash, Smartmedia, and Sony’s proprietary “Memory Stick”. Since the cost of memory cards has dropped significantly, you might not be concerned about which format your camera uses, but you might want to consider whether you’ll need to buy new cards or if you can use your existing ones. Also, if you’re going on a long trip and plan to buy a lot of memory, you can easily end up spending several hundred dollars. The Secure Digital (SD) and Compact Flash (CF) formats are very popular and supported by many different manufacturers. In addition, they are available in high-speed versions, which can make a huge performance difference if your camera supports faster memory. In any event, make sure you understand what type of media the camera requires, the sizes available, and the cost.
JPEG vs RAW
Most digital cam
eras save images as jpeg files. It is important to understand that jpeg is a lossy compression format, meaning that the camera compresses the image, and when it is later uncompressed for viewing, editing, or printing, not all of the original data is restored. Cameras storing images as jpegs also store only 8 bits per colour channel, even when the camera is capable of 16 bit per channel, resulting in a lot of information being discarded. For most consumers this isn’t an issue, and you’re unlikely to see the difference in 4×6 and most 8×10 prints. However, if you intend to edit your images in Photoshop and/or produce large prints, you might want to consider a camera that provides the option of using RAW images. Shooting RAW requires much more memory, but it also retains every single bit of information about the image and provides much more flexibility in post-processing.
Speed and Buffering
Two more things to consider are camera speed and buffering. While there are actually several speeds to consider, such as autofocus speed, continuous shooting rates, etc., the one most likely to irritate you is shutter lag – in other words the elapsed time between when you press the button and when the image is actually captured. If you shoot anything that moves (sports, children, pets, cars), you will want a camera that activates its metering system and focuses when you apply light pressure to the release button (often called a half-press of the button), and then has minimal lag when you press the button the rest of the way. Definitely try this out before you buy or you run the risk of joining the ranks of frustrated users who don’t get the shots they want.
Another speed issue is related to the number of images the camera can buffer before it finishing writing the images to flash memory. For example, some older cameras could only buffer three images. That meant that you can shoot three images as fast as you want, but then you have to wait 10 to 20 seconds for the camera to catch up. While that works just fine for many types of photography, it isn’t optimal for sports or busy children. Many newer cameras can buffer 20 or more images.
Auto vs. Manual
Even basic digital cameras usually have multiple automatic modes. For example, a “sports” mode will favour a fast shutter speed, while a “landscape” mode will favour a small aperture. While these automatic modes usually produce satisfactory results, if you intend to get creative, wish to learn more about photography, or desire real control over exposure, you should consider a camera that also provides manual controls.
Size and Ergonomics
Another thing to consider when choosing a digital camera is the size and ergonomics of the camera. If you have large hands, you might find some of the smaller digicams uncomfortable, especially if you can’t hold the camera without your fingers blocking the lens or light sensors. On the other hand, an SLR won’t fit into a pocket, purse, or briefcase, and a camera that is too big to take with you isn’t going to be used. If you want to get the most out of your camera choose one that feels good in your hand, has controls that are easy to operate, and is the right size for how, where, and when you want to use it.
Digital cameras vary greatly in terms of available accessories. Advanced photographers may want to consider whether they can use external flashes and filters for specific photographic applications. On the other hand, for many consumers, a protective case and a spare battery may be the only accessories required.
Among photographers, brand affinity is a religious issue. In the past, I’ve suggested that those readers looking for digital SLRs consider Nikon and Canon due to their extensive experience in the professional digital SLR world, and the fact that some of the features and components designed for professional models tend to flow down into less expensive consumer equipment. However, with several new entries into the digital SLR market and dropping prices, my advice is now the same whether you’re buying a compact or SLR: Look at those with the features you like and read the reviews before you buy. The only caveat may be that SLR owners and those buying a second SLR for a family member should take into consideration the lenses and accessories that they already own.
A Final Thought
Digital cameras are available online and in large electronics store, as well as camera shops. As a result, prices are very competitive. While purchasing on the web is an option, I’d encourage you to visit a reputable camera shop, try out the cameras that interest you, and ask questions. Many of the staff in camera shops love photography and will be happy to help you choose the best camera for your needs.