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I am often asked, "What kind of digital camera should I buy?"
There are many answers to this question, but it all comes down to two
categories: professional and consumer. I'll address both categories
in this chapter, but as you can imagine, there is a cross-over between
the two: the high-end consumer cameras can start to look a lot like the
low-end professional brands. Because of that, and prices dropping so
fast, many consider this middle-ground as viable alternatives, even if
they aren't professional.
The discussions that follow will address the main overview points to
think about when considering cameras to buy. I do not review specific
camera models, brands, or make any other recommendations. However, you
should glean valuable information from this page so you can make better
sense of the reviews that you see from other sources. For a far more
in depth look at the topic, look at www.dpreview.com.
Digital Photography for the Consumer
If you're a non-professional photographer and you just want to get
fun pictures for the vacation, the point-n-shoot camera is for you.
Despite the fact that I own an expensive, professional-level digital
camera (see "professional" section below), I also enjoy using the
simple consumer point-n-shootsthey're light, simple, and get the
job done. Just about any brand, make and model is technically suitable,
but you should still test them yourself for personal tastes.
Determining which brand is best for you requires two things: learning
about what to look for (which is why you're here, right?), and trying
them out at a store. Like any other expensive electronic object, never
buy something you don't actually put in your own hands. Also, never
base a purchasing decision on a feature you don't understand, or know
why you need it. The most important factor in deciding what camera to buy
is visualizing how you'd use it on a day to day basis. You may think
you're just going to point and shoot, but there's more. How quickly
does it "shoot" from the time you press the button? This is the most
annoying factor that people complain about with their cameras. The time
is takes for you to press the button and when the picture is actually taken,
the child's facial expression can change, or the dancers may have moved.
Other things to look for: is there a self-timer? Does it have a macro mode
(for shooting closeups of flowers and such)? Can you adjust the flash
output? And probably the most important feature, but something you
cannot test in the store, is how quickly they consume batteries. (And
whether they even take regular batteries that you can buy in a store, or
their own proprietary rechargable batteries.) (There are pros and conts to
both.) Rechargeable batteries are great most of the time, but you can't
recharge batteries in the middle of a day at the beach. Also, if you're
planning on going outside the country, battery chargers often don't come with
power converters for those countries that don't use the US-based 110v
plugs. (Power adapters won't workyou need to actually convert the current,
or you will damage the camera and the battery.)
What most people want from a digital point-n-shoot is simplicity.
They don't want to deal with settings, confusing interfaces, and
having to hit multiple buttons just to perform a simple operation.
For example, how many buttons does it take to delete the last picture
you just took? For me, that's the litmus test for good user interface
design. User interfaces are hard to get right, because the simpler the
interface, the fewer features there are (typically, but not always).
Cameras that require too much futzing around (what I call this the
"futz factor") are usually quite featureful in their options, but it's
too much for most consumers. Your tolerance for such things may vary,
but the lessons here are:
Don't avoid cameras that have capabilities you don't think you'll use.
You just may use them later, and there's probably a good reason that
any given feature is there.
You will get used to whatever you buy.
Since you can't get everything in one product, don't sweat it if something
seems like it might be a problem. Draw upon past experiences of what
you like and don't like about the picture-taking process to determine
if what you're used to will map over to digital photography well.
If you're not happy with the photos, it may not be the camera's fault!
Some people often complain that photos are not sharp, that they are often
washed out or under- or over- exposed. Nine times out of ten, this is not
the camera's faultit's the human's fault for not using it properly.
For more discussion, check the page, Why do some prints just look awful?.
There are basically three technical factors associated with the camera's
digital sensor that you should consider: resolution, dynamic range,
Most consumer-level digital cameras these days range from 5 to
8 megapixels, which will be obsolete by this time next year, I'm
sure. What these numbers indicate is the total number of "pixels"
(the dot that reprepsents a color) in an image. These days, any
consumer digital point-n-shoot camera has enough megapixels to
make good prints. So, you aren't necessarily looking for quanitity
in your resolution. Instead, you want quality, which brings us to
the next point:
Image resolution is just its width and the height in pixels. More
important, however, is a camera's latitude. That is, its ability
to capture detail in the extreme ranges of highlights and shadows.
While people may debate the need for more megapixels beyond a certain
point, there is always the need for more latitude. And this brings
us back again to megapixels, since it just so happens that improving
latitude has a by-product of increasing megapixel capabilities. So, it's
often the case that higher-megapixel cameras will take better pictures
than lower-megapixel cameras, simply because they have a broader range
of lightthat is, improved latitude. Most consumer brand cameras
don't have the kind of latitude found in professional-level cameras,
but, most consumers don't necessarily have the eye to pick up on these
subtler details anyway. The more discerning photographer, however,
may have to jump to the semi-pro level cameras for that extra boost.
When it comes to both dynamic range and actual megapixel count, the
thing to remember is that your camera can't achieve its own optimal
potential unless the camera's resolution is set to its highest
resolution setting. The most common mistake people make is setting
their camera to shoot at low resolution (small size) to save on
memory so they don't fill up their one and only memory card on a
vacation. The reasoning is obvious: one can double or triple the number
of pictures a single card can hold using this method. The result, however,
is bad-looking prints.
(If you're shooting for computer use only, then shooting
at low resolution is fine, but more often than not, people think they're
only shooting for the web, but end up realizing they want to make a print,
and then regret not having used a higher resolution setting.)
Different lighting conditions produce different values for how the camera
perceives colors. Most cameras have an auto-balancing mode that senses
the colors in the scene to estimate probable color values. (They do this
using a method called, "white balancing", which is an oversimplification
for this discussion.) Some cameras allow you to manually set the lighting
conditions (such as sunny, cloudy, sunset, indoor light bulbs, fluorescent
lights, etc.), or you can set the white balance based on a given picture
that you've just taken (say, of a white piece of paper). This is getting
into modes that most consumers don't want to have to deal with, and which
explains one of the many menu items you'll see when you start evaluating
your "futz factor tolerance levels." Almost no one will ever futz with
the white balance, despite the fact that it's a great feature. For example,
if you are shooting a sunset, and you set the white balance to "cloudy,"
then your sunset will be really warm and gorgeous. Sure, it'll be good
on a the normal setting, but it'll be just that much better on the
cloudy setting. Are you ever going to do this? Probably not. Most people
don't care enough, and if they did, they wouldn't be buying point-n-shoot
cameras. But, it's there!
For many people, a memory card of 512M is enough for a good week-long
trip shooting at high resolution, suitable for making nice-looking
prints. The price of memory is coming down every day, and even today's
prices means that you usually only need one memory card. I would
recommend no less than a 1-gigabyte card, simply because they're a
one-time expense (unlike how film used to be), and this can probably
last the duration of a major vacation.
What you don't want to happen (but always does), is you run out of
memory, and then frantically review all your other pictures, trying
desparately to figure out what you delete, in order to free up enough
memory to shoot more. While this does hone your editing skills, and it's
good to get rid of bad pictures, it's far better to simply have more
memory cards with you. I have no recommendations for how much memory is
appropriate. If you go nuts with a camera, you'll know in pretty short
order whether you need to buy more. After you "download" the pictures
to your computer, or at the photo lab to print pictures, you can erase
the card and you can shoot again. It also helps that you can preview
images and remove unwanted pictures right away, freeing up more space on
your card as time goes on.
Any digital camera today can take perfectly good pictures. The deciding
factors have nothing to do with camera quality, and everything to do
with personal preferences and aesthetics. For example, many people
feel that weather-proofing is importantin fact, many underwater
digital cameras make perfect everyday cameras as well, so if you ever
shoot while snorkeling or want to take it the beach of pool, that may
be another important consideration. The most important thing you can do
is personal research on the net, and then go to stores and play (for
hours) with different models to see what you like and don't like.
Be wary of sales people (or anyone) that tries to push you into a
particular brand or model. There is never a simple, easy solution that
is custom-made for you. The most helpful people are those who try to
explain differences without trying to talk you into anything.
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