The quality of a digital camera is mainly defined by four quantities: resolution, lens aperture, lens zoom range, lens quality, and software. CCD sensitivity also varies somewhat.
Nearly all digital cameras use CCD's as the sensing element. This is what takes the place of film. The resolution is the number of pixels in the captured image. Computer images are divided into little dots called pixels. The more pixels, the more detailed the image can be. Here is a guide to choosing resolution, estimating the size print you can make from each:
- 1.3 Megapixel = 1280x960: Great 4x6's, acceptable 5x7's.
- 2 Megapixel = 1600x1200: Pretty good 8x10's.
- 3 Megapixel = 2048x1536: Great 8x10's, good 11x14's.
- 4 Megapixel = 2272 x 1704: Great 11x14's, and acceptable 16x20's.
- 5 Megapixel = 2560x1920: Pretty good 16x20's.
- 6 - 10 Megapixels = At this point you are usually limited by the lens, not the pixels.
Casual photographers are satisfied with bigger prints from each size, while those who like to look at 8x10's from a distance of three inches think I am being too generous in the above evaluations.
The aperture of a lens is its maximum opening. The bigger the aperture, the more light is gathered, and the less light you need to take a good photo. This is the most overlooked lens specification, but it very important, especially if you like to take photos indoors without flash or from a reasonable distance.
Lens aperture is measured in f/numbers, such as f/2.0 or f/3.5. An aperture of f/2.0 literally means that the lens opening is half the focal length of the lens. Thus, smaller numbers mean bigger lens openings. You would rather have a lens that is f/2.0 than a lens that is f/4.0.
I really like have a fast (large aperture) lens. It means I can shoot photos indoors without flash, and these look a lot more natural than flash photos. You can also take a lot of photos less obtrusively without a flash. Digital photographers tend to shoot a lot of photos, and you can drive people nuts if you shoot 20 flash photos in ten minutes. They will hardly notice your shooting these twenty shots with flash disabled, and you will get much better candids.
So, what is a good aperture? The answer is getting worse, not better. I would prefer not buy a camera with a slower lens than f/2.8. My favorites a few years ago were the Olympus C3040Z and C4040Z, with f/1.8 lenses. These days, you will have trouble finding a non-SLR camera with an f/1.8 lens. The best seems to be f/2.8 - f/3.5.
Note that cameras with zoom often have a range of maximum apertures listed, such as f/2.5 - f/4.0. This means the maximum aperture at the most wide angle setting is f/2.5, and the maximum aperture at the most telephoto setting is f/4.0.
A zoom lens has a variable focal length. The focal length determines the magnification of the lens. A short focal length is a wide-angle lens, great for taking in large vistas. A long focal length is a telephoto lens, allowing you to get a tight photo of a distant object or person. A zoom lens lets you combine both of these and everything in between into a single adjustable lens. If a camera has a 3X zoom, it means that the longest focal length is 3 times the shortest.
In the subsequent discussion I am using 35-mm equivalent focal lengths.
Most digital cameras have a 3X zoom, with a focal length range from around 35 mm to 105 mm. 35 mm is a modest wide angle, and 105 mm is a modest telephoto. Superzoom cameras have extreme zoom ranges of 8X or 10X. These generally have about the same minimum focal length of around 35mm, but these usually have a much longer maximum focal length. Digital SLR's almost always have interchangeable lenses that allow you to pick whatever focal length you want.
Long focal lengths mean you can get a tight photo of your children's faces, or a shot on the soccer field where you child is actually recognizable. Extreme focal lengths let you get in real close to the action even from the sidelines of a soccer field.
(Important: ignore "digital zoom" specifications in ads. Only pay attention to optical zoom. Digital zoom is of no value. All it does is crop the image in the camera. You can always crop an image in software after you have transferred it to your computer, and you have more freedom at this time.)
Long focal lengths present problems for photographers. It is hard to hold a camera sufficiently stable at a focal length of 300 mm. Bright sunlight helps, and a tripod or monopod can do wonders. An increasing number of cameras with extreme zooms have stabilized lenses that compensate for camera shake. Good stabilization can make a remarkable difference in sharpness of handheld shots at extreme focal lengths. Do not buy a superzoom without image stabilization unless you plan on using a tripod.
At the time of this writing, I believe most people are best served by one of three classes of cameras:
- Ultracompacts with a zoom of roughly 3X. The great virtue of these is that you can always have your camera with you. The quality of the better ultracompacts is astounding for their size.
- Superzooms with a zoom ratio of roughly 10X - 12X. Only a little more than the better ultracompacts, they let you reach out for the distant photos. Be sure to get image stabilization.
- Digital SLRs. This is what the pros use, and for good reason. You can choose any of a wide variety of lenses (for a price), and you can take beautiful photos with less light. But these are big and expensive.
Lenses with the same focal length and aperture can differ substantially in quality. A poor lens is not as sharp, and it may exhibit chromatic aberration, which means that all colors are not brought to the same focus. This usually shows up as colored fringes at high contrast edges.
Unlike aperture and zoom range, you cannot read the lens quality of the camera box. The two best approaches to getting a good lens are (1) read reviews, and (2) stick with reputable camera companies. I tend to trust camera companies such as Olympus, Nikon, and Canon more than electronics companies who only moved into cameras with the advent of digital photography. I think it is easier of a camera manufacturer to incorporate good electronics than for a camera company to incorporate good optics. A few of the electronics companies are buying optics from reputable lens companies.
Here I am not talking about photo software that comes with your computer, but rather the software built into the camera. Taking a digital photo means a fair amount of computation. When you snap a digital photo, the camera first grabs a "pre-photo" to determine the brightness and color balance of the scene. It then shoots the real picture, based on the earlier information.
This is an important calculation. The importance of brightness is obvious. Less obvious is how radically the colors of different light sources are. Slide photographers no this. If you shoot standard "daylight" film indoors under incandescent lights, everything is orange. Film photographers see less of a problem, because the processing labs that print our photos correct for most of these color shifts. With digital photography, you want the camera to do all of this color compensation for you. This is not easy, since the camera needs to distinguish between incandescent illumination and a daylight scene with a lot of red and orange colors.
The good news is that some cameras do a remarkable job, giving you better color rendition than you have ever seen short of expensive custom work by custom photo labs. My own sense is that Olympus does the best, with Canon and Nikon very close seconds. Sony seems to lag behind in this regard.
Most digital cameras use CompactFlash or Secure Digital. The difference is not worth worrying about unless you already have a good supply of one type. Many Sony cameras use their own proprietary "memory sticks". I prefer to avoid proprietary solutions, as it restricts your future choices considerably. The trend is toward Secure Digital.
Better than listening to me about model and brand is to visit DP Review and Steve's Digicams. They have a wealth of information on nearly every digital camera worth buying.
However, I know that not everyone wants to read a few hundred reviews. Some of you want to know how to avoid a bad decision. Here is my attempt at steering you to the better brands.
Be somewhat skeptical of this list. Camera models change, and frankly I do not keep up with every camera on the market. If you use this list, you may miss today's very best deal, but you will not be far from it. It is my own rather biased perspective distilled from reading quite a few camera reviews and comments posted on Usenet groups.
- Olympus, Nikon, Canon. These companies have along history of making fine 35 mm cameras and lenses. They have translated this expertise nicely into digital cameras. I recommend the whole line of Olympus and Nikon cameras. I do NOT like the slow lenses on the cute tiny Canon cameras. The high end Canons are great. Just check the aperture and you will be fine.
- Fuji. When someone asks about the best cameras under $300, Fuji's name is often heard.
I prefer not to include Sony as a general recommendation because, while the have some cameras I would recommend, they have many others I would not. If you are willing to do enough homework to figure out which is which, you don't need to hear my recommendation. Kodak has some happy owners, too. I just know the above brands better and have more confidence in them.
Here are a few suggestions as of January 2007. What you should get depends on how much you want to spend, whether you want a camera you can carry in your pocket, and whether you are going to want to make 8x10 prints or larger. The hot links in the list below take you to the Steve's Digicams review of the model, which includes photos and an extensive description of features.
Look in more detail at all the above at Steve's Digicams.
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