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Digital Cameras: How to Choose
These days, digital cameras are available in a wide range of sizes and styles, and they boast a ton of handy features. Whether you're shopping for your first digital camera, or your fifth, you may have a hard time deciding which functions will really make a difference for you, and which are just nice perks that won't get used day-to-day. In this article, we'll walk you through the features that matter most, and cover a few other factors that you may want to consider as well. [Shop for digital cameras]
Instead of film, a digital camera has an imaging sensor consisting of millions of pixels. To record an image, each pixel builds up a tiny charge of electricity in response to the light it "sees." A megapixel is the term used for a million pixels — and the more megapixels an imaging sensor has, the higher the camera's potential resolution.
Now, once upon a time, megapixels were the big differentiator in cameras — because if you didn't have enough megapixels, you couldn't get a high enough resolution for good photo prints. Fortunately, most new cameras today offer 10 megapixels or more — ample resolution for small and larger print sizes, including 16" x 20" photos.
|Type of image||Minimum resolution needed||Number of megapixels needed|
|Web image||640 x 480||1-megapixel cameras* & up|
|4" x 6" print||2048 x 1536||3-megapixel cameras* & up|
|8" x 10"||3072 x 2048||6-megapixel cameras & up|
|16" x 20"||3264 x 2448||8-megapixel cameras & up|
* Top counts of 1, 2 or 3 megapixels are rarely seen anymore, even on cell phones.
So if most cameras can deliver the print sizes you need, how do you decide between, say, a camera with 12 megapixels and a camera with 16 megapixels? You may not need to. The difference in resolution between their photos can be difficult to detect, unless you're a pro who looks for the tiniest details, or you plan to make really enormous prints.
With that in mind, you may want to instead consider your photography habits and decide what other camera features are particularly important to you. Do you want extra zoom capability to capture close-ups of your child across the baseball field or wildlife in a distant tree? Are you mainly interested in automatic functions, or do you want to experiment with camera settings on your own? Are you looking for an ultra-slim model that you can easily carry everywhere? We'll discuss all these features later in this article.
It may come as a surprise, but you can sometimes get better photos from, say, a 10-megapixel imaging sensor than an 16-megapixel sensor. When does this happen? When the 10-megapixel sensor is physically larger than the 16-megapixel sensor. That's because a bigger sensor can gather more information about the scene in front of it.
You see, the bigger the chip, the bigger each light-receiving section, or pixel, is, and the more data the sensor can save about what it "saw." That additional information makes for photos with better "dynamic range" — that is, more realistic highlights and more detailed shadows.
This doesn't mean that you should give up on all other features in favor of a larger sensor size. For one thing, most people won't notice a major difference in dynamic range with small size increases from one sensor to another. And many cameras use supplementary technology to optimize dynamic range, giving you greater contrast and detail in shadowy and bright areas of your photos. As with larger megapixel counts, sensor size is mainly important to demanding hobbyist photographers, who will be making larger prints and shooting uncompressed photos.
It's important to remember that lens quality and many other factors also affect your photos. Understanding the role sensor size plays can sometimes help you understand price differences among different cameras. You can decide whether the extra cost is worth it to you.
Zoom and picture stabilization
These days, most cameras have at least 3X optical zoom — and many offer even more. 3X is just fine for most purposes, such as shots of friends, birthday parties, or vacations. On the other hand, if you really like zooming in on far-off animals, landmarks, or other distant objects, you'll probably appreciate a camera with more zoom. Below, you'll see some photos which illustrate different kinds of zoom power.
If you've found yourself frustrated by blurry shots that would have been great if you'd been able to hold your hand still, look for cameras with image stabilization. More and more digital cameras are offering some kind of built-in technology to help counteract the effects of vibrations and handshake, which can result in a lot of blur when you're zooming way out and aren't using a tripod.
Shooting modes & scene modes
Today's digital cameras come with a wide range of shooting modes and scene modes. Along with automatic mode — an option on just about every digital camera today — you can find some or all of the following shooting modes on many cameras:
|Macro mode lets you capture small objects with a level of detail that's not possible in standard automatic mode.|
- Macro mode: Good for close-ups of flowers, insects, and other small objects. Macro mode tells your camera you're going to be focusing on something very close to the camera, and adjusts the focal range accordingly. Some macro modes let you shoot objects as close as a half-inch away.
- Movie mode: Good for capturing video and audio of scenes in motion. One of the most popular shooting modes on today's cameras isn't a photographic mode at all. Movie mode has been available on cameras for years, but the resolution and maximum duration in length of the video clips you can record have increased with each generation of camera. Now most cameras can record high-definition movie clips — with a resolution of 1280 x 720 or even 1920 x 1080 — great for watching on an HDTV.
- Continuous/burst mode: Good for shooting fast-moving subjects like pets and toddlers. Continuous shooting mode lets you press and hold the camera's shutter button to capture a series of shots in rapid succession. Along with its helpfulness when getting great shots of high-energy kids, it's a nice option if you want to make sure you don't miss the exact moment your nephew is handed his diploma or your favorite baseball player reaches home plate.
- Manual mode: Good for getting more creative with your photography. Many point-and-shoot cameras offer some manual control over your shooting, either in the form of full exposure control, letting you set aperture or shutter speed yourself, or in helpful options like aperture or shutter speed priority modes. All digital SLRs offer manual control of your photography, along with an automatic shooting mode.
In addition to shooting modes, most cameras offer what are called "scene modes" — settings optimized for the demands of certain kinds of photographic scenes or subjects. These are some of the most common scene modes:
|Portrait mode. Portrait mode was created to deliver great photos of people. The camera focuses on a central subject, and blurs the background.|
|Landscape mode. The camera sets exposure to achieve clarity from the front to the back of the scene.|
|Night scene mode. The camera slows down its shutter speed to capture a darkened scene more accurately, with little or no help from the flash. (In night portrait mode, the camera captures the background effectively with a slower shutter speed, while softly lighting a subject in the foreground with the flash.)|
|Action/sports mode.The camera increases its sensitivity (also known as film speed or ISO), so it can capture crisp shots of intense action at faster shutter speeds, therby avoiding motion blur.|
|Beach/ski mode. Because sand and snow reflect so much light, many beach and ski photos show backlit subjects with darkened, unreadable faces. To avoid this problem, the camera adjusts exposure to accurately render subjects in the foreground as well as clear skies, blinding snow, or white sand in the background.|
|Fireworks/candlelight mode. Flash is disabled and exposure is adjusted to capture atmospheric shots of bright lights in a dark or dimly lit setting.|
|Focus has been set precisely on the girl's face, not on the barrel of apples in front of her.|
Face detection technology
Found on many of today's models, this convenient feature gives a camera the ability to recognize when there are one or more human faces being photographed, and set focus accordingly. For example, a potentially cute shot of the kids peeking at you from between fence posts is marred because the camera insistently focuses on the posts and leaves the faces blurry.
With face detection, the camera zeros in on the faces instead. In many cases, face detection also prompts the camera to adjust exposure, so that the people in your pictures are properly lit and their skin tones look natural. Some cameras even go a bit further to help you take great portraits — for instance, smile recognition automatically snaps the shutter when the camera detects a grin, and blink alert lets you know if your subject's eyes were closed right after the photo is recorded, so you can try again.
Camera sizes, shapes, and designs
Point-and-shoot. These convenient, compact all-in-one cameras are great for easy shooting on the go. [Shop for point-and-shoot cameras]
Waterproof and weatherproof. If you like to take pictures of all your adventures, you might want a camera that's specifically designed for use in the great outdoors. You can take a waterproof camera into the pool or onto the ski slopes, and snap pictures without worrying about harming the camera. Some waterproof cameras are even operational down to 30 feet or more.
In addition to waterproof casings, many of these more rugged cameras have airtight bodies to protect against dust and sand. And in most cases, they're also freeze-proof and shock-proof, making them an ideal choice if you tend to be tough on your gear. [Shop for waterproof cameras]
Ultra-slim. These point-and-shoot cameras are often less than an inch thick, with low-profile designs that make them easy to slip into a pocket or purse. Some of these models have an internal optical zoom lens that doesn't extend out from the body when you zoom, so the camera maintains its sleek shape.
We generally see cameras of this type offering a large LCD and a model-specific rechargeable battery as well. Their streamlined design can result in a somewhat higher pricetag. This style is right for you if you want solid automatic shooting in a cool-looking camera that's easy to take everywhere. [Shop for ultra-slim cameras]
High-zoom cameras. These cameras, while not particularly large, are still significantly larger than ultra-slim models. They feature 10X or greater optical zoom to get you closer to your subjects. These powerful cameras often feature manual focus, aperture, and shutter speed settings for more control over your shots. [Shop for high-zoom cameras]
Compact System Cameras. You can get the best of both worlds with this class of camera, which offers many of the sophisticated features and creative options of the digital SLRs, while keeping the low-profile, easy-carry attributes of the compact camera class. These cameras offer the ability to switch lenses to suit the subject you’re shooting, and save on space by losing the large mirrors or prisms DSLRs use to allow an optical viewfinder.
Most of the time, your viewfinder is electronic — essentially, a small monitor similar to an LCD screen — which offers some advantages for video shooters. CSCs come in a range of sensor sizes, with many at the top end rivaling, or even equaling the picture quality of their DSLR cousins. [Shop for Compact System Cameras]
Digital SLR. The digital SLR is more than just a size and shape — it's a different approach to photography. It's notable for being the largest digital camera style available to consumers today, while simultaneously offering the most features and flexibility. (You can read this article to learn all about digital SLRs.) A digital SLR design makes sense when you need maximum manual control and lens quality, and don't mind carrying a camera bag with space for an SLR and one or more lenses. [Shop for digital SLR cameras]
Accessories: Memory cards, batteries, and more
Although you don't need a wide array of accessories to start shooting with today's cameras, there are a few things that you can't do without when it comes to digital photography.
Memory cards. Most of today's cameras come with a small amount of built-in memory or a low-capacity memory card — or no memory at all. When you're choosing your camera, make sure you have plenty of storage. Memory cards have gotten remarkably affordable, and a 32-gigabyte (GB) card has become a recommended starter size for typical shooting. These cards will hold, on average, several hundred pictures.
If you're going on a long vacation, or know you need more memory, consider a high-capacity card at 64GB, or even 128GB. These cards can hold from a few to several thousand pictures. Keep in mind that the higher the megapixels in your camera, the more memory you'll need to store them all. Check your camera's owner's manual to get estimates of how many pictures you'll be able to fit on your card.
Oh, and if you're shooting video, look for the highest-speed card that your camera will accept, like one designated Class 10 for SD/SDHC/SDXC, or an 800X for Compact Flash. These cards can handle the high data demands of HD video.
Batteries. Most cameras come with batteries, but having extras on hand makes a lot of sense. If your camera takes "AA"-size alkalines, you're likely to be able to find batteries just about anywhere you go. You can also probably use high-powered "AA"-size NiMH rechargeables. If your camera uses a model-specific rechargeable battery, think about getting a spare battery to carry with you — especially if you anticipate long days of shooting without time for a recharge or access to electricity.
Tripod. Even for casual photographers, a tripod is a helpful thing to own. Along with being ideal for taking group photos with your camera's self-timer, a tripod is invaluable when shooting low-light scenes, when the shutter speed slows way down. Most people can't hold their hands steady enough to avoid blur during these long exposures, even with image stabilization and night scene mode technology. Tripods are also handy for folks who plan to do a lot of telephoto shooting.
Camera case. Even if you're investing in a tiny "shockproof" camera, chances are you'll still use a camera case for storing your camera, memory cards, and charger while on the go. Because they come in all shapes and sizes, it's easy to find one that meets your specific needs.