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Digital Cameras FAQ


Q: Why should I buy a camera when there's a pretty good one on my phone?

A: Smartphone cameras give you the ability to take photos on the fly and share them instantly. But there are several tradeoffs for that convenience. Smartphone photos are often blurry and grainy. Whatever zoom you have available further degrades the image quality, so if you want decent shots you're stuck having to capture them at a distance or extremely close up, which isn't always feasible.

Even a simple point-and-shoot camera can capture photos with better color and clearer details than a smartphone camera can. These cameras don't require any special skills to take great photos, even in low light, and they're slim enough to take with you anywhere. Point-and-shoot cameras offer high levels of optical zoom so you can get crisp shots of distant subjects. The best part? Many current point-and-shoot models include Wi-Fi and NFC touch pairing so you can transfer photos directly to your phone for instant sharing.

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Q: Are camera settings hard to figure out?

A: Today's digital cameras offer many helpful features and settings, but even with the extra options (and buttons), they're still very easy to use. Both point-and-shoot cameras and more advanced DSLR and mirrorless camera models come with goof-proof automatic settings — start with those, then try out the more sophisticated features as you get more comfortable taking photos.

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Q: What do all these "scene modes" do?

A: Digital cameras, especially point-and-shoot models, offer preset exposure settings designed to help you take better photos under a variety of shooting conditions. You'll see scene modes like Portrait, Landscape, Sunset, Fireworks, and Museum. When you want to take pictures in one of these situations, just select the appropriate scene mode, and let the camera automatically choose focus, shutter speed, aperture, white balance, and flash options to match. You'll find these presets helpful for taking great-looking shots in tricky photographic environments, without a lot of thought or effort.

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Q: Why do some cameras have an LCD screen and a viewfinder?

A: Generally, it's easiest to frame shots using your camera's LCD screen. Sometimes, though, glare from the sun makes it difficult to compose pictures on the screen. That's when having a traditional viewfinder is a great bonus. And when you frame shots with your viewfinder, you can hold the camera more steadily, helping to prevent accidental camera shake and blurry pictures. Plus, it's much easier to frame up a zoomed-in shot and keep it stable. Taking pictures using the viewfinder instead of the LCD screen also saves battery power.

While digital SLRs have an LCD screen for reviewing photos, you'll normally use the viewfinder to compose shots with this type of camera. However, most SLRs now include a" live view" mode for their LCD screens, on which you can frame pictures just like you would with a point-and-shoot camera.

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Q: What kind of memory card do I need?

A: The most typical memory card formats are SD, SDHC and SDXC. These types have different capacities, with SDXC being the highest-capacity of all. Most current camera models are compatible with SD and SDHC cards, and a growing number also work with SDXC memory cards. You’ll want to check your camera's specs to see which memory card formats it supports.

Two things to make note of when choosing a memory card are its capacity, measured in gigabytes, and its speed class. Common memory card capacities are 4GB, 8GB, 16GB, and 32 GB. The number of pictures you can store depends on their resolution and file format, but even a 4GB card can hold a few hundred photos. Speed class refers to the amount of time it takes for a photo to transfer to the card once it is taken. You won’t be able to take another shot until the file is written to your memory card, so if you do a lot of fast-action continuous shooting, you’ll want something with a higher speed class.

A few factors to consider when choosing a memory card are the kind of camera you have, the kind of photography you do, and how often you take pictures. If you just use a point-and-shoot camera to take photos at family events, you could easily get by with a 4GB Class 4 SD card. If you do a lot of sports photography, you might want a card with more memory, or to keep a spare card handy. A speed class of 6 or above works best for this kind of photography. For shooting HD video, you’ll want one or more Class 10 SD cards with at least 16GB of memory.

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Q: Why do some cameras list two different pixel counts?

A: Some manufacturers publish two different pixel counts for each camera, and both numbers are correct. Here's the difference. One of those numbers is the actual pixel count — it's the number of pixels present on the sensor. The other number, which may be the same or slightly lower, is the effective pixel count. Effective pixel count is the number of pixels that are actually used when a picture is taken; some pixels on a sensor don't get used for picture information.

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Q: What's the difference between optical and digital zoom?

A: Optical zoom involves a zoom lens, just as it would on a traditional film camera. Optical zoom uses the lens’s optical glass to magnify an image before it reaches the camera’s image sensor.

Digital zoom, on the other hand, is a digital technology that takes a real optical image, and "zooms" it by blowing up each pixel and using interpolation — essentially, adding fake blocks of color to fill in the gaps that result, based on what colors it thinks would have been in those spots. For the most part, digital zoom results in an instant decrease in an image's clarity and sharpness. Images rapidly become blocky and pixelated as you continue to zoom.

For that reason, if you're interested in sharp, crisp closeups of faraway objects, always consider a camera's optical zoom spec, not the digital zoom spec.

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Q: Do I need a lot of zoom?

A: For everyday shots (a group of friends on a hiking trip or a little girl dressed for her ballet recital) you don't need super-high zoom. Almost every camera these days has at least 3X optical zoom capability, and that's usually plenty.

Where telephoto power (zoom like 6X, 10X, 20X or higher) comes into play is for making pictures without the camera being physically close to the subject. So if you and your friends spot a far-off bald eagle while hiking, you'll need a powerful zoom to capture it as more than a distant black speck. Similarly, if that little girl is now pirouetting across the stage at her recital, more powerful zoom will let you get close to her performance from across the auditorium.

If you think you'd like that additional zoom power, also keep an eye out for optical image stabilization. Zooming way in increases the effects of camera shake, which can lead to blurry photos. Image stabilization counteracts the effects of shaky shooting for crisp, detailed images.

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Q: What is image stabilization?

A: Many cameras feature image stabilization, which uses special sensors to detect camera shake and counteract its effects. Image stabilization is particularly good at retaining crisp edges in photos that would otherwise be prone to blur, such as long-distance zoom shots, or pictures taken in low light where the camera's shutter speed slows down.

There are two types of image stabilization: optical and digital. Optical image stabilization is hardware-based. The camera senses camera shake, and immediately shifts either the lens elements or the image sensor to compensate for the movement. Digital image stabilization is strictly electronic — no physical shifts occur within the camera. The camera's sensitivity is simply increased to momentarily speed up the shutter and thereby offset blur. However, the higher the camera's sensitivity is set, the greater the chance there is for "noise" that can degrade image quality. So for the sharpest blur-free photos, we recommend looking for cameras that feature optical image stabilization.

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Q: What kind of resolution do I need for sharp photos?

A: If you're just going to be posting photos on the Web, you don't need very high resolution — even 640 x 480 should provide nice, clear images.

If you want more detail, and may be printing out some photos in smaller sizes, anything from 1600 x 1200 to 2048 x 1536 should cover your needs — just remember that higher resolution makes for cleaner, crisper pictures, but it also causes the stored photo to take up more memory.

If you want to make very large prints — 8"x 10" and above — consider going with a camera that offers at least 3072 x 2048 resolution or higher. High resolution is also important if you're going to be cropping out a portion of a picture and printing the cropped section in a large size — if the photo is high-res to start with, you're less likely to see pixelation when you blow it up. Digital cameras have come a long way in the last few years, and all current models have high enough maximum resolution to provide clear, large-sized prints, as well as sharp Web photos.

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Q: Why would a 16-megapixel camera cost more than a 20-megapixel camera?

A: Although megapixels are one way to judge a camera's abilities, it's sometimes not quite as simple as "more is better." What is true is that "bigger is better" — at least when it comes to sensor size. The sensor is the chip that actually reads the light coming into your camera, and both its pixel count and physical size affect your pictures. You see, not all sensors with the same resolution are actually the same size. For example, some cameras use a very small sensor, while others with the same resolution (usually high-end cameras) use a much larger sensor. The larger the sensor is physically, the more detail it gathers, and the more lifelike the images it records.

Sensors are measured using an outdated system of fractions based on old TV tube measurement techniques, so the specs aren't that intuitive to compare. Some sizes you'll often see, from smallest to largest, are 1/2.7", 1/1.8", and 2/3". Sometimes, you can also compare sensor size using actual millimeters, and that's far easier.

So, if you're comparing a more expensive, high-end camera to a budget-friendly one boasting similar resolution but less sophisticated features, the first one may well have a bigger and better sensor.

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Q: What is shutter lag, and what can I do about it?

A: In general, shutter lag is the result of an automatic camera trying to assess proper focus and exposure and take a shot, as quickly as possible. Sometimes, the lag is not, strictly speaking, "shutter" lag — instead, it's a delay that occurs when a digital camera stores a recorded image. Once people get familiar with a camera which lags a little, they have an easier time adjusting for lag.

There are also some cool tricks for getting around it. One is to choose a camera with manual exposure and focus controls, and avoid automatic mode whenever possible. Another option is to look for a "continuous shooting" or "continuous AF" mode on your camera and activate that whenever you want ultra-responsive photo capture. A third trick involves keeping the shutter button half-depressed when you're shooting in automatic. That way, the camera stays focused and doesn't have to pause to focus once you push the button. And if you think your problem is one of processing, be sure to look for a camera with a "burst mode," and use that for squeezing off rapid-fire shots. Cameras can store a limited number of photos much faster in "burst mode," than during regular shooting.

Currently, there's no set standard to let manufacturers publish specs about camera speed — partly because it's affected by so many additional factors. Fortunately, today's cameras are a lot speedier than early digital cameras — and the more high-end the camera, the less lag it's likely to have. You may also want to consider a digital SLR camera or a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera. They have greater response time than most point-and-shoot cameras — these cameras respond instantaneously to a press of the shutter button. If you're extremely worried about potential lag issues, read up on real-life user reviews of the model in question. You'll quickly get a sense of whether it commonly lags, or whether it's on the speedy side.

Q: What's a DSLR camera, and why would I buy one?

A: A digital SLR, or "single-lens reflex," camera generally combines increased flexibility and improved picture-taking with larger size and higher price. DSLRs let you change out lenses and manually set exposure and focus, making them a great choice for enthusiasts and professionals. Because their internal image sensor is usually larger than those found in point-and-shoot models, they tend to deliver cleaner, sharper, more dynamic photos. And due to their construction, they have incredibly rapid response time and powerful continuous shooting modes.

A digital SLR is a good choice for anyone who takes a lot of pictures, likes to experiment with photography, and doesn't mind carrying a larger, heavier camera or even a camera bag with add-on lenses. Read our buying guide to learn all about digital SLRs.

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  • Stephen Farrand from Urbana

    Posted on 8/11/2015

    In section Q on zoom, the author should have included the importance of focal length of the lens on the camera. For example consider the issue of zoom on two lenses, one with a focal length of 8mm and one of 30mm. A 5X zoom with take the first lens to 40mm, but the same zoom will take the second lens to 150mm.

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