Curious About What To Consider When Shopping for a New Camera?

Make sure you get the camera you want this holiday season. The author at work.

As winter fast approaches (or has already hit you if you are from South Dakota and other points snowy) people often start to look at buying cameras. Not coincidentally just about every major camera manufacturer released a raft of new models this fall.

If you are out to get a camera for yourself or someone else it is going to be harder than ever to pick between your numerous choices. What I’m going to talk about today is what to look for in a digital camera for winter 2008.

Before I get into the details, I want to give one word of advice: buy the best camera that you can justify. Take it from someone who has a lot of pictures from some great places (Redwood and Lassen Volcanic national parks among others) with a cheap camera. I wish I could go back and tell my past self to spend a few extra bucks to get something that would give better results. Please note that I didn’t say to buy the most expensive camera you can rather the best one. The two are not always the same...

I want to start by talking about the two main types of cameras: fixed and interchangeable lens cameras. Fixed lens cameras are what are commonly called point and shoot or compact cameras. They make up the bulk of the displays in a store’s camera department. Interchangeable lens cameras which are often called DSLR (for digital single lens reflex) cameras and they make up the high end of the camera line.

I’m going to only spend a minute more breaking down these two main categories a little farther before getting into what you should look for in your next camera.

The DSLR family is generically made up of three tiers of quality and features. In general, as you move up from the consumer tier to the "prosumer" tier and then to the pro tier you get higher resolution, more rugged construction, better autofocus, better low-light performance and a lighter wallet. The consumer SLR tier runs in price from about $500 to $1000 the prosumer tier starts at about $1000 and goes to about $1500 and the pro tier goes up to $7000 or more. Naturally more people buy the consumer cameras.

Why would you want an interchangeable lens camera instead of a fixed lens camera?

• Higher resolution

• Faster focus (great for wildlife)

• Quicker response (great for wildlife)

• Better low light performance

Why might you not want an interchangeable lens camera?

* They’re larger than fixed-lens cameras

* They’re heavier than fixed-lens cameras

* They can be more complex than fixed-lens cameras

* They’re more expensive that fixed-lens cameras (especially when you factor in additional lenses!)

* Finally, most DSLRs do not shoot video and those that do are not very easy to use

If you intend to get serious about wildlife photography you will want a DSLR and very long (and expensive) lenses; otherwise a fixed lens camera could also suit your needs.

One final thought on the DSLR market is on image stabilization and where it is located. Canon and Nikon have image stabilization (vibration reduction in Nikon-parlance) in some of their lenses. Other DSLR manufacturers try to remove the camera shake in the body itself, which means that they get stabilization for all of their lenses.

There are pros and cons to both methods, and the major pro for the in-lens mode is that the image is stabilized in the viewfinder while body-based stabilization works with all lenses. Neither is necessarily better, but Nikon and Canon, the two biggest DSLR manufacturers with the largest amount of lenses available, both use in-lens stabilization.

Fixed lens cameras make up the bulk of the camera market. They come in all shapes, sizes and colors with features as varied as their names. Instead of focusing on specific models I’m going to talk about features that you may want to consider and what they’ll mean to you when you are shooting.

Movie mode: Movie mode is great. I love being able to shoot video with our compact camera. It is a feature that I sometimes wish my SLR had. Today most cameras that can shoot video do so in one or more of four common sizes: 320x420 (about quarter screen TV), 640x480 (about full-screen TV), 720 (High definition, very cool), and 1080 (high definition, even cooler). If you want to use your camera as a stand-in for a video camera then you will want a camera that can shoot at least 640x480 with 720 or 1080 preferred. Until very recently movie mode has been a feature exclusive to the fixed lens camera and is still easier to use on that style of camera.

A new movie mode feature on some cameras is the ability to take full-quality photographs while shooting a movie. This is a very neat ability and one well worth looking for if you plan to shoot much video.

Image stabilization: Image stabilization is where the camera will move elements of the lens or sensor to help to alleviate the blurriness caused by your hand shaking. This is also sometimes called Vibration Reduction or anti-shake. The end result is the same and they are all good. I would suggest that you seriously consider getting a camera with image stabilization. Note that image stabilization will only help to reduce the blurs caused by your hand and not by your subject moving.

If you are serious about the quality of your pictures do what the pros do and use a tripod.

Face detection: This is a very nice feature that has become nearly standard this year. The camera will detect up to a dozen faces (depending on the camera) and do its best to ensure that all of them are in sharp focus. No more out of focus people for you! Another feature that often follows face detection is face detection-based self timer. This one is really neat: it allows you to compose your shot and get into it without having to run to get in position within the usual 10 seconds. Some cameras even allow you to shoot a handful of shots with their self timer. This is a feature that I used to great effect last weekend and one that I really like.

Optical zoom: This usually is expressed in powers of magnification like what you would find on binoculars or telescopes. The larger the number in front of the x the closer you can zoom in on things. Don’t get a camera with a zoom larger than 5x without some form of image stabilization (vibration reduction, anti-shake, or whatever the camera’s term is). If you want decent animal shots, you will want a camera with at least 10x for the more friendly wildlife. 20x is about the best you can find today.

Digital zoom: Digital zoom is not a real feature. It is a fiction that marketing departments have made up to allow the manufacturers to put large zoom ranges onto their cameras’ boxes. Disregard this when looking at cameras. The tricky thing is that sometimes the only zoom rating that you can find on the box is the optical zoom times the digital zoom. Check this out before you get too excited about that 30x “superzoom” camera.

ISO: ISO is a measure of a camera’s sensitivity to light. A higher ISO will be better in lower light. The downside is that higher ISOs tend to have lower quality that lower ISOs. On a DSLR, you can probably get great pictures at ISO 800 or even ISO 3200. On a fixed lens camera, your maximum useful ISO is likely going to be ISO 400. Many cameras that can go as high as ISO 3200 generate nothing useful over ISO 800.

Size: Size is very definitely a feature if you want to have the most portable camera possible. Thankfully at most major retailers you can see rack after rack of cameras on display to allow you to easily get a feel for a camera’s size. Generally, though, a smaller camera will usually lack some features of its larger cousins. For example, most of the cameras with the longest zooms tend to be larger and the smaller cameras typically have shorter battery life.

Battery type: Most of today’s digital cameras use proprietary rechargeable batteries. This is both good and bad. Good because you can reuse your batteries and cameras can be smaller but bad because if your batteries die in the middle of the day you can’t just replace them with some AAs. Camera manufacturers rate their cameras’ battery life using an industry standard measurement. For compact cameras this usually ends up about 200-400 shots and between 400-500 for DSLRs. If you will be away from the charger for any length of time you may want to consider an extra battery.

RAW shooting: When a camera takes a picture, it converts what its sensor sees into an image format known as JPEG. This JPEG file is made smaller by throwing out some image data. At a low compression setting (sometimes called ‘fine’) this can be unnoticeable to most people. At higher compression settings this can cause noticeable degradation in image quality. DSLRs and some compact cameras have ad additional option to save exactly what the camera’s sensor actually sees without any compression and at highest quality. This is called RAW shooting mode. It makes significantly larger files (my newest camera saves RAWs at 18.7MB and its best quality JPEGs at 6.7MB. That is a significant difference in size! The catch is that sometimes, you can see the difference in quality between the RAW and the JPEG. This is why I always shoot in RAW. Some cameras allow you to shoot both RAW and JPEG images at the same time. While nice if you find a particularly great shot that you'd like to really enlarge, this stores duplicate images on your camera and, as a result, takes up more space on your flashcard and requires more time for you to sort through what you've shot.

Cost: Price is the final and perhaps most important ‘feature.’ If you have a specific budget then you can quickly eliminate some cameras from the running. The highest-end of the fixed lens cameras cost as much as the lowest priced DSLRs and nothing costs as much as the pro camera bodies. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend breaking the bank, but I would certainly recommend that you purchase the best camera that you can justify. I would also recommend that you not take your once-in-a-lifetime Alaskan vacation with a bottom-of-the-line camera that is 4-years-old!

Extras: There are a lot of extras that manufacturers put into their cameras to differentiate one model from another. Here is a list of some neat features to look for:

* Waterproof/weatherproof enclosure

* External flash support

* WiFi wireless networking

* Built-in GPS support

A Note on Resolution: Many cameras nowadays have resolution of 10 million pixels (MP) or more. The highest resolution DSLR cameras can top 20MP! Even the compact Canon PowerShot G10 has almost 15MP. If you printed a 4x6 photo using a G10, you could print it at more than 1000 dots per inch! To put that in perspective, most professional prints are done at between 300 and 600 dots per inch.

Here is a quick reference table showing the maximum common print size (at about 300 dpi) for a given resolution:

* 5MP - 8x10

* 7MP - 11x17

* 8MP - 11x17
10MP - 11x17 (16x20 possible)

* 15MP - 16x20 (20x30 possible)

Do you need to print at 20x30 inches? Maybe not, but with all of the extra pixels that some modern cameras have you can crop the image to focus in on a much smaller area. For most people, the benefit in a camera with more than 8MP will be this ability to crop.

Camera manufacturers put a lot of things on the boxes and spec sheets of their cameras. It is very easy to get lost in the jargon and trademarked terms that you will see as you compare cameras. The most important thing that a camera must do is take the picture that you want. It does no good if that once-in-a-lifetime picture of a grizzly bear turns out to be blurry.

For some camera reviews, check out this site and this site. Read their reviews and those on retailers’ web sites to determine if a particular camera will offer you the quality images that you deserve.

Essential Accessories: If you are planning for a big parks trip for 2009, I heartily recommend bringing along the following:

* Tripod

* Extra memory cards

* Camera bag

As always, happy shooting!

Comments

Thanks Brett, this is a great primer.

When I bought my last point-and-shoot digital camera, I learned the hard way about the 'white balance' feature, particularly when photographing the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and just about any type of red rock scenery.

Even with the white balance optimized, I find myself wishing I had a camera that would accept a polarizing filter. I'm told it makes colors more vibrant, reduces the haziness in some more expansive landscape shots and deepens the color of the sky. Sadly, most of the point-and-shoot variety of cameras don't accept filters, but I'd love to see a list of those that do.

ArizonaTraveler

I've spent the last three years making photos for my project and I've had a chance to talk photography with a lot of park visitors. Here's what I recommend when people ask me which camera to buy:

1) the ergonomics should fit your hands. Don't buy one without holding it if you can help it. The distance between buttons, the placement of the shutter, etc. can seem intuitive or annoying.

2) shutter lag: the time between when you push the shutter and the camera makes the exposure. The DSLRs have fixed this problem, and some of the newer p&s cameras are getting better. It's the number 1 frustration people have with their vacation pictures.

3) manual flash: your family photo in front of any park landmark will be vastly better if you can turn on your flash. In full daylight, the flash fills the shadows of the people standing close to the camera, but has no effect on the landmark, be it Old Faithful or the Grand Canyon. Too strong? Take a step back. The light falloff from the on-camera flashes can be controlled by making very small adjustments in distance to the subject. Read just this one section in the manual and know how to force the camera to flash when you want it.

4) if you are starting out in the DSLR game, buy better lenses first. A good body is only as good as the lenses, and if you upgrade the body later with cheap lenses, the body won't perform, like putting bald tires on a sports car. I made one of my signature pictures with an entry level body: the new models are all better than what I had at the time. The cheaper lenses, on the other hand, can be no better than a coke bottle. Don't buy a kit, if you can help it.

@ArizonaTraveler - you can buy a small circular polarizer and hold it up to the lens of a point and shoot camera. It does not need to be attached. In a pinch, sometimes even polarized sunglasses will work. The Canon G10 has a filter mount.

@Brett 300 dpi is optimal, but I've seen fine images printed at 150 dpi from places like Costco. You are absolutely right about having room to crop.