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All posts for the month June, 2010


We’ve been talking quite a bit about technique lately, so I thought we might take a break from that and talk a bit more about digital photography in general and what to look for when buying a new camera. This one is aimed more at the beginner to intermediate crowd.

So you’re in the market for a new digital camera? It seems everyone is these days and there are more choices than ever! So how do you choose the one that’s right for you?

The first question you need to ask yourself is what type of shooter are you? Are you looking for something small and compact that you can throw in a purse or a pocket for just general use, or are you looking for a more professional camera with interchangeable lenses?

There are 2 main categories of digital cameras point and shoots and SLRs (Single Lens Reflex). Point and shoots are aimed more at everyday photographers who stay on Automatic settings most of the time and simply want to be able to quickly pull out a tiny camera from their bag and click off a few photos. SLRs are aimed more at the intermediate to advanced crowd that wants the ultimate control over their photos.

Point and Shoot Camera

Point and Shoot Camera (Nikon Coolpix S570)

SLR Camera

SLR Camera (Nikon D90)

In today’s digital camera market the line between these 2 categories is actually becoming rather blurred as new hybrids come out all the time such as the new “Pen” type cameras that have the body of a point and shoot but can use interchangeable lenses like an SLR. Not to mention the fact that a lot of digital cameras can also take HD Video that rivals some video cameras.

Once you have decided what category of camera you’d like to buy there are still a number of different features to consider. The first thing everyone asks when looking at a new camera is “How many megapixels is it?” But, do megapixels really matter, and just what is a megapixel anyway?

When your digital camera takes an image it is made up of millions of very small dots. Each one of these dots is called a pixel. Mega means million, so if you have a digital camera that shoots at 8 megapixels, that means the camera is capable of taking an image made up of 8 million pixels! That’s a lot of dots, so just how many do you actually need, and is more better?

Digital Images are made up of pixels (Photo courtesy of pixelkids.org)

Well as it turns out the importance of megapixels really comes into play only if you are printing your digital images. You see all websites and computer screens display images at a very low resolution. An average image that you see on your computer screen is only made up of a couple hundred thousand pixels.

Wait? only a couple hundred thousand pixels to show an image on a screen? Yes, that’s what I said, so if you’re the type of shooter that mostly displays their images on a digital device such as a computer, tv, ipod, or digital photo frame and doesn’t do a lot of printing of images, then getting a high megapixel camera will most-likely be a waste of money for you!

Even if you’re the type of shooter that prints every image they take you still probably don’t need all of those megapixels. An 8×10 printed image actually only contains about 7.2 million pixels, so even if you’d like to blow up that cute picture you took of your dog to an 8×10 you would still only need an 8 megapixel camera!

Then why is everyone so obsessed with megapixels? It’s just one of those industry numbers that everyone has heard of so they want you to think more megapixels = better images = buy this camera! Now if you’re looking to print larger photos such as 11×14, 16×20 or even posters, than sure go out and buy that 10, 12, or 14 megapixel camera, but if you’re only printing smaller photos or not printing at all and only sharing online then you can save yourself quite a bit of money when buying a new camera.

What else should you look for when buying a new digital camera? One feature that I highly recommend is optical zoom. Be careful not to confuse this with digital zoom. What is optical zoom? Optical zoom means that when using the zoom function to get closer to your subject the lens actually moves and that is what makes the image appear larger.

This is different from digital zoom, which is when the computer in your camera does the zooming in order to make your subject larger. This can cause your photos to be less sharp and will reduce the resolution of the photo.

Some cameras use a combination of both optical and digital zoom to make your subject larger. Try to look for a camera that has just optical zoom or both optical and digital. Stay away from cameras that only have digital zoom. You will get much cleaner and sharper photos from an optically zoomed image.

Digital vs. Optical Zoom (photo courtesy of bobatkins.com)

Another feature you want to look for in your digital camera is how well it will perform in low-light. This is super important because what you consider to be a low-light situation is very different from what your camera considers to be low-light.

This is because the human eye can see much better than any camera ever invented. Our eyes have no problem seeing a person perfectly clear in a dimly lit room or even by candle-light.

Your camera on the other hand can sometimes have trouble seeing clearly. Even when it is in what a human might consider a reasonably well-lit room.

Try to take a photo by candlelight and you’re likely to wind up with a blurry mess if your camera doesn’t have the right features! Now of course you could always turn on your flash, but that would ruin the mood wouldn’t it.

What you need to shoot low-light photos is a camera with a very fast lens. When purchasing a point and shoot camera or even a lens for an SLR camera you want to look for one that can open very wide to let the most amount of light in. This is called the aperture of the lens. Being this is an article aimed at beginners I’m not going to get very technical about the aperture here, to learn more about it you can view our previous blog post, A-Mode, Would You Like Your Depth of Field Deep or Shallow.

How do you know if a camera has a fast lens and will perform well in low-light? You need to make sure the camera or lens has a wide aperture. The size of the aperture is measured in f-stops. So it will look something like this “f/4″.

Or it may be written as a range if it’s a zoom lens such as “f/3.5-5.6″. Or possibly it may be written in an abbreviated format such as “1:3.5-8″. Either way, you should  look for a camera whose lens’ smallest number  is f/2.8 or smaller. So if you see a smaller number such as f/1.4 or f/1.8 that would work as well.

Having a camera with a fast lens (wide aperture) will allow you to capture much better images in low-light while other people without a fast lens will have to use their flash to get the same results.

The largest aperture size on this lens is f/3.5 which means it won't perform well in very low-light you want to look for f/2.8 or smaller

To summarize, we have reviewed a few things that you should keep an eye out for when shopping for a new digital camera. Cameras today have all sorts of bells, whistles, and especially features. They come in every size, color, shape, and price. It is not as important who makes your new camera, as it is that it has the particular features that you are looking for.

We were only able to cover a few in this article, as covering them all would require me to write a book, but I hope I’ve given you some things to look out for, and some options to consider.

If you have any questions or would like some further advice on purchasing your new digital camera please feel free to post a comment or get in touch with us.