Digital Camera Buyer’s Guide
Digital cameras have been available on the consumer market since the early ‘90s. Initially these cameras were quite pricey, had limited built-in storage capacity and could not make use of removable media such as flash memory.
Nowadays digital cameras are outselling 35mm film cameras due to the ease of use; ability to instantly review pictures taken; storage capacity; good image quality and of course the elimination of film purchasing and processing costs.
This expert buyer’s guide will define the types of digital cameras on the market; the important specifications to bear in mind when reviewing a prospective camera and give insight into the digital cameras available within different budget ranges.
Available types of digital cameras
There are four main types of digital cameras on the market aimed at different types of users from the occasional snapshot taker to the professional or serious hobbyist photographer.
- Ultra compact digital cameras
These are very small, lightweight cameras that often lack the manual controls found in standard compact cameras. The simplicity of the camera appeals to users who want a straight forward point-and-shoot camera. These stylish cameras are moderately priced.
- Compact digital cameras
Larger than the ultra compact digital cameras, but still small and lightweight – these cameras offer full automatic exposure as well as exposure by scene. For instance the user can select portrait; landscape or night time picture exposure according to the picture on the dial. A wide range of compact digital cameras are available within the low budget and medium budget market.
- Advanced digital cameras
Aimed at hobbyist consumers who want high quality images; exposure and zoom flexibility without the hassle of carrying around extra lenses. They offer telephoto and wide angle zoom lenses and most will accept accessories such as a hot shoe flash and filters. They tend to be priced for the medium to high budget.
- Digital single lens reflex cameras (DSLR)
Used by serious photography enthusiasts and professional photographers; digital single lens reflex (DSLR) cameras enable the user to interchange lenses. The image quality is generally superior to advanced digital cameras. All DSLRs have both automatic and manual function settings where the user is able to select the exact exposure; ISO setting and white balance required. There are three main model types: entry level; semi-pro and pro. These cameras are in the higher price bracket and a professional kit can be extremely expensive.
Before deciding on a camera, determine what you will be using the camera for. If all you want is to take snapshots and are not interested in full control over the image process than a compact camera is ideal. Below is a general list of digital camera specifications to consider.
Every digital camera specification will state the number of megapixels it holds, for instance it is a 6, 10 or 12 megapixel camera. This refers to the capture capacity of the pixels on the CCD or CMOS sensor. When you take a photograph, light enters through the lens onto the sensor which is covered in light sensitive photo diodes, commonly referred to as pixels. These convert the light into electrical charges which are translated into the digital image. The greater the number of pixels on the sensor, the better the image quality will be.
- Lens, optical and digital zoom
The focal length of the lens is the distance from the surface of the lens to its focal point. This determines the zoom range of the lens, for instance a 28 – 200mm lens can take both wide angle and long distance photographs.
All manufacturers will specify the optical and digital zoom capability of the lens, whether it be the built in lens of a compact camera, or a lens that can be attached to a DSLR.
The optical zoom refers to the physical ability to change the focal length of the zoom lens either by turning the actual lens manually or automatically. The digital zoom is obtained using onboard software which enlarges the images by interpolating the pixels. Using a larger digital zoom can cause the picture to appear blurred. When comparing zoom capacities of camera lenses, it is best to select the camera with the greater optical zoom to ensure a better image quality.
Check whether the camera is fully automatic, semi-automatic, manual, all three or just semi- and fully automatic. Many digital cameras offer scene settings (semi-automatic) where the user decides what type of photograph is to be taken, for instance a shot of a moving car; a landscape or a portrait of a person. By switching the dial to the appropriate scene, the exposure is optimized for the light conditions.
All digital cameras use flash memory, while some also have built-in memory capacity. There are many different card formats on the market including: compact flash; SD cards, including SDHC cards, and Memory Stick. It is important to check which type of card is compatible with your camera as most cameras can only take one type of card.
- LCD screen
Some models have a small LCD screen which makes it difficult to display the picture taken. In the past it was sometimes difficult to see the image on the LCD screen in bright sunlight, fortunately most manufacturers have now improved this feature.
- File format
Digital compact cameras generally save photographs in the JPEG format, while more advanced cameras offer RAW and TIFF formats as well. JPEG compresses the image to reduce the file size; whereas RAW and TIFF store the images in a larger, uncompressed format, enabling better flexibility when editing the photograph on a PC using specialized photography editing software like Photoshop.
Entry level budget
There is a wide variety of digital compact cameras available in the entry level budget range. Most offer a decent resolution, optical zoom and additional features like scene mode and full automatic shooting settings.
A great example of an entry level compact camera is the Canon Powershot A570 IS. Purchased for around $150, it has an 8 megapixel resolution; 4x optical zoom; 4x digital zoom and it offers full automatic, scene mode and manual shooting settings. It has also received an average score of 82% from expert reviews. Refer to www.testseek.com for further information.
Entry level cameras are great for snapshots and holiday photographs; however it is not uncommon to have a noticeable lag while the camera saves a photograph which makes it difficult to take quick successive shots.
It is also possible to buy cheaper compact cameras for as little as $50, but don’t expect high quality images as their resolutions rarely go beyond 5 megapixels. They are often bulky and only offer the basic features required to take a photograph.
For a budget between $160 and $350, you can expect good quality images; a better optical zoom range, as well as more advanced features. It is also possible to purchase an advanced compact camera within this price range.
The Fuji FinePix F100FD digital camera offers 12 megapixel resolution and 5x optical zoom. It comes with a full range of exposure modes including program; aperture priority; shutter priority and manual. The focal length suits all occasions as it is equivalent to a 28 – 140mm zoom lens on a 35mm camera. This easy to use camera is good value at $290 and has an excellent expert review score of 82%. Refer to www.testseek.com for further details on these reviews.
Serious hobbyists and professionals can spend in excess of $1000 for a professional camera and lens kit. These cameras offer superior quality images, and the ability to use accessories such as filters; interchangeable lenses and external flashes.
The Nikon D700 is a superb camera aimed at professions and has had excellent expert reviews with an overall rating of 92%. To read some of these reviews refer to www.testseek.com. Purchased for around $2,600 it offers a 12.1 megapixel resolution; shutter speeds from 1/8000 to 30 seconds; allows continuous shooting at 5fps and three choices of metering – 3D color matrix metering II, center-weighted and spot.
If your intention is to use the camera for occasional snapshots and holiday photographs, then it isn’t necessary to buy an expensive camera as there are plenty of good quality digital compact cameras in the entry level and medium budget range. We recommend you to use TestSeek.com to find out which products have scored best in expert reviews from all over the world.
Disclaimer: This guide was written in late 2008 and the specific product recommendations may be outdated. However the basic discussions in this buyer's guide may still be of great value.
Written by; TestSeek staff