Last week we discussed digital camera resolution. This week, I will talk about the some of the other features commonly found on digital cameras and what to look for when purchasing a digital camera.
You will often see the zoom capabilities for a camera listed with two or three different numbers, something like 12x zoom, 3x optical, 4x digital. The number you really want to pay attention to is the optical zoom. This is the true zoom capabilities of the camera lens. Optical zoom maintains the integrity of the image on the sensor providing the highest quality image when zooming. When you use digital zoom, the camera takes the center portion of the image, then magnifies that make it larger. In doing so, image quality degrades. Also, not all camera manufacturers state it, but a glass lens will produce better images than a plastic lens.
Most cameras have various modes you can choose that are optimized for a type of photo. Portrait mode will provide shallow depth of field to help isolate your subject from the background while scenery mode will do the opposite, allowing you to have a sharp photo in focus all the way through. Both modes will set the flash for best exposure, portrait mode will turn the flash on and scenery mode will turn the flash off. Sports mode sets a faster shutter speed to stop action, and may also allow for burst capture, or capture of several images one after the other while holding the shutter button down. Macro or Flower mode allows you to get close to a subject for a close up shot and Night mode will leave the shutter open longer to help in dark scenes and fire the flash as well. Not all features are available on all cameras, and some cameras may have more. These are the typical features though. Of course, you can always shoot in fully automatic mode, usually depicted by a green line or square on the selection dial.
Some digital cameras come with the ability to record short movie clips. Don’t mistake this as an alternative to a video camera. The videos are quite small, often only 320×240 pixels, or less than 25% of a typical computer monitor. They are good for capturing short clips that you may want to email to friends and relatives though. Just don’t expect to watch them on your TV with great clarity.
Most digital cameras come equipped with an LCD display on the back for reviewing or composing your photos. The larger the display, the easier it is to see your image. 1.8" seems to be the standard size, though there are many with 2.0" and even a few with 2.5" screens. The larger the screen, the better, but it is also a feature you will have to pay more for. Some camera’s have an LCD viewfinder. The advantage with that is that you will see exactly what your picture will be like. With an optical viewfinder, the camera lens may record a slightly different image. Having used both though, I still prefer the optical view finder; many optical viewfinders have slow update, so as you move the camera, what you see appears jumpy. LCD’s require a lot of power, so an option to turn the display off is a nice feature.
Removable memory is a must in digital camera’s these days. Memory is available in many different formats, some have advantages over others, but they are all acceptable. If this is your first digital camera, memory type should not matter. If you are buying your second camera, you may want to buy one that uses the same type of memory as your previous camera, but with memory being as inexpensive as it is, it may not matter to you.
Digital cameras are power hungry, and as such, you will want to invest in a good set of rechargeable batteries. Not all cameras use standard AA’s though. Some will come with their own battery; while costly to replace, may be cheaper over the life of the camera. Others use standard camera batteries. You will have the most options (and emergency supply of power) if you buy a camera that can use AA’s. Regular alkaline’s do not take as many photos as a good set of rechargeables but their abundance makes for a good back up strategy. Check the manual to see what kind of batteries you can use in your camera. Some rechargeable batteries supply a higher voltage than regular batteries that may damage your camera.
If you have more advanced needs, you may want to look at a digital SLR which will allow you to change your lenses and add other accessories such as off camera flashes or external battery packs. If that is more than you need, there is also a class of camera’s called prosumer, which offer many of the features of a digital SLR without the ability to change lenses.
If you plan on using your camera for family photos, a self timer will be a valuable feature to look for. This will allow you to set the camera on a tripod or tabletop, press the shutter button and then get into the picture yourself. You may even find some cameras come with a remote control so you can take several shots without running back and forth.
There are many sites on the Internet that discuss digital camera features. Knowing what the features are, and what you want to use your camera for will help to ensure you get the right camera for your needs. I believe the most important features are camera resolution (too little and you limit how large you can print, too much and you will have more than you need), optical zoom and lens quality. Other important factors that can are really personal preferance are ease of use; how to move between menus and set different features, and how well the camera feels when you hold it. Some cameras are simply too small for larger hands, while others fit better in a smaller hand.
Next week, I will talk about composing your image for printing.
The digital photography tip of the week is written by the PCIN Assistant Editor, Chris Empey. Chris is a long time photographer and is currently the vice-president of the Niagara Falls Camera Club. You can see more of his photography at his Photo of the Day website.
If you have a tip to send Chris, or a question about digital photography he can address in the newsletter, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.