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Thread: Questions to ask yourself when buying a compact digital camera

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    Questions to ask yourself when buying a compact digital camera

    I have begun the task of choosing a new compact digital camera, but there are so many options. The problem is that I don't think I even know what I should be looking for. What questions should I be asking? Thanks.

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    Re: Questions to ask yourself when buying a compact digital camera

    Here’s a checklist of questions to ask yourself when purchasing a new compact camera. These focus mostly on the technical aspects, so be sure to also take a look at or try the camera to assess usability, ergonomics and aesthetics.

    Where do you plan on using this camera?
    Does it need to be light-weight or fit in your pocket?


    Always try to purchase the largest camera that you are comfortable using, whether this is an ultra slim, mini or near SLR-sized camera. This is because smaller cameras inevitably have lower image quality or fewer features (for the same price range or generation). A smaller camera may limit your low-light ability or zoom range, amongst other features. Please see below for a discussion of which features you might require.

    How large will you need to make your prints?

    This question is important because it determines the required image quality and number of megapixels. Although your instant reaction might be “well, as large as possible!”, understand that having more megapixels often times comes with trade-offs such as decreased dynamic range (more blown highlights), larger file sizes, purple fringing artifacts and more money. More megapixels are therefore not necessarily better! In fact, it is often the camera’s lens and your technique that are the limiting factors for determining image quality—not the number of megapixels.

    If you plan on making no larger than 8x10 inch prints, a 6MP camera will certainly suffice. For other print sizes, take a look at the tutorial on digital camera pixels to loosely gauge the number of megapixels you might need. Something else to consider is that having more megapixels will also give you more freedom to crop your image for a given print size.

    Are you new to cameras?
    Will you want manual settings and lots of features?


    Settings to look for include manual exposure, aperture priority and shutter priority modes, which will give you more control over how the photo is taken. Even if you do not plan on using all of these features initially, you might want to leave some room to “grow into your camera” should you want to learn how to use these later. This way, your camera can also serve as a stepping stone for a potentially more advanced model in the future, should you develop that interest.

    One feature to look out for is whether the camera has the ability to save files in the RAW file format, which is the digital equivalent of a film negative. RAW files are more forgiving if you later have to change the white balance or exposure, and can help you maximize image quality for a given number of megapixels. Please see the tutorial on the RAW file format for the pros and cons of using these files. Regardless, a camera that has the capability to shoot in RAW is always better if you think you might ever use this feature.

    Also make sure your camera can display image histograms. Histograms are the digital equivalent of the light-meter, and can quickly and easily tell you whether your photo has been properly exposed. This is a great tool for learning about photography. Newer cameras may also have a live histogram, which can show you changes in the image histogram in real-time as you compose the shot.

    Do you plan on using this camera indoors or in low light?

    This is where the camera’s size and its features are most intertwined; smaller cameras will almost always have decreased low-light abilities. One feature to look for is a lens with image stabilization (IS) or vibration reduction, which helps achieve longer exposure times and sharper images by reducing camera shake. Be advised, however, that image stabilization only helps reduce camera movement—not subject movement.

    A factor that helps with both camera and subject movement is the maximum aperture of your camera’s lens, which increases its light-gathering ability. The max aperture is listed in terms of its f/#, where smaller numbers correspond to greater light-gathering ability. For compact cameras a max aperture of f/2.0 or smaller should be considered excellent, with f/2.8 to f/3.5 considered average. Keep in mind that small changes in the f/# correspond to very substantial changes in light-gathering ability; a lens with f/2.0 gathers twice as much light as a lens with f/2.8, for example.

    Questions to ask yourself when buying a compact digital camera
    illustration of relative light-gathering ability versus f/#

    Also check whether this camera has a flash. This is important for situations where your subject is close to the camera, such as indoor people shots. However, understand that a flash will do you no good with distant subjects at night, such as buildings or monuments, and can in fact make things much worse by tricking your camera into thinking your subject is better lit than it really is.

    Finally, make sure that your camera can take photos with high ISO settings. Higher numbers correspond to better light sensitivity, where a setting of ISO 400 will have twice the light sensitivity of an ISO 200 setting. This means that in the same light you can get away with a shorter exposure than would otherwise be possible. On the other hand, higher ISO numbers will also reduce image quality by increasing image noise/grain. It is therefore important to look at pictures from your potential new camera to assess whether the quality of photos taken at high ISO settings are acceptable. Smaller cameras generally have lower image quality at a given ISO setting.

    How much will you need to zoom?

    Typical zoom amounts include none, standard (2-4X), high (4-8X) and ultrazoom (8-10X+). The zoom multiplier refers to how much you can magnify the image relative to being fully zoomed out. Keep in mind that having more zoom is not a replacement for getting closer to your subject, since zooming also acts to flatten the perspective of your camera lens. One should therefore only use zoom for situations where you cannot get close to the subject, or if a flattened perspective is desirable. Furthermore, camera lenses with greater zoom ranges will almost always produce lower image quality (even when not using any zoom). An ultrazoom lens is therefore only necessary for bird photos and other specialty shots.

    Be aware that as you zoom in, it will become progressively more difficult to achieve a sharp photo since this dramatically increases the impact of camera shake. This is made worse by the fact that the maximum aperture available will also decrease for greater zoom amounts. A high zoom lens on a compact camera is therefore almost never useful in low-light. If you do plan on needing lots of zoom, image stabilization is an absolute must.

    Questions to ask yourself when buying a compact digital camera
    example of max aperture settings versus zoom amount

    You should also take care to discern whether the manufacturer’s stated zoom amount refers to optical or digital zoom. Digital zoom just crops out the exterior part of your photograph, which could easily be performed on your own, and which unnecessarily makes the images both larger and lower in quality. Get an optical zoom and ignore digital zoom numbers; these really only serve to confuse the buyer. Notice how the label on the camera above claims a 14X zoom by combining optical and digital zoom (even though this camera has only a 4X optical zoom).

    Do you plan on taking lots of sports or other action photos?

    Cameras with “AI servo”, “continuous” or “sports mode” autofocus have the ability to maintain a sharp focus on moving subjects as you track them with your camera. These autofocus modes are more important than ever with compact cameras because these tend to have a longer delay between when you press the shutter button and when the camera actually takes the shot (“shutter lag”). If you think this shutter lag will hamper your ability to time shots with moving subjects, try to find a camera that has the lowest shutter lag time as possible (this is usually listed in milliseconds or ms, and may require digging deep into your camera’s specs to find it).

    As with low-light photos, your camera’s range of ISO settings and maximum aperture are also important because they improve your camera’s ability to freeze action with fast-moving subjects. On the other hand, unlike with many low-light photos, understand that image stabilization is of almost no help with action photos.

    Overall

    I hope you’ve noticed the trend: tradeoffs, tradeoffs and more tradeoffs. Within a given size/price range, having one feature almost always comes at the cost of something else. This rule often even applies if money is no object, as many of the trade-offs are fundamental limitations of optics. It is therefore recommended to never go for a camera with more megapixels, more zoom or a smaller size than you will actually need. The only real exceptions are if you want to have more settings or support for the RAW file format.
    Last edited by McQ; 20th April 2008 at 09:21 PM.

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    Re: Questions to ask yourself when buying a compact digital camera

    Good stuff.

    I do encourage the OP or anyone interested in compacts, to look for RAW file capabilities. Many cameras have them these days, and file size is not a big deal with the potato cost of memory cards.

    If you are interested in a Canon Powershot with no RAW capabilities and like to unleash its power, there is a program called CHDK, that is free and lets many older canon powershots transform from silly point and shoots to ver versatile ones.

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    Re: Questions to ask yourself when buying a compact digital camera

    Be sure that your hardware and OS are compatible with the camera.

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    Re: Questions to ask yourself when buying a compact digital camera

    I take it you have had problems?

    Generally hardware shouldn't play a role, provided it loads standard software. As far as O/S are concerned I would not have expected Windows / Mac users to have had any specific problems, especially as most compacts produce jpegs.

    Even your Linux and less well known O/S should be able to deal with jpegs.

    If your camera produces other file formats you may need specialist software, which is not always compatible with all O/S but I would normally check when buying such software, rather than the camera, unless the software is bundled. The photo software that then is loaded onto these operating systems has more to do with whether there is compatibility, but would you care to explain further txfred?

    There are many free software programs available that are very good, so even if you have incompatible bundled software, you should be able to find something that fits the bill.

    Perhaps you are considering the newly launched Nikon RAW format (NRW?) which may cause problems due to its very recent launch; 3rd party developers not having incorporated it yet. Even NX Capture can only deal with the more established Nikon RAW NEF files at present, but I am sure that will be addressed. I guess that there is software bundled with the Nikon compact (P6000?) that use NRW that allows viewing etc.

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    Re: Questions to ask yourself when buying a compact digital camera

    Dear shreds,
    I bought a new digital camera about two weeks ago. Before buying the camera I did a lot of research. After determining the final cut - I wrote to those manufacturers with specific questions concerning compatibility. My comment was based upon those manufacturers' responses, rather than personal experience.
    Yours,
    txfred

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    Re: Questions to ask yourself when buying a compact digital camera

    Hi Anonymous,
    My suggestions might sound odd but if you plan to do some editing of your digital images, see if this post on getting started in digital photography helps.

    If nothing else, my suggestions will help you avoid those surprises like having to upgrade your computer because your computer might not have the horsepower to do what you want.

    A lot of people never consider their computers until they walk out the door with their camera and when they get home, they might be in for a nasty surprise.

    Good luck with your search!

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    Re: Questions to ask yourself when buying a compact digital camera

    These are all great replies.

    I think the most basic level to start on is figuring out whether you want an SLR or a point-and-shoot. And if you want a point-and-shoot are you looking for an ultra-compact (something to carry around in a pocket or purse) or a larger camera (that will be cheaper and have more features but will be less portable). Those basic questions can really start to narrow down your choices.

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    Moderator Dave Humphries's Avatar
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    Re: Questions to ask yourself when buying a compact digital camera

    Indeed they are (great replies).

    Of course, there is a third option, but be warned ...

    After a Nikon E2500 Point and shoot, I went for a 'bridge' camera, the Fuji S6500, it's a blooming good camera, for 150 GBP (when new, a year and a bit ago).
    Only 6MP, but with a 10:1 zoom (28 - 300 equiv.), pseudo-macro, full-time Live View, cheap AA batteries rather than 50GBP special Li-ions, etc., I am now finding it very difficult to reconcile myself to the cost of buying a DSLR + 2 batts + lens(es) that will not actually reduce my picture taking options and have me resort to grabbing the Fuji every other day!

    I've been spoilt

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