If film cameras are
the Walkman, digital
cameras are the iPod.
Both work fine, but
the latter are so cool
and convenient you
may never go back to
series continues with
everything you need
to know—from the
right number of megapixels
to telling fake
zoom from the real
thing—to point and
shoot your way into
the digital age.
Photoshop is a wonderful thing. No one can deny
that Adobe’s industrial-strength image editor offers a
dream set of tools to touch up, tweak, or artistically
alter photos in almost any way you can imagine.
But when you get right down to it, even
Photoshop (or Apple’s Aperture, Corel’s Paint Shop
Pro, or whatever) can only do so much: Your project
won’t get far if you don’t have the right image
to begin with. And increasingly, the way to get that
image is with a digital camera.
Over the last 10 years, digital cameras have
changed from novelties to superstars of the imaging
market, all but driving Polaroid out of business and
rapidly gaining on 35mm film. Most photographers
still credit film with an edge in image quality for
slides rather than prints or for jumbo enlargements,
but the convenience of seeing a picture just seconds
after taking it, deleting it and shooting again if it
doesn’t satisfy, and getting prints from a desktop
printer instead of waiting for a photo lab has oldschool
silver halide on the run.
Digital cameras have also gotten a lot more
affordable, with $200 buying a decent consumer
camera, $350 or $400 a take-along snapshooter that
even design pros will find handy, and top-of-the-line
digital SLRs now dipping below the $1,000 mark.
The biggest drawback to digital photography is
its high percentage of buzzwords and jargon—some
critical (such as optical versus digital zoom), some
not (such as CMOS versus CCD, the two slightly
different types of light-capturing sensors used in
most cameras). This guide identifies eight buying
factors—essentially, technical attributes—selected to
help you pick the best camera for your needs … or
at least stay awake when the electronics sales clerk
begins a spiel.
Factor #1: Resolution—More Than Megapixels
You know buzzword number one: It’s megapixel,
the 1,000-pixel unit of measurement for a digital
camera’s resolution, indicating its maximum image
size and sharpness. There’s an important caveat here,
however: Resolution does not equal image quality.
Lens quality, color fidelity, in-camera image processing,
noise (unwanted speckles or artifacts, the digital
equivalent of grain in film images), and other factors
will affect what you see.
Still, everyone harps on megapixels, so here
goes: For casual consumers, a 3-megapixel camera
will take great holiday snapshots; a 4- or 5-megapixel
model will make great 8 x 10-inch prints; and a 6-
to 8-megapixel digital can readily replace a 35mm
camera. By contrast, some design pros won’t trade
their 35mm cameras for anything under 12 or 13
megapixels, with some holding out for still higher
resolution. And landscape photographers who use 4 x
5-inch film cameras to create wall-sized enlargements
won’t be going digital for years to come.
The truth about resolution is that you can’t see
more than your monitor or printer can deliver, and
you don’t need more than your application demands.
Even one megapixel can be overkill for an image
destined to appear on a website, while if you’re laying
out a page containing a 3-inch-square image at
300 dpi you need 900 by 900 pixels (although you’ll
likely use Photoshop to crop or resize a larger image).
Factor #2: Optical Zoom—Accept No Substitutes
Resolution’s best buddy is optical zoom. Even
inexpensive digicams today have at least 3X zoom
lenses (photo buffs can check specifications for
comparisons to film lenses, such as “equivalent to
38–114mm in a 35mm camera”). And some compact
cameras now offer 10X or 12X zoom.
Pay zero attention to digital zoom, which tries
to go beyond optical zoom by making an interpolated,
pixelated enlargement of the center of an
image. It’s marginally useful, but as with consumer
cameras’ red-eye reduction for flash shots, your PC or
Mac image-editing software does it better.
Factor #3: Size—Grab and Go
Some digital cameras have old-fashioned neck
straps, but most are sized to slip into a coat pocket,
with a number of credit-card sized subcompacts
that fit in a shirt pocket. (Add a few ounces to any
digicam’s advertised weight; vendors fib by quoting
weight without batteries or memory cards installed.)
Factor #4: Viewfinder/Monitor
Whether in the usual rectangular, rounded block
or traditional camera shape, every digital camera
boasts an LCD screen or monitor used for reviewing
images, navigating command menus, and frequently
as a viewfinder for framing shots. Some cameras
don’t even have an optical viewfinder, though in
those that do the viewfinder is usually a bit more
accurate than the monitor in setting up shots.
Digital SLRs, of course, have the 100-percent accurate,
through-the-lens viewfinders that give singlelens
reflex cameras their name.
Some LCDs fold or pivot away from the camera
body so you can shoot from different angles or take a
self-portrait. The bigger the screen (such as 2.5 versus
1.8 inches) the better, but be aware that most LCDs
are hard to see in bright sunlight. (On the other
hand, Pentax’s Optio WPi is designed for use in rain,
mud, or 5 feet underwater.)
Factor #5: Speed—Power-On, Refresh, Burst, & More
A classic digicam complaint is that no matter how
quickly you whip one out of your pocket, you may
still miss the shot. Many older models took several
seconds to wake up once you pressed the power button,
a second or two to actually take a picture after
you pressed the shutter button, and a frustrating few
seconds between one shot and the next, especially
when recharging the flash.
Happily, many modern cameras have cut startup
time to under a second and shutter lag to a tenth of
a second or less. And though motorized film cameras
are still tops for taking rapid-fire shots in succession,
digital models’ continuous-shooting or burst modes
can take anywhere from one to three or more (usually
flash-free) frames per second, although you’ll
need to read the fine print about whether that’s using
the camera’s highest resolution and whether burst
mode can capture a few images or a lengthy series.
Factor #6: Exposure Modes—Setting the Scene
Today even the fanciest cameras are usable by even
the laziest consumers, thanks to autofocus and autoexposure
modes. But manufacturers encourage users
to step beyond point-and-shoot, if only by choosing
among combinations of exposure settings for different
subjects or environments—fast-paced sports
action, a posed portrait, a birthday party, a sunny
beach, a mountain range.
Many cameras offer over a dozen of these scene
modes or shooting modes, ranging from the Pentax
Optio S6’s Landscape and Sunset to the Olympus
Stylus 600’s Fireworks and Cuisine. Others let you
save your own combinations. Some offer a panorama
or image-stitching mode that helps you combine
overlapping images to create ultra-wide-angle shots.
Mid-market and higher cameras provide additional
steps toward creative control, such as specifying
shutter speed or aperture- versus shutter-priority
and adjusting white balance or ISO sensitivity.
(Digitals can often go a step higher than film cameras,
such as ISO 400 versus 200, before showing the
noise that corresponds to film graininess.)
Finally, digital SLRs give serious photographers
a wide array of fully manual controls, as well as the
flexibility to use different lenses and (usually) a hot
shoe for connecting an additional flash. They also,
by the way, have something you won’t find on many
compact cameras: a tripod mount for long exposures
or blur-free shots.
Without a tripod, small and light digicams are
particularly prone to camera shake. Fortunately, a
growing number of units don’t demand steady hands,
because they incorporate antishake technology—an
image-stabilizing mechanism in the lens or camera
body or a digital signal processor that helps sharpen
images and remove the effects of shake.
Factor #7: Battery Type & Life
Battery life has always been the bane of digital cameras,
especially subcompacts. But current models
can take more pictures before going dark than their
predecessors could—as many as 300 or 400, though
there’s often fine print about shooting with the
viewfinder rather than keeping the LCD on.
Low-end and some mid-range cameras use AA
alkalines available at any drugstore, though it quickly
becomes cheaper to buy a set or two of rechargeable
nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) cells and a charger.
Others rely on a proprietary NiMH or lithium-ion
battery, packaged along with a charger in the camera
box; it’s often smart to buy and carry a spare.
Kodak’s and HP’s consumer-oriented cameras fit into
a (sometimes included, sometimes optional) desktop
docking station that both transfers images to your
computer and recharges the camera battery.
Factor #8: Storage Capacity—Never Enough
Speaking of 300 or 400 pics, the worst thing about
buying a digital camera is that every one of them
skimps on storage. Cameras rarely come with the
memory to hold more than a handful of images
captured at highest quality and resolution. Casio’s
Exilim EX-S500, for instance, boasts 8.3MB of
internal memory (many digitals have none at all),
but that’ll hold precisely two of the camera’s best
2,560 by 1,920-pixel shots. Like every other digicam,
the Exilim obliges you to buy a flash-memory
card with at least 512MB and preferably 1GB of
storage—and to learn which shape and size of flash
card fits into the camera’s slot.
None of the physical card designs—Compact-
Flash, Secure Digital, MultiMediaCard, SmartMedia,
xD-Picture Card, or Sony’s Memory Stick—is better
than another. They all do the same thing, although
some memory vendors offer extra-performance,
extra-price cards with faster data-transfer rates to
help cut recycling time between shots or upload time
when emptying a card’s images into your computer.
Actually, the array of memory-card choices resembles
today’s digital-camera market overall: There are so
many choices that it can be confusing, but it’s getting
difficult to buy a bad one.