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Digital Cameras

CHOOSING A DIGITAL CAMERA
 Part One

by Jim Doty Jr

If you don't know much about digital photography or how it differs from film photography, read my introduction to digital photography article.

I am regularly asked what digital camera I recommend. I am not an expert but over the last three years (2002-2004) I have taken over 40,000 digital photos with four digital cameras, so I do have a lot of digital experience.

I have used some other digital cameras on a more limited basis and I know what other folks have tried and which sources of information I trust, so I try to point folks in the right direction when I am asked, so here goes . . . .

POINT-AND-SHOOT VS SLR

The first question (whether you are looking at a digital or a film camera) is this:  Do you want a point and shoot camera or a single lens reflex camera (SLR) which takes interchangeable lenses?  If you want something simple, something that you can just pick up and "point and shoot", something that requires little thought, then the answer is obvious, you want the simplicity of a point and shoot camera.

If you want more control over the creative process, such as controlling the aperture for special depth of field effects (see my depth of field article), or choosing your own shutter speed for sharpness and blur effects, then you either need a point and shoot that easily allows you to control the technical side of the photographic process, or you need an SLR.

If you want the flexibility that comes with changing lenses, then a digital SLR is the way to go.  A good SLR will also give you total control over the photographic process.

CAMERA FEATURES

The next question is what do you like to take pictures of and where?  For pictures outside during the daytime, most any well made, highly rated camera will do.  If you take "happy snaps" inside and use the built in flash, once again most any highly rated camera will do.

I like to take pictures inside at church services without flash. This requires some special features.  In order not to use flash, I need a camera that has high effective digital "film speeds" (ISO numbers around 400 or 800) with minimal "digital noise" plus a "fast lens" with a maximum aperture of around f/2.

FILM SPEEDS

As a holdover from film cameras, film speeds are indicated by numbers such as 100, 200, 400, and 800.  100 speed will give you the highest quality with the least digital noise.  Lower film speeds generally relate to higher image quality.  Higher film speeds will let you shoot in lower light with reasonable shutter speeds, but with a drop in quality (just like with higher speed film).  All cameras are not created equal.  One camera's 800 speed will give you better quality and less noise than another camera's 400 speed.  How do you know which cameras are better? Read good reviews (more on this later).

LENS APERTURES

"Faster" lenses let in more light than slower lenses.  An aperture of f/2 lets in twice as much light as an aperture of f/2.8.  At f/2.8 a lens lets in twice as much light as f/4  (see my exposure article for more information about apertures).  The smaller the "f number", the greater the amount of light the lens lets in.  More light through the lens means faster shutter speeds. If camera "A" has a maximum aperture of f/2 and camera "B" has a maximum aperture of f/4, when taking a picture in low light at maximum aperture, camera "A" will use a shutter speed two stops faster (1.4 the time) as camera "B". That means sharper hand-held pictures inside without flash than would be possible with camera B. 

However, when using flash inside, or taking pictures outside during the day, lens apertures and film speeds become less critical.  There is much morelight outside during the day, and the flash puts out enough light inside, that cameras use smaller apertures and faster shutter speeds.  For this kind of average use, a less expensive or less full featured camera will do just fine.

LENS FOCAL LENGTH

Lens focal length is important too.  A 3x zoom lens has less focal length range than a 7x zoom lens.  If you are taking pictures of friends, or general landscape scenes, a 3x zoom lens might be just fine for your needs.  If you want to get close to one of your children way out on the soccer field, or photograph wildlife, then you will need a longer focal length range like 7x or 10x. With a digital SLR, you can put on whatever lenses you need. With a digital point-and-shoot, you get only one lens, so choose carefully according to your needs. For more information on lens focal lengths, read my article on film point and shoot cameras. When you compare the zoom factor, go with the optical zoom, not the digital zoom.  Digital zooming means nothing more than that the camera is throwing away pixels at the edge of the photo to make the center look larger.  You can do the same thing by cropping the photo later.  The optical zoom range is what is important. Digital zooming just degrades picture quality by throwing away pixels.

RESOLUTION

If all cameras were created equal (and they aren't), you could make bigger, high quality prints from a camera with more megapixels. That is generally but not always true.  One manufacturer's 3 megapixel camera might make just as good a prints as another manufacturer's 4 megapixel camera, so once again, read good reviews.

In general, a well made 1 megapixel camera is fine for pictures on the Internet or small prints.  A well made 2 megapixel camera can give you nice prints up to 4x6 or 5x7.  A well made 3 megapixel camera can give you nice prints up to 8x10.  Well made 4 and 5 megapixel cameras can give you nice prints up to 11x14.  Of course the cameras with more megapixels can also give you smaller size prints and photos for the Internet. Once again, quality varies so read the reviews.

DIGITAL POINT AND SHOOT CAMERAS

I like quality enlargements so I prefer digital cameras with more resolution.  I have used the highly rated Fuji 2400 which is a 2 megapixel camera.  It allows me to make quality 5x7 prints when I use it at its highest settings.  By "ressing up" or resizing the digital image in Photoshop, I can squeak out  "respectable" 8x10 prints, but they are not a match for the optimum quality possible in an 8x10 print from 35 mm film, or a 3 or 4 megapixel camera. 2 megapixels is fine for some of what I like to do. If I want optimum quality enlargements at 8x10 or bigger then I need a 3 or 4 megapixel camera. An example from the Fuji 2400 is my photo of Janae at LoDo's (and at the bottom of the page).

CAMERA MODELS

For a list of specific camera recommendations, see Choosing a Digital Camera - Part 2.

REVIEWS

Point and shoot or SLR, don't buy a digital camera without reading the reviews . Keep in mind the features you need.  My two favorite digital sites are DP Review and Megapixel.net.

Go to DP Review first and see if Phil has done an in depth review of the camera you are interested in with the features you want.  Get cameras that are at least "Recommended" or "Highly Recommended."

At Megapixel.net you can enter a resolution size, say 3.1 megapixels, and the site will give you thumbnail ratings of all the cameras in that resolution class. Look for cameras with ratings at least in the high 7s.

My LINKS pages has links to these and other digital review sites. Look on the lowers right hand column.

Choosing A Digital Camera - Part Two


Additional G3 comments

My 10D Review is here and here

Janae at LoDo's, taken with a 2 megapixel Fuji 2400 digital camera

An enlargment of Janae's eye, cropped from the above portrait.

June 7, 2002
Updated Nov 11, 2004

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