Compare Digital Cameras

 

This is a tough chapter to write because of the myriad of choices that are available today in digital cameras.  With that in mind, I'm going to first give a brief overview of how digital cameras work, and then discuss some of the best options to get on a digicam, and finally will reveal some of my personal opinions about which types and brands of cameras would best suit certain types of needs.

Function and Form: Digital cameras work almost exactly like film cameras do, with two major exceptions.  First, they store the image they capture on digital media instead of film.  Like a film camera that has automatic metering, there is some pre-processing that goes on, such as determining the correct shutter speed and aperture.  However, unlike film cameras, digital cameras also perform some post-processing of the image just captured, including image color adjustment and compression.  Compare Digital CamerasWhen a film camera opens the shutter, light travels through the lens and onto the film where it is "exposed".  When a digital camera opens the shutter, light travels through the lens and onto a CCD where a microprocessor chip translates that light into a photographic image.  So you can see that film cameras and digital cameras really do share quite a lot in common, and if you can use one, you should be able to use the other with very little learning.  For example, if you currently use one of the Canon EOS or Rebel series SLR film cameras, you will be able to use the Canon G6 or Digital Rebel, as many of the controls are the same.

Add-Ons and Extras: There are several "options" that can play an important role in how successful you are with a digital camera.   Below are some options and why they can be considered important.

Option Description
Optical Zoom Very important when you need to move "closer" to your subject without "moving" at all.  Some cameras offer "extreme" optical zoom ratings of 10x, which are the 35mm equivalent of almost a 400mm zoom lens.  Do not confuse an optical zoom with a "digital zoom" which is actually a cheap trick to make you think you're getting a true zoom lens when you're really not.
Hot Shoe mount Since most on-board flashes on "point and shoot" digital  cameras are fairly weak, the ability to add an external flash unit is a real bonus; using it will improve your indoor shots at least 200% (in my humble opinion).
ISO Rating Most digital cameras today have an ISO (or "film speed") rating of 100, which is like using 100 speed film in a film camera.  Some cameras offer higher ISO ratings up to 800, but images become grainy (referred to as "noise" in digital images), as they do with higher speed film.  However, some cameras (like the Canon G6) also offer "slower" ISO ratings like 50 which improve image quality.  The higher the ISO, the less light you need.
Manual or Program Settings For the advanced photographer, the ability to use these settings gives significantly more control over the image, ranging from a full "do it yourself" manual mode to pre-programmed settings that pick optimal aperture and shutter speed settings dependent on the shot's environment, such as action, landscape, portrait, night, etc.
RAW or TIFF Some cameras offer the ability to save a file in "RAW" or "TIFF" format, which are totally uncompressed formats.  These formats offer significant advantages for advanced photographers who want to use the photos for magazine-quality printing and retouching because this file format does not degrade the image quality through compression.  The price they pay is in terms of extremely large file sizes.  A 2.1 megapixel TIFF (1600x1200) is almost 6MB in file size for a single image, and a 4.1 megapixel TIFF is a whopping 11MB in file size.
Movie Mode Don't get me started.....many of the cameras on the market today offer what I consider to be DVD quality video (that is, VGA at 30 frames per second).  If you know what you're doing with digital video software (which is challenging) you can almost dump your traditional camcorder and use this feature....I do this with my Canon Powershot S1 IS and my Sony W1.

Getting a Custom Fit:  Just like most anything else, there is never a "one size fits all" digital camera.  For example, someone who wants a camera for business use "in the field" has very different needs from someone who wants a camera to document their kids' early years.   For this reason, I have created three classifications of "camera user" and have given recommended features that would be desirable to that type of user.

Business User Since employee time is the most expensive component of a business's expenses, you need a digital camera that will be easy to learn by multiple people, easy to use, and must have a media that is easily transferred to PC.  I used to recommend the Sony Mavica models of digital camera because transfer to PC was so easy, but now with modern card readers, this is really not so much of an advantage.  The main thing to consider is employee time...how long will it take employees to learn the camera?  For this reason, easier is better.
Snapshot User The drawbacks to the Mavica cameras discussed just above is that they are bulky and tend to overcompress the images, in my opinion.  For this reason, I do not recommend them for people who want to take pictures of Junior's first steps or daughter's birthday party.  I instead simply recommend a minimum 3 megapixel camera that is reasonably small (like the Canon A75 or the Sony P71).  The reason is simple: if you don't have it with you, you'll miss all those shots you could've gotten if you'd had the camera with you.  A small "point and shoot" in your hand is better than a "pro" digital SLR in your camera bag in the closet.  One final note to snapshooters: lighting is everything; you'll get great outdoor shots with these cameras, but when you're shooting indoors, make sure the lighting is very good and get as close as you can to your subject, as the usable range for most of these small flashes is only about 7 or 8 feet.
Advanced,
Artistic or Portrait User
If you're the type who likes to shoot still life or portraits, prepare to spend a little more on the camera and related accessories.  But for this price you'll get a lot more creative control over your digital photography.   For this type of user I recommend a minimum of a 6 megapixel that has full manual controls and a flash hot shoe or flash sync.  Then you'll need to invest $150 to $400 on a good bounce flash, plus another hundred on storage media cards.  Models that would be good for this type of "Intermediate" photographer would be the Canon G6, the Nikon 8000/8700, or the Sony 828 and their respective flashes (the EX series for Canon, the SB series for Nikon, and the F1000 for the Sony).
Serious SLR Shooter converting from Film My advice is simple.  If you have Canon EF lenses, get the Digital Rebel or 20D.  If you own Nikon glass, get the D70 or D100.  You can also get the Fuji S2 or S3 if you use Nikon lenses.  Pentax also has a digital SLR and Minolta has released the Maxxum 7D.

Good Enough to Print: Finally, I must add one final note regarding "megapixels".  In my experience with shooting and printing digital photos, I have to say that you can get decent printed output from a 2 megapixel camera, and good output from a 3 megapixel camera.  However, to get quality that truly rivals 35mm film, you need to have 4 megapixels.  Some may disagree with me, but this is what I have seen in my own personal experience.  I could not honestly say that "you really can't tell the difference" until I saw glossy prints from a 4 megapixel Sony S85.  I got decent printing results from the digital ELPH (2 megapixels), good results from the G1 and Pro90 (3 megapixels), but nothing like what I got when I printed 4 megapixels.  If print output is important to you, and if you can afford it, do yourself a favor and get at least a 4 megapixel camera.

Compare Digital Cameras

 

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