I am planning to purchase a digital camera for my summer at the Grand Canyon North Rim. I have been reviewing articles and reviews for about a month now. The article below was one of the better ones at explaining the details of camera options. I hope this will help those of you who want to purchase a camera for their seasonal employment.
I am considering one of two Canon models; Canon PowerShot SX110 IS($230) or Canon PowerShot SX10 IS ($370). They are highly rated and have more than enough features for a basic photographer like myself and the cost is reasonable for my budget.
Buying a digital camera can be disorienting. There are hundreds of cameras available at many different types of retail outlets (online and in traditional stores), with prices ranging from $75 to several thousand dollars. Some cameras are small enough to fit in a shirt pocket. Others are large and can weigh up to two pounds. Some are easy to use. Others look like you need an engineering degree to operate them. And almost all are advertised with abbreviations that can be cryptic and confusing for the novice. In this digital camera guide, we aim to help you overcome some of this confusion.
What is a digital camera?
The first step is to understand what a digital camera is. With a film camera, an image is formed by collecting light from a particular scene or subject and focusing on film, which reacts chemically when struck by light and is said to “capture” the image. What makes a camera “digital” is that, instead of film, it has an image sensor that reacts to light by sending out electrical signals.
The camera takes the information from the image sensor and processes and stores it as a collection of pixels in a digital file, usually on a memory card inside the camera. Although the actual process is more complex than this, in essence this is how a digital photo image is made. It’s essentially made up of thousands and thousands of tiny dots, or pixels.
What are megapixels?
When you collect a million pixels, you have a megapixel. The number of megapixels tells you how many pixels the image file has. A camera that captures 8 million pixels, for example, is called an 8-megapixel camera. The number of megapixels a camera features can also help to determine the size photos you can print or the amount of cropping you can do. For example, a 4-megapixel camera may be enough for snapshots, but if you want to print poster-size images or crop heavily, 8 megapixels (or greater) is more suitable.
A 6-megapixel camera might be all you’ll need because higher resolution doesn’t necessarily produce better prints. Lenses and other factors affect quality, too. The size of the sensor, and the size of each individual image sensor element, which corresponds to pixels, can affect photo quality. But remember, the number of megapixels alone doesn’t determine the quality of a digital camera’s images.
Types of digital cameras
Our Ratings are divided into several categories and subcategories, which approximately correspond to size factors, although we also consider other features. The point-and-shoot category includes all cameras with lenses built into the camera (that is, non-removable). The smallest cameras among them are in our Subcompact and Compact subcategories. They are generally easy to use and lightweight. They vary in the number of options and features they include, but generally they don’t have a lot of manual controls. Compacts are often the least-expensive cameras available.
The Super-zoom subcategory includes cameras with wide zoom ranges, from wide angle to telephoto. In fact, a camera must have at least a 10x optical zoom lens for us to consider it a super-zoom. These types of cameras often, though not always, include manual controls. And because they have wide zoom ranges, they’re often larger and more expensive than compacts and subcompacts.
The largest cameras are single-lens reflex models, which use interchangeable lenses. SLRs are usually the most expensive, although recently some have dropped significantly in price. They offer the highest quality, greatest number of manual controls, and features, and are generally more complicated to use than point-and-shoot cameras. We break this category into two subcategories: Basic SLRs, which are simpler to use and Advanced SLRs, which are more complex.
After you consider the type of a camera you want and the number of megapixels you need, but before you dive into specific models, be sure to check out our brand profiles, which outline many of the most popular camera product lines and their respective character traits.
Next, look to our Ratings and Recommendations (available to subscribers) for the models that have the best performance, quality, ease of use, and other important features. Many new point-and-shoots have made progress on a number of performance problems, including sluggish shooting and excessive power consumption. In most cases, our Ratings found that point-and-shoot cameras take decent snapshots. So, look through our Ratings for specific features that are important to you. For example, if you want enough control to set precise exposures, such as shutter speed and aperture (lens opening), choose a model with manual controls.
What you’ll spend
For many, price is a major factor when buying a camera. In general, look to pay the following for the type of camera you’re looking to buy:
• For point-and-shoots (subcompacts, compacts, and super-zooms), expect to spend $100 to $400.
• For basic SLRs, expect to spend $450 to $1,500.
• For advanced SLRs, expect to spend $900 to $1,800.
When you’re ready to buy, consider where you will make your purchase. Although some walk-in stores, such as photo-specialty camera shops, might have knowledgeable salespeople, you can’t rely entirely on the staff of walk-in stores to assist you in your purchase. Use the internet and our Ratings for information before buying. Also, if you decide to purchase at a traditional retail store, forgo the extended warranty because digital cameras have been among the most reliable products in our surveys.
Many respondents in our surveys found online shopping to be a more satisfying shopping experience than walk-in-store shopping. Most walk-in retailers offer either low prices or wide selection. But some online retailers offer both. But be cautious of very low prices and verify that the camera isn’t refurbished or gray market (diverted from other retailers or not meant for sale in the U.S.).
Among the many types of digital cameras, a growing number are subcompacts, small cameras that fit in a pocket, weigh a few ounces, and can be carried everywhere. They cost a bit more for the same capabilities as compact cameras and often come with compromises: shorter battery life, no viewfinder, a zoom range usually no greater than 3x, and smaller controls that can make it awkward to operate. Most don’t have manual controls.
Mainstream compacts are too big for pockets but small enough for most handbags. They’re simple to use and best for everyday events such as family gatherings. Some don’t have manual controls for exposure and composition, limiting you to the camera’s assortment of preset scene modes, as with subcompacts. The ones we tested recently weigh 6 to 18 ounces.
Super-zoom cameras are characterized by a very long zoom range—10x or greater, which is good for sports, travel, or nature shooting. While traditionally bulkier and heavier than compact digicams, a few new models are designed to be smaller and lighter. Some models in our recent Ratings use lightweight parts to get their weights down to as little as 9 to 14 ounces.
Single-lens reflex cameras are more serious cameras, with the ability to capture fast action or create photographic art under the most demanding light conditions. SLRs, the largest and heaviest type, offer the most versatility and power, including interchangeable lenses. They boast instant startup, minimal shutter lag for fast, continuous shooting, a large image sensor, RAW images, and excellent battery life. As more people move up to SLRs, some very convenient features are also trickling up from small cameras. Examples include onscreen help guides and real-time or “live view” framing on the LCD rather than only through the viewfinder. Basic SLRs are simple to use, while Advanced SLRs are more complex to operate and feature laden.
Digital camera features vary greatly from model to model. Some might be essential to you, while others might be of use only for highly specialized applications. Before you buy, consider the following features, which are included on most digital cameras.
Most digital cameras, including SLRs, are highly automated, with features such as automatic exposure control, which manages the shutter speed and aperture according to the available light. In that mode, the camera generally handles setting ISO and autofocus as well. But there are other program modes that allow you to control specific settings, including shutter priority, aperture priority, as well as special scene modes. Some cameras include full manual controls, which let you set shutter speed and aperture.
This type of lens, which is actually made up of several different lenses or lens elements, allows you to vary the focal length. That provides you with flexibility in framing shots and closes the distance between you and your subject, which is ideal if you want to quickly switch to a close shot. The typical 3x zoom on mainstream cameras goes from a moderately wide-angle view (35mm) to moderate telephoto (105mm). You can find cameras with extended zoom ranges between 5x and 20x, giving you added versatility. If you want a greater view angle for more panoramic landscapes or group portraits, look for cameras with a wide-angle end of the zoom range as low as 28 or 24mm.
One common feature of zoom lenses is that they generally protrude from the camera when you turn it on. But some subcompacts and a few compacts and super-zooms have non-telescoping lenses. On larger compacts or super-zooms, you might also find a manual focus ring similar to the one on an SLR lens, although manual focusing on a point-and-shoot works differently than that on an SLR.
Optical zooms are much better than digital zooms, which merely magnify the center of the frame without actually increasing picture detail. Almost all point-and-shoot digital cameras include zoom lenses. SLRs, which can use interchangeable lenses, often ship with a zoom lens, but also use prime or non-zoom lenses.
More and more cameras, including many with powerful lenses, now come with an image stabilizer, a device that compensates for handheld camera shake. Often, the IS device lets you shoot with a slower shutter speed than you otherwise could without producing blur due to hand shake (although it won't compensate for a subject's motion). Optical (in the lens) and mechanical (in the camera body) image stabilizers are the best types to use, although some cameras include simulated stabilization.
In SLRs, some brands include mechanical stabilizers, which can use IS with every lens. But some SLR brands only include optical IS in telephoto or long zoom lenses, which are the ones that need it most. The optical-based IS generally produces better results than mechanical-based IS. But you won't have IS on every lens because it's not built into the camera body. Image stabilization is a feature you should look for, especially if the camera has an optical zoom greater than 3x.
Face detection & "Smart Camera" features
This digital camera feature attempts to find a face in the image to set focus, exposure, and color balance so that faces appear in focus and well exposed. When we've tried it, we found that it usually worked well. In some cameras, you need to turn on the feature. In others, it's enabled at the factory, but can be turned off. Other types or variants of face detection are beginning to appear in newer cameras too, such as a smile shutter mode, which shoots a photo of the subject when a subject smiles. Other types include blink warning, which alerts you to shots in which a subject might have blinked, and intelligent ISO.
In addition to being able to automatically set exposure, digital cameras automatically adjust the focus of the lens with autofocus features. But more advanced cameras include additional focusing functions. Be sure to look carefully at the types of additional features available on your camera, including manual focus. On SLRs, look for the number of AF points they have and what types of AF modes are available. SLRs include additional types of AF (often called dynamic AF) that groups focus points into a field to more accurately track moving subjects.
Most cameras have three options for shooting still images: single image, burst mode, and self-timer. The burst mode allows you fire off a series of shots quickly, for several, dozens and sometimes scores of shots. Some SLRs can shoot more than hundred shots in a burst, and do so very quickly (measured in frames per second, or fps). Some newer advanced point-and-shoots are also able to capture many shots per second. As the name implies, the self-timer mode provides a delay between the moment the shutter button is pressed and the photo is captured. Some cameras let you set how long this delay is and the number of shots you can take.
All digital cameras can review images on the LCD, along with exposure and other information embedded in the image file. So, you can quickly see what the image actually looks like, and delete it if you don't like it. Many cameras have automatic orientation features that turn the photo vertically or horizontally to correspond to how you shot the photo. When reviewing, you can use the zoom control to magnify portions of the image file. The LCD screen is also where you would access the camera's menu system in order to change various settings and access features. A few types of digital cameras include either touch-screen LCDs or LCDs that swivel. The best LCDs also don't change in color or tone (often called solarizing) when viewed at an angle, although we don't test for this. Selected models include slide show features, and some even let you play music or create a multimedia slideshow.
This setting expresses how sensitive the sensor is to light. Many cameras allow you to set various ISO settings (anywhere from ISO 100 to ISO 1600, although some ranges can be even greater, particularly on SLRs). The advantage in being able to set a higher ISO is that you can then have more flexibility in adjusting either the aperture or shutter speed. For example, if you need to shoot an image at 1/250 of a second in order to "freeze" the action, but you have only enough light for a shutter speed of a 1/125 of a second, one option is to change the aperture to let more light in. But if you're already at the widest aperture, you can instead increase the ISO from 100 ISO to 400 ISO, and you should be able to set the higher shutter speed.
But high ISO settings on point-and-shoot cameras, which have smaller sensors than SLRs, often suffer from image noise, which will make your photos look grainy and degrade image quality. There is also concern about the relationship between high megapixel counts and sensor sizes. The more megapixels manufacturers cram onto the same-sized sensor, the more visual flaws can appear in the images.
Many point-and-shoots include high ISO settings, which they market as being able to shoot images in low light. But in our tests, very few point-and-shoots have been able to deliver high-quality images at ISO settings above 400. Because of their larger sensor sizes, many SLRs can produce quality images at ISO settings of 800 ISO or above.
Optical viewfinders, which were once ubiquitous on cameras, are being replaced by larger, sharper color LCD viewers. Some are now as large as 3.5 inches. These displays are accurate in framing the actual image you get--better than most optical viewfinders--but they might be hard to see in bright sunlight. This live-view functionality, available in point-and-shoot for years, has also been appearing on more and more SLRs, which have traditionally used the LCDs for only playing back or reviewing images. A camera with an optical and an LCD viewfinder is more versatile, especially when you shoot in bright light or need to conserve battery power.
Available on almost every digital camera, a flash (or strobe) allows you to illuminate subjects via a short burst of light. Nearly all have auto-flash modes, a setting that will automatically fire a flash whenever the camera senses there isn't enough illumination for a correct exposure. Most include other flash modes, including red-eye reduction mode, which minimizes a common flash camera problem (although you can also fix this in an image-editing program when the image is stored on your computer). There are primarily two types of flashes associated with consumer-level cameras: A built-in (on-board or, in some cases, pop-up) strobe is generally positioned directly above or diagonally above the lens. An external strobe, sold separately as an accessory, fits into a camera's hot shoe, which lets you attach this accessory on to a high-end digital point-and-shoot or SLR. Many cameras include a number of flash modes that allow you to alter the type of flash or the strength of the illumination.
Image file formats
The most commonly used file format is the JPEG, a compressed image format that allows you to use the file for a number of different applications, such as printing photos but also for using on web pages and emailing as attachments. A select number of high-end Compact cameras and all SLRs can also capture images in a file format commonly known as RAW. This format is most often uncompressed and the image isn't processed inside the camera, as with JPEG files. RAW files can yield the best quality images and give you the most flexibility when manipulating the photos with software.
Instead of film, nearly all digital cameras record their shots and store them on flash-memory cards, although occasional models also have had on-board flash-memory capacities greater than 1 GB. Compact Flash (CF) and SecureDigital (SD) are the most widely used. Other memory cards used include Memory Stick Duo and xD. Although these storage cards were once quite expensive, they have recently dropped significantly in price.
To save images, you transfer them to a computer, typically by connecting the camera to the computer's USB or FireWire port, or inserting the memory card into a special reader. (Many computers now have built-in card readers.) Cameras can also be connected to printers, or you can insert the memory cards directly into select printers. Both options allow you to print photos without needing to transfer them to a computer. Most cameras also include a video output that lets you view images on your TV. Some even include an HDMI output (either on the camera body or camera dock) that can be attached to an HDTV. But the cords and docks might cost extra.
These are the major camera brands. Most have several product lines. These profiles can help you learn about the manufacturer's lineup. (Listed in alphabetic order).
Compacts are known as PowerShots. The moderately priced PowerShot A series is less likely than the S, SX, TX, and G lines to have features such as image stabilization. (G models use proprietary batteries; most other Canon compacts use AAs.) Canon's subcompacts are known as SD ELPHs. The Digital Rebel series helped define budget SLRs, and their most recent, the $799 (body only; $899 with lens), 12 megapixel Rebel XSi, includes live view functionality and an image-stabilized kit lens. Other SLRs include a host of pro and more-advanced consumer models. Canon also offers a wider selection of lenses than most brands.
Produces ultra-slim subcompacts, although the company occasionally introduces a higher-end, full-featured model that has a longer zoom and more robust video capabilities. The thinnest Exilims are the S series camera, followed by the slightly thicker Z series. The V series compact has longer zoom lenses than most compacts have. Casio’s most recent high-end camera is the $1,000, 6-megapixel Exilim Pro EX-F1. The company claims that this 12x optical super zoom has an incredibly fast and flexible 60-fps burst mode and true HD quality video (1080i). Casio doesn’t offer SLRs.
The budget FinePix J series is the lowest priced. A step up is the F series, which offers more advanced features. The Z series are the subcompacts. FinePix models include face detection, high ISO capabilities, and practical features such as the ability to fire two quick shots, with and without flash. Most new models have a slot for expensive xD cards and another for less expensive SD. Certain models in the super-zoom S series are large, like one of its most recent introductions, the $800, 11 megapixel S100FS, which includes a 14x optical zoom lens. The pricey FinePix S Pro series SLRs target pro shooters. Fujifilm doesn't offer lenses, but SLR models accept Nikon or compatible lenses from third-party manufacturers.
General Imaging (GE)
Although a well-known brand in other markets, GE is still somewhat new to the digital camera market. It has produced a variety of compacts and subcompacts, but only a few models have innovative features, such as on-board GPS or touch screens. Some are also very inexpensive. GE doesn’t offer super-zooms or SLRs.
Photosmart compacts, which range from the budget E and M series to the advanced R series, have a very narrow range of technical specifications. Some of the more innovative features offered in this line recently include a slimming feature, blemish removal, and pet red-eye removal. Most zooms are close to 3x; no model features image stabilization. Many models offer practical guides, including tips, in their menu interface for novices. HP doesn't offer SLRs.
Kodak’s EasyShare line focuses on ease of use, as indicated by its brand tagline and features such as Smart Scene mode, which automatically selects specialty modes. The budget C series includes some of the least expensive compacts available. Higher-end Z-, P-, and newer M-series compacts have longer zooms and more sophisticated features. The V series of subcompacts offers some of the most unusual point-and-shoot features, including Bluetooth wireless and innovative dual-lens/dual-sensor designs. Kodak doesn't offer SLRs.
This innovative camera company produces cameras that serve a niche audience, mostly due to their high prices. Most of their cameras (D-LUX, C-LUX and V-LUX series) are essentially the same models produced under the Panasonic brand, although the Leica versions are more expensive. Its Digilux series is essentially the same as Panasonic’s SLR series as well. Leica’s most expensive and unique digital camera, the $5,500, 10 megapixel Leica M8, is one of the few digital rangefinder cameras available and has a small, but very loyal following of photographers.
Coolpix compacts and subcompacts are divided into three series--a budget L, step-up S, and high-end P. Nikon has introduced more of these models with wireless features than any other company. Like Canon's SLR lineup, Nikon's D series offers cameras for every SLR user and budget and a wide range of lenses. Nikon's SLR bodies are typically less expensive than Canon's. Recently, Nikon introduced its latest entry level SLR, the $699, 10 megapixel D60, which includes an image-stabilized kit lens.
Budget FE series compacts have built-in help guides and emphasize simple operation. Olympus recently offered some groundbreaking technologies in point-and-shoot lines and Evolt SLRs. High-end SP compacts have featured very long zooms. Select Stylus subcompacts have been water-resistant, waterproof, shockproof, and crushproof. All point-and-shoots use the slightly more expensive xD memory cards. Evolt SLRs were the first with live-preview LCDs. Olympus offers a reasonable range of lenses.
Every Panasonic Lumix, from the large FZ series of super-zooms to the budget LZ and LS series, has optical stabilization. FX-series subcompacts feature several modes and auto features; high-end LX can capture photos in 16:9 aspect mode, while the TZ-series compacts are super-zooms. Lumix cameras offer great value when they combine optical image stabilization with innovations such as intelligent ISO, which automatically raises the camera sensor's sensitivity when it detects motion, allowing faster shutter speed. Panasonic has been among the more reliable point-and-shoot brands. Panasonic offers two L-series SLR bodies and some lenses.
The company produces some innovative point-and-shoots, known as Optio cameras, especially in its W and Z series. The W series includes compacts that are waterproof and can be taken underwater. The Z series includes models with relatively long zoom lenses, although not quite as long as a super-zoom. Its other product lines—V, S, M, A, and E series—have similar features and form factors, which make them hard to distinguish from one another. Pentax has had a long tradition of producing high-quality SLRs. Their most recent K series SLRs, some of which run on AA batteries, are also competitively priced, most well under $1,000. Pentax also offers a line of SLR lenses.
Samsung has produced some very inexpensive compact digital cameras. Its pricier subcompact NV series includes an innovative navigation interface. The GX series SLRs are essentially rebranded Pentax K-series SLRs. Samsung offers a limited selection of lenses.
This company is primarily a lens manufacturer, offering third-party lenses for most of the major SLR camera lines that are often less expensive than those from the SLR camera manufacturers. But they also produce select cameras, including an SD series SLR, one of the only SLRs with a Foveon sensor. It has also recently introduced a high-end compact, the $799, 14 megapixel DP1, which includes the same Foveon sensor included in their SLRs and claims image quality to be close to SLR quality.
Sony offers innovations at relatively high prices. Cyber-shot compacts and subcompacts offer distinctions such as touch screens and sleek bodies. In recent tests, Sonys have beaten most brands in shutter lag and next-shot delay, two common complaints. All Sony point-and-shoots use proprietary, and pricey, Memory Stick storage. The W and S series are budget lines. High-end H- and G-series compacts and premium N- and T-series subcompacts tend to be pricier than other brands. Although a relative newcomer to SLRs, Sony has been expanding its SLR Alpha series and offers several bodies and a reasonable range of lenses.
Beware the sales pitch
You can’t always depend on salespeople to help you to choose the right camera. Readers indicate that the quality of in-store help is all over the map. Indeed, when our reporter shopped at mass merchandisers, as many consumers do, a member of the sales staff told him that there was no difference between digital and optical zoom (optical is far more useful). Another couldn’t explain the differences among mechanical, optical, and simulated image stabilization (optical and mechanical are superior).
Also, despite the prevalence of 8-, 10-, and 12- megapixel cameras, 6 megapixels is all the resolution most people need. If you often crop or drastically enlarge your images, get at least 8 megapixels. Higher resolution doesn’t necessarily produce better prints, so don’t let a salesperson push a camera solely based on its megapixel count.
Shop by brand
Before diving into specific models, consider some characteristics by brand, culled from our years of digital-camera tests. For example, Fujifilm offers image sensors with proprietary technology that produce high image quality at high ISO settings. Kodak emphasizes simplicity and ease of use. Canon, Nikon, and Olympus offer full lineups for every type of user. HP offers such innovative features as in-camera retouching and a “pet-eye” fix that removes the glow from a flash. Casio specializes in ultra-slim models. Samsung offers cameras with high styling and multimedia features. Panasonic uses image stabilizers and Leica lenses throughout its line. Sony uses Zeiss lenses, a brand well known in the camera world.
Try it out
The smallest, lightest models aren’t necessarily inexpensive cameras. And the biggest and heaviest aren’t necessarily found at the high end. If possible, try cameras at a store before you buy. That way, you’ll know which one fits your hands best. In our tests, some of the smallest didn’t leave much room even for small fingers.
Keep your other cameras in mind
If you own a film camera with interchangeable lenses, you can often use the lenses on digital SLRs of the same brand. But there are exceptions. For example, some new Nikon bodies only operate autofocus on its AF-S or AF-I lenses.
Forgo the extended warranty
Overall, digital cameras have been among the most reliable products in our subscriber surveys. Only about 5 percent of those purchased from 2004 through 2007 have been repaired or had a serious problem. Yet in our latest electronics-buying survey, more than 70 percent of digital camera buyers were pitched an extended warranty in stores and 15 percent bought one. We don’t think it pays to buy an extended warranty for a digital camera.