Opinion: Which digital camera is best?

Editor’s Note: The following article is excerpted from the Digital Focus blog at PC World. For more camera coverage, visit PC World’s Digital Cameras page.

Folks are always asking me, “Which is better, the Nikon or the Canon?” Sometimes it’s “should I buy the new Sony or the Olympus?” Occasionally, someone will go all out and ask, “What’s the best camera on the market?” or “What’s the best camera for action photography?”

Wow, how do you answer a question like that? Actually, it’s pretty easy: I generally don’t answer that question at all. At least, not directly.

You take pictures, not your camera: When it comes to digital SLRs, there’s a rivalry of epic proportion between Canon and Nikon fanatics. It’s like the Mac OS versus Windows, Marvel versus DC Comics, Palm versus Blackberry. That fanaticism spills over into the mainstream, and even casual camera buyers get caught up in the propaganda. The reality is that Nikon and Canon cameras are more alike than they are different, and—here’s the important point—neither line of cameras is better at photography than you are.

What do I mean by that? Just this: It isn’t the camera that makes eye-popping photos possible; it’s the person behind the lens. It’s comforting to think that “if only I had that new camera, I’d be able to take that awesome photo,” but the reality is that Ansel Adams could take that awesome photo with the camera you have right now. One more feature won’t make a difference; you take better pictures by studying photographic technique and practicing what you learn.

It might be fun to get the newest, coolest camera—and I don’t discount that reason to upgrade. But in most meaningful ways, photography is rarely improved by fancy hardware. That’s why it’s an art form.

How important are the differences? That’s not to say that there aren’t real, tangible differences between digital cameras. Some are small, while others are significant. For example, Canon digital SLRs tend to use CMOS sensors, while Nikon uses CCD. Canon puts the autofocus motor in the camera body, while Nikon builds a separate motor into each and every lens. Canon has begun building a dust-clearing vibration system into the sensors of some of its cameras; Nikon has not.

I have a personal preference for Nikon, and I love my D200. But my father-in-law has a Canon 20D, and he swears by it. He’ll probably be a Canon guy for the rest of his life, and I’m pretty likely to stick with Nikon. Why? We each have sizable investments in lenses from our respective camera makers, and it’s expensive to switch teams.

What do you look for? So how do you shop for a camera? As is so often the case, the really important stuff is rarely advertised in big bullet points on the box.

You need to find the camera that meets your needs, so first consider the kind of photography you want to do. If you’re into action photography, it’s important to buy a camera that shoots at very fast shutter speeds and has no noticeable lag between pressing the shutter release and when the picture is taken. If you usually take pictures indoors, get a camera with the widest lens you can find.

Megapixels aren’t all that important anymore: Most popular cameras are 6 megapixels or more. Packing too many pixels onto a sensor can reduce image quality, so avoid compact cameras that shoot 10- or 12-megapixel images.

Finally, read reviews that talk about image quality. My favorite camera review site is Digital Photography Review, and I highly recommend that you bookmark it—along, of course, with PC World’s Digital Cameras Info Center.

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