When you bought your digital camera a couple of years ago, it was a marvel of engineering. Then the next generation came out. And the next. Now your revolutionary camera feels more like an antique. But with so many choices on the shelves, how do you choose the right replacement?
You might be tempted to base your buying decision on looks alone. Boy, would that be a mistake! Beneath those sleek exteriors are features and capabilities that will make the difference between having a camera that you love and having one that collects dust on a shelf.
The trick to finding your perfect match is knowing which features are most important to you before you step foot in the store. I’ll show you what to look for when comparing cameras, and I’ll explain which features are truly essential—and which are just hype.
Which Type of Camera Do You Need?
The first step in narrowing the field of camera contenders is to decide which type of camera best suits you. Most digital cameras offer a tradeoff between size and flexibility. By deciding early on what your priorities are, you can quickly eliminate a large number of the models on the market. I typically divide digital cameras into three categories:
If you need a good camera while on-the-go, I recommend looking at compact models. These lightweight cameras fit nicely into a pocket or a purse—so they’re likelier to be on hand for unexpected photo opportunities. They’re also relatively easy on the wallet; prices range from $150 to $500.
A compact camera typically has a resolution of 2 to 5 megapixels—enough for online photo galleries and most standard print sizes. However, they don’t usually offer the array of features and controls that larger models do. For example, you’re often limited to using programmed exposure modes, so you may have trouble with tricky lighting or in situations with lots of action. Most compact cameras also have relatively limited zoom lenses—typically in the neighborhood of 3x.
Advanced Amateur Cameras
Compact cameras are great for point-and-shoot photographers who want to immortalize life’s surprises. But they don’t offer a lot of flexibility. If you’d like more control over your photos, or if you want to explore some of the creative possibilities of digital photography, then advanced amateur cameras might be the ticket. Although one of these cameras probably won’t fit in your shirt pocket, it won’t put too much of a strain on your shoulder, either. And these cameras often include an impressive array of features that rival those of professional models, such as hot-shoes for external flashes, manual aperture and shutter-speed controls, and faster response times. Some even offer a 10x optical zoom. All of this can make a huge difference in photographing special events (such as weddings and birthdays), wildlife, and sports. Even if you’re not ready to use all of these advanced features right now, they may come in handy as your skills improve—which means that you won’t quickly outgrow your camera.
One downside to advanced amateur cameras (and compact cameras) is that they don’t offer interchangeable lenses, so your optical options are somewhat limited. Although you may be able to add a few accessory lenses over the camera’s existing optics, these add-ons can’t really compete with the range of lenses available for professional cameras—for example, telephoto or fish-eye lenses.
Advanced amateur cameras typically offer resolutions of between 3 and 8 megapixels—plenty for most printing endeavors. Prices range from $400 to $900.
For the greatest flexibility and creative control, most professional photographers rely on single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras. These cameras use the same lens for viewing and capturing a picture, giving you a greater sense of visual control. And the interchangeable lenses on SLRs let you quickly switch from a telephoto shot of a faraway bird to a wide-angle shot of a meadow. Resolutions on digital SLRs can range from 6 megapixels to 13 megapixels or more. And their internal electronics are often optimized to produce less image noise and faster response times. In the right hands, digital SLRs can capture stunning photos that would be all but impossible with other digital cameras.
Of course, all of this flexibility comes at a significant cost. Digital SLRs start at $900 and can cost thousands of dollars. They’re also considerably heavier than other digital cameras—especially if you’re carrying around multiple lenses.
How Many Pixels Do You Need?
For many years digital photographers were consumed with the quest for megapixels. My 1.3-megapixel camera was the greatest thing in the world until the 2-megapixel models arrived. Now consumer cameras offer as many as 8 megapixels. But why are megapixels so important? You certainly don’t want to plop down those extra dollars (and use up valuable hard-drive space) just for bragging rights.
Megapixels are important for two reasons. First, they determine what size your prints can be. Second, they determine how much of the image you can crop away and still produce a good print.
is a unit of measurement that describes how much information the camera’s image sensor can record. A 3-megapixel camera, for example, can record around three million pixels worth of data. Alone, each pixel is just a tiny dot of color. Together, they create an entire image.
The quality of a photographic print is determined by how closely these pixels are packed together. If there are too few pixels per inch (ppi), photos look blocky and unattractive. To achieve the smooth gradation of tones we’ve come to expect from photographic prints, photos must be printed with at least 150 ppi. For a superior print, you must keep squishing all the way to 300 ppi.
Of course, as you pack pixels closer together, your image becomes much smaller. For example, a 3.2-megapixel photo shrinks to a mere 5 by 7 inches when you condense the resolution to 300 ppi. To print a high-quality 8-by-10-inch photo, you need at least 6.3 megapixels.
So to decide how many megapixels you need, you should first consider what you plan on doing with your images. Compact cameras are great for printing 4-by-6-inch and 5-by-7-inch prints. But if you want to go bigger, you should consider investing in an advanced amateur or pro camera. I recommend at least 4 megapixels for casual shooters and a minimum of 6 megapixels for advanced amateurs.
|Camera Resolution (in megapixels)
|Image Size at 150 ppi (in inches)*
||8 x 10
||11 x 14
||11 x 14
||12 x 16
||16 x 20
||16 x 20
||18 x 24
|Image Size at 300 ppi (in inches)*
||4 x 5
||5 x 7
||5 x 7
||6 x 9
||8 x 10
||8 x 10
||11 x 14
* Dimensions are rounded to standard photo print sizes.
Estimated print sizes based on camera resolution.
Room to Zoom
There is an advantage to having slightly more megapixels than you think you may need—doing so can compensate for a weak zoom by giving you room to crop. Say you use a 5-megapixel camera to take a picture of your daughter playing soccer. Although you’ve extended your camera’s zoom to its fullest potential, she still seems far away in the photo.
Well, if you have a few megapixels to spare, you can actually “zoom in” even closer by cropping out unnecessary parts of the photo. A 5-megapixel camera can produce a high-quality 6-by-9-inch print at full frame. This means that you can crop out more than a third of the picture and still end up with a top-notch 5-by-7-inch print.
But before you go out and buy a 6-megapixel camera, take an honest look at your Mac setup. A 3.2-megapixel camera set at very high quality (the setting is typically called Super Fine) produces 1.5MB files. The images from a 6.3-megapixel camera at the same setting are larger than 3MB. Uploading hundreds, if not thousands, of these images could bring an aging or already strapped computer to its knees. You can give yourself more room by adding an external FireWire hard drive. But if your Mac is more than three years old, buying a new 6-megapixel camera may mean that you have to upgrade your computer, too—it’s something to keep in mind.With a few megapixels to spare, you can crop wide shots…… for better compositions while preserving print quality.
Which Features Do You Need?
Once you’ve settled on a type of camera and on the number of megapixels you need, you should have narrowed your search to a more manageable number of cameras. From this point on, you should base your decision on features and performance. Remember, if your camera is hard to navigate or doesn’t have the controls you need, you probably won’t use it.
I’ll step you through the most-common digital camera features and explain what’s really important—and what’s just extra fluff.
One of the joys of digital photography is instant gratification—you see your picture as soon as you’ve captured it. So you know you have the photo you want before it’s too late to take a second shot. But all LCDs are not created equal. Here’s what to look out for as you browse for your next camera.
Since the LCD is such an important part of the digital camera, be sure to spend some time in the store comparing the LCDs on your leading contenders. The image should be sharp and saturated. As you pan the camera, make sure that the LCD’s image is able to keep up with the motion; it shouldn’t be jerky or delayed. Check whether you can rotate the LCD so the screen faces the back of the camera when not in use. This will help protect it from scratches. Such screens can also be great for composing shots at unusual angles (see “Get a Better View”).
Then try to test the camera in bright light—next to a window, for example. Many cameras present a good image in subdued light but become almost unreadable in bright sunshine. Others, such as the
Kyocera Finecam SL400R, include special technology that improves the LCD image in bright light.
Digital-camera LCD screens are generally between 1.5 inches and 2.5 inches across (measured diagonally). If you tend to rely on the LCD as your viewfinder, I recommend a camera with at least a 2-inch screen. Larger screens also make it easier to share your pictures with others without first uploading them to your computer.
Whatever screen size you choose, make sure the camera offers magnification con-trols that let you quickly zoom in on the pictures you’ve captured. It can be almost impossible to tell whether a full-screen image is slightly blurry. By taking a closer look at a photo while there’s still time to try again, you’ll prevent unpleasant surprises later. But be on the lookout for poor imple-mentation. A good magnification tool is easily accessible and lets you quickly navigate to all areas of an image.
For hobbyists and professionals—or anyone who wants to learn more about photography—I recommend a camera that lets you view image data while looking at pictures in playback mode. This helps you quickly troubleshoot problematic photos by giving you access to the photo’s settings—such as white balance, exposure, and ISO (light sensitivity). You should also make sure that you can easily hide this information when you don’t need it.
Almost all cameras default to an automatic-flash mode, which triggers the flash in any low-light situation. Although this is useful for quick snapshots, it doesn’t offer a lot of flexibility. In many situations, you’ll get noticeably better photos by overriding the camera’s automatic controls.
I think every good digital camera should include these three flash modes:
This is my favorite flash mode. Sometimes referred to as a fill flash, it forces the camera’s flash to fire, regardless of how much light there is. This eliminates problems with backlighting and is the secret to taking beautiful outdoor portraits. The forced flash adds enough light to properly illuminate the subject and balances the exposure for the background.
Sometimes the flash destroys the mood of a shot—for example, when the subject is next to a window with daylight streaming in. To capture moments like this, you need to be able to turn the flash off. This mode is also essential for taking photos in places that don’t allow flash photography, such as museums, concerts, and delivery rooms.
Ever notice that your flash tends to wipe out background detail in your photos? The slow-synchro setting (often referred to as nighttime mode) solves this problem by telling your camera to use a slow shutter speed in combination with the flash. By doing this, you capture more background detail while making sure that your subject is properly lit. It’s perfect for shooting portraits at twilight or in dimly lit places. I use this mode regularly and love it.
External Flash Options
If you want to greatly improve the quality of your flash photography—and if you’re not concerned about the heft of your camera—take a hint from the pros and choose a camera with a hot-shoe—a bracket that lets you attach an external flash to the camera. External flashes throw light wider and farther than built-in flashes can, producing more-consistent light. They also raise the flash head above the lens, which helps reduce red-eye. (Forget about using a camera’s red-eye mode for this—it’ll be more annoying than useful.) Some external flashes even have rotating heads that let you bounce the light off of ceilings for a diffused, natural look. Finally, external flashes don’t drain your camera’s batteries. You should plan to spend between $125 and $350 for a good external flash designed for your camera.
A powerful zoom that can get you close to your subject is always an asset in photography. But be careful when comparing cameras’ zoom specifications. Many manufacturers list two different zoom types—optical and digital. The optical zoom magnifies the image by using actual glass elements; it’s similar to a telescope. The digital zoom operates much differently. It emulates the telephoto effect by cropping out other portions of the image. In the process, you end up compromising image quality.
When shopping for cameras, don’t be swayed by the digital-zoom rating. In fact, I recommend that you turn off the digital zoom and leave it off. If you’re looking for a compact camera but are concerned that the typical 3x zoom (the equivalent of a 35mm-105mm lens) won’t be sufficient, con-sider investing in a camera with 5 megapixels or more so you’ll have room to crop later. If you do a lot of nature or sports photography, you may want to look for a camera with a 7x or even 10x optical-zoom lens.
Some shots are harder to capture than others—for example, the moment before your son blows out his birthday candles, or a closeup of a delicate flower. To get these shots, you’ll want a camera with specialized shooting modes.
If you take photos of sporting events, kids, or any other fast, unpredictable subject, a continuous-shooting (or burst) mode will make a huge difference in your photography. This mode lets you hold down the shutter button to shoot multiple photos in rapid succession. The number of pictures you can record in one burst is determined by your camera’s electronics—and in some cases by the type of memory card you have. You may need a more expensive high-speed memory card to take advantage of your camera’s fastest shooting rate (see
“Improve Your Memory”
). If so, be sure to factor that cost into your decision. To be effective, a continuous-shooting mode should capture images at 2 fps (frames per second) or faster at the camera’s highest resolution.
A burst mode can also help you compensate for shutter lag—that diabolical delay between the moment you press the shutter button and when the picture is actually recorded. This is a particu-lar problem with compact cameras. By initiat-ing the burst mode just before the action begins, you’ll greatly increase your chances of capturing the right moment.
Self-Timer or Remote Release
A camera’s self-timer mode delays the shutter for a brief period—usually 10 seconds—so you have time to dash over and join your friends in the shot. It’s also extremely useful for low-light photography that requires long shut-ter speeds, such as a night shot of the Golden Gate Bridge. By putting the camera on a tripod or another steady surface, and then using the self-timer to trip the shutter, you’re less likely to jar the camera and ruin the shot. If you do this type of photography often, look for a camera that includes a 2-second delay in addition to the more standard 10-second setting. That way, you’ll waste less time waiting to make the exposure.
An even better option is to get a camera that includes a remote control, so you can fire the shutter from a distance—usually 15 feet or less—without having to set a timer. No more mad dashes.
If you prefer to get up close to your subject—for example, when shooting plants or bugs—pay close attention to the camera’s macro-mode specifications. The macro mode allows the camera to focus on objects that are very near. Macro modes can vary widely from camera to camera. Nikon’s cameras, for example, are well known for their ability to focus on subjects only inches away, while other brands require a foot or more of distance.
Different light sources produce light at different color temperatures. As a result, a color doesn’t look quite the same under artificial light as it does outdoors. Your brain compensates for these variations in color, but cameras need a little help. When they get it wrong, photos can take on a bluish or reddish cast. Your camera’s white-balance setting lets you compensate for these problems by telling the camera what type of lighting you’re in.
Preset White Balances
In many cases, a camera’s automatic white balance does a good job of adjusting to different lighting situations. But if it messes up, you need easy access to additional white-balance options. Almost all digital cameras include at least five essential white-balance settings—typically called Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten (for standard light bulbs), Fluorescent (for fluorescent tubes), and Fluorescent H (for daylight fluorescent tubes). Ideally, you should be able to get to these settings from a button or a top-level menu item. You shouldn’t have to scour your camera’s menus each time the lighting changes.
Manual White Balance
If you often shoot without a flash to better capture ambient light, you should also make sure that your camera offers a custom white-balance setting. With this mode, you simply point your camera at a white surface; the camera then measures the light and applies the appropriate color correction. This takes the guesswork out of choosing the correct color temperature.
If you find yourself in tricky lighting situations on a regular basis, look for a camera that shoots in RAW mode (see
“JPEG versus RAW”
). The RAW file format lets you delay your decision about white balance until you’re working at the computer. This is very handy for advanced photographers who are picky about the colors in their images and who don’t mind spending time in a photo editor to perfect each shot. Typically, only advanced amateur cameras and digital SLR cameras offer manual-white-balance and RAW modes.
Manual Exposure Modes
Most casual photographers don’t want to think about details such as shutter speed and aperture. They just want to take the picture and go. When that’s the case, the programmed exposure modes included with most digital cameras—such as Portrait, Landscape, and Auto—work just fine.
But if you want to stretch your shooting technique to capture creative, artistic photos, you’ll need a camera with advanced exposure controls, such as Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual. These are typically found on advanced amateur cameras and digital SLR cameras.
The Aperture Priority mode lets you control the camera’s depth of field by setting its f-stop. (Higher numbers create greater depth of field.) This lets you determine how much of the photo is in focus.
The Shutter Priority mode controls the camera’s shutter speed. Faster shutter speeds can stop fast-paced action in its tracks. Longer shutter speeds will capture the effect of motion over time—for example, to give flowing water a dreamlike quality.
Seasoned photography veterans who want
control of their camera settings need a camera that offers a full Manual mode, which lets you set both the shutter speed and the f-stop. If you’re thinking of taking up photography as a hobby, these three modes are must-haves for creating photos that really stand out.
For adventurous photographers, there are some cameras that go beyond standard postcard-size pictures and offer video, panoramas, and more. These features aren’t for everyone, but if you take advantage of them, they can add significant value to your camera. Here are some of the most useful additions:
In addition to taking photos, some cameras can also capture short video clips. Since you’re likelier to have a digital camera with you than a camcorder, this feature ensures that you capture life’s memorable surprises—for example, a child’s first steps or words.
For best results, look for a camera that records full-frame video (640 by 480 pixels) at 15 fps or faster. (If you use this feature a lot, investing in a camera that records 30 fps may be worthwhile.) Also make sure that your camera records audio with the video. And since video can quickly take up a lot of memory, you’ll need a large-capacity memory card—512MB or more. Factor this cost into your budget.
Ever been disappointed that your pictures didn’t capture the full beauty and scope of the scene you were photographing? The solution is to take multiple, overlapping photos and then, using the accompanying software, stitch them together on your computer. Although you can do this with any camera, some cameras offer a panorama mode that makes the process much easier. This mode locks your camera settings so there aren’t dramatic differences in exposure, and it may even help you gauge the correct amount of overlap while taking the pictures.
Some photographers like to take notes as they shoot—to keep track of who’s in each photo, for example. But rather than pulling out a notebook each time you need to write something down, why not buy a camera that lets you record audio notations? Some cameras let you attach an audio file to a photograph. Although managing this additional file information on your computer will require some extra work, the convenience might outweigh the postproduction hassle.
Wouldn’t it be nice to take a few underwater shots while snorkeling in Hawaii? Instead of buying a specialized camera, you may be able to use your existing digital camera—with an inexpensive but effective underwater housing. Companies such as Canon and Olympus offer waterproof housings that can be submerged to 130 feet—which is ample for most snorkeling adventures. Most housings are fitted to a specific camera model, so make sure your camera offers a compatible housing before you buy (see
for a good catalog). Housings for compact cameras tend to be much more affordable than the ones for digital SLRs. If you don’t think you’ll go snorkeling often enough to justify the extra expense, see if you can rent a housing at a local dive shop.
To preserve ambient lighting, make sure that your camera offers an easy way to turn the flash off.For close-up shots like this one, you’ll need a good macro mode. Check the camera’s setting to see how close you can get to your subjects.The correct white-balance setting will create richer, more-accurate photos. Make sure your camera’s white-balance settings are easily accessible.
Do You Need Software?
Taking great photos isn’t enough. You should also consider what you plan to
with those photos once they’re on your Mac. After all, isn’t sharing them the whole point? To do this, you’re going to need the right software.
Most digital cameras come with software for managing and editing your photos. But in most cases, this bundled software is more trouble than it’s worth—and it’s rarely designed with the Mac user in mind. With a few exceptions (which I’ll discuss in a moment) you’re much better off ignoring the software that comes with your camera and instead either using Apple’s software or purchasing software from a third-party developer who really understands what Mac users want.
Three bundled programs truly do add value to a digital camera:
Adobe Photoshop Elements
Best Current Price
Remote Capture, and Canon’s PhotoStitch.
Photoshop Elements packs most of the tools from Adobe’s professional image editor behind an easy-to-use interface—including many one-click solutions for common image problems. I highly recommend it for hobbyist photographers. You can also purchase it separately for $90. (For a tutorial on Elements 3, see
“Image Editing beyond iPhoto,”.)
Canon’s Remote Capture lets you do all sorts of nifty things with a connected camera. For example, you can control the camera from your Mac or set it to take shots at specified intervals for time-lapse photography. And Canon’s PhotoStitch software is a great panorama editor. In fact, I prefer it to the one included with Adobe Photoshop and Photoshop Elements.
Here are some other programs I recommend adding to your digital arsenal:
This photo manager is included with every new Mac. It can also be purchased for $49 as part of the
iLife ’04 suite
—along with iMovie, iDVD, GarageBand, and iTunes. iPhoto is great for uploading, organizing, making minor adjustments to, and outputting digital pictures. For example, I use it along with .Mac to provide quick Web postings for my
photography clients. Thanks to its seamless integration, I usually have images posted to the Web within hours after I leave a wedding reception.
Beyond iPhoto, you should have a good image editor. Adobe Photoshop CS is at the top of the list. This program includes a powerful set of tools for correcting and manipulating your images. But it’s also expensive ($649). If you don’t want to spend a lot of time fixing your images, I recommend picking up a copy of Adobe Photoshop Elements—if it’s not included with your camera. Both programs include the Camera Raw plug-in for managing RAW files.
For the budget-minded photographer, I also recommend
GraphicConverter. This shareware image editor runs on OS 9 and OS X. GraphicConverter also supports RAW formats from just about every major camera maker.
The Last Word
Whatever you do, resist impulse buying when shopping for a digital camera. Use the information in this article to build a checklist of the features you want. (You can
download our printable checklist
and take it with you to the store.)
My final word of advice: Get a camera that gives you room to grow. For instance, you might not take nature photos now because your camera has a weak zoom lens. But with a powerful telephoto lens—as with any advanced feature—you might discover a new hobby.
Derrick Story is the author of
Digital Photography Pocket Guide
, second edition (O’Reilly, 2003) and
Digital Photography Hacks
(O’Reilly, 2004). You can read his articles at