Sep 8, 2004

Which camera should I buy?

Lenses

A lens makes up half of the cameras ability to take good photos IMO. So many cameras, especially the point and shoot variety have crap for lenses. Check the literature for the camera. If they don't say much about the lens quality, it probably doesn't have any. I also trust the big names more when it comes to the glass. Canon, Nikon, Fujifilm, and Sony (who use Carl Zeiss lenses) make great glass. I check the speed of the lens too. That is, the f-stop numbers. On zoom lenses you might see something like: f2.8 - 3.5 If you don't understand these numbers don't fret, just understand that lower numbers are better. Enthusiasts will want a manual-focus option -- a focus ring on the lens is much better than preset distance settings -- as well as the ability to add or change lenses and use filters.

Resolution

If you plan to print or retouch your images, I recommend you stick to 4-megapixel resolution and higher. 3M pixel cameras are fine if your photos are only destined for the Web or e-mail. If you want to make prints at 8in. by 10in. or larger, look for digital cameras with 4-megapixel resolution or higher.

Power
Lithium-ion cells, tend to last the longest. If you choose a camera that supports rechargeable batteries, check to see if it also includes a charger or AC adapter. Some cameras support rechargeables but ship with alkalines, so the charger costs extra. I like Sony's InfoLithium batteries because they're powerful and provide a read-out in minutes of remaining battery life. However, cameras that use them can't take other battery types. A broader variety of supported battery types gives you extra flexibility in emergencies, so the best choices can run proprietary lithium-ion batteries (for longest life), CR-V3 disposables (long life in an emergency), and both rechargeable and alkaline AA or AAA size batteries as a last resort.

Storage

Some cameras use storage formats that are losing market share, such as SmartMedia. Take that into consideration if you're making a long-term purchase. If you have a handheld or an MP3 player, you may want to choose a storage format that can work in those devices as well. Our favorites are CompactFlash, because it comes in the largest capacities, and SD/MMC, which is increasingly popular and quickly boosting its capacity. Most cameras don't come with enough storage for practical uses, so budget for an additional memory card. The optimum size you buy depends on the size of the images the camera takes.

File types and compression

All digital cameras deliver images in JPEG format, which should suit users who simply want to shoot and print. Look for the ability to select various compression levels -- you'll usually get two or three. If you want to retouch, make collages of, or blow your pictures up to 8in. by 10in. or larger, the ability to shoot uncompressed TIFF and/or proprietary RAW images is essential.

Color control

All digital cameras offer an automatic white-balance setting that calculates the right color balance for your shot, but the results can be erratic. Look for models that let you select among white-balance presets for particular types of lighting, such as sunny, cloudy, incandescent or fluorescent. If you'll be shooting a lot under fluorescent light, look for a camera with presets for all three types -- or at least make sure that the fluorescent setting on the camera you choose matches the type of fluorescent light you'll be using. Manual or custom white-balance is the most dependable because it lets you take a reading from an area that you want to appear as pure white in your picture, then use that reading to calculate the color balance. Advanced photographers may find white-balance auto-bracketing and compensation useful. The Nikon D70 has this feature. The ability to adjust color saturation or select from different color modes is also an important tool for serious photographer.

Shooting modes

Many digital cameras offer special modes that optimize the camera settings for specific types of scenes. Landscape, portrait, twilight and pan-focus are among the most common scene modes. Scene modes can affect both exposure and focus settings, while a panorama mode lets you shoot a scene in several frames, then 'stitch' them together to make one big picture. Look for a camera that offers scene modes that correspond to your favorite photo subjects. If you think you'll use this feature a lot, make sure that the camera you buy gives you easy access to it through a button or a dial, instead of making you hunt through the LCD menu to find it. Other useful options include continuous shooting (or burst) modes, which shoot multiple images sequentially to capture action. Many digital cameras offer voice recording and movie capture, but don't expect camcorder-like results. I say use the right tool for the right job.

Exposure control

Only enthusiasts and professionals need to worry about the different methods for handling exposure -- point-and-shoot camera handle exposure automatically and generally deliver acceptable results. Look for a camera with exposure compensation. This feature is offered by many of the better point-and-shoot models, and it will let you fine-tune the auto exposure in tricky lighting situations. If you are a enthusiast or a professional, insist on aperture- and shutter-priority modes as well as full manual exposure, flash compensation for macro photography, a hotshoe for external flash, exposure auto-bracketing, several metering modes and a variety of user-selectable light sensitivity settings that start at least as low as ISO 100. A live histogram display of the light values in the image can also be indispensable. These tools allow you to control the relative sharpness of objects in the scene, how much noise to allow, whether to slightly underexpose or overexpose a shot and other creative aspects of photography.


Design and performance

You should always try a camera before buying it. Make sure that it fits comfortably in your hand and that it's not too big or heavy for use away from home. It should provide quick access to the most commonly used functions via buttons or other physical controls, and the menu system should be simply structured, logical and easy to learn no matter how sophisticated the feature set. A camera that takes longer than a second between shots (without the flash) makes action and candid photography very difficult. Furthermore, some cameras have long delays between the moment you press the shutter release and the moment the shot is captured. Watch out for these long lag times as well as excessively slow camera start-up (more than a few seconds).