January 01, 2013

Getting a Digital Camera to Record Your Memories

Back in the day, I considered myself a serious amateur photographer. I had a very well-developed system camera (actually more than one) and enough accessories to give most people a hernia if they tried to carry all of them at the same time (I never did). I also ran my own darkroom to process both black-and-white and color film. The world of photography has changed dramatically in recent years, and film has all but died as a medium. Now most photographers (casual snapshooters, serious amateurs, and professionals) use digital cameras. The electronics of digital cameras give almost anyone the ability to take a properly exposed picture, whether or not they know what they are doing. Software in and out of the camera also lets you fix exposure and other problems with amazing ease.

Ironically, the more advanced level cameras include more manual capabilities, as well as some automatic features, while the simpler cameras include few, if any, manual features and operate mostly on automatic. Having a decent digital camera around can prove most useful in your personal, as well as your professional, life. I cannot count the number of times I have taken pictures for my own use of property involved in litigation. I don’t take pictures for use in trial, as I do not want to have to testify to lay the foundation for admitting them into evidence, but, when I go to check out a property, it helps me to take pictures of it for my own reference. Having a decent camera comes in handy for travel as well, to say nothing of taking pictures of my family.

For some people, the cameras built into their phones suffice to provide them with the ability to take the pictures they want. While phone cameras have improved considerably and may prove sufficient for many uses, they lack the flexibility of a good camera and should not be seen as a substitute for a good camera. A good camera also makes a wonderful gift for a family member or for an employee or partner. One of the nice things about digital cameras is that you can pick a camera suitable for any level of photographic expertise, almost any age, and a price range starting at under $100 and going to several thousand dollars.

When you select a digital camera, you have a number of options to explore. A fixed-lens camera will generally cost far less than a system camera (interchangeable lenses). It will also likely prove less flexible, considerably lighter, and far more easily carried. Many such cameras will easily fit in a pocket. While the body for most system cameras might fit in a large pocket, by the time you add a lens to it, you need to carry it in a case. This is even more true if you add multiple lenses and an off-camera flash unit to the package and choose to carry them with you.

When it comes to fixed-lens digitals, you have a vast array to choose from. My advice is to stick with the top-end manufacturers, although sometimes you will find a gem from a lesser brand. I consider the top-end manufacturers to include Canon, Nikon, Sony, Olympus, and Panasonic. The features you want to focus on in comparing models include: (1) sensor size, (2) lens quality, (3) optical and digital zoom factors, (4) image stabilization, (5) display, (6) size and weight, and (7) other features.

When it comes to sensors, size matters; larger is better. Sensor size is more important than the number of megapixels (MPs) claimed for the camera. The number of MPs will impact the size of the print, if you plan on printing images. If you never plan on printing images, but only displaying them electronically, or if printing, not larger than 8 x 10 inches, it won’t make a difference if you have a 12- or a 20-MP camera. It will make a difference if you have a 25mm or a 100mm sensor.

The lens is a critical part of the camera. A camera with a poor quality lens will not give you good images, no matter what other features it has. All of the top-line manufacturers have excellent quality lenses available for their equipment. Canon and Nikon have their own lenses, and Sony’s best cameras use Zeiss optics. Faster lenses will record action and low light situations better than slower ones. They will generally cost more as well.

Most point-and-shoot digital cameras have some available zoom built into them. Zoom capabilities come in two basic categories: optical and digital. Prefer optical zoom to digital. Digital zoom will cause image degradation as you zoom in closer. Optical will not. The reason for this is that using digital zoom cameras simply makes each pixel of a static image larger and eventually more visible, ultimately causing granularity in the image. Optical zoom does not do that. Optical zoom recreates the image each time you adjust the zoom, so that your closer image actually has more pixels using the optical, as opposed to the digital, zoom feature. Optical zoom generally costs more and imposes additional size and weight burdens on the camera, so you have real tradeoffs. The larger the zoom factor with an optical zoom, the longer the lens and the more it weighs, while digital zoom does not increase the lens length or weight in any noticeable manner.

Many cameras offer a hybrid zoom that has both an optical and a digital component. That gives you the best of both worlds, if you save the digital for occasional use. In considering zoom factors, remember that, for the reasons explained in the preceding paragraph, a camera with 3x optical and 5x digital and a camera with 5x optical and 3x digital will both give you the same 15x overall zoom, but the camera with 5x optical will give you a better picture at 4x–15x than the camera with 3x optical.

Image stabilization reduces the effect of camera shake from unsteady hands. If you plan on shooting without a monopod or a tripod in less than very bright light, and you do not have the steady hands of a surgeon (and sometimes, even if you do), you will likely see some blurring from hand movement as you release the shutter. If your camera has image stabilization, you will see less or sometimes even no blurring. Image stabilization comes in optical and digital versions. Again, prefer optical, but digital works pretty well, also.

Most point-and-shoot digital cameras have digital displays and no longer have optical viewfinders. Some have both. I prefer having both, as a digital display can be difficult to see in bright light, but in lower light situations, the digital display gives you a clearer view of what you are shooting. I consider 3 inches the sweet spot in display sizes. You can find some larger (and generally more expensive) and a lot at 2.5 or 2.7 inches. I find the larger displays easier to read; you would be surprised at how much difference a half inch in display size can make. Traditionally, the digital displays used LCD units. Recently, OLED (organic light emitting diode) displays have shown up in some cameras. OLED displays offer the benefit of power conservation, making your battery charge last longer. I like OLED displays better than LCDs, but LCDs remain common and work very well. When it comes to displays, higher resolution works better than lower resolution.

Other factors to consider include the following:

 

  • Size and weight. You will often face tradeoffs in picking a camera. Size and weight trade off against cost and against features. Smaller/lighter cameras generally cost more than larger cameras with similar features. Smaller/lighter cameras often have smaller displays and fewer features (i.e., digital versus optical zoom or lower zoom factor) than larger cameras. On the other hand, larger cameras may prove easier to handle and have larger and easier to use controls than smaller ones.
  • Face detection technology. This feature has become more and more common. It seeks out faces in the image, keys automatic focus to them, and sets exposure on them.
  • Video. Many digital still cameras now also have the ability to record video, as well as still pictures. While they generally do not do as good a job as a camcorder (video camera), they do an adequate job for intermittent use and give you the convenience of carrying one camera, if you primarily want digital stills. If you get a camera with video, prefer one with HD capabilities. If you get an HD camera, prefer 1080p (“p” is for “pixels”) to 720p, as it will give you better image quality.
  •  

The number of still digital cameras available makes it impossible for me to have tested or even examined them all. I have not tried to do so. I have looked at a great many of them and reviewed literature about even more of them. I have provided the MSRP (manufacturer’s suggested retail price) for you as reflected on the manufacturer’s website. You can often find camera equipment discounted online. If you decide to buy online, you should check out your vendor first. Not all vendors are reliable. If you buy online, you will probably want to confirm that you are getting the manufacturer’s U.S. warranty (sometimes vendors sell goods produced for sale outside of the United States and without a U.S. warranty; that means you will not be able to get warranty service in this country and will have to pay for any required repairs).

I have focused on pocket-sized fixed-lens cameras in this discussion. You can find digital cameras in many configurations. I do not mean to suggest that there is anything wrong with the other configurations. In fact, I own several excellent cameras in larger configurations. I focused on the pocket-sized cameras because they appear to be the most popular today. Even people who have system cameras often also want a pocketable fixed-lens camera as well, due to the portability and convenience of that genre of camera. For a serious photographer with a good system camera, a professional or advanced amateur-level pocketable fixed-lens camera makes an excellent choice for a second camera. For most casual photographers and snapshooters, a good fixed-lens camera may be all the camera they will ever need. I do not have space in this column to address other forms of cameras; perhaps I will do that in another column. In the meantime, I have my favorites among the system cameras and, if you want my advice about those, feel free to contact me.

My current favorite of the fixed-lens pocketable cameras (and the one I most recently bought) is the newly released and somewhat pricey ($649.99) Sony (www.sonystyle.com) Cyber-Shot DSC-RX100, which I consider one of the best fixed-lens digital still cameras on the market today. Sony has positioned the RX100 as a professional or advanced amateur camera and provided it with an excellent selection of automatic settings, as well as the ability to manually control exposure using a control ring around the lens. The camera comes with a built-in pop-up flash (no hot shoe for an additional flash unit). Its aluminum body feels solid and sturdy. It has a relatively large sensor for its size (20-MP CMOS sensor measuring 13.2mm by 8.8mm), a 3.6x optical zoom factor, ISO settings from 100 to 25,600, and a Zeiss F1.8-4.9 aperture lens. It also shoots HD video at 1080p/60 frames per second. The RX100 packs all of that into a 4" x 2.4" x 1.4" body that weighs only 8.5 ounces. While you could get the RX100 for anyone, it is a lot of money to spend for someone who is not seriously into photography. It is also more camera than a casual photographer needs and has features that the casual photographer will not likely use. For a serious photographer, the RX100 makes a great choice as a second camera to supplement a system camera. It also makes an excellent choice as a primary camera for a more serious amateur who does not want to get into a system camera.

Other good fixed-lens options for serious photographers include the Canon (www.canonusa.com) PowerShot S-100 ($429.99, 12.1 MP, 3" LCD display, no optical viewfinder, f2.0-f5.9 lens, 1080p HD video, built-in flash, 5x optical zoom, optical image stabilization, 3.9" x 2.34" x 1.05", 6.98 ounces). (This is the camera I was going to get until I found out about Sony’s impending release of the RX100.) Another option from Canon is the venerable PowerShot G12 ($499.99, 10 MP, 2.8" variable angle LCD display, optical viewfinder, 5x optical/4x digital zoom, f2.8-f45 lens, optical image stabilization, 720p HD video, built-in flash, 4.41" x 3" x 1.9", 12.4 ounces). Canon has had the G12 on the market for quite a while. It has the disadvantages of only 720p video, larger size, and heavier weight, but the advantage of both an optical and a digital viewfinder. All in all it is still considered a top choice.

The more casual photographer might want to check out the following, less expensive, possibilities (listed in alphabetical order):

 

  • Canon PowerShot ELPH 320 HS ($249.99, 16.1 MP, 5x optical/4x digital zoom, 3.2" touch panel display, 1080p HD video, built-in flash, optical image stabilization, WiFi, 3.68" x 2.24" x 0.82", 5.11 ounces).
  • Nikon (www.nikonusa.com) Coolpix S8200 ($329.95, 16.1 MP, 14x optical/2x digital zoom, 3" display, built-in flash, image stabilization, 1080p HD video, 4.1" x 2.4" x 1.3", 7.6 ounces).
  • Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-HX10 ($329.99, on sale, as of this writing, by Sony at $299.99, 13.2 MP, 16x optical/2x digital zoom, 3" display, built-in flash, image stabilization, 1080p HD video, 4.1" x 2.4" x 1.4", 8.3 ounces).

 

If you just want a good basic digital still camera at a reasonable price, consider the following options (in alphabetical order).

 

  • Canon PowerShot ELPH 110 HS ($229.99, 16.1 MP, 3" display, 5x optical/4x digital zoom, image stabilization, 1080p HD video, 3.67" x 2.24" x 0.79", 4.76 ounces).
  • Panasonic (www.panasonic.com) Lumix DMC-ZS15 ($249.99, 12.1 MP, 3" display, 16x optical/4x digital zoom, optical image stabilization, 1080p HD video, 4.13" x 2.27" x 1.31", 7.1 ounces).
  • Sony Cyber-Shot WX150 ($249.99, on sale, as of this writing, by Sony at $189.99, 18.2 MP, 2.7" display, 10x optical/2x digital zoom, image stabilization, 1080p HD video, 3.75" x 2.25" x 0.87", 4.1 ounces).

 

The fixed-lens digital camera market constantly changes. Manufacturers release new models all the time. While some new models incorporate substantial changes, new models frequently reflect relatively modest modifications from earlier models. You can often find an earlier iteration of a camera at a substantially reduced price. As digital cameras have produced excellent pictures for the last several years, if you stay with the top manufacturers you should be just fine. Do check out the specifications to make sure that the camera you get has the features you will find most useful.

If you want to find the most current models and how they compare to others, you can find reviews and evaluations online. Some reviewers are more reliable than others. I think the people at CNET (www.cnet.com) do a pretty decent job of checking out and reporting on new camera models. While I do not always agree completely with their assessments, I find that most of the time they evaluate equipment comparably to my own evaluation.