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A First Digital Camera

I’ve just been asked for advice on buying a digital camera. I’m not an expert on cameras but I have a good general knowledge of technology – and I’m sure that the readers of my blog will correct me rapidly if I make any serious mistakes. ;)

Types of Camera

The Wikipedia Page about Digital Cameras is worth reading [1].

Here are the types of camera that are useful as a stand-alone camera (IE not camera phones or industrial cameras):

  • Digital SLR – large, very capable, and very expensive. They have detachable lenses and a prism to split the light between a viewfinder and the CCD that records the digital photo. Such a split provides much less benefit now that you can have an LCD display for the viewfinder. In Australia they seem to start at about $1500.
  • Bridge Cameras – they are of a similar size and shape to a Digital SLR, but the lens is permanently attached and the price is a lot lower. Typically between $400 and $800.
  • Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Cameras – they allow changing lenses like a DSLR but don’t have the prism for an optical viewfinder. This makes the optics simpler and cheaper. Andre Pang wrote a good review of one [2] – which sells for about $700.
  • Compact cameras – small and cheap. Between $60 and $400 depending on features.

I suggest that people not start out a hobby of digital photography with a DSLR or other interchangeable lens camera. I think that it’s best to start out with simple gear that’s cheap – if you decide that digital photography is not your thing then you have wasted less money, and if you really get into it then you’ll be able to make a more informed choice about an expensive camera after getting some experience.

A spare cheap compact camera can be useful even if you own a more expensive camera. There are times when you don’t want the bulk of a DSLR or Bridge Camera and when you have a risk of theft or accidental damage such that you don’t want to take an expensive camera. People who are really serious about photography apparently take a camera everywhere, you could have a compact camera in your front pocket for fast pictures and a bulky camera in your backpack for when you have time to prepare a quality shot. So buying a cheap camera and then buying an expensive one a few months later would not be wasting money!

As the person who asked for advice has never owned a digital camera before I’ll focus on cheap compact cameras for the rest of this post.

Pixels and Lenses

Cameras are typically advertised with the resolution in Megapixels described in bold. Presumably most people search for the camera with the highest resolution. The first thing to beware of is cameras that don’t have hardware which is capable of taking a picture of the stated resolution, they use interpolation to generate a higher resolution image. There are probably some cameras with interpolation that are OK and provide a decent picture at a low price, but generally I recommend avoiding all cameras that do interpolation.

Optical zoom is a very important feature. Often pictures have to be cropped to remove unwanted background, if you zoom in appropriately you can avoid cropping and make better use of the available resolution. Beware of cameras that advertise things such as “advanced zoom“, anything that doesn’t exactly say “optical zoom” is using digital zoom – IE interpolation. I suggest not considering a compact camera unless it can do at least 4* optical zoom, with 5* or better being preferable.

The physical size of the lens is important. A bigger lens allows better pictures in adverse lighting and also allows a faster shutter speed to give better photos of moving objects and better photos when you are moving. Generally you can get a rough idea of the potential that a camera has by just glancing at the lens, if it’s the size of a lens in a mobile phone then the pictures won’t be that great. If it is on a telescopic mount and it’s wide then the result will be better. When buying a lens for a DSLR or other detachable lens camera you should be able to read specifications of the lens which indicate it’s size. For compact cameras the specifications of the lens are usually available from the vendor and often available from review sites but generally aren’t included in adverts by retailers. If you are comparing cameras in the store looking at them seems like the best option.

The ratio of the lens area to the number of pixels determines how much light is received by the sensors for each pixel. So when there are two cameras that are essentially identical apart from the number of megapixels the one with the highest number isn’t necessarily better in all situations. A 12MP camera might not give a better result than a 10MP camera, a monitor described as “Full HD” has a resolution of 1920*1080 which is 2MP. A 5MP camera is useful to allow cropping but if the aim is to display pictures on current monitors then anything much bigger than 5MP is probably wasted at this time and 10MP will provide pictures that can use the capabilities of monitors that are developed for a while.

Printing

Some printers that are affordable for home use might require something like a 7MP camera to print a picture at A4 or Letter size at the highest quality. Professional printing will probably require something even greater. But if your intended use of a digital camera doesn’t involve printing the pictures, or only rarely involves printing them at A4 or Letter size then you don’t need a high resolution for printing. I expect that there are some available printers that can use paper at sizes such as B3 which might require a 20MP camera for best quality. But if the aim of the printing is to put a picture on your wall (the most common case) then even if it’s not at the ideal resolution then probably no-one will notice the difference – you can’t see the pixels from a few meters away.

If the aim of the camera is to photograph professional artwork for the purpose of selling it on the Internet then a high resolution camera really isn’t desired. You want to offer pictures on the Internet which aren’t good enough to be usefully printed.

Video

The capabilities for recording video can vary significantly between different cameras in the same range. If you don’t care about video then that’s fine, but if video matters to you then you have to read the specs. It’s also worth considering digital video cameras, I have previously summarised the available digital video cameras – although I’m sure that there have been some new models since then [3]. A good (expensive) digital camera will have video functionality that compares well to most digital video cameras – but it will cost a lot more.

Choosing a Compact Camera

There are many compact cameras in the $100 to $150 price range. Ted’s has the Samsung Digimax ES65 for $99.95 which has 10MP and 5* optical zoom. This seems like a good deal. Practice with a cheap camera could easily allow you to make a better choice when buying a more expensive camera that saves you more than $100 so it seems unlikely that you will have any great regrets about buying a $100 camera.

Buying from the specs is a bad idea, I recommend testing a camera in the store before buying – every store that you want to buy from allows this. But don’t expect that quality pictures in the store means much, the people who run the camera stores usually set them up with good lighting so that pictures will tend to turn out well. The aim of an in-store test is not to discover what the camera does well, but to discover what (if anything) it does badly. Also it’s useful to test the ergonomics of the camera before buying, discover whether you would be happy to hold the camera for an hour.

It’s a good idea to ask the staff at a camera store for advice, but don’t rely on such advice. My experience is that they tend not to ask what the prospective customer plans to do with the camera and this significantly limits the quality of their recommendations.

Conclusion

Make your first digital camera a cheap compact camera that doesn’t cost much more than $100. Make sure it has at least 4* optical zoom with 5* being preferred. Don’t worry too much about the number of megapixels, anything more than 5 will do. Test the camera in the store to look for any obvious reasons that make it unsuitable for your use. If you want video then be prepared to pay a little more as the cheapest cameras have a low resolution for video.

4 comments to A First Digital Camera

  • Andreas Metzler

    Your DSLR prices are off. Entry level DSLR start at below AUD 800 (e.g. Canon EOS 1000D, Nikon D3000.) Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Cameras are not cheaper than DSLR.

  • Anonymous

    Don’t underestimate ease of use. You want one that will take a picture when you press the button, no matter what you have it doing at the moment.

    I’ve had good luck with Kodak digital cameras.

  • Benjamin Seidenberg

    A few other points:
    - Quality of optics: You talked about lens size, but the quality of the glass makes a HUGE difference in image quality. It’s one of the two most important factors, the other being sensor quality, and most manufacturers source the same sensors. That’s why the tradtional camera companies (Kodak, Cannon, Nikon, etc.) beat out the tech companies when digital cameras first came to market. (I had an old HP digicam and man did the glass suck).

    - Speed to take a shot: This is another really important factor. Get a clock/watch with a second hand. Push the shutter when the second hand hits the 12. See how long it takes before the picture actually is captured. Do this both with and without a pre-shot focus (holding the shutter halfway down)

  • If I’d take a compact camera (selling my canon ixus 80 now) I’d go for the water resistant Canon one for about 280 US$.

    I’m a happy user of the Canon EOS 500D, I’d go for the 550D now for the one who asked you. But I’ll personally go for the EOS 5D Mark II next year (or its successor).

    Good luck and have fun!