Sunday, March 7, 2010

Camera Purchase Guide Part 1: Point and Shoot Cameras

I've often had people ask me about what kind of camera they should buy, so I thought I would put together a guide to help people. Today I will discuss Compact Point and Shoot Cameras.

If you are in the market for a new camera there are a lot of choices out there and it can be tough to choose a camera that will fit your needs. The first thing to consider, and this applies to any type of camera you are considering is, what do you like to photograph? The answer you give to that question, can not only help narrow down your search, but also determine the level of camera you will need. In terms of point and shoot cameras (P&S from now on) it can mean the difference between a $99 camera and a $300-400 cameras. I wont be talking about what cameras to buy, just listing things to consider when you buy a camera.
Size: Does It Matter? 
If the size of the camera you want to buy matters, meaning you want something that can easily fit in your jean pockets, then you quickly limit your choices down to a 6-12 cameras. That is a good thing, because limiting the number of cameras you are looking at simplifies the buying process a great deal. If you do not mind having a slightly larger, but still compact camera then you widen the amount of choices you have to 3-4 from the same brand, making the choice a lot harder. If you like one brand over the others, that also helps narrow your choices, but don't ignore other brands just because you have not used them before. Another thing to consider is sensor size, the smaller the camera, the smaller the sensor. Have you ever noticed the difference in image quality between the pictures you can take with the camera on your cell phone and a compact digital camera? Have you wondered why the pictures from the compact looked better? Well that is due to the size of the image sensor.

Mega Pixels: How Much Is Too Much?
Most P&S cameras on the market today have 10-12 mega pixel sensors, but there are some of the newer, higher end molds having as many as 14MP. There are a few things to consider when it comes to mega pixels, first being, the more mega pixels there are, the bigger the file size, which means you'll need bigger memory cards to capture the same number of photos as a camera with fewer mega pixels. From what I have seen, the cameras in the 10-12MP range are producing the best pictures, over a wider range of shooting conditions. For example, the Canon G10 had a 14MP sensor, which was great in terms of resolution, but the performance of the camera indoors, or on days without a lot of sunshine, where less than ideal. The Canon G11 that replaced the G10, has a 10MP sensor, and you can see the difference in image quality between the two in less than ideal lighting conditions, the 10MP sensor is superior. Keep in mind that the G10 and G11 have some of the largest image sensors in P&S cameras on the market today, short of the new EVF (Electronic Viewfinder) cameras, which I will discuss in part 2 or 3 of the guide.

Build Quality: Does it matter?
How tough does your camera have to be? If you are just wanting a camera to walk around and take pictures of friends and family at parties and other gatherings, a camera with cheap plastic construction is most likely okay, just don't drop the camera! If you find yourself often using your camera on hikes, or other environments where you might drop your camera, having something a little tougher may be in order. If you want a camera that is tougher, camera manufactures have cameras designed to be tough, and some of them are even water proof (to a set depth).

Lenses, Optical and Digital Zoom: What's the Difference?
There are almost as many choices for zoom range as there are types of cameras. This is one area where the first question I asked is most important, what do you like to photograph? There is no point in getting a camera with a 12x zoom range, if you take most of your photos at the widest end of the lens 98% of the time. If you shoot mostly landscape photos, or indoors, consider a camera that has at least a 28mm equivalent, on the wide end of the focal range. One the other hand, if you find yourself always wanting to get closer to your subject, when you cannot walk any closer, than you might just want that 12x or 18x zoom range. Most compact cameras today have a 4x or 8x zoom range, so if you want a camera with more range than that, you'll have to dig a little deeper in your wallet.

What about digital zoom, do I need that, or even want it? Digital zoom allows you to zoom in closer than the physical reach of the built in lens, but that extra reach comes at a cost. Since the lens cannot physically reach that far, the camera crops the image you take in order to get you closer. I avoid digital zoom as much as possible, you will most likely achieve better results by cropping the photo on your computer, than using digital zoom.

Image Stabilization (IS/VR/OS): Do I even need that?
What about image stabilization, do I even need that? Most cameras today, other than the entry level point and shoot cameras ($99-$150) have image stabilization of some kind. Why do I even need image stabilization in the first place? Cameras gather light, and freeze action when the shutter opens and closes. What that means in the real world is that, the darker the lighting considerations the longer the shutter speed will be. If you have ever tried taking a sunset picture, just after the sun went below the horizon and noticed that all your photos come out blurred? That happens because you physically cannot hold the camera steady enough, while the shutter is open. Image stabilization can help with that, although in late evening and at night you will either need a tripod or a flash to overcome the lack of light. One thing to remember, image stabilization does not keep your subject from blurring if it is moving too fast, it is only compensating for movement of the camera itself.

Some cameras have physical image stabilization in the lens or sensor, while others have electronic stabilization, which is a correction made after the photo is taken, while the camera processes the image before saving the file to your memory card. The cameras with optical or sensor based stabilization will perform the best, while those will electronic stabilization are not very good, and can degrade image quality significantly. Unless you want an extremely cheap camera, I would recommend getting one with optical or sensor based image stabilization.

Conclusion of the Point and Shoot Camera Purchasing Guide
Whatever choices you make, go to a store and try out the different models available in person. Sometimes you think you've found the best camera for your needs after reading online reviews, only to find out that the camera you chose is to hard for you to use, or the buttons are too small for your fingers. If you have a budget, stick with it. It is easy to spend a lot of money on cameras and accessories, so if you have a budget work with it. Don't forget to include money for a few memory cards, and some good rechargeable batteries in your budget. Many mid range ($200+) point and shoot cameras come with custom lithium ion battery packs, so you might want to have some extra money set aside in your budget to buy a second one if you are traveling away from a wall socket for extended periods of time. It would be really disappointing to have missed the photo of a lifetime over a dead battery!