Digital Camera Comparisons Tips

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Where can I find information on the various camera types before I buy?

Check the Reviews Before You Buy

When you're considering a new camera, it's a good idea to check out the opinions of the pros. A digital camera review can tell you a lot of details about the camera – such as if it lives up to the manufacturer's hype and how comfortable and easy it is to use.

You can find reviews online at camera magazines' websites – such as Shutterbug (www.shutterbug.com) and Popular Photography magazine (www.popphoto.com) or at review sites like Digital Photography Review (www.dpreview.com) and the Digital Camera Resource Page (www.dcresource.com).

It's always a good idea to check at least two reviews. One reviewer can miss something that another picks up – or a personal bias may color a reviewer's opinion.

   
How do I know if a 5 megapixel camera is enough for me?

5 Megapixels – a Multitude of Options

Prices for fixed focal length 5 MP cameras start at around $100 – and about $25 more will get you a 3x optical zoom. Some of these cameras are feature-rich, and the number of models to chose from borders on amazing. Below are examples of the wide range of features available in this category.

Point-and-Shoot: Kodak EasyShare C533 – This inexpensive point-and-shoot offers a 3x optical zoom lens (37mm - 111mm in 35mm terms), 13 scene modes, selectable ISO and two auto focus options. The C533 has a movie mode with sound. As with most basic digital cameras, exposure is fully automatic.

Advanced: Fujifilm FinePix S5200 – Super-zooms aren't found just in the 7 and 8 MP realm. The FinePix S5200 packs a 10x optical zoom (38mm - 380mm in 35mm terms) for under $300. It also offers five exposure modes – including full manual. The S5200 records images as either JPEG or RAW files, offers three focus modes and has selectable ISO settings from 64 – 1600. Shutter speeds range from 1/2000 to 15 seconds. It even has a movie mode with sound and a small (3 frame) burst mode at 2 fps.

Unusual: Sanyo Xacti VPC-C5 – It looks like a tiny, hand-held digital video camera, because it is… but Sanyo's VPC-C5 is also a 5 MP digital camera with a 5x optical zoom. And just to confuse matters further, the Dual Shot function enables you to shoot both VGA-quality video and 5 MP stills at the same time! The VPC-C5 offers three metering modes, selectable ISO settings from 50 – 800 and even plays slide shows.

   

8 Megapixels – For Those Who Like Enlargements

An 8 megapixel digital camera can provide crisp 12” x 16” enlargements – plenty big enough to make an impact hanging on anyone's wall. And there are still an amazing number of options at this resolution. Here are three examples:

Point-and-Shoot:
Olympus SP-350 – This model features a 3x zoom (38mm - 114mm I n35mm terms) that's pretty fast (f/2.8) at the short end. The minimum focusing distance for macro shots is just 2 cm (0.8”). Unlike most point-and-shoot models, the SP-350 offers full manual exposure control, as well as auto, program auto, aperture priority and shutter priority. There are also 24 pre-programmed scene modes. Another unusual point-and-shoot feature is the ability to shoot two-frame bursts at 2.4 fps. ISO is selectable from 64 – 400.

Advanced:
Samsung Pro 815 SE – The numbers say it all: the “8” stands for 8 megapixels, and the “15” is for the astounding 15x (28mm - 420mm in 35mm terms) Schneider-Kreuznach f/2.2-4.6 lens. This camera indeed qualifies as a super-zoom. The closest focus distance is remarkable for such a long zoom: just 3 cm (1.2”). The 815 SE can save images as JPEG, TIFF or RAW files. There's a complete set of exposure options, including bracketing for 3 or 5 frames.

d-SLR:
Canon EOS 20D – This 8.25 megapixel SLR shoots JPEG files, RAW or both. There are four selectable focus options; shutter speeds from 1/8000 sec to 30 seconds, plus bulb; five exposure modes, including full manual; and nine selectable white balance settings. Shutter lag, which plagues many digital point-and-shoots, is less than 1/100 second. And the EOS 20D is capable of burst of 23 frames at 5 fps. This model also gets you access to Canon's extensive line of lenses, which opens up limitless shooting possibilities.

   

Choosing a d-SLR Means Extra Considerations

When you're in the market for a digital SLR, there are a few extra features you may want to consider before making a purchase. Because d-SLR's are usually part of a system, what the system – and third-party manufacturers – offer for lenses and accessories may play into your decision.

Here are just a few items you may want to consider:

Lenses – Most of the major manufacturers offer a pretty full line of lenses. But some d-SLR's have access to fewer lenses than others. The Olympus Evolt E-330, for example, has some great features that make it a very appealing choice. But it also has fewer lens options than either Nikon's or Canon's entry-level d-SLR's.

Focal Length Multiplier – Most d-SLR's – but not all - have image sensors that are smaller than a 35mm frame. And most lenses were designed for use with 35mm film cameras. The result is that the stated focal length of these lenses has to be adjusted for the smaller image area of the d-SLR's. The most common focal length multiplier is 1.5x. In that case, a 200mm lens would effectively function as a 300mm lens.

Vibration Reduction – If you shoot action, in low light or with long lenses, a VR feature can come in handy. Some manufacturers build VR technology into their cameras, while others build it into their lenses. If you want the feature, it's generally less expensive to go with in-camera VR technology.

Interface – SLR users tend to shoot a lot. And most d-SLR's create pretty big files – especially if you're saving images as RAW or TIFF files. For that reason, a fast computer connection is important. Most d-SLR's offer a USB 2.0 connection. But a few – like the Nikon D70 – still use the older (and slower) USB 1.1. A handful – such as Canon's EOS-1Ds Mark II - provide IEEE 1394 (Firewire). Fuji's Finepix S3 Pro actually has both USB and Firewire connections.

Remote Control – The remote is the modern version of the old cable release. They're anywhere from handy to essential for macro, low light and nature photography. Various d-SLR's offer wireless or tethered remotes. For some models, the remote control is an optional accessory. And for a few – mostly low-end – cameras like the Pentax K110D, no remote control is available.

Shutter Speeds, ISO Sensitivity – Depending on the type of shooting you do, very fast or very slow shutter speeds and higher ISO sensitivities (like ISO3200) may be important considerations.

   

Choosing a Digital Camera When Price Is a Concern

If you want to get a lot of camera on a budget, websites like Buy.com (www.buy.com) and Amazon.com (www.amazon.com) can help.

You can search these sites' product databases for the feature that's most important to you – such as a 10x zoom or 6 megapixels. The results returned also allow you to see a range of prices if any of the sites' affiliates also offer the same product.

It's a quick and easy way to compare digital camera prices on a range of cameras with the feature that's most important to you.

   

Easily Forgotten Features Make Shooting More Enjoyable

When you're buying a new digital camera, there are some obvious features you'll compare, such as resolution (megapixels), zoom, camera size and the size and brightness of the LCD screen. But there are a few other features that should be part of any digital camera comparison.

Shutter Lag – shutter lag is that annoying space between the time you press the shutter release on the camera and when the camera actually takes the picture. If you've ever photographed children, you'll know that's more than enough time to miss the shot. Look for the shortest lag time possible – some point-and-shoots now claim to have lag times as low as .005 second.

Power Source – Occasional snapshooters may be happiest with cameras that run on AA batteries. They're available virtually everywhere, and they eliminate the need to recharge after the camera has been sitting unused for weeks or more.

Access to Menu Features – Some cameras are easier than others when it comes to accessing various menu features. And when you're shooting, you don't want to have to scroll through several layers of menu to get to the setting you want to change. For example, the Pentax Optio WP has a customizable “green button” that allows you to access four settings of your choice with just a press of the button.

Movie Sound – Quite a few digital point-and-shoot cameras offer a “movie mode” that allows you to record short video clips. But some don't record sound. Unless you like silent movies, look for sound as well as movie capability.

Digital Zoom – Ignore this feature. It's really not a zoom at all, and is meaningless for camera comparison purposes. (Compare only the “optical zoom” numbers.) Digital zoom merely enlarges a portion of the screen, resulting in a grainier shot. If your new camera comes with a digital zoom – and most do – turn it off, so you don't accidentally ruin a shot by moving into the digital zoom range.

   

Use Camera Makers' Websites to Narrow Your Choices

When you're in the market for a new digital camera, let the manufacturers help you. Most have a digital camera guide on their website.

For example, Pentax has a page that allows you to compare any of their cameras side-by-side on six features: Megapixel, Zoom, Battery, Movie, Weight and Price. Nikon's Coolpix Camera Finder asks eight questions and suggests three models based on your answers. And Canon's Product Advisor also recommends models based on a simplified set of questions. But their product comparison page allows you to compare any of their Powershot cameras (three at a time) based on 14 criteria.

Most other major manufacturers have similar features on their websites. While these recommendations are naturally biased, they can help you to know which models from which manufacturers best fit your needs. From there, check review sites for the models you've chosen.

   

6 Megapixels – Balancing Resolution and Price

If you like detail, you'll like 6 megapixel cameras. And some models are relative bargains. Right now, they provide the best of both worlds: detail enough for 10” x 15” enlargements, but at a very affordable price. Here are three typical models:

Point-and-Shoot:
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX01 – Panasonic isn't usually the first name that jumps to mind when you think of digital cameras, but they're becoming a serious contender. This model features a 4x (28mm - 102mm in 35mm terms) Leica zoom lens and six focusing modes – including two “high speed” modes. There are also seven white balance modes and a dozen pre-set scene modes. The DMC-FX01 even has a burst mode capable of 2 fps for up to 8 frames (or 6 frames at the JPEG Fine setting). But its most amazing feature may be the shutter lag. It's only 5/1000 sec.

Advanced:
Canon PowerShot S3 IS – The 12x zoom (36mm - 432mm in 35mm terms) on the Powershot S3 IS is pretty fast. It has a variable maximum aperture of f/2.7-3.5. And the S3 IS has something else nice: vibration reduction. This model only saves JPEG's, but it can shoot movies – with files as large as 1 GB. The S3 IS has four focus modes and ISO is selectable from 80 – 800. Exposure control includes program auto, shutter priority, aperture priority and full manual. There are four focus modes, and the S3 IS can focus to 0” in Super macro mode.

d-SLR:
Pentax *ist D – As the “megapixel wars” continue, the *ist D is one of only a handful of 6 megapixel d-SLR's left. But it offers a full slate of features. The *ist D saves images as JPEG, TIFF or RAW files. It offers three focus modes, with a selectable auto-focus sensor point (good for off-center subjects). There are five exposure modes, including full manual, and auto-bracketing is available. It can shoot bursts of six frames at 2.6 fps. The *ist D has three metering modes, and ISO selectability from 200 – 1600.

   

Your Shooting Style Affects Which Camera's Best for You

We're all tempted by the latest and greatest technology, but the best digital camera for you is one that meets your needs and fits your style of shooting.

If you like to take “grab shots” at parties and gatherings, an ultra-compact with an internal zoom lens – something you can slip easily into your pocket – may be the best choice. If you take a lot of family snapshots, a simple compact with a 3x or 4x zoom might fit the bill. And if you really enjoy nature photography, but don't want the hassle of changing lenses, a super-zoom might be right for you.

Make a list of the features you want in your new digital camera. But make a list of the ways you'll most often use it, too. Matching your camera to your lifestyle will allow you to get more use – and pleasure – out of your new digital camera.

   
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William Pirraglia