Digital Cameras: What's right for you?

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Digital cameras are, without doubt, the easiest way to capture, and keep, your memories. But, with so many different makes, models, styles, types and sizes, it's easy for someone to get really lost in the world of f-stops, lenses, megapixels and memory cards. How do you know which one you want?

The first, major decision, is what sort of body you're after. With so many different models, though, even this decision can cause confusion. It's at this point you need to think about what you really want out of your camera, to decide what you want to put into it. What's right for someone who wants to take snaps of birthday parties isn't right for someone that spends hours shooting motor racing.

The three main body types are:

  • Point and shoot: These are the basic, entry level camera. Emphasis is on ease of use, nice big screens for showing and checking what you've taken pictures of, low cost, and size.
    These cameras can range from the cheap and nasty sort that you'll soon be finding in cornflakes packets, with little to no zoom, tiny memory, and woeful picture quality. Think the disposable cameras you can buy at the supermarket. They can range, however, right up to high zooming, easily expandable memory (more on memory later), woth lots of scene settings, and huge pictures. Some have movie modes, though quality of these ranges wildly.
    Usually capture between 2-6 Megapixels.
    Approximate price is between $70 (for one of the really basic ones) to $600 (for all the bells and whistles).
    Ideal as a present to your slightly computer savvy aunt, who loves getting birthday shots.
    Pros: Small, cheap, light. Easy to use, almost all have a 'Photo' setting, where the camera does everything, all you need to do is aim and snap.
    Cons: Usually don't have a very high zoom level. Often without a high megapixel count. Can be limited in their functionality, though this depends on what you want it for. Some lack battery life.

 

  • 'Prosumer': A half-way mark between professional, slr cameras (again, more on these in a second), and entry level, average joe camera. They usually have a twist zoom lens, a huge range of photo settings, from fully automatic right down to entirely manual, and a high megapixel count (6-10 megapixels)
    These also have a screen on the back that you can use to take the photo with, and can shoot movies.
    One of these will probably set you back twice what a point and shoot camera will.
    They often have a pop-up flash, and a 'hot shoe', which allows you to attach an external flash. I'll talk more on those soon.
    Great for your brother, who likes taking photos of the cricket and who's complaining that his camera just won't hack it.

    Pros: Much more power than the point and shoot cameras. 10x Optical zoom is common. Image stabilization is becoming more available, but expect to pay for it. Can often shoot movies and, unlike point and shooters, some can zoom while shooting.
    Cons: More expensive. Can be confusing to someone new to photography.

  • SLR (single lens reflex): If the point and shoot is a family sedan, and the prosumer is a nippy sports car like a Lancer, the SLR is a twin turbocharged V12 Jag with all the buttons. If you're buying one of these, you probably don't need to be reading this.
    This is the one to buy if you're right into taking pictures. Interchangeable lenses, masses of manual tweaks for your shots, superfast shutter speeds, you name it.
    These cameras are the grand-daddy of the lot. From landscape shooting to intimate portraits, from motor racing to equestrian dressage, from birthday parties to weddings, there will be an option, a setting, a colour mode and a lens to suit.
    This is the camera you buy your son/daughter who's doing photography at uni. Listen to what they want out of it though, or you'll be wasting your money and their time. And you will be spending the money.
    Often, you can get these in kits, with a lens or two, a body, and some other bits and pieces. chances are, the lenses in these kits aren't really worth using, though, for starting out, they'll do. There's a definite 'chain effect' with these, and you will be let down by the weakest link in the chain. A $4000 lens on a low-end SLR won't produce the goods. Likewise, a brilliant camera and lens will be let down by a poor printer.
    Pros: Hugely versatile and customiseable. Unparalleled image quality. Zoom from 180 degree fisheyes to 1000mm and beyond.

    Cons: Expensive. Very. Prices, for a body, can range from $1500 to... I wont say, because it'll scare you off. Then there's lenses. Good, clear, fast glass doesn't come cheap. And you want the best glass you can get.  Associated costs can snowball, depending on image post processing requirements.No movie mode.

So there's the bodies dealt with. I used some terms in there you may not be familiar with, so here's a glossary:

  • Zoom: Makes the shot appear closer, or bigger.
  • Memory: The 'film' of the camera. I'll do a section on this.
  • Megapixel(s): The size of the picture taken. I'll do a section on this, too.
  • Scene Settings: The camera itself will play with colour and such.
  • Pop-up flash: The flash is built in, but pops out of the camera for use.
  • Hot shoe: A spot on the camera for putting an external flash unit on.
  • Twist zoom: Rather than buttons and a motor to change the zoom, you turn the lens yourself.

Now for those other sections.

Memory

As i said, memory is the 'film' of your digital camera. Measured in megabytes (mb or meg) or gigabytes (Gb or gig). Without getting too far into bytes and so on, one gigabyte is about a thousand meg. The bigger, the better. A 512 meg card can hold twice what a 256 can, and half what a gig card can.

Sizes, in megabytes, are: 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024 (1Gb), 2048 (2Gb) and so on.

There's a few different sorts, in the same way there's different types of films. Sony have their own sort, as do a couple of other makers, but most use what's called Compact Flash (CF). All CF is, is a standard size, shape and format of memory. It's fast (though there are different speeds available), reliable, and fairly cheap.

Speed, as well as size, is an important factor. Again, depending on what you do, the balance of importance will change. A birthday shooter will hold size in greater importance to a sports photographer, simply because of the way pictures will be taken. In short, unless you know you're going to be taking lots of photos very quickly, don't be too worried about speed. Sure, if the next speed up is another $20, go for it, but i wouldn't sell my kidneys just to get the fastest. Unless you really need it.

Each camera will tell you what sort of memory card it takes, so go by that. Different brands of card are better than others, but I'm not entirely sure which. I've heard Kingston are pretty good, but don't quote me on that.

I keep a 16 meg card with me, mainly because it came with my camera and i never throw things out, and also because, in a pinch, i can fit a couple of decent shots on there. Otherwise, anything below about 128 meg nowadays is mostly pointless. My main card is a 256 meg Sony memory stick pro.

Size:

Measured in Megapixels, size isn't as important as you might think. For a bit of a rundown on what megapixels are, see the end of this section.

The number of megapixels is the amount of data your camera captures when you press the button. The higher the number, the more data is captured. Usually, this just ends up in a larger size picture. For example, I'll use my own setup as a guide.

I'm running a 17 inch screen, on the highest resolution i can (1280x1024, for those that know what i'm on about). For those that don't know what I'm on about, those numbers are the amount of dots that make up what i see on my screen, horizontally then vertically. This makes my icons pretty small, and detail pretty sharp.

Now, with that resolution in mind, my camera (Sony Cybershot DSC-P73), can take 5 different sized photos. From smallest to largest, they are VGA (640x480), 1Mp(1280x960), 3Mp, 3:2, and 4Mp.

  • VGA: ideal for sending in emails, and that's about it. Nowadays, with broadband everywhere, even then it's not too important. One of these pictures takes up about 1/4 of my screen. These pictures are usually between 10 and 50kb (kilobytes), meaning you can get somewhere around 20 pictures per meg. My empty 256 meg card can fit about a thousand.
  • 1Mp: This is probably better for emailing. Pretty much fills my screen when viewed. These pictures are about half a megabyte. i can get around 400 on an empty 256 meg card.
  • 3:2 and 3Mp: Honestly, i don't really use these. I think 3:2 is a better ratio for printing. I hardly use 3Mp simply because if i want to take lots of photos, i use 1Mp, and if i want lots of detail, i use 4.
  • 4Mp: Much better for editing, printing and retouching. One picture overfills my screen, by approximately twice vertically, and about one and a half times horizontally. About 1.5-2 meg per shot, i get about 170 of these on my card.

A higher megapixel count will allow you to do a number of things. Firstly, you can, on the computer, zoom in quite far without losing detail. That same feature means that you can crop things out of the shot that you don't want to be there, without it looking too nasty when you print it. Also, there's a lot more data there, which means that photo editing software has an easier time of it when you start fiddling with the picture.

You can shrink the picture down one of two ways. First, you can simply scale it. This reduces the amount of pixels by whatever scale you choose. You lose data this way, which means that once it's done, it won't look as pretty if you resize it back up. The second way (and this only works for printing it) is to increase the resolution it's printed at. Most of the time, you'll print at 300 dots (of ink) per inch (dpi). This generally looks rather nice. However, if you increase that to, say, 600 dpi, depending on your printer, the picture will be clearer, sharper, and half the size. There's still the same amount of data this way, it's just pressed into a smaller box.

 

I'm sure i've bored you to tears by now, so that will be it for the moment. If this is recieved well, i'll write another guide delving a bit deeper into movie modes, scene settings, image stabilization, and all the other things i didn't fit in here that i wanted to.

 

Best of luck finding what you're after =)

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