Good photos and videos play an essential role for all kinds of small business purposes: real estate sell sheets, product photos, website images, tutorials and educational videos, insurance claims, appraisals, and loads more. Camera phone quality (remember when phones were for talking to people?) has improved greatly, and they're super-convenient. But when you need higher-quality images you need a real camera.
You can choose from dozens of digital cameras, so where to start? This roundup introduces you to four different models that range from $200 to $700—and from simple to more complex.
What to Look For in a Digital Camera
Digital cameras are basically little computers, and they're programmed to deliver boatloads of functionality. These little wonders have zoom lenses, and shoot both still photos and videos. Yes, even low-end digital cameras take acceptable videos.
An articulating or tilting viewfinder is handy for taking photos from unusual or awkward positions. Some cameras have touchscreen controls. All cameras support the JPEG image file format, which is a lightweight format for websites—JPEG images have a smaller file size. Cameras with more advanced features support the RAW image file format, which is for people who need maximum image editing control.
JPEG is a lossy format, so you can't edit it very much without degrading your images. RAW is the raw image data as captured by the camera, with the addition of some metadata such as date, camera model, and exposure. RAW files need special software so that you can convert them into JPEG, PNG, or some other usable image file format.
Every camera ad makes a big deal out of megapixels. Don't get hung up on megapixels. It's easy marketing to boast about having "eleventeen megapixels!," but it's not all that meaningful. Any digital camera made in the past five years delivers excellent quality images.
All compact digital cameras have zoom lenses, and they also make marketing boasts with dubious numbers like "10x optical zoom and 40x digital zoom." Digital zoom is not worth bothering with because it's just magnified pixels: the higher the digital zoom the lower the image quality. The 10x or 40x (or whatever) designations don't mean anything either, because they're relative to the camera's image sensor size. Digital cameras have multiple image sensor sizes (figure 1). Smaller sensors cost less, and because smaller sensors use smaller lenses they can pack a super-zoom lens into a small camera.
Figure 1: Comparison of digital camera sensors (Image credit: CCASA 3.0 license, courtesy of Wikipedia)
For a meaningful zoom measurement, look at focal length. Because of all the different camera sensor sizes, the usual convention is to translate all focal lengths into their 35mm equivalent. For example, the first camera in our roundup, the Canon Elph 340, comes with a zoom lens with a native focal length zoom range of 4.3mm- 43mm, which is equivalent to 24mm-240mm on a 35mm camera. The sweet spot for everyday photography such as landscapes, portraits, architecture, and product photos is 24mm-80mm. Anything over 100mm gives you a nice longer telephoto range.
A holdover from the days of film cameras, 35mm is still the standard for digital cameras. A digital camera with a sensor the same size as a 35mm film frame is called a "full-frame" camera.
Image stabilization is standard on most cameras, and it's a nice feature because it compensates for camera shake. It does not compensate for fast-moving subjects or lots of camera movement, so you still have to hold the camera still, or shoot from a tripod. You can't beat Joby Gorillapods for compact cameras: inexpensive, lightweight, and they wrap around tree branches, fence railings, and other objects.