A Beginner's Guide to Digital Cameras: Part 2

By - Megapixel.net Staff | Posted November 09, 2007

In Part 1 of this series, we looked at the differences between digital cameras and their film-based ancestors. Now we'll turn to the different kinds of digital cameras available, their price range and the various features that they offer. We'll also take a peek at some of the accessories you're most likely to need.

Digital cameras can be grouped into five broad price ranges. Keep in mind though that these groupings are rough and subject to change.

  • Inexpensive: less than $150
  • Entry-level: around $200 to $500
  • Mid-range: around $600 to $900
  • High-end: around $1,000 and up to $2,000
  • Professional: $2,000 and up.

For our purposes, inexpensive cameras use small lower-priced CMOS sensors, much like those found in Web cams. The cameras will capture a photo, but will usually not have an LCD screen to display it, or photo quality optics. They can be used for fun and as introduction to digital photography, but little else. Generally, image resolution is 640 x 480 pixels-per-inch (ppi) or less, and some cameras may use interpolation to reach their highest resolution.

Entry-level cameras are usually much more versatile. They may not have a zoom (although some do), but will usually have an autofocus lens, and they're generally designed to be easy to operate. The large majority use CCDs as opposed to small CMOS sensors. Their resolution is from 1 or 1.3 megapixel, and most of these cameras are able to produce excellent photos that you can print up to 6 x 4-inches.

The mid-range is a very broad category. It includes products made by well known camera companies and models that are generally in the 2- to 3-megapixel range. These are cameras that can produce images that you can print to 8 x 6-inch size or more. They also offer more advanced features such as priority modes, 3- to 5X zoom lenses and MPEG (mini-movies) capability. They are usually designed along the lines of compact cameras, but they can also offer a few features normally reserved for high-end cameras. Usually, these models will have an optical viewfinder (i.e., you look at an image through a lens), but will not offer the more complex TTL viewfinder (a tiny LCD display).

High-end cameras offer extensive controls and expensive optics such as stabilized long zooms. These cameras generally use high resolution CCDs that are 2- or 3-megapixel and up, and they normally have varied shooting modes, very precise optics and two or three different metering systems. Some of these models may offer TTL viewfinders of one type or another, compatibility with more than one type of recording media (CompactFlash and SmartMedia), compatibility with external flash units or their own dedicated units, remote controls and more.

Professional covers the upper price range of digital cameras, from Digital Single Lens reflex (SLR) bodies to digital camera backs. Price wise, the sky is the limit, but there are a few models are excellent and more affordable than others: Nikon D1, FujiFilm FinePix S1 and the Canon D-30.

Again, these are very broad categories. In fact many camera models easily overlap from one group to the next. Features such as a powerful zoom, image stabilizers etc., will make one camera more expensive than another, even though they may both have a similar image resolution.

While a host of features are nice, the most critical element has to be a camera's image quality. After all, what good is very high resolution and fancy features if the image quality is so-so? The image quality of any given camera is also the most difficult to gauge, and there's no guarantee that the camera with the highest resolution will have the best image. High resolution won't help a camera that has a lackadaisical white balance or an imprecise metering system. Digital cameras are very complex, and many critical elements must function well for the camera to produce a high-quality image.

Resources to help you purchase the right camera abound -- from reviews s found here and at other Internet resources (see the links page), to magazines and user opinions. However, when reading reviews keep in mind that some cameras produce extremely good photos in places where the sun shines copiously, but yield fairly grainy images in places where the sun is not as strong, or the light as bright.

Therefore, it's important to find more than one opinion and to take note of where (geographically) the review originates. The opinion of someone that has used the camera under generally similar conditions to yours could prove valuable.

Accessories

Memory Cards
A digital camera may not require the ongoing expense of traditional film, but it will require a memory card to store the images. The ones that come with cameras generally lack sufficient capacity if you shoot images at the best image quality.

Cards come in a wide variety of capacities and are easy to swap. Consider acquiring more memory cards, but don't get stuck on the idea of having the most capacity available. It can be more practical to have a few smaller-capacity cards (32MB, 48MB) than one single high capacity card. 

With the camera set to the best JPEG image quality, you'll need the following capacities to store approximately 36 pictures:

  • 1.3 megapixel camera: 16MB
  • 2.1 megapixel camera: 32MB
  • 3.3 megapixel camera: 64MB
  • 4 megapixel + camera: 96MB

Card Reader
A card reader offers a convenient way to download images from your camera to your computer. While most cameras nowadays offer USB compatibility, and therefore fast image downloads, this still requires the camera to be plugged in, and often the addition of a power adapter to avoid draining the batteries. For many people, fiddling with cables quickly becomes a pain and keeps them from using the camera as readily. Card readers are relatively inexpensive ($30 to $80 US) and make things very quick since all that is involved to see the photos is taking the memory card out of the camera, and inserting it in the reader.

Camera Bag
A camera bag is another important accessory. Digital cameras are sensitive to temperature changes and humidity, more so than their film counterparts. A good camera bag will protect and insulate the camera from the elements -- particularly if you leave the camera in a car for a period of time. Some camera bag manufacturers are now making small bags specifically for digital cameras. The bags include storage pockets for memory cards, and for the next important accessory on our list: batteries.

Batteries
Some digital cameras come with their own rechargeable batteries, including some that provide a long-lasting Lithium Ion battery. Most others though, take anywhere from two to four AA sized batteries and gobble up regular alkaline batteries at an alarming rate. Depending on how many shots you take, a set of four such batteries can drain in a matter of minutes, causing the camera to shut off.

A less frustrating alternative is Nickel Metal Hydride (Ni-MH) batteries. These batteries last longer and can be recharged easily, time and time again. Many brands are available and their cost is quite reasonable. As for the cameras equipped with their own batteries? A fully charged spare is still a good precaution when you plan to use the camera extensively.

In the third and final installment, we'll look at what you need to ask in order to buy the camera that best suits your needs.

Adapted from Megapixel.net.

Part 1 and Part 3

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