A Beginner's Guide to Digital Cameras: Part 3

By - Megapixel.net Staff | Posted November 12, 2007

In Part 2 of our digital photography series we looked at the different types of cameras, their features and price ranges, and accessories. Now it's time to talk about how to choose a camera. While there's no perfect way to proceed, it's possible to establish some basic requirements that can narrow the field. It is probably best to set a budget as a first step. A budget with a couple of hundred dollars wiggle room might be best.

When shopping for a camera the following questions and answers should provide some guidance:

Do you prefer a simple use point and shoot camera?
An affirmative to this question means that your primary consideration will be cost. From entry-level on up, all cameras offer a Program AE mode that is fully automatic. If you prefer a camera with more options, then you are able to eliminate most entry-level cameras and direct your attention to the midrange.

Is a zoom critical for your needs?
A "yes" answer means you can focus your attention on models with 3X zooms and above. Ignore digital zooms altogether, these are simply cropping systems and the same results can be obtained from any image editing program. Concentrate on true optical zooms, and particularly on cameras that offer zooms that "bracket" a standard focal length of 50mm (in 35mm equivalent). Zooms that cover a range of 35mm to 105mm offer a reasonably wide angle and telephoto. Be aware that a zoom covering 28mm to 84mm, also 3X, will give you a wider field of view in wide angle, but considerably less magnification in telephoto.

If you plan to use the camera primarily in a work environment, here are a few things to consider. Some work-related photography involves shooting indoors, where a wide angle is preferable, such as a 28 to 84mm. Conversely, work-related photography done mostly outdoors may require a zoom with a greater magnification, such as a 35 to 105mm. Most mid-range and high-end models offer these types of focal lengths, and some go beyond 105mm. This leads to the next question:

What will be the primary use of the camera? Work or pleasure?
Often, a "work" camera will see greater use, and possibly by more people, than one intended strictly for personal use. This implies that the camera will sustain more wear and tear. In such a case, it might be worthwhile to consider cameras that have metallic alloy surfaces. Usually, these kinds of surfaces wear better over time and use, than those that are made of plastics. Another possibility might be to look to weatherproof cameras; some models are available from Kodak and Fujifilm.

In addition, the camera's flash capabilities might be critical in work-related use. Most built-in flashes are insufficient to light a wide area. If a powerful flash is critical, then the camera should either have a hotshoe (a metallic spot on the top of a camera to which you attach a flash unit), or at least an external flash connection. These features are fairly common on midrange and high-end cameras, but not on entry-level models.

What is the primary application for your photos?
This is one of the most important questions since it helps determine the resolution of the camera. Photos have many applications ranging from printing glossy 8 x 10's, to posting them on a Web site or e-mailing. Nearly all cameras on the market can accomplish the least demanding uses, but fewer will accomplish the most demanding.

Generally speaking, the Web is one of the least demanding uses for a camera. Because of the constraints imposed by monitor resolution and bandwidth, photos destined for the Web hardly ever require high resolution. But, if the photos are going to be altered or manipulated in a photo-editing program, then a higher starting resolution might be necessary even though the images may end up smaller when used on the Web.

For instance, product photography for a Web site may require the images to be presented on a uniformly colored background. To ensure consistent results, this usually requires that the products be "cut-out" from the background of the photo and placed on another background texture or color. In such cases, a higher resolution makes the work easier since it provides greater detail and often produces a better image even when reduced in size.

If the photos are intended for printing—replacing the work done by the mini-lab—or a scanner, then a higher resolution might be necessary to produce sharper and larger prints. Photos with higher resolution can be printed at a higher density and will produce a smoother image. For printing purposes, the resolution is in fact the factor that limits the image size.

Too few dots of ink produce printed photos with a noticeable grain, or worse, jagged edges. If a 300 dpi is assumed, a 1.3 megapixel resolution will produce a good quality 4 x 3-inch print; a 2 megapixel resolution will produce a 5 x 4-inch print; and 4 megapixel will produce a 7.5 x 5.5-inch photo. Note that depending on the printer, a lower dpi can be used to increase the image size without seriously affecting the image quality.

Once you've answered these basic questions, you can line up your candidates. Reading online reviews to create a "short list" of cameras should help narrow the choices and help you reach your goal.

Adapted from Megapixel.net.

Part 1 and Part 2

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