The confident shopper's guide to digital cameras
From the Print Edition:
Tom Selleck, Nov/Dec 2007
The technology section at my local bookstore is cluttered with titles seemingly aimed at credit card—carrying troglodytes. Windows Vista for Dummies. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Digital Video. Given the apparent popularity of this approach, maybe I should have called this article "Hey, Slackjawed Moron—Buy a Camera!" But I prefer to think my readers have a more positive self-image. Your knuckles don't scrape the ground when you walk and, if you don't know much about digital cameras, it's not because you're mentally incompetent. Yes, the overwhelming number of digital cameras available at your local electronics store can drive even intelligent men to adopt an eeny-meeny-miny-moe comparison-shopping strategy. Stick with me through the following digital camera boot camp, though, and you'll be able to make sense of it all, based on camera size, features, complexity, controls and cost.
Compact Camera or Digital SLR?
The choice between compact or SLR starts with size. Compacts are small, relatively inexpensive and becoming surprisingly sophisticated. A few even accept optional adapters to boost their wide-angle or telephoto capabilities. Yet bulkier SLRs still outperform compacts.
The ability to change lenses is the main strength of SLR (single-lens reflex) cameras. With it comes the option to focus on microscopic close-up, panoramic fish-eye or telescopic paparazzi shots by switching lenses on the same camera. If you already have a collection of 35mm camera lenses, you can typically use them on the same manufacturer's digital camera line (there are exceptions, though, so it pays to check before buying). Furthermore, since SLR cameras traditionally cater to pros and photo enthusiasts, you'll find the widest array of sophisticated built-in features, a generous selection of lenses and accessories, lightning-fast shutter response and the ability to shoot a series of photos quickly (often several shots a second).
Which way should you go? If portability is a prime concern, a compact is the right choice. While today's digital SLRs are smaller than their predecessors, they still can't fit in a jacket pocket the way a compact camera can, and even the most feature-packed camera can't capture a great photo opportunity if it's sitting home on a shelf.
That said, I do like shooting with my digital SLR. Image quality is unsurpassed, the option to pick the right lens for the job at hand makes a difference to me, the instantaneous response helps when the action picks up and, frankly, it just feels good to have a substantial camera cradled in my meaty paws.
Ideally, you'll follow my lead and have one of each. There's always a compact camera in my bag when I head out for the day, so I'm ready to grab a photo when I stumble upon an interesting composition or a surprising situation. If I'm heading out to a family gathering or traveling to an unfamiliar city, though, I carry my digital SLR—I may never get back to Shanghai, Maui or Cancun, but I'll have some first-rate photos to remember them by.
Do Megapixels Matter?
The most prominent unit of measure bandied about when discussing digital cameras is the megapixel. A pixel is a single tiny dot of color. Take a million of these dots and you have a megapixel—and it does take millions of dots to make an image look smooth and sharp. As an avid film photographer, I didn't take digital photography seriously until I got my first 3-megapixel camera. At that point, I could print out 4 x 6 or even 5 x 7 images that looked fine. But my decision to buy the Nikon CoolPix 990 based on its megapixel count occurred back in 2000. Since then, camera resolutions have steadily increased, to the point where adding megapixels just isn't that important.
All but one of the cameras featured here, for example, deliver more than 7 megapixels, even the one that sells for $200. Once you get to 6 or 7 megapixels you have plenty of latitude to blow up an image, crop it and still print out beautiful 8x10s or 11x14s—and what more do you need? In fact, in some cases a higher pixel count can actually be a bad thing. If you squeeze more individual pixels onto the same-size sensor, each pixel has to be smaller, meaning it can see less light, which cuts down on the sensitivity of the sensor and increases grain and image noise to boot. That's not to say a higher megapixel figure is necessarily undesirable. When done right, the extra resolution certainly can't hurt. Just don't assume that a 12-megapixel camera is necessarily superior to an 8-megapixel model.
Zoom Lenses—The Long and the Short of It
You know those cannon-sized zoom lenses you see pro photographers using on the sidelines of a football game? Strangely enough, with the right digital camera, you can take advantage of even higher telephoto magnification than those guys are getting, in a camera you can point and shoot with one hand.
The secret lies in the small size of the image sensor in most digital cameras. A frame of 35mm film measures 24mm x 36mm, and it takes an enormous telephoto lens to effectively cover that entire area with an image. In a digital camera, on the other hand, millions of pixels squeeze into a much smaller area—typically 14mm x 21mm—and lighting up that smaller area can be done with a much smaller lens. The Panasonic FZ18 reviewed here, for example, has an 18x zoom lens. That's equivalent to 28mm—504mm for a 35mm camera. Even if you could build a lens with magnification that aggressive, it would weigh a ton. The entire Panasonic camera weighs about 13 ounces.
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