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.
Smaller image sensors have another interesting side effect when it comes to digital SLRs (D-SLRs): an apparent magnification occurs when you put a lens for a 35mm camera on a digital camera. With nearly all D-SLRs, the image appears at least a third closer than it would on a 35mm film camera—with some, it looks twice as close. It's not that you're getting actually more magnification, it's that the sensor is only seeing part of the light the lens is throwing down the barrel. The lens illuminates an area the size of a 35mm frame, but your digital sensor is sitting right in the middle, only grabbing the center part of the image. If what you're after is greater telephoto power, this works to your advantage. The challenge, though, is finding a D-SLR lens that can take wide-angle shots. When putting together a camera/lens combination, consider how the magnification factor affects the lens range (information that is always included in the camera description). On a film camera, for example, a 28mm lens is considered a moderate wide-angle, but mounted on the Olympus E-510, it's the equivalent of a 56mm, which isn't a wide-angle lens at all.
There's less math involved when shopping for a compact digital, since you're only dealing with the lens that's permanently attached, and manufacturers routinely publish the zoom lens range equivalent for 35mm film cameras. In film camera terms, a lens around 18mm gives you a fish-eye effect, roughly 28mm to 35mm is considered wide- angle, 50mm to 75mm is "normal" (i.e., your picture shows about what you'd see with your naked eye) and 100mm and higher are close-up and telephoto lenses that magnify distant objects.
Another figure to consider is lens speed, the term photographers use to define a lens's ability to gather light efficiently. A lens rated at f1.8 is faster than an f2.8 lens, which means it will let you take pictures in lower light without a flash. The variation in lens speed among digital cameras ordinarily isn't that wide, but if you have two models with similar telephoto ranges and features and you're looking for another decision-making parameter, now you have one.
To a politician, shaking hands is an occupational requirement. To a photographer, hands that shake are the enemy. Some cameras combat jitter with an image stabilization system that automatically compensates for your movement and keeps the image blur-free. The most common approach is called optical image stabilization—optical elements within the lens redirect light when you shake to keep the internal light-hitting- sensor mechanism steady. Another effective approach, mechanical image stabilization, moves the image sensor itself to compensate for your stability-challenged camera work. For a compact camera, it's pretty much a toss-up between the two technologies. For a digital SLR, there's a benefit to using mechanical image stabilization—it works inside the camera itself, so you'll reap the benefit even when you change lenses.
A Sensitive Question
The option to take photos without a flash is always nice. You can be less intrusive, get natural-looking lighting and avoid the shrieks of small children whose eyes have been hit with a blast of photons. Along with lens speed, another weapon in your low-light photography arsenal is the maximum light sensitivity of the image sensor. This is measured as an ISO rating—the higher the number, the less light required to take a picture. In the past two years digital cameras have boosted ISOs—today you'll find many large and small cameras with ISOs up to 1600, and some reaching 3200 (though this is ordinarily achieved at less than the camera's full resolution). Shooting at the highest ISOs does come at an image-quality cost: the higher you go, the more grain and noise you'll see in the image. On the other hand, that extra head room does come in handy. Shooting with a digital SLR at night on a Tokyo Bay harbor cruise last year, I pushed the ISO setting to 1600 and got several worthwhile shots—a little extra grain really didn't detract from the scenic images, though portraits shot under the same conditions would have looked awful.
Screens and Viewfinders
Every digital camera has an LCD screen, which is great for seeing a photo moments after you've pressed the shutter. When you line up a shot in the first place, however, the LCD may not be the best option.
Nearly any compact camera will let you compose a shot using the LCD display held at arm's length. Some have an additional eye-level viewfinder, some don't, and it's worth considering the benefits of that viewfinder before writing it off as unimportant. In the glare of a bright sunny day, an LCD screen is often difficult to see clearly. Some screens do a better job than others, but the option to hold the camera up to your eye and frame a shot eliminates the problem entirely. Holding the viewfinder to your eye also helps steady the camera, and you save battery power when the LCD is off.
A key benefit for SLR shooters is that the optical viewfinder — instead approximating the frame—peers through the lens that will actually feed light to the sensor. A handful of SLRs now offer a system that also lets you shoot using the rear LCD panel, which is great for over-the-head shots or holding the camera at other odd angles, buslows down camera response time when taking action shots.
If the cameras are so smart today, why do we need manual controls at all? Simple. The camera can read lighting conditions, but it can't read your mind and figure out what you think is important in the picture you're taking. Is the fast-moving car in the scene the vital bit, or is it the woman standing by the side of the road? Do you want to keep the beautiful trees and meadow sharp or just focus on your daughter as she holds a daisy in the foreground and let the distracting background go fuzzy?
The simplest way to tell the camera what you want out of a shot is to choose a scene mode. Most consumer-oriented cameras come with a variety of predetermined settings based on the subject you're shooting—portraits, landscapes, night scenes, fast-action sports, extreme close-ups and so on. Some cameras have literally dozens, which allows for special situations such as shooting at a beach or taking pictures of fireworks.
A more exacting option is full manual control. For example, if you want to freeze action while shooting a race, you'd crank up the shutter speed setting. To keep as much depth in focus as possible, you'd ratchet down the aperture setting. With manual control options, you can manipulate these settings to fit challenging photographic conditions, while letting the camera's automatic settings handle routine shots.
This year's hot digital photography trend is face tracking, an extraordinary demonstration of just how smart and computerized cameras have become. With the face-tracking feature enabled, the camera analyzes the scene and identifies the faces in the frame. It then automatically adjusts the lens and exposure settings to keep those faces in focus and well lit. The system handles individual portraits and group shots, and by and large works well. Recent refinements to face-tracking technology make it even more practical. Canon offers a mode that doesn't just focus on faces on-screen, but lets you pick the one that matters and then tracks that face as it moves, making adjustments accordingly. (It's found on the G9 reviewed below.) Basically, it's the perfect tool to capture your little darling at her dance recital, without worrying about the other dozen Shirley Temples tapping their little hearts out.
One limitation of current face-tracking technology: the camera needs to see two eyes to recognize a face, so people in profile might as well be birch trees as far as the software is concerned. Fujifilm has demonstrated an upgrade that promises to solve the problem, though cameras sporting this feature weren't available for testing in time for this roundup.
And Panasonic has taken the concept of camera smarts a step further with its new Intelligent Auto system, found in several of its Lumix cameras (including the FZ18 reviewed here). This system can analyze the scene and decide what special mode best suits the subject, whether it's a portrait, a scenic vista, a close-up and so on. It's an interesting way for casual photographers to take advantage of settings tailored to a particular situation instead of settling for the one-size-fits-all settings applied when a camera's set to Auto.
Fixing basic flaws in your photos on a computer is easy enough. But what about all those people who just want to take the memory card out of the camera and stick it directly into a printer, or hand the card to a smiling store employee and pick up a stack of prints later? Should these computer-free snap-shooters suffer with red-eye portraits, poorly composed shots and unattractive lighting? Heaven forfend! With the right camera, they can make adjustments right on the LCD screen.
The most common in-camera fix is red-eye removal, a quick cure for that fiend-from-hell glow that reflects in your subjects' pupils when flooded with flash. Some models let you crop parts of the picture, make a lower-resolution copy of an image for e-mailing, and optimize lighting to brighten a dimly lit shot or tone down overblown highlights.
Most digital cameras store images in a file format called JPEG. The advantage of this standardization: all the computers, printers, online services, digital photo frames and other photo-related devices you might use accept JPEG files. The disadvantage: JPEG images are compressed to keep file sizes relatively small. That's really not a problem if you're going to use the image pretty much the way it comes out of the camera. But if you want the freedom to make lots of adjustments to your digital photo on the computer, there's an alternative to JPEG worth considering, called a RAW file.
The RAW file stores the digital data exactly the way it hit the camera's image sensor—no compression, no in-camera adjustments for color, white balance or other settings. That gives you the freedom to manipulate the image to your heart's content on your computer without introducing the imperfections that come from fiddling with a compressed JPEG file and then recompressing it when you save the edited file. It's a fine point, not really important to casual snap-shooters, but if you're serious about photography, a camera that can shoot both JPEG and RAW files is a good choice, and they're available now in both compact and SLR formats.
"What a Great Camera"
In my family, I'm usually the guy who brings a camera to family events and snaps away during the proceedings. I'm certainly not among the pros, but I've learned a few of their tricks, most notably to just keep snapping away, taking lots of shots, and then select only the good ones to share later on. When I shot film, this was interesting advice but entirely irrelevant to my cheapskate existence. Now, with a digital camera, each additional shot adds zero cents in incremental expenditure, so I keep my finger on the shutter and increase the odds of getting a great candid astronomically.
And when the party's over, after crawling around the floor in search of intriguing angles of the tykes in attendance, cropping and Photoshopping and removing shots with truly horrible facial expressions from the "keepers" folder, I post my pictures for my family to see and receive the same response: "That's really a great camera." And while I'd prefer they praise my fine craftsmanship and not the tools I use, I have to admit they're not entirely wrong.
Steve Morgenstein is a contributing editor who writes frequently on technological subjects for Cigar Aficionado.
Reviews: Compact Cameras
Up Close and Personal: Pansonic FZ18
The amazing Leica 18x zoom lens on this lightweight contender takes you from a respectable wide-angle view to an extreme close-up with a simple flick of the thumb—it's equivalent to a 28mm—504mm lens in conventional 35mm photography, which is as desirable as it is untenable. Holding so powerful a telephoto lens steady without a tripod would be pretty near impossible, but Panasonic provides the next best thing with a surprisingly effective optical image stabilization system. When you bob, the lens instantly weaves, giving you paparazzi-like powers of zoomification.
8.1 megapixels, 18x zoom lens, 4.6" x 3.0" x 3.5", 12.76 oz., panasonic.com, $400
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