Digital camera buying guide – part 1

Chris Lane / Camera parts, photography / / 3 Comments / Like this

In time for the holidays when people will be considering buying a new digital camera, I thought to write a white paper detailing some of the things to look for or think about. It is fairly long, so I have broken it up into four parts to be posted every Tuesday for the next four weeks. You should definitely subscribe (hit the button in the left hand sidebar) so that you won’t miss any of the installments.

Part 1 (this post) covers:

Point-and-shoot or DSLR? (the basics)
Budget
Response Time and Speed
Zoom


Part 2 covers:

Resolution
The Sensor & Processor
Macro
Screen
Manual Options

Part 3 covers:

ISO
Durability
Battery
Size, Shape and Weight

Part 4 covers:

Flash
Memory Cards
Other Options
Video

If you have any further questions after reading this, feel free to ask in the comments below. When the entire thing has been posted, I will make a dedicated web page where the the white paper has been compiled into one downloadable file.

Point-and-shoot or DSLR?

When picking out a digital camera, you must eventually decide between a point-and-shoot or a so-called ‘professional’ DSLR camera. Both have a wide range of options and in this paper I intend to help you find what is best for you.
A point-and-shoot (PAS) camera is one where everything is contained in a single entity. It has a built-in lens, typically has a zoom, a flash, a screen on the back with which to shoot and view from, a fairly small sensor and few other options.
A DSLR, or Digital Single Lens Reflex, camera is a camera body that uses optics and a mirror to look directly through the lens. DSLRs use interchangeable lenses, giving a greater freedom of choice for creativity. They also have a much larger sensor, closer to or the same as traditional 35mm film, and many more options.
Now that I have made it clear what these cameras are at the basic level, I will go into more detail on the many options and features. I write this mostly based on my own opinion from years of taking photos.

Budget

The biggest concern is often the budget. This can be different for everyone. It is possible to get a cheapie digital camera for as little as $20 (or even less!) or you can spend many hundreds of thousands of dollars on really high end large format digital backs and accessories. I am pretty young, have a family of four, and don’t believe in putting myself in debt for just about anything. Because of this, my budget is pretty tight. On the other hand, an older or middle age single person that has been working and saving for some time, probably has a much higher budget. This is definitely a personal issue and definitely something you need to decide on before looking at cameras.
When I was purchasing my current digital camera, a Canon 40D, I knew relatively well what kind I wanted, but because of my budget I had to save my money for three or four years before I could actually get a camera within a certain price range. If your budget is only so big, but you need something now, you will probably have to either get something older or with less features than the camera you really want. I was able to wait because I had a film camera that could get me by and I occasionally had the opportunity to borrow a digital camera. I also knew that I needed a digital SLR (opposed to a point-and-shoot) to be able to do the creative things I do. So, budget is not only a price issue, but a time issue.
Typical point-and-shoot cameras start around $100 but go up to $600+. DSLRs start around $400 without a lens and go up to $4000+. So look at your comfortable price range, find what cameras are available in that range and take the information from the rest of this paper to compare and decide what is best for you.

Response Time & speed

A big issue with taking non-posed, or candid, photos is camera response time. A big complaint about a lot of cheaper PAS cameras is that they are so slow. By the time the picture is taken the event has already passed. Some of the better PAS cameras will state their response time in milliseconds, the less ms the faster it is.
On the other end, a DSLR takes the picture the moment you push the button. Since I am more of a photojournalist style photographer (occasionally doing studio style setups) I absolutely require that fast response time. Maybe you only take posed smile into the camera type shots, then response time isn’t as big of an issue. A faster response time will increase the price, however. If you get to know your camera well enough, sometimes you can get away with a slower speed if you time the shutter at just the right moment.
Another issue similar to response time is the frame per second rate (fps). This is how many pictures the camera can take in a second. My Canon 40D can take up to 6.5 frames per second, but many DSLRs only take 3fps. Some higher end DSLRs take upwards of 11fps. It will vary from camera to camera, but keep in mind there is a buffer rate to taking fast photos like this. The buffer rate is how many pictures can be taken at the full fps speed before the memory card slows the camera down due to the write speed. So just keep in mind that the frame per second rate isn’t indefinite. I should note that you can increase the buffer rate by decreasing either the quality or resolution of the photos. This can be really useful for taking pictures of fast little kids or sports or even stop motion style video.

Zoom

First thing first, ignore digital zoom. It is next to worthless. With that said, optical zoom is what you want to look at. With point-and-shoot cameras they typically start around 5x and go up from there. This is important if you want to be away from the action, but your photos right in it. With DSLRs, this is a big added expense because it means buying different lenses. The farther you want to be able to take a picture, say for wildlife, the more you are going to pay. With point-and-shoot cameras, it is usually best to avoid the 5x, 10x, etc number, but instead look at the mm equivalent. When you look at the features list for a camera, it should state the equivalent value for the zoom capability.
The human eye is about equivalent to a 50mm lens mounted on a 35mm size sensor for zoom capability. So a mm number less than that will give a wider angle view allowing you to get more in the frame. This is useful for taking indoor photos or where the available space to back up is limited. Be careful though, generally the very low numbers (down in the 10-17mm range) can start to give a fisheye effect. What this means is the picture gets a weird rounded distortion.
Numbers higher than 50mm bring you closer to the subject. So a 200mm equivalent lens (and it will always say “equivalent” if it is not a 35mm sensor) will bring you 4 times closer.

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© This article is copyright of Chris Lane Photo and should not be found elsewhere.