Digital Camera Buying Guide – part 4

Chris Lane / Camera parts, photography / / 5 Comments / Like this

Here is the final post on my whitepaper on how to buy a digital camera. You can download the entire compiled whitepaper here. If you have any further questions, post it in the comments below or send me a message.

Part 1 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 (this post) covers:

Flash
Memory Cards
Other Options
Video

Flash

I tend to ignore the flash that is prebuilt into the camera. All P&S cameras have a built in flash. Not all flash is good though. Most P&S cameras have a fixed flash. In other words, it is close to the lens and points forward and unchangeable. The problem with straight on flash like that is that it is terrible for red-eye. So, if you are looking at a camera with a fixed flash, see if it has a red-eye reduction feature. Beyond the red-eye issues, straight on flash usually creates terrible shadows and over-highlights anything close and anything far will be dark.
A few P&S cameras have a flash that can swivel to bounce, or have a hot-shoe that can receive an external flash accessory.
If you choose not to use the flash, make sure your ISO is high enough to compensate. Unless your ambient light is high enough, the shutter speed will be too low and your pictures may turn out blurry.
Built in, on-camera flash isn’t an option on higher end DSLRs. The low to mid range DSLRs usually have a pop-up flash, but it runs into the same problems that P&S cameras have. Instead, think about buying a separate flash unit that can rotate to bounce off walls, or better yet use a cable to get it off camera. Flash photography is a really in-depth art and I can’t get into the intricacies of it here.
Sync speed with flash can also be an issue. This is the shutter speed that can be used with flash without running into problems. The camera may lock itself to shutter speeds below this, but not always. If too fast of a shutter speed is used, the shutter curtain will be evident by having a portion of the picture too dark and the rest correctly lit. It is sometimes possible to hide this with a crop, but generally not recommended. Sometimes the sync speed is up to the flash itself, but often, and more likely, a specification of the camera body. A typical sync is around 1/250th, but sometimes high speed sync is an option. High speed sync is good for shooting things like sports, to freeze the action.

Memory Cards

Some cameras come with a small amount of internal memory. Never rely on this alone. It is generally just a token amount. Most, if not all, DSLRs do not come with any internal memory. So then you have to purchase memory cards. Sometimes you can buy a package deal where the camera comes with one or more memory cards, which can be fairly handy, but those in the package may not be the best cards either.
It is obviously very important for you to note what kind of memory card the camera uses. The most common type is either SD or CompactFlash. SD is smaller (and can even come in smaller forms like mini or micro-SD) and is generally used in point & shoot and lower end DSLRs. CompactFlash is a larger card generally used in mid to high range DSLRs. I wouldn’t worry about the advantages of one type over the other when choosing a camera, just make sure you buy the correct type for the camera you choose.
You may be thinking, maybe you should get a camera that uses the same cards as your old camera, which makes logical sense. The problem with this is that your older cards may be too slow for your new camera. Manufacturers are always making improvements to cards not only in speed, but reliability. Your old cards also have been through wear and tear for however long and you don’t want to risk them randomly breaking down at an inopportune time.
But I must get back to the issue of memory card speed. The higher speed you get, the faster you can take pictures. It runs in conjunction with the buffer speed I mentioned earlier. Cheaper cards can actually reduce the speed at which the camera could write to the card. Faster cards may actually be faster than what the camera can write to, and therefore a waste of money. Try to get a card that is at least as fast, or slightly faster than the buffer speed of the camera, that is, if you can find out the buffer speed.
One more thing to quickly take into consideration is if your computer has a card reader. You may have to purchase a separate USB card reader. Most of these come as a 12-in-1 or something similar, where it can hold many different kinds of cards. They are designed so that multiple types of cards can fit into the four or five slots, but most of the other cards you will never deal with or possibly have even heard of. These adapters are usually less than ten dollars. Sometimes you won’t even need to take the card out of the camera, instead just using a USB cable from the camera to the computer.
The final thing to think about for memory cards is size. Older cards would be as small as 256MB, but with today’s MPx ratings, these are vastly undersized. You could, on the other hand, get cards as large as 64Gb or more. These can hold massive amounts of pictures, and quite frankly, are still very expensive. Though these cards are pretty reliable, you wouldn’t want to have filled it and then end up with a faulty card. That is a lot of pictures to lose! I recommend not getting cards any smaller than 2Gb and not any larger than 12Gb. The problem with smaller cards is that you will have to replace them more often as they fill, but the benefit is that if a card goes bad, you lose less data. There tends to be a divide between photographers on what to do in this area. I prefer 4Gb cards myself, but as resolution increases, and if you are using video especially, larger cards will be important. Then, of course, take as many cards as you think you might need and back them up on a computer or portable hard drive whenever possible. Memory is relatively cheap, and you really can’t have too much.
To prevent faulty cards, get good quality. Also, get something to hold the cards, to prevent any dirt or dust entering them, and to protect them from falls, liquids, or possibly scanners. There are nearly as many types of cases as there are brands and types of cards.

Other Options

Anti-shake in camera can be a great thing, especially for a point-and-shoot camera. Most DSLRs have the anti-shake in the lens, instead, which can reduce the camera cost, but increase the lens cost. Now anti-shake isn’t important whatsoever if it is mounted on a tripod or in bright light. The tripod is fairly obvious, but with the bright light, the shutter speed will be fast enough to avoid motion blur anyway. It may help, depending on how the auto-focus works, to keep the focus on the right spot, but that is usually through an auto-focus servo, which most cameras will have.
Face detection can be a nice option if that is your primary subject. I particularly wouldn’t really care for this option, because I always set my focus point. This is just a creative decision. A point-and-shoot will make sure all those shining faces are in focus, but maybe you would prefer that just the person in front is in focus and the others are blurred. Smile, Blink, etc detection is fairly similar to this, but this will actually take the photo for you when it detects those things.
Anti-noise can be a good option. The sensor, especially at high ISOs or long shutter times, can get hot and create noise in the image. Noise can show up as grain or random dots of color or lightness. Anti-noise is just an in-camera option to reduce that, as opposed to trying to remove later with computer software.
Output options can include cables such as composite video (or sometimes with audio), USB, or HDMI. This is just something to take into consideration for your particular home setup, such as TV or computer.

Video

More and more frequently, video is becoming a big issue in selecting a camera, both P&S and DSLRs. These days even many mobile phones can record HD video. So, if video is something you are looking for, there are a few things to check.
First of all, what is the resolution? High Definition video is considered 1280 pixels x 720 pixels or larger. The next larger standard size is 1920 pixels x 1080 pixels. Now, your camera will take stills at a much larger size then this, but video works a little different.
Depending on your use, HD resolution video can be overrated. If you are only taking video to be watched on websites such as YouTube, they don’t actually show the video at that large of resolution anyway. HD can, however, increase sharpness in the video, especially after the website runs its compression. Despite this, I wouldn’t recommend getting anything that is not in HD video, simply because that is where the future leads.
Beyond resolution, other things to consider are compression and ease of use. For compression, the camera will list different codecs depending on what it uses. A codec is basically the program that it uses to compress the video into a small file size. Most web video these days use a codec called h.264. This makes a very small file size with pretty good quality. A good codec will take up less space on the memory card, allowing you to record much longer without switching out the card. On some particularly high end cameras, they can hold more than one memory card at a time and can be hot-swapped out. This means that the camera can continue to record, or at least not be shut off, while a memory card is swapped out. This is very useful if you will be recording for particularly long periods of time without stopping.
Another issue with codecs is if it is a common codec like h.264 you won’t have trouble importing it into any kind of software and editing, and eventually uploading or possibly watching on your TV or monitor right out of camera.
Some cameras will have very simple upload software, often made specifically for YouTube. This is only good if you plan on uploading your video without editing first. I, personally, wouldn’t put out a raw unedited video, but that may be something you find very convenient.
Frame per second (fps) is an issue to look at also. Most cameras will do 30fps, which is pretty standard for TV. The higher fps rate you shoot at gives you the option to be able to slow the video down for some cool slow-mo effects, but this will also increase the file size (unless the resolution is decreased). Movie film cameras and higher end digital cameras shoot at 24fps, but I think this has become overrated. It can give the ‘filmic’ look, but for most people buying a digital camera, it isn’t going to be very filmic without really good lenses and lighting anyway. Then especially, if you are just uploading the video to YouTube, it can be even less important. A lot of web video only displays at about 15fps anyway, and sometimes as low as 12. This is to decrease the bandwidth required to watch a video, or in other words, it reduces the size of the video file.
To sum up, if you are doing family video recording, most cameras that do video will be just fine. If you plan on making more creative videos or short movies, get at least HD capability and some manual settings, preferably with interchangeable lenses.

So there it is, the finale of my digital camera buying guide. It worked out to be over 5000 words long, or about 13 pages. When I had started out to write this, I really didn’t expect it to be so long. I hope it helps you buy just the right digital camera for your needs. If you have any further questions, don’t hesitate to ask in the comments below. And if you are new to using a camera, you should subscribe (in the left sidebar) as I will always be posting things like how to use a camera and other articles every Tuesday. If there are enough questions, I may make an addendum to this white paper, but for now, you can download the entire thing in a printable PDF form on it’s dedicated page here: How to Buy a Digital Camera.

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