What to Look for in a Digital Camera

In more than a century since the simple cardboard camera reached the market, photography has moved to the digital realm, largely leaving film behind. Choose your digital camera to match the kinds of pictures you want to take, and the simplicity or complexity of the technology you're willing to use to capture the images you want.

Intended Use

If you only take occasional casual shots, the camera in your smartphone may provide all the capabilities you need. As professional photographer Marty Davis of the Crown Hill Heritage Foundation points out, "The quality of smartphone pics is good and more than adequate for most basic applications. I don't enlarge them and I wouldn't use them for a publication or a photo contest, but I do use them for many other things." For family scenes without sports action and portraits that you don't want to print at large sizes, a point-and-shoot camera may match your expectations. Sports photography demands the ability to capture multiple images in quick succession, a feature called burst mode, and benefits from image stabilization to offset the shakiness that can creep in with a handheld camera. For creative photography that you plan to enlarge and print, and a flexible camera system with a body that hosts multiple lens choices, you need an interchangeable-lens camera. Expect to pay more for advanced features.

Image Size

As you evaluate digital cameras, the maximum resolution they can capture determines the size of the images you can obtain from them. Davis creates photographs that she may crop and use at poster size. "Because of the need to enlarge my images, or parts of my images, it's important to have a large max resolution," she says. Unlike early digital cameras that topped out at 3 megapixels, today's models offer sensors with double-digit image capabilities. As a result, unless you share Davis' need for pro-sized images, you can ignore megapixel measurements as a selection criterion. Sensor dimensions can make a big difference in the sharpness and detail of these images, however. A large image sensor with a smaller megapixel rating captures more detail than a small sensor with a higher megapixel rating. That's because the larger sensor devotes more pixels to a smaller image area, enhancing the quality of the image it captures. Instead of comparing megapixel specifications, look at sensor sizes.

Aperture

Aperture measures how much light can reach the image sensor through the diaphragm that opens and closes inside the camera. The lower the number, the wider the aperture. At low apertures, the area beyond the focal point of your image appears out of focus. This shallow depth of field places the point of interest on a limited range of subject matter. Davis encourages amateurs to learn how their cameras operate, saying, "Many people just use the Auto or Program mode on their camera and they don't understand aperture and how it effects depth of field or take advantage of it."

ISO

Along with aperture's measurement of light's accessibility to a camera's image sensor, ISO measures light sensitivity. Most cameras can operate at a range of ISO settings. High values can capture images in dim lighting, at the risk of introducing unwanted graininess. Davis suggests learning to set ISO manually. "When photographers set their ISOs to auto or high, they risk digital noise and blurry images. For the best images, photographers should use the lowest ISO possible." Shooting the aurora borealis in northern Sweden made ISO adjustment a mandatory feature. "I shot long exposures, 15-30 seconds, with different ISOs, and because I had instant feedback I could adjust my settings in order to get the best images."

Focal Length & Zoom

Your camera's focal length or zoom range, a property of its lens, measures how closely you can photograph distant subjects without changing your physical position. Unlike fixed focal-length optics, zoom lenses include a range of focal lengths. To evaluate zoom capabilities, ask a friend to let you experiment with her camera or try a demo model in a camera store so you can see how close a lens can bring distant subject matter. Look for optical zoom capabilities to assure that in-camera image enlargement comes from the lens itself. Digital zooms operate like image-editing software, artificially enlarging an image to make its subject look closer to the camera, which can produce softening and distortion.

Shutter & Flash

Shutter speed determines how brief an instant a camera can capture. To shoot pictures of sports action, photograph birds and other fast-moving wildlife or snap clear images of your children at play, you need a shutter that can operate at high speeds. Flash capabilities come in handy beyond their obvious application to lighting a scene that's too dark to photograph. "Using a fill flash outdoors can improve images greatly, especially in the shade or when backlit," Davis points out.

Other Considerations

Memory-card capacity determines how many images you can capture without switching storage media. File-format flexibility gives a digital camera the ability to store uncompressed images as lossless RAW files as well as compressed photos in space-saving JPEG format. Pros like Davis opt for RAW files to preserve all image data. She looks for still cameras that include the ability to capture video footage, including full HD, noting that "I often shoot video files and need a camera with this capability." To assure that the camera you choose feels comfortable in your hand, check out its ergonomics before you buy. Likewise, evaluate its viewfinder. Some cameras offer LCD or LED panels on which to preview your images, whereas others still offer through-the-lens monitoring.

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