Digital camera purchasing advice: how to choose the right product
- What you need to know
- There’s a huge range of digital cameras on the market, and prices can vary a lot.
- You can get digital cameras for beginners, ambitious amateurs, and professionals.
- There are a lot of useful accessories for digital cameras, such as memory extensions, tripods, and flashlights.
- Different models each have their own advantages and disadvantages due to their design, which we will show below.
Why a digital camera makes sense
A digital camera allows you to capture the moment perfectly anytime, anywhere. No matter whether it’s a landscape shot in nature, a family party with many guests or your child’s first steps: with a digital camera, the result is instant, and you can view it on the display immediately. The waiting time for film development that was necessary with analog photography is eliminated, as is the cost of development and the problem of a full film. This is because you can view the photos directly on the camera or transfer them to tablet, laptop and computer and view them on these devices. You can directly delete unsuccessful photos, such as those that are blurred, overexposed, or too dark, and shoot a new photo with the same subject if you want. There is usually room for a few thousand photos on the memory card. All modern digital cameras can also be used as a film camera, after all, videos are nothing more than lots of photos strung together with sound. Many models can be upgraded with an external microphone for better sound quality.
You can also filter out bad photos and print only the best ones on photo paper. This keeps costs down, especially for large quantities of photos. Another advantage: even years after taking a photo, you can easily get new prints. No annoying search for the negatives. Moreover, digital images do not age. Provided they are properly stored, there won’t be any loss of quality. To avoid losing them, you should store them on an external drive, in the cloud, and create backups if possible.
Backing up photos properly
Storing photos on just one device is definitely not a good idea. For example, if your hard drive fails, you might completely lose your photos. That’s why you should store your data on multiple devices. Additional backups on USB sticks or external hard drives are a good idea too, preferably stored in different places. Otherwise, there is a risk that your data can get destroyed in the event of fire or water damage. To avoid this, backing up data in a cloud is also a good idea. When choosing cloud storage, you should compare different providers in terms of server location, security, and data protection.
Other advantages of a digital camera: you have the option of sending images easily and free of charge via e-mail or uploading them to a website or on social media. Digital cameras often have various modes that combat effects such as red eyes, a background that is too dark, or blurring while the photo is still being taken. It’s sometimes also possible to correct these unwanted effects afterwards using image editing software.
What to look for in a digital camera
When buying a digital camera, there are a lot of criteria to compare. Which features are most important entirely depend on what you are planning on using it for. Cameras with many special functions are usually rather pricey and not really appealing to beginners who just want snapshots, but experienced photographers will appreciate a wide range of features and functions. We’ll go into more detail about various features below.
Camera types and sizes
The digital camera market is huge and sometimes confusing. Be it compact cameras, bridge cameras, mirrorless cameras or SLR cameras: they all have their own peculiarities and are each suitable for different types of users. In addition there are countless manufacturers such as Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic, or Sony. At this point, we are mainly concerned with the advantages and disadvantages of the sizes. The image quality ultimately also depends on the size of the camera body. Small cameras can only have small image sensors. The bigger the camera body, the more space. Thus, you can usually expect higher quality from larger camera models.
Smaller cameras do have their own advantages. They are small and lightweight, so you can comfortably carry them anywhere. Heavy and bulky models are more likely to be left at home. Modern compact cameras achieve remarkable results despite their size.
A smaller size also brings a few disadvantages: the smaller the device, the more difficult it is to operate. The buttons are harder to reach and a fewer in number so that you to find the right settings in the menu instead of directly selecting them. There is also little space for a display. Either the manufacturers abandon it altogether—which luckily is rarely the case—or install a comparatively small one.
Resolution is often a priority purchase criteria when choosing a camera. Manufacturers try to outdo each other in their specifications. However, this value alone is not particularly meaningful. The resolution, i.e., the number of pixels, is not sufficient to say something about the image quality. A camera with a high megapixel resolution, for example 25 megapixels, is in principle suitable for high-resolution images that can also be printed in large format. Despite the high resolution, however, there can be a lot of image noise. The minimum number of pixels is not meaningful without the specification of the image sensor. Smartphones, for example, advertise high megapixel numbers, but current compact camera models should surpass the photo quality of a smartphone due to their larger design.
Image noise refers to a deterioration in photo quality that is not due to the content of the image. “Incorrect” pixels, i.e., pixels whose color and brightness deviate from the actual image, interfere with the faithful reproduction of the original. The more noise, the more the detail resolution is affected.
The image sensor is the most important component of a digital camera: Here, the pixels are captured electronically before being stored on the storage medium. This means: the larger the image sensor, the more likely you are to get razor-sharp photos. If the surface area of the sensor is larger, more light can fall into it. Especially in poor light conditions, the difference is quickly noticeable. Small sensors tend to produce image noise more quickly. A large number of pixels are arranged here on a comparatively small area. This is especially a problem with compact cameras, since they have very small image sensors. You should therefore by no means make your decision dependent on the camera resolution alone. You should additionally keep an eye on the specifications regarding the size of the image sensor and the size of the individual pixels (pixel density).
In addition to the quality of the image sensor, the optical components also have a decisive influence on the quality of the pictures a camera takes. If you’re comparing lenses, don’t be taken by particularly large zoom focal lengths. Although a long focal length allows you to zoom in on distant things, it significantly reduces the light intensity of the lens. Hence, if the subject is too small or too far away, you should reduce the distance, since optical zoom—and especially digital zoom—rapidly reduces the image quality.
In addition to optical zoom, almost all camera models offer another option for enlarging an image: the digital zoom. In this process, individual pixels are artificially “extrapolated” by the camera processor, i.e., pixels are created to make the image larger. This process always works to the detriment of the image resolution. When used with care, it delivers decent images. You should test the magnification level at which it can deliver decent results on a case-by-case basis. If photos are regularly blurred—whether after optical or digital zoom — you should think about purchasing a tripod. Built-in image stabilizers are also helpful.
Image stabilizers help you shoot a non-blurry image even without flash, zooming in on the subject, or capturing moving images. Such photography constellations are particularly prone to blurry shots. The remedy is to use either a tripod or an image stabilizer. These are now standard equipment in mid-range models. There’s a distinction between optical, mechanical, and digital stabilizers: you should make sure that the model you go for at least has a mechanical image stabilizer. Digital image stabilizers, on the other hand, are more of an emergency solution and should only be used in exceptional cases, since pictures taken using them lag behind the mechanical variant in terms of quality.
Optical image stabilizer
Optical stabilizers have floating lenses to ensure that counter-movements are compensated for and the subject remains sharp even during jerks.
Mechanical image stabilizer
Mechanical stabilization works in a very similar way. The image sensor in the camera body is moved according to the camera movement to compensate for vibrations and prevent blurring.
Digital image stabilizer
Digital image stabilizers regulate the ISO sensitivity up during shooting. This shortens the exposure time required for the shot. Since the aperture is open for a shorter time under these settings, the risk of blurred shots is reduced. You should, however, only use this mode with caution, since the risk of image noise increases with a higher ISO number.
With an electronic viewfinder, you view the subject through a small viewfinder on the top of the camera, just like with an optical viewfinder. Unlike its optical counterpart, this system casts a virtual image onto a very small screen in the viewfinder, which takes into account the settings you have already adjusted and displays them in a live view mode. You see the same image that will be stored on the SD memory card when the shutter is released.
- Consideration of various image settings
- Presetting of dioptric compensation
- Can be used for image viewing
- Subject always in complete image field coverage
- Requires additional power
- Delay for moving images comparatively high
ISO value, aperture, shutter speed
Various factors influence a camera’s light sensitivity, and your settings have an influence on the success of a shot. If these are not tuned to the environmental conditions (darkness, blinding light, rain), your photos will either be blurred, underexposed or overexposed.
ISO value specifically influences light sensitivity. Low ISO values of 200 or 100 are used when low light sensitivity is desired. This setting is suitable for outdoor images taken on a cloudless, sunny day. But if clouds appear or it starts to get dark, you either need to open the aperture further or increase exposure time if you plan on maintaining the ISO setting. Both of these methods will result in more light being taken in by the camera. Since long exposure times significantly increase the risk of blurring and standing still for a long period of time is strenuous, getting a tripod is a good idea. If neither is possible, you should increase the ISO value to counteract dark shots. The higher this value is set, the more sensitive the sensor in the camera’s image sensor reacts to incoming light. Very high ISO values are suitable for dark interiors where the use of an external flash not allowed (for example in a church). An autofocus takes over many of these manual adjustment options and tries to deliver the best possible result.
Different types of digital cameras
Digital cameras have long replaced film photography. Most people use their smartphone to take snapshots in everyday life, but many prefer a digital camera for special occasions such as family celebrations or vacations. There is a lot of variety on the market, and you can get different models to suit different situations. Cameras with fixed lenses include compact cameras and bridge cameras. With system cameras as well as SLR cameras, you have the option to change lenses. Read on for an overview of the strengths and weaknesses of the individual digital camera types.
Simple and thus relatively inexpensive compact cameras are ideal entry-level devices. These models have a medium image resolution with a small image sensor. The offer ranges from cheap beginner’s devices through to professional products. That’s why no exact target group can be defined, since even professional photographers rely on good compact cameras, as they are great for certain situations. The lens cannot be changed, but it can be retracted in some cases. The focal length range is very limited on entry-level models and some models have no zoom at all. Image stabilization is mostly digital, optical image stabilizers are usually not available. As the price increases, you will find features such as larger image sensors, large foldable screens, electronic viewfinders, wireless technology for faster and easier data transfer without cables, and remote timers.
Compact cameras cannot be categorized for a specific user group. The compact body doesn’t reveal anything about what’s inside. The product range extends from inexpensive entry-level devices under $100 to high-quality compact cameras that are equipped with more technology and can therefore be significantly more expensive. Digital cameras from the Panasonic Lumix, Nikon Coolpix, Canon PowerShot, and Sony Cyber-shot series are widely used.
Bridge cameras, like compact cameras, usually have a comparatively small image sensor. This makes them affordable for everyone. All the technology is housed in a large body, similar to an SLR camera. This allows more space for controls such as switches and buttons, so you can make picture adjustments without complicated and time-consuming menu navigation. The design is also accompanied by simplified handling: Recessed grips on the body provide extra comfort. The lenses in these models are fixed and have a longer focal length and a higher speed compared to simple compact cameras. 15 to 20x zoom lenses are not uncommon. Bridge cameras are therefore a bridge between compact cameras and system cameras with interchangeable lenses.
In addition to the automatic modes known from compact cameras, bridge cameras also offer some manual modes. They are therefore suitable for ambitious amateur photographers who want to learn the technical basics of photography and take their first steps towards professional photography.
Most of the newer models have an electronic viewfinder. This is a screen that displays a virtual image via an optical system. This means that what you photograph is exactly what you see on the screen – what you see is what you get. In other words, the viewfinder displays the images exactly as they end up on the memory card. Furthermore, additional information, such as the exposure time, as well as an artificial horizon and a spirit level are displayed if desired. This helps you with motif alignment. You can also see information about the aperture, focal length, and depth of field here and adjust these settings as needed. Similar to compact cameras, bridge cameras from Canon, Nikon, Panasonic, and Sony dominate the market.
System cameras are, so to speak, the counterpart to cameras with a fixed lens. The body forms a system with the modular attachments: depending on intended use, lenses can be exchanged via a bayonet mount. In addition, many devices have a hot shoe on the top on which peripheral accessories, such as a flash unit, can be mounted.
There are big differences in the size of the body: While some models barely exceed the size of a compact camera, others approach the dimensions of an SLR. The size of the body mainly depends on the equipment scope. Smaller models have image sensors in the medium-sized FourThirds or APS-C format. Compared to a compact camera, however, these already cover a much larger area.
Devices with a larger body are sometimes available at mid-range prices. The larger body is supposed to simplify the handling of the cameras. Models in a higher price segment are similar in construction to SLR cameeras: they have an electronic viewfinder and external controls, which thereby offer more experienced users many setting options. In general, the image sensor area is significantly higher than in compact cameras. This prevents image noise which is why image quality is accordingly higher. System cameras also offer the largest range of accessories.
All system cameras have one thing in common: they don’t have any mirrors
All system cameras have one technical feature in common. Unlike SLR cameras, they don’t have mirrors to guide the light through the lens and an optical viewfinder. Instead, the sensors in these devices are located next to the actual image sensor or are integrated into it. This is also referred to as a DSLM (Digital Single Lens Mirrorless). The viewfinder doesn’t work optically by directly displaying a deflected light, but electronically: images are converted from the sensor and fed to the small image processor.
System cameras have been used in analog photography for a long time. They were appreciated for the flexible application possibilities and their low profile, since they are often quite small. This technology was rediscovered comparatively late for digital photography. But the advantages apply here just as much, of course, and that’s why many manufacturers have system cameras in their range. They have even more or less agreed on component standards. For example, many manufacturers use Four-Thirds image sensors. Uniform bayonet mounts allow lenses from different manufacturers to be used.
System cameras are therefore particularly suitable if the image quality of a compact camera with a fixed lens is no longer sufficient for you. Likewise, a system camera is useful if you’re traveling a lot. You’ll benefit from a device that comes close to the quality of an SLR, but is significantly lighter and can therefore be used more flexibly. Since no mirror is installed, there is no mechanical clacking. Therefore, a system camera can easily be used on occasions where an SLR might interfere, such as a wedding. If the model has an electronic viewfinder, beginners in particular will benefit because the image is displayed there, taking into account all the settings, as it will later be stored in memory.
Single-lens reflex cameras
An SLR camera is also a system camera: the technology is contained in a single body, and the cameras can be equipped with a wide range of modular accessories (such as lenses or a flash unit). Unlike other devices, a DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) has a mirror inside that directs light to the image sensor, optical viewfinder and, if applicable, a separate autofocus sensor.
In a SLR, the light is directed to the optical viewfinder via a prism or mirror. In contrast to an electronic viewfinder, such as those installed in system cameras, you can see the subject directly through the viewfinder. There is no delay and you se the complete field of view.
SLR cameras are particularly suitable for ambitious amateur photographers and professionals who want to capture fast movements such as sporting events. The biggest advantage of a DSLR is the abundance of manual setting options. However, these also require a lot of training. If you mostly rely on automatic or semi-automatic shooting modes, you don’t necessarily need an SLR camera, because the purchase price is higher than that of a compact, system or bridge camera.
Some cameras have extra features that make it easier for you to take high-quality photos and handle the camera.
Display: size and different designs
In addition to the optical or electronic viewfinder, digital cameras often have an additional display. Via this, you can adjust various settings regarding the image section, contrast, and exposure time. Some models have a swiveling display: with it, self-portraits, and shots from unusual perspectives, such as around hard-to-reach corners, are possible. Technically simpler and thus often less expensive digital cameras usually have a 2.7-inch display. But most models have a slightly larger display with a diagonal of three inches. The majority of newer devices with an Android operating system have a 3.5 to 4-inch display that allows operation via touch gestures. Depending on the size, their resolution is 230,000 or 460,000 pixels. Some of the more expensive SLR cameras even have displays with a resolution of one million pixels.
NFC: data exchange over short distances
NFC (Near Field Communication) is a radio technology for close range. Big advantage here: When you hold NFC-enabled devices close enough to one another, they automatically establish a connection. This way, you can transfer pictures or videos without needing a cable or having to manually establish a wireless connection. The range is very short though: If the digital camera is moved by a few inches, the connection breaks. In addition, the transmission speed of about 0.05 megabytes per second (424 kbit/s) is very slow and is therefore not suitable for transferring entire photo series. Yet, individual snapshots can be conveniently exchanged between two devices.
Wi-Fi : wireless file transfers, printing, and remote controls
Thanks to WiFi, tangled cables are a thing of the past when transferring photos. Photos and videos can be conveniently transferred from a digital camera to a computer, laptop, or tablet via WiFi. This also enables transmission to your TV at home, for example to view photos from the last vacation. Another handy feature: provided that your printer also has WiFi, you can easily print out your favorite photos. The printer doesn’t even have to be close to the camera. Another useful feature is the remote control option via smartphone. Many camera manufacturers offer dedicated apps for Android and iOS devices. This way, you can make adjustments regarding exposure, ISO sensitivity and white balance. You can also zoom, trigger the flash and use the smartphone display as a viewfinder — albeit with a time delay. Of course, remote triggering is also possible in this way.
Power supply: (rechargeable) batteries
Manufacturers take different approaches to power supplies. Standardized rechargeable batteries or special battery packs are often used. Rather rarely, you can also use non-rechargeable batteries. Rechargeable batteries should generally be preferred over batteries. Digital cameras are no exception there. They are more environmentally friendly, as there aren’t as many dead batteries, and you also save money because you recharge them up to 1,000 times. After a certain time and a correspondingly large number of charging and discharging processes, the so-called memory effect sets in with rechargeable batteries: They can then no longer reach their full capacity and last less long, or are empty after only a few photos.
This rechargeable power source can either be a special, manufacturer-specific battery pack or come in the form of several standard AA or AAA batteries. In the former case, you almost always have to purchase the accessories distributed by the manufacturers, because the fit is different for most devices.
If, on the other hand, the model is equipped with standard AA or AAA batteries, you have a much wider choice of brands. Even on vacation, for example, it is much easier to buy suitable replacements when needed.
These cameras can also be operated with AA or AAA size disposable batteries in case of emergency. The important thing here is that these batteries can not be charged. Otherwise, there is a risk of leakage or explosion in the charger.
Memory cards: more space for photos
For most camera users, additional memory cards are a must. The internal memory of digital cameras is usually very limited. The SD format is currently still the most widely used. You should pay attention to the read and write speed as well as the total storage space. Make sure whether your digital camera supports this format at all. Some newer models already use the more compact microSD cards. Depending on the camera model, there is an upper limit to how much memory the camera can handle. You should pay attention to this information when buying such a memory card.
Bag: safe transport
A camera bag protects the digital camera from scratches and shocks. The selection is very large and ranges from simple protective bags made of textile fabric or leather to models are made of hard plastic, aluminum, or neoprene. Some models are designed to protect the digital camera and be carried in a handbag or backpack, others have loops that help attach them to your pant’s belt. Some pockets offer space for additional battery packs, memory cards or even interchangeable lenses or a mini tripod.
Mini tripod: light and handy
Mini tripods are a practical and easy-to-carry accessory for the camera. With a low dead weight and lengths between 6 to 16 inches (15 and 40cm), they fit in almost any pocket and enable razor-sharp shots, even with a long exposure time. Group photos are also no problem: Self-timer or remote control allow you to create the perfect souvenir.
Printers: hang memories on the wall, stick them in an album or send them as postcards
For printing the most popular snapshots, you can either use a standard printer or a special photo printer. It is particularly practical if the device has appropriate wireless technologies, and the photos can be transferred directly from the camera.
Underwater housing: beautiful photos of the underwater world
With the help of an underwater housing, you can take beautiful photos of your dream beach or document the underwater world during a snorkeling or diving trip.
Hot shoe: “tie” your shoe
A hot shoe, also called an accessory shoe, is a device on many camera models to which other external accessories such as flash units, lamps, viewfinder, rangefinders or even spirit levels can be attached.
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