Among the people I know, the most common purchase after a cellphone is a compact digicam to add to their digital inventory. Being a photographer, I am routinely accosted by phone, email, in person and even in third person (I have a friend who wants to buy a camera…) Hopefully, after this column appears, I can simply point them to the hyperlink on the online version, so here goes.
What’s the first thing to consider when shopping for a digital camera?
Well, that depends on how you’re going to use it. Ignore jargon like compression, BSS, exposure bracketing, VR and so on and so forth, because 90% of the time, you'll have the thing set to Auto while documenting your wild side or taking pictures of friends and relatives in Manali or trying to get the weirdest close-ups of your crazed cocker spaniel. Your level of photography interest and your lifestyle will ultimately make this decision for you.
Which means … size matters
Which means that give tech features like megapixels, storage and lenses their due, but size should be your first consideration as a smaller model will make it easier for you to get the shot in the first place. Don’t neglect the convenience of a small camera.
How much resolution do I really need?
A bare minimum of 5 megapixels will give you decent-quality 10 by 12 prints, which is more than enough for the kind of shots you’re likely to take with a pocket camera. However, any decent digicam these days sports at least 6 megapixels.
Optics—should I care?
Digital camera technology is fast becoming a more level-playing field,
which means companies have begun fitting their cameras with high-quality glass, which is a good thing. Samsungs and Kodaks partner Schneider-Kreuznach lenses, Panasonics sport the fabulously sharp Leica lenses, Sonys have optics from Carl Zeiss, and Canons and Nikons with, well, Canon and Nikkor lenses, which are world class. Yes, optics matter, so give it weightage.
Optical and digital zoom
A lot of buyers make their choice based on numbers attached to the camera’s features—so many megapixels and sky-high digital zoom numbers. However, these numbers can be highly misleading for the novice, so it’s important to know which zoom will really give you quality results. Simply put, optical zoom lenses actually “move” you closer to the subject of the photograph without sacrificing quality. The higher the optical zoom rating on a camera, the farther away you can be to take a photograph and still get a clear, close-up image. Optical zoom is the number you want to pay close attention to. Digital zoom, on the other hand, is not bringing you closer to the subject. Rather, the camera digitally resamples to the size of the viewfinder the portion you want to zoom in on. This results in an irreversible loss of image quality, and is no different than cropping and enlarging an image with editing software. The bottom line: Compare optical zoom and ignore digital zoom.
Is one memory format superior?
Nope. Now almost every compact digital camera uses a version of Secure Digital card with up to 16-gig capacities. However, it may be better to get several smaller capacity memory cards, in case your lone 16-gig monster fails. Sony insists on its proprietary Memory Stick format, which only works in Sony products.
What about display size?
Undoubtedly, the bigger the better and a three-inch display is fast becoming the new standard. But often, a bigger display leaves no room for an optical viewfinder. Not such a big deal for quick snaps, but if you take a lot of pictures in bright sunlight, it’s a pain.
The extra features are what will make your final decision on a camera. Consider the battery style and life, connectivity with your computer, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth capabilities, etc., and read plenty of reviews and give the camera a try in the store if possible.
Why not just use the camera in my cellphone?
While you're at it, why not use your nailcutter to trim your nostril hair? You get the picture?