One of the most common questions I get comes from people that are in the market for a camera, and it speaks to a general idea of what features to look for in a digital camera. It takes many forms, including the obvious (should I get a Canon or a Nikon?), the less obvious (should I get the G15 or the SX170?), or the clueless (how many megapixels?). Truth be told, pretty much any camera out there today will deliver good results – depending on what types of photos you are trying to make. So, what to make of all these marketing laundry lists of features and functions? Which ones matter and which ones don’t? I’ve come up with a list of four features to look for in a digital camera. You don’t necessarily have to have all four, but they are definitely priorities to consider and take into account when buying any camera:
1. Focal Length Range
The first of the four features to look for in a digital camera is it’s range of focal length. This can be tricky too, because when it comes to point and shoot cameras one of their best features is the ability to zoom in and out. Now granted, this comes with certain caveats (avoid digital zoom) and image quality considerations, but technology has been good to the P&S crowd. What’s acceptable? It depends on what you want to shoot, but most will have a wide angle view around 22-28mm, and their zoom will go to somewhere in the neighborhood of 100-200mm. The trickiest part is that camera makers change things up and call a P&S by a zoom factor (20x zoom, 40x zoom, etc.) rather than using the traditional measure of mm across the entire range. When evaluating a camera, here’s the rule:
Multiply the widest aperture setting on the camera by the zoom factor – this will be your longest reach!
For instance, say you buy a P&S that has a wide aperture setting of 28mm and it lists a 5x zoom. By simple math, you can say that the zoom range for the camera goes from 28mm on the wide end to 140mm on the long end. (28X5).
The second of the four features to look for in a digital camera is the presence of a viewfinder! As camera vendors look to phase these out more and more, it’s ironic because this is one of the most useful features on a camera. First off, you can see your composition (glare on an LCD is a royal pain to deal with). Second, it forces you to bring the camera in tighter, producing a more stable position when holding a camera, which leads to better shots out of camera. Finally, by forcing yourself to peer through a viewfinder, you will most often slow down in your shooting, and when you slow down, you also tend to compose a better quality image. Look for cameras with a viewfinder! If you really want to get technical, consider the pros and cons of cameras with an electrical versus an optical one, as this can have a substantial impact on shooting as well. There’s a good article here that explains the differences: Electrical versus Optical Viewfinders
3. Camera Size
The next feature to look for in a digital camera is camera size! Bigger is not always better, and in my experience, people are less likely to take a dedicated camera with them when it becomes too big to easily carry. I believe this is why SLR’s have fallen out of favor – they are bulky and heavy when you compare them to the mirrorless and P&S cameras on the market today. Any camera you have with you is better than the expensive SLR you left at home!
On the flip side, a camera that is too small for your hands can be equally cumbersome. Try a few out in your local brick-and-mortar, and see which ones fit best your hands. If you are Thunder Thumbs with the shutter and buttons on cameras, you are less likely to use it, so find one that fits your hands.
Finally, the last feature to look for in a digital camera is shutter speed! Now, when looking at shutter speed, remember there are actually two ways of looking at this. First, there is the time it takes from pressing the button to when the exposure is actually made is the first. This is more appropriately referred to as shutter lag though, and historically has been a consideration. This is what brought me into digital photography and the land of SLR’s those many years ago. P&S cameras had some serious shutter lag back then – primarily being a pregnant pause between when you press the shutter, and when the sensor actually captures the image. With time and technology, this pause has pretty much vanished though, with instant shutter responses becoming the norm.
The other (and more accurate) kind of shutter speed is the more common one these days that most people know about – and this speaks to how fast (or slow) a shutter can go. Shutter speeds in P&S cameras usually is in the neighborhood of 1/2000ths of a second, which is pretty good. If you can find out in the 1/4000ths range, even better. That fast action of a child running around the soccer field or a puppy dancing around a tennis ball, or even a flower swaying in a breeze can be easier to reign in with a faster shutter speed. On the slower side, most P&S cameras can slow the shutter down to 30 seconds – a good thing if you have a tripod for longer exposures, but if you can find one with something called bulb mode, even better (this is where you can set how long the shutter stays open).
Several cameras that fit many of these criteria include the following that I recommend for the reasons in parens:
- Canon Powershot G15 (my favorite under $500)
- Nikon Coolpix L820 (best superlong zoom)
- Canon Powershot SX170 (best macro/close up)
- Canon Powershot Elph 115 (best pocket camera)
- Sony Cybershot DSC-TF1 (best in rugged conditions)
There you have it – 4 features to look for in a digital camera:
- Focal Length Range
- Presence of a Viewfinder
- Camera Size
- Shutter Speed
That’s my list and I’m sticking to it, but what about you? What do you look for in your camera gear? Any features and functions that are high on your list? Let me know what cameras you like and why in the comments! In the meantime – happy shooting!