Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Buying Guide For Entry Level Cameras

[Originally written for a camera club we started at work]

Entry Level Camera Buying Guide
written by James Hildebrandt with contributions from Perry VanDongen
Budget: $150-250 (May 2008)

**Disclaimer: This guide is intended to help you with your purchase, however the decision is ultimately yours and we are not responsible if you are unhappy with the camera you choose

Who this guide is for:

This is for the person who likes taking pictures but doesn't want to be bothered with complicated settings (aperture, ISO, shutter speed etc) but may want to tinker a little later. They don't want to blow up images larger than an 8x10 and most of the time they are just going to get 4x6 prints or email them to friends.

If this is where you fit in you're lucky, you can get a decent camera for under $200 and most likely be thrilled with your purchase. With the digital era taking off this is the range most people fall into and the camera companies know it, because of the volume of cameras they sell they can produce them cheaper and cheaper. What used to cost over $500 a few years ago now is less than half that price.

Glossary of Terms:
There are too many to list in this article so here is a link to a nice one online

MP / Mega Pixels: Not as important as you might think*
This is the amount of pixels the image sensor in your camera can take, however DON'T BE FOOLED! For entry level (Point and Shoot) cameras the higher the number isn't necessarily going to mean a better picture. A 3MP or 4MP camera will most likely fill all of your needs if you're not wanting to print larger than an 8x10. Most Cameras available as I'm writing this are above 5MP so you really don't have to concern yourself at all with the MP rating. When you start getting into the higher and cameras with interchangeable lenses MP do start to become more important however as the numbers get higher and higher a jump of 2MP becomes almost insignificant.

This chart shows print sizes at various DPI or “Dots Per Inch”, generally people say 300DPI is photo quality however often you can get away with a lower setting. Photos of nature tend to enlarge better than photos of people but it all depends on the style of the shot. The MP value is tricky because it is representing an area, the larger the number gets the more you have to increase it to get a significant change. Take a look at the difference between a 12MP and a 16MP camera, the 300DPI print size only increases by 2” whereas the difference between a 3MP and a 6MP is 4”.

Lens Size/Quality: Important

It doesn't matter how many mega pixels or how good the sensor is if the light getting to it is passing through a crappy lens. You're generally looking for a camera with a glass lens, some lower end cameras use plastic in order to get you a lower price (Kodak Easyshare for example) but if you can spare a little extra cash go for the glass. Another thing to note is the diameter, the larger the lens the less the image will be distorted. Think of the peep hole on your door, smaller lenses tend to "fisheye" a little. Another problem with smaller lenses is that the center of the picture is in focus but the edges get blurry. Unfortunately with compact cameras comes compact lenses so if you're looking for a tiny camera you may have to put up with a little distortion.

Some of the problems associated with small lenses

Optical Zoom & Digital Zoom: What's the difference?

L to R) Standard View, Optical Zoom, Digital Zoom (note how it looks pixelized)

Only optical zoom is important, For a point and shoot you're probably looking at a maximum of 3 to 4 times zoom (often shown as 3x or 4x). You can tell if the zoom is optical if the actual lens moves as you zoom (although on some models the lens actually moves inside the camera so you can't actually see it).

Digital Zoom: Not important at all ignore everything you hear about "digital zoom", often salespeople will try to make the camera sound more impressive by talking up a storm about the digital zoom (though they seem to be doing this less and less). Digital zoom is essentially the same as enlarging the image on your computer and then cropping the area you want "zoomed", this will result in the image looking pixelized.

Shooting Modes: Nowadays almost every camera has all you need

Most cameras have different shooting modes, sometimes called scene modes. These will setup the camera with the optimal settings to shoot a variety of subjects. These will be named something like "Kids & Pets", "Sports","Portrait", "Nature & Landscape" etc. If you're new to the cameras and just want to take pictures without having to place too much thought into the process then you want a camera that is easy to understand and allows you to switch between modes with ease.

Video: Depends on if you're actually going to use it

Cameras in general are getting better in this area, there are some that will take video that rivals camcorders. The main thing you need to know is that if you want the video to look really good on your TV you will want a resolution of 640x480 at 30 frames per second, a resolution of 320x240 will look approximately like an old VHS tape would on your TV. The average person though probably isn't going to end up doing much with the video files, often the just end up sitting on your computer because the process of converting them to DVD is often complicated.

Look at the the video feature as a bonus not a selling point, if you really want to take video then just go buy a video camera.

*Note on video cameras that take stills: While little point and shoots can take pretty good video it often doesn't work the other way around. Video cameras often don't take very good photographs, the reason is for video you don't need as high of resolution (think megapixels) sensor because the picture is always changing.

Accessories : Memory Card(s), Camera Bag, Batteries
As soon as you decide on a camera the salesperson is going to want to sell you as many accessories as they can for the camera. The main two things you will need are one or more memory cards as well as some sort of case to protect your camera.

Memory Cards: I recommend a computer store downtown called OTV for your memory card, a 2GB SD card is $11.50 for a generic brand. All of the brands I've tried there have worked well and I have not had a problem with them. When you start shooting higher end cameras that take large pictures or if your camera can take a bunch of pictures in rapid succession (burst mode) you may benefit from a high speed name brand card, however for the average user it is not necessary.

Card Reader: I always recommend getting a card reader as opposed to downloading by connecting your camera to your computer. There are a few reasons for this: 1) Its often faster 2) If your camera battery dies during the transfer you can lose the remaining photos on the card. You can get a decent one at OTV for around $10 and it supports all of the popular formats (SD, Compact Flash, XD, Memory Stick etc).

Camera Bag: Look for a bag thats small enough that you don't mind carrying it around yet has enough room to fit whatever you need to take along (spare batteries, memory card etc). Lowepro is a brand that's been around for years and has a quality product. Don's photo on Idylwyld Dr. has a good selection but you can probably find them at most big stores that sell cameras.

Batteries: If your camera runs on AA batteries then you are going to want to invest in a good set of NIMH rechargeable batteries and a charger. You're probably looking at $30-50 for a set of 4 AA batteries and a charger although I've heard XSCargo actually has some good kits sometimes for as low as $12. The batteries will have an mAh (milli-amp hour) rating, a good battery is around 1600mAh or higher.

Before you finally take the plunge and buy the camera:

  1. Leave you wallet at home and go try out cameras in the store, take your time, you don't have to buy the first camera you look at. Write down a few models that appealed to you and their prices.

  2. Read reviews, a great website is www.epinions.com it offers customer reviews from real people on everything from cars to dishwashers and everything in between. Another two good sites just for cameras are www.dpreview.com and www.steves-digicams.com

  3. Check the smaller camera shops and see if they have the model you are interested in, if they do then try to buy it there (they'll often price match). Its at these smaller stores (Don's Photo, Phase II etc) that the people really want to help you and they are normally pretty knowledgeable. Some even offer incentives, for example if you purchase a digital camera at Don's Photo you will also get a loyalty card which gets you cheaper 4”x6” prints.
Some cameras in this price range to consider:

  • Powershot Series (this whole line is pretty good)
    A560 - $139.99
    A good entry level camera, decent quality and all the standard bells and whistles. This camera is not toobig and not too small, it has a decent size lens and 4X optical zoom. Great video quality too!
  • Digital Elph Series (good line of very compact cameras)
    SD1000 - $179.99
    A nice tiny camera that still takes good pictures, the elph series is known for its small size. You can still find an SD1000 in some stores, it is quickly being replaced with this years model the SD1100 ($259.99) which is why its on for so cheap. 3X optical zoom, great video, and an amazingly fast startup time.
  • Lumix 10.1MP (DMCFS5K) $239.99
    A very capable point and shoot, this camera sports high quality optics with is Leica lens that yields nice
    sharp images. The camera comes complete with all the standard shooting modes you'd expect to find
    and its surprisingly compact.
  • Coolpix Series (the whole series has a decent reputation) Nikon Coolpix 8MP (L18) $144.99
    Nikon has been in the game for a long time, the coolpix series has been known to be a decent point and shoot camera that offers good quality at a decent price. Has all of the standard options and a decent 3X optical zoom.

(L to R) Canon A56o, Canon SD1000, Lumix DMCFS5K, Nikon Coolpix L18


Lindsey said...

So, which one would you buy, if you were going to buy an entry level camera?

jphphotography said...

I've always been a Canon fan so my opinion is biased. My point and shoot is an SD1000. I like it because it is very small but still takes decent pictures. The video quality is close to that of a camcorder so its a very versatile little camera. Also by using a modified version of the firmware (CHDK) I can gain complete control over the camera and also shoot in RAW mode. Most of this is probably greek to you anyway but its all good stuff I assure you.

Unfortunately by now you can't find any SD1000's around but the newer SD1100 can be had for $200 at the time I'm writing this.