Finding the Best Compact Digital Camera for You
April 16, 2014
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Digital cameras have come a long way since they first hit the mainstream in the 1990s, when they produced pictures so badly pixelated that a professional photographer would never dream of using them. In fact, the capabilities of a modern smartphone's built-in camera are better than those of early top-model digital cameras, and the current models vying for the title of best compact digital camera are incredible feats of technology.
Bulky cameras are still necessary for professional photography, but a good point-and-shoot camera is just what many people need for personal use to capture great snapshots of daily life, family and travels. Let's examine a few factors to consider when seeking the best compact digital camera for you.
Optical and Digital Zoom
There are two types of zoom on digital cameras: Optical zoom and digital zoom. Optical zoom is important because it represents how far the lens can actually zoom in rather than the extent to which the camera can blow up an image that is created using the same data as a smaller image (which is what digital zoom does).
Zoom capability is represented in two ways. The easiest to understand is the zoom factor, such as 5x or 10x. This is the ratio of the widest zoom setting to the farthest setting; generally a higher number indicates a better zoom. But it is important to realize that a 10x lens may not be able to zoom in twice as far as 5x zoom. Rather, it might start with a wider, more zoomed-out image. This is valuable as well because some low-end cameras do not provide an angle wide enough to take group shots in small rooms. To understand what the zoom factor really means, you'll need to look at focal length. In general, the higher the zoom factor, the more versatile a camera is for taking photos from different distances.
Lens Focal Length
The second measurement of zoom is focal length, which provides more information than the zoom factor. This number should be between 28-140mm — a good focal range providing 5x zoom. The smaller number of the two indicates how wide of an angle the camera can capture: 28mm is a good starting point for focal length, better than the 35mm of many point-and-shoot cameras. For the higher number, it simply depends on how far you want to be able to zoom. To zoom farther, you will need a larger and more expensive camera. Deciding what zoom you need is a personal choice, and the best way to decide is to experiment with different cameras.
The (Not So) All-Important Megapixel
One of the most highly touted specs of a camera is its resolution in megapixels, or the number of dots of color that make up the photo. Ten years ago, this was a relevant number, but basically all cameras today have enough megapixels for their intended uses. If you want to make a billboard, you need more megapixels than even the best compact digital camera offers. But then again, if you want to make a billboard, you wouldn't be using a compact camera.
The sensor size, which is far more important than resolution in modern cameras, is a huge factor in determining photo quality. A bigger sensor generally produces better images but requires a larger camera.
If you don't have surgeon-steady hands, chances are you move a bit when taking pictures. Image stabilization (IS) counteracts your movements in one of two ways: Optical IS or digital IS. Optical IS works better.
To pick the right camera, consider what factors are important to you. How much are you willing to sacrifice size for image quality or vice versa? Do you want other features such as HD video, facial recognition, a long battery life or extreme durability? The best course of action is to try out cameras extensively before buying. Play around with friends' cameras or go to a good camera shop to discuss different options with the staff. The best camera for you is the one you'll most enjoy using.
Photo credit: Flickr