How to find the right digital camera

Photography has never been as popular as it is now. Ever since cameras became computerized and easier to use, more of us now have access to a hobby once deemed expensive and complicated. However, much of the growth in camera usage has been driven by smartphone cameras. That said, an iPhone really isn’t a replacement for a traditional camera. While they’re ultra-convenient, most smartphone cameras lack the image quality due to tech restrictions— and most users notice that limitation immediately. It’s true that it doesn’t matter what you use to capture the moment as long as you capture it, but wouldn’t it be better if you photographed your child’s first steps or grandma’s 80th birthday with a camera that will produce the best results…so you can remember it forever? As the holidays approach, camera makers have stepped up their game to offer some of the strongest products in a long time. Here’s what to look for when you start shopping around.

IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT MEGAPIXELS: SENSOR SIZE MATTERS

For years camera makers have tried to one-up each other by increasing the amount of megapixels. Unfortunately the negative effect is that consumers have been led to believe that only megapixels matter. Simply put, the number of megapixels determines how large an image can be, but itself alone does not define image quality.

In addition to megapixels, you should check the camera’s specs to find out how large the sensor is. A larger sensor allows those individual pixels to capture more light, and since digital photography is all about capturing light a well-equipped camera will produce better-looking images. (Because the sensors in smartphones are small, the image quality isn’t great when you enlarge it onscreen.) A site called Sensor-size.com has a handy chart for determining the size of a sensor, but at minimum you really shouldn’t dip below 1/1.7 inches.

To get a large sensor, traditionally you’ll need a digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) or compact system camera (CSC), also known as a mirrorless camera. But camera makers are starting to put larger, stronger sensors into compact, pocket-friendly models (which traditionally have used smaller sensors, and still do). Two great models are the Sony Cyber-shot RX100 II and the Fujifilm QX1. The RX100 II has a large 1-inch 20.2-megapixel sensor and a great Carl Zeiss lens; along with a strong image processor, the RX100 II takes beautiful photos and videos. The QX1 uses a smaller 2/3-inch sensor (still bigger than many), but Fujifilm has put in some advanced technology to help it capture great images. It also has an attractive price, which appeals to many customers who are looking for a high-performance compact camera.

Note that besides sensor and megapixels, you should also look at the image processors and lenses used.

Connectivity is getting bigger

Wireless connectivity was a big deal earlier this year, as more and more camera makers are building Wi-Fi into cameras—moving into 2014, it’s highly likely that the majority of new cameras will have this functionality. It allows for wireless image transfers, but the cool part is that it lets the camera “talk” to a smartphones. With this connection, the smartphone can be used as a means of getting images off the camera, edited, and then uploaded to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc. without having to operate off a desktop. There are cameras that let you upload to social media site directly, and some will let you control a camera remotely.

While Wi-Fi is a great feature, be aware that the tech is still in its infancy, and the experience varies from manufacturer to manufacturer. Oftentimes the wireless connection isn’t as fast or robust as you might be used to. Some are easy to use, while others can be an exercise in frustration. Two companies leading the pack are Samsung and Sony.

Most of Samsung’s cameras are Wi-Fi enabled. Because Samsung’s camera division falls under its mobile phone group, using a Samsung camera sometimes feels like you’re using one of their smartphones. Case in point: the new Galaxy NX, a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera with a large display that runs off Android – the same operating system that powers Samsung’s smartphones. The Galaxy NX gives you a DSLR-like shooting experience but with the ease-of-use of a smartphone. Not only does it have Wi-Fi, but you can also get cellular access, making it truly connected all the time. No need to pair with a smartphone—you can upload images to the Web directly from the camera.

Sony is also beefing up the wireless experience in its cameras. Some models even let you download apps that let you do creative things with the camera. But the most unique wireless product this year is the QX series. Looking like a mini lens barrel, these cameras are full-featured products with lenses, sensors, and processors built in, minus a display. It’s designed to worked in conjunction with a smartphone, using your iOS or Android device as the display and for uploading images and video to the Web. For anyone looking to enhance his/her smartphone’s image quality without buying a new phone, the QX is a neat way to attach a more power camera to it.

A note about NFC: You’ll probably see some cameras touting NFC, which stands for near-field communication. NFC is used to pair a camera quickly to a smartphone that supports it, which are mainly Android devices. Unless you have an NFC smartphone, it’s not an essential feature to have.

Mirrorless cameras are getting stronger

To get the best image quality, many long-time photographers will tell you to go with quality lenses and a DSLR. That’s still true, but a new category of digital cameras called CSCs, or mirrorless cameras, is starting to become more popular. Like DSLRs, CSCs use interchangeable lenses to give you a variety of shooting options. However, the lack of a mirror and a compact form factor make them more like a digital point-and-shoot camera. Early models used small sensors, had slower autofocusing, and didn’t have a viewfinder because there’s no mirror to reflect the image.

But things have changed drastically. CSCs are more powerful and can give many DSLRs in the low to midrange a run for their money. Companies like Sony, Olympus, and Fujifilm are moving away from DSLRs and investing heavily in CSCs. Now you can get a mirrorless camera with extremely fast autofocusing, large sensors, and an electronic viewfinder that’s not only quick, but can display shooting information and Live View, which means the display corresponds to the settings you choose—an advantage over a DSLR’s optical viewfinder. CSCs give you a wide range of automatic, semi-auto, and manual shooting options, and, with an adapter, many can utilize DSLR lenses, although camera makers are starting to increase the number of mirrorless camera lenses so you wouldn’t have to. Yet, many of these cameras retain the smaller form factor that makes them so appealing.

The PEN E-P5 from Olympus has the retro styling of a vintage rangefinder camera, but beneath the beautiful body is strong-performing Micro Four Thirds (a type of mirrorless camera sensor used by Olympus and Panasonic) camera that produces very good image quality. If street photography appeals to you, the E-P5 is a nice option, but it’ll handle a variety of shooting conditions. Also from Olympus is the new OM-D E-M1, a tough-but-stunning looking camera that the company can rival many DSLRs; in fact, it natively supports all the DSLR lenses Olympus has from the past. Panasonic’s new GM1 is a game-changer in that it has a body of a small compact camera, yet the ability to use different Micro Four Thirds lenses makes it an advanced shooter. Samsung’s NX300 borrows the ease-of-use features that the company is known for, but it’s a highly capable camera that can also shoot 3D images and video via a special lens.

The most revolutionary mirrorless camera this year, however, comes from Sony. Available in two models—the Alpha 7 and Alpha 7R— this new mirrorless model is the first and smallest full-frame camera available. Full-frame sensors are one of the largest you can buy, and are usually found in very large and heavy DSLRs. With a solid construction, amazingly fast autofocusing, and great retro looks, the 7 and 7R produce fantastic image quality and videos in a body that’s half-the-size of a compact DSLR using a smaller sensor. These two new cameras aren’t cheap, but if you want some of the best image quality from a mirrorless camera, you can’t do any better.

Budget and fun cameras still have a place

It’s true that camera makers no longer make money at the low-end— that world has been subsumed by smartphones. Still, there are consumers that can benefit from entry-level, affordable cameras, such as kids and people who haven’t adopted a smartphone. Nikon has recently updated its lineup with the S02, a super-small camera that will appeal to small kids, thanks to the colors available. It’s easy to use, and this model uses a better low-light sensor and records high-definition video.

Besides price, camera makers are coming out with unique products that stand out. Canon’s PowerShot N is unlike any other camera in the company’s lineup. Designed for the younger generation, the square camera is meant to be easy to use and has an optical zoom lens for better image quality when shooting up-close from faraway. With a one-touch Wi-Fi button, you can prepare your images for upload with a push of a button. Olympus, which is well known for its rugged cameras, unveiled its Stylus TG-2 earlier this year. The TG-2 has a stronger sensor for taking better photos, yet it’s waterproof, dustproof, freezeproof, and shockproof, making it the perfect camera to take while traveling.

Show
Hide
Hide