Many people rely on their smartphones or tablets for taking photos and videos. But there are many good reasons to own one of today’s highly advanced but easy-to-use stand-alone cameras (or to give one as a holiday gift).
For example, the sensor size in almost all digital cameras is larger than it is in phones or tablets, and a larger sensor size means better image quality. Also, there are no true optical zoom lenses in phones or tablets. Instead, they rely on digital zooming that simply crops the optical image and, in the process, degrades image quality. Virtually all cameras either come with optical zooms built in or have the capability to use interchangeable lenses. More advanced stand-alone cameras also provide a full range of exposure-control options, giving you the ability to use fast shutter speeds to capture action, such as kids playing sports, or to manipulate lens apertures to precisely control what is or isn’t in sharp focus.
Despite the dizzying array of cameras on store shelves, there are essentially only four types of dedicated digital still cameras. The trick to identifying which category of camera suits you is to ask yourself (or your gift recipient) some basic questions—how much creative control do you want (or not want)?…how big (and heavy) a camera are you willing to carry?…is video quality important to you?
Digital cameras range in price from less than $100 for a simple compact model to several thousand dollars for a professional-level model, but you don’t need to break the bank to get a camera that takes great photos.
Here are the four basic digital camera types and my favorite models…
Basic compact (price: $100 to $400). These small, easy-to-use cameras fit in a pocket and are ultra-simple to operate. My favorite: The Nikon Coolpix S3700 (20 megapixels, MP, with an 8x optical zoom and built-in Wi-Fi that allows you to easily share photos, $109). For adventurous types, there are waterproof cameras including my choice, the Olympus TG-4 (16MP with Wi-Fi, $379). It has a modest 4x optical zoom but is waterproof to depths of 50 feet, freeze-proof to 14°F and shockproof up to seven feet—perfect for extreme sports enthusiasts.
Superzoom ($200 to $600). Superzoom cameras offer much more built-in zooming power than a compact and are ideal for shooting sports or wildlife and make great travel cameras. Most superzoom cameras offer advanced exposure and metering modes. My picks: The Fuji FinePix S9900W has a 50x
optical zoom, a range of exposure modes and a 16.2MP sensor ($274). The Panasonic LUMIX DMC-FZ300K ($597) offers a 24x optical zoom, a 12.1MP sensor and 4K video capability.
Compact mirrorless ($400 to $1,000 with one lens). Compact mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras (some makers use the acronym MILC) are the new kids on the block and were first introduced in 2008. They offer a much lighter alternative to their larger counterparts, DSLR (digital single lens reflex) cameras, yet retain the ability to use interchangeable lenses. Many pros now use mirrorless cameras because of the lighter weight (of both cameras and lenses). The smaller size was achieved by removing the viewing mechanism found in a DSLR that allows you to view your subjects optically through the lens. Instead, with a mirrorless camera, you compose images using either the LCD screen on the back or an electronic viewfinder (or both). My picks: The Panasonic LUMIX DMC-G7KK/G7KS (16MP, $748 with a 14-42mm lens included) and the 24.3MP Sony Alpha a6000 with 16-50mm lens ($648) are excellent entry points to mirrorless photography systems—both are lightweight and small and create superb images.
DSLR (entry level: $500 to $1,000 with one lens). Digital single-lens-reflex cameras are the big guns (technically and physically) of the camera world, and they are the preferred cameras of most professionals. The advantages include interchangeable lenses, very large sensors, endless accessories and the most sophisticated of exposure systems. My picks: The Canon EOS Rebel T6i (24.2MP with an 18-55mm lens, $799) and the Nikon D3300 (24.2MP with an 18-55mm lens, $496).
Which Camera Features Do You Need?
Here are the key features most worth comparing…
Optical zoom. Lens focal lengths are expressed in millimeters, and the zoom lenses that are built into cameras (like point-and-shoot models) are always described as the ratio of the widest setting (for taking wide views such as landscapes) to the longest telephoto setting (for photographing distant subjects like wildlife). A 10x zoom lens has a maximum focal length that is 10 times more powerful than its widest setting. A zoom ratio of 8x is good for everything from scenics to portraits, while a longer range of 16x or more is great for sports and wildlife.
Pixel count. Digital camera resolution is described by the number of microscopic light-sensitive photo elements, or “pixels,” on the sensor. All sensors contain millions of pixels, and one million pixels equal one megapixel (or MP)—a 12MP sensor, for example, has 12 million pixels. Any camera with a pixel count of 10MP or higher can take superb photos if the camera’s other components are of high quality. Camera makers would like you to believe that more megapixels than that automatically means better photos, but that isn’t so. Other things being equal, as more pixels are crammed onto a given size of sensor (different types of cameras have different-sized sensors), each pixel must be smaller and picture quality becomes degraded.
Size and ease of use. Size, weight and the simplicity of camera controls are very important. Go to a camera store, and handle a few cameras to see how they feel in your hands and whether they seem convenient and easy to use.
Video. All digital still cameras can capture video, and most now capture it in HD (high definition). The most common video resolutions are 720p (the “p” stands for “progressive,” a high-definition recording technology) or 1080p, with the higher number being better. Some cameras also offer 4K video recording—the highest resolution currently available. Some cameras with 4K video allow you to pull a high-quality still photo from any place in your video.