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Digital Camera Decision Criteria
Buying a digital camera is one of the toughest purchase decisions to make because a large number of very good brands offer multiple types of cameras with what can seem like an overwhelming number of features. This is great for consumer choice but it does make choosing the “best” camera extremely difficult. To make that choice a bit easier, one way to approach buying a new camera is to consider the following broad criteria.
- Type of camera
If you have done some research already you may know what type of camera you want. Choices—more or less in order of quality—include subcompact point-and-shoot, compact point-and-shoot, waterproof/shockproof, ultra-zoom compact point-and-shoot, bridge, mirrorless (alternatively known as Electronic Viewfinder with Interchangeable Lens (EVIL), Digital Single Lens Mirrorless (DSLM), Compact System Camera (CSC) or Mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera (MILC)), and DSLR (digital single-lens reflex). If you aren’t sure what type of camera suits you, let the other criteria here guide your choice.
There is a tradeoff between size and features/quality. As a traveler you have to ask yourself where you stand on that tradeoff question. Are you willing to lug something large and heavy to get the great shots you want or would you rather accept fewer options and diminished functionality in order to have something light you will be sure to carry with you when you need it?
While the camera body primarily affects the overall size and weight, another potentially important factor is the shape and hand grip of the body design as some are more comfortable to hold and allow for more stability (less shake) when taking photos.
What’s your budget? It seems obvious that more money equals better digital camera, but these days that is not always true and there is overlap in pricing between different types of cameras. As a broad guideline, budget cameras are typically under $250, value cameras are $250-500, mid-range options are $500-1000 and high-end cameras are higher than $1000. Note that if you are actually reading this you will not need a high-end camera and most mid-range options will do everything you want.
- Picture quality (sensor)
Most modern cameras take good pictures in good light but the real difference comes in low light and backlighting situations, which exposes the quality of the sensor being used. I suggest you don’t focus much on the number of megapixels as these days most cameras have plenty (a frame of 35mm film has the digital equivalent of between 15 and 20 megapixels) and sometimes a higher pixel camera actually has a worse sensor or results in noisier pictures. In fact, the first rule in choosing a digital camera should be to place sensor size over pixel count. That’s because a camera with a large sensor has more area to capture more light and detail. With a larger sensor you’ll also get more detail, allowing you to make larger prints or crop them smaller without losing any quality. The most common sensor sizes that you will see listed in specs sheets or product pages, in order of increasing size, are 1/3 to 1/2 inch (smartphone, point-and-shoots), 1 inch (high-end point-and-shoots), Four Thirds (mirrorless), APS-C (mirrorless, DSLR), and 35mm full-frame (DSLR). When considering sensors and picture quality, pay attention to dynamic range, which is a spec provided that states the maximum range a camera can capture in one image from light to dark (given in exposure values or EV).
The quality of lens used, along with the sensor discussed above, is a key determinant in picture quality. You will also want to consider the focal length range (i.e., the aperture limits and amount of optical zoom). The wider the aperture (lower f-number) the better the lens will perform in low light situations and the more you will be able to achieve shallow depth of field Ignore any mention of digital zoom, as it is often useless. For point-and-shoot cameras, try to choose one with a wide angle lens (28mm is typical and not very wide, 24mm is better though this is also a function of the sensor). For cameras with changeable lenses, investigate the options and prices available. Nikon and Canon DSLR cameras are famous for a large selection of high-quality, often expensive lenses. Mirrorless cameras are catching up but may have a less robust selection (though more than sufficient for most amateur needs).
- Weather sealing
Some digital cameras offer weather sealing to protect you from sand, dust, water, and other unpleasant environmental elements.
Many digital cameras offer some form of stabilization to compensate for camera movement (usually due to your hands) and there are two kinds. Optical stabilization is superior because it involves physical movements to compensate for any shake. In contrast, the inferior option is digital stabilization, which manipulates the image and can lead to lower quality photos. Additionally, some cameras offer stabilization in the body, some in the lenses and some both. If the camera doesn’t have body stabilization you will need to get it in your lens purchases so check those options.
There are three main types of digital camera speed: power-on delay (the time between when you switch the camera on and when it is ready to take pictures), shutter lag (the time between when you press the button to take the picture and when it actually gets around to doing it), and burst speed (the number of consecutive shooting mode photos that can be taken in a period of time).
- Video quality and features
Things to consider are whether you can shoot HD or 4K video; whether you can zoom while shooting (many lower-end models cannot); whether there is noticeable noise from zooming during recording; whether there is an external microphone jack; frame rate; and output format (AVI, MP4, etc.). You might also be interested in a camera that can take still photos from recorded video.
- Other features
There are so many other features that manufacturers use to differentiate their digital cameras. Some include: battery life, GPS, WiFi, NFC, number of preset settings, the ability to manually configure settings, the ability to shoot in raw image format (RAW), the size and resolution of the back LCD display, viewfinder, type of autofocus (phase detection vs. contrast detection) and number of focus points, time-lapse recording, panorama, macro mode, 3D, etc.
- Learning curve
This is a question of being honest with yourself. If you are not the kind of person to read the manual and learn the various features and settings a digital camera offers, you are probably best off not buying an expensive camera.
- Future goals
This is another area that requires honesty about where you want to take your photo skills in the future. If you are still a beginner but hope to make photography a serious hobby, it may be a good idea to pay for more digital camera than you can currently use with your current skills. A good choice is a mid-range camera that will let you change lenses since different lenses will open up lots of shots you cannot get with lower-end cameras. On the other hand, if you are happy to stick with auto mode and get “good enough” shots, you’ll be wasting your money on a mid-range camera.
Create a Prioritized List of Digital Camera Features
As you think of the various options and features above, create a prioritized list of those that are important to you. Some will be must-haves and some will be like-to-haves. This will help you more quickly eliminate potential cameras as you shop. For example, I am currently looking to jump from my advanced compact camera to a mirrorless one. Here is how I would order my personal prioritized list.
- Size. As someone that travels light, size and weight is very important and is the main reason I have stuck with a point-and-shoot until now.
- Sensor. This is the biggest determinant of image quality so I want the best I can afford. Ideally, I will get an APS-C sensor but if necessary I would drop down to a Four Thirds sensor. Megapixel count isn’t a high priority for me.
- Price. I would like to keep my purchase in the $500 range, including a kit lens.
- Display screen and viewfinder. I want a swiveling or significantly tilting display screen, which should be easy to achieve. I would also like to have a viewfinder, though that is not quite as commonly offered.
- Connectivity. I haven’t yet decided how important Bluetooth or NFC options are to me, though I think WiFi is a must.
- AE Bracketing. I was surprised to see that this is not offered on some models but it is a fairly important feature for me.
- Video. Video isn’t terribly important to me but I realize that 4K video is the future and if possible I would like to have that option to grow into. I would also like the ability to take still photos from a 4K video frame (as is offered by Lumix cameras). Since video isn’t my thing, I am not too concerned with having an external microphone jack though if I opt for 4K it would be a nice complement for future growth/use. I have used a camera that cannot zoom during video and was unhappy with that so having video zoom is a high priority (though I think most mirrorless cameras do offer that feature).
- Lens. I want a lens interchange system that offers a fair number of choices at reasonable prices. Since most of the main brands offer this, it is not a high priority for me.
- Stabilization. This is a nice-to-have option for me but if necessary I can opt for lens-based stabilization rather than stabilization in the camera body.
- Battery life. I am not too concerned about this as I usually pack a spare and I rarely go on extended photo shooting sprees without access to an outlet to recharge.
- Speed, burst rate and autofocus. These aren’t high on my priority list though it would be nice to have as many focus points as possible.
Find Online Camera Reviews and Comparisons
Once you have your own prioritized list of features it is time to search for information online. For most of my shopping needs I rely on the reviews found at Amazon.com and this holds true for digital cameras. But, my number one source for camera reviews—when they have what I am interested in—is Expert Reviews. I find their well-written, concise reviews cover the features and performance I actually care about. I also like how they tend to compare a model to its predecessor and/or its siblings. The site is great for narrowing down choices as well since you can select by type of camera and by features and then sort results by price or ratings. You can even select up to 12 models to compare. Finally, I find it helpful to compare a review by a true expert to those of a retail site like Amazon. Many times they concur but sometimes they are worlds apart. If you are a true photography enthusiast I don’t know if this site and its reviews will provide the level of detail you need or not, but for regular travelers like me it is great.
An alternative site which also offers very good—perhaps more detailed—reviews and buying guides is Digital Photography Review. CameraDecision is a great site that lets you compare two specific digital cameras head to head and also has a “smart finder” page where you can search for cameras by feature and select up to five to compare side by side.
One thing to consider in your research is that different manufacturers tend to keep some consistency in their model nomenclature. So, for example, my Lumix ZS20 was an update to the previous ZS10 model and has since had multiple newer versions (the latest being the ZS100). Likewise the Sony DSC-HX90V replaced the DSC-HX80V and so on. You might think that the latest model will always be better, but that isn’t necessarily the case. Also, even if a newer model is better, the improved quality may or may not be worth the increased price (though sometimes the old models stop being discounted and thus are much more expensive than their newer siblings). The broader point is, do your research and get a feel for which brands and model lines you like. If you choose a winner, the next time you want to upgrade you can just check out the latest line in your series. If you are unhappy with what you purchased, at least you will have an idea of what competition you might be interested in considering.
Another thing worth noting is that certain manufacturers brand their lines differently in different countries. For example, my Lumix ZS20 is also called the TZ30 in some countries. Thus, if you use the Expert Reviews site, which is based in the UK, you might have a hard time finding a review for a specific US model you are interested in (though they often mention when a model is marketed differently). Likewise, if you get a recommendation from a fellow traveler who is from a different region of the world you might not be getting the model name and number applicable to your home territory.
Create a Digital Camera Shortlist
To get started on your shopping research, I recommend compiling a list of 5-10 models you are interested in and then comparing them. Try to include at least a few different brands. Make your list using Amazon (you can choose the type of camera you are interested in and then use the selection features on the left sidebar to narrow your search) or via a review site like CNET’s Best Digital Cameras list or Expert Reviews.
For example, here is the higher-end compact point-and-shoot list I considered back in 2012. Even though that was a long time ago, these brands and models still exist today (x is a variable number that changes as models get updated).
- Canon SXxxx or PowerShot ELPH xxx
- Fuji Finepix
- Nikon Coolpix Lxxx or Coolpix Bxxx
- Panasonic DMC-ZSxx
- Sony Cybershot DSC-HXxxV
You will notice that basically I have included the powerhouse manufacturing brands in this list (minus Olympus, which is also a powerhouse brand). I have met fellow travelers who have been satisfied with each of these brands (depending on the model and personal experiences, naturally). That doesn’t mean you should ignore others but this list was long enough for my interests.
If you already have a limited list of brands you want to consider, then a different approach would be to take a detailed look at each brand’s current models. Again, you can use a site like Amazon but the manufacturers’ product description page might prove even more useful.
Is This Even Necessary?
I should say that this entire discussion assumes that a mobile phone camera isn’t sufficient for your needs. That is a big assumption given that today’s smartphone cameras rival—and sometimes surpass—the quality of the point-and-shoots, with some offering settings usually only seen on DSLR models. Many now have dual lens cameras that let you get great shallow depth of field shots that the typical point-and-shoot cannot. You can even purchase a lens kit to extend the usually limited default focal lengths when needed. So, if you are not quite ready for a more advanced mirrorless or DSLR digital camera and you have been considering a point-and-shoot instead, perhaps upgrading your smartphone would be a better use of that money.
My Digital Camera Suggestions
If all that still leaves you wondering what to buy, here are my thoughts.
- Get a smartphone with a good camera as your everyday option.
- If you prioritize convenience and lightweight travel, supplement your phone camera with a higher-end or ultra-zoom point-and-shoot with manual settings and a good lens.
- If you are interested in taking your photography game to the next level but are put off by the idea of lugging around an entire bag of heavy camera equipment, get a mirrorless digital camera with a good general-purpose zoom lens. When you have the budget, add a good prime (fixed) lens (50mm, f/1.8 would be the most popular and economical choice).
- If you think you might really like to make photography a serious hobby and aren’t bothered by carrying lots of equipment with you, go for a good quality mirrorless or DSLR and add lenses as you need them. Until you get very advanced you should be fine with two or three lenses (a wide-angle zoom, a telephoto zoom, and a good prime).
You are going to need some accessories for your new camera, so be prepared for them in your budget. Specifically, consider getting at least one extra battery, two or more memory cards, a tripod, a case, and lens filters (UV, polarizing, neutral density). If you want to take underwater shots and don’t want a separate camera for that purpose, consider buying a special housing.
A DSLR camera uses a mirror so you can view the scene via reflected light in a viewfinder (what you put your eye to). Mirrorless cameras either do away with the viewfinder entirely (not a problem for some, a huge issue for others) or add a digital viewfinder which mimics the optical viewfinder but which is really seeing an electronic representation of what the lens is seeing. One advantage of a digital viewfinder is that it lets you view the real-time effect of exposure adjustments.Getting rid of the mirror allows for a more compact camera. With DSLR-quality sensors and lenses, mirrorless cameras typically offer the same image quality as DSLRs but in a smaller size.
Did I miss anything important? If so, let me know in the comments or feel free to praise or criticize the model you chose.