This thread is meant as a buying guide, FAQ and help thread for Digital Cameras and Photography in general. We get a multitude of threads on here every month asking about different models so its an idea to put it all into one, as well as use it as a discussion for photography in general. This is currently work in progress so if anyone has anything they'd like putting on the front page feel free to PM me.
What makes me so qualified to start a thread like this? Im not a bad photographer, have owned a fair few cameras in the past but I sell them on the electronics department at a John Lewis store so I get to play and use lots of different models. Others on here with a good history in the subject include $ilva $hadow, who used to work at Jessops I believe.
The Golden Rules of looking for a Digital Camera
When buying a camera you obviously need to be aware of what your going to use it for and how much you're willing to spend. Its no good looking for an advanced model if you just want something to take pictures of your mates destroying road signs on nights out. Consequently you also might want something a bit more advanced if you are frustrated with the range of your existing camera.
It used to be that the number of Megapixels gave you a rough indication of how good a camera was but as the minimum these days is around 7 or 8 it is largely irrelevent how many the camera has. More megapixels basically means your prints will look better when enlarged, so if you need a camera for design work or art purposes then more may be a good idea. Also more megapixels means you can crop something out of a picture with less loss of quality. A general rule is for anything > A3 go with 8 or more Mpx. For a 6x4" or 7x5" print you dont need anything more than 3-4Mpx.
Generally the better the optics, that is the lenses of the camera as well as the sensor inside that captures the picture, the better quality your picture will be. How do you know if a camera has good quality optics? Generally the established camera manufacturers such as Canon, Olympus, Nikon, Fuji and Ricoh all have good quality lenses. 3rd party companies (such as Samsung, Panasonic and Sony) will all use an established lens manufacturer such as Carl Zeiss, Leica, Schnieder, Sigma and Minolta (Who are now owned by Sony: see later) and these are the brands to look out for. Companies that are shadows of their former selves and not really worth bothering with (IMO) are Casio, Kodak and Polaroid.
The zoom of a camera is how large it makes things that are farther away, so if you want to take landscape pictures then a high zoom may be a good idea. Since digital cameras came along most manufacturers will list their zoom as 3x, 5x or 10x and this means it manginifies the image to make things 3 times bigger or 10 times bigger. It should be pointed out at this point that there are 2 different types of zoom on a camera: Optical and Digital. Optical zoom is where the camera actually magnifies what is in the distance, digital zoom just makes the pixels bigger to give you the impression it zooms in. Personally I reckon Digital Zoom is a waste of time, and if your camera has it turn it off. Blowing up pixels is a bad idea, as it reduces the quality of an image. Besides, if you really need to blow up pixels you have photo editing software.
Legacy cameras as well as more professional models with always give their zoom as an indication in mm, for example 35-105mm zoom. To work this out as a magnification just divide the 1st number into the 2nd, in this case 105/35 = 3, thus it is a 3x magnification. This method is mainly used on larger SLR cameras and their lenses and less so on compacts.
Increasingly companies, particularly Panasonic are putting Wide Angle lenses on their cameras. They list it as 28mm, 25mm and in some extreme cases 24mm. How does this work? Generally the smaller the number the wider the angle, so most cameras are 35mm cameras, a 28mm would have a wider angle of view and enable you to fit more into a picture. Be aware that a wider angle lens will make things appear slightly smaller than a 35mm as the lens is different. I wont go into physics now as im not here to give a science lesson.
As said before, a wider angle lens gives you a wider area to take pictures with, handy for landscapes as well as group photographs.
Image Stabilisation (IS)
Most cameras these days have some sort of IS in them, in that they use one technology of another to reduce the blur on photographs. There is a distinct difference between the IS in cameras and it is VERY important to know the difference. There are 2 main types of IS on cameras: Optical and Digital. Optical (OIS) uses a mechanism within the lenses of the camera to keep them still when the camera is moving. (Gyroscopes, Liquid etc) OIS is the better of the two as there is no impact on photo quality when using it. Canon and Panasonic are the 2 main manufacturers of OIS camera, with Panasonic having it in their entire range. Digital (DIS) uses a high sensitivity (see next) to reduce blur. Whilst this does work it impacts the quality of photos as you will get grainier, noiser photos as a consequence. You will find this on most cheap models from Olympus, Fuji, Samsung and Nikon. It is best avoided where possible, although an acceptable alternative to nothing if you cannot afford an OIS camera.
A 3rd alternative, used mainly by Sony but also on the Canon Powershot G9 is 'Sensor Shift' which alters the position os the sensor inside the camera and is practically the same as OIS and to be fair in most cases actually better, particularly on Sony SLRs.
Face detection allows the camera to intelligently ascertain where human faces are in the picture and make these the focal point of the picture. In most cases I find face detection to be a bit of a gimmick, as there are times when you dont really need it. It is most useful when lots is going off in a picture, such as a snow storm or on a night out. Its not really a huge selling point but most cameras have it and it can be turned off if you so wish.
Back in the days of 35mm photography you could use a faster speed film, which gave you clearer arbeit noisier shots at night without using a flash (which is next to useless outdoors) at night. The higher the speed, the more sensitive the film to light and thus the clearer the night shots. Digital cameras all have the ability to emulate this process via their ISO range, which goes in number such as ISO100, 400, 800, 3200. The higher the number the clearer your shots will be at night but the grainier and noisier they become. The test of any camera is in low light as anyone with a camera phone will tell you (in that they are all crap at night shots) and the better the camera, the less noise you will get at higher ISO ranges. DIS uses a high ISO to reduce blur but as it is crappier cameras that have DIS generally the noise levels are substantial.
High ISO levels are useful for outdoor night shots and as most compacts lack any variation in shutter speed they are for many the only way to get clear landscape shots at night. You can use a flash but it only saturates very close objects, and blacks out the background. For quick shooting indoors (House, Club, Pub) you might be better using a flash but a high ISO is always a better idea. 400 is a good round number for most cameras.
The Shutter Speed of a camera is only changeable on advanced compacts, bridge models and SLRs and gives a more advanced photographer a longer (or shorter) exposure time. The uses for a faster shutter are mainly action shots, but it can be used for many creative uses. A slower shutter is the more commonly used mode though, and is needed really for good quality, no-noise night shots. Some cameras are capable of minutes-long exposures which means that it can shoot in near darkness, with only moonlight as a light source. Slow shutters are better for landscape shots and different effects, such as blurring moving people, light trails of speeding traffic and fireworks. Again, it has many more creative uses. When using a slow shutter a tripod is always a good idea, as even the best OIS will struggle
A slow shutter is useless on its own in the day, as it captures far too much light so must be used in conjuction with........
My knowledge of differing sized apertures is a bit rough but here goes: Used in conjuction with a fast or slow shutter the aperture on a camera (That is, the bit that lets the light in) can be made smaller or larger. In the case of a faster shutter, which takes in less light you will want a large aperture to compensate. Obviously if you wish to shoot a slow shutter in the day you want to take less light in and thus use a smaller aperture.
On its own changing the size of the aperture changes the depth of field, so a larger aperture focuses on the foreground and blurs the background, whilst a smaller aperture makes everything sharper. Aperture is measured in F-stops, with a value given as F.5 or F.22. The number is actually the opposite of the effect, so an F.22 aperture is actually a very small value and a F.5 aperture is a larger value. This is because of a legacy measuring system used on a logarythmic scale (ask your mum, wife or teacher) from the beginning of photography and also lens physics. Again, this is something to be exploited by enthusiasts for cool effects and not really something a point-and-shoot person needs.
Want your camera to take good quality video as good quality pictures? Sadly your out of luck on the most part as most cameras will only shoot VGA quality Video which is fine for youtube but for about anything else is sh*t. There are a small number of panasonic cameras (and soon some Sony) as well as a new range of SLRs capable of shooting video in 720p and from my own tests its actually not too shabby in terms of quality. Panning still leaves a judder and colour fringing (red/green edging on objects and people) but the resolution is good. You need a decent size memory card though as a 1Gb card will only take 5 mins of HD footage.
Obviously a camera comes with a minuscule amount of internal memory which at best stores around half a dozen photos and thus you will need a larger memory card to go with it. Cards are very cheap online, with 8Gb SD cards from some manufacturers going for £15! In my experience some of the cheapo cards can fail and obviously you dont want this to happen as you lose all your photos! Stick with Sandisk, Lexar and any own-brand cards (Sony, Panasonic, Olympus) and generally you are in good hands. In terms of photograph storage, on average 1Gb of data will provide room for:
400 pics @ 5Mpx
300 pics @ 8Mpx
250 pics @ 10Mpx
200 pics @ 12 Mpx
Obviously choose a card that offers the right amount of exposures for your personal use. If you go for an advanced camera such as a G9 or an SLR then ideally you will need either a compact flash card or an SDHC card. HC cards give a faster read/write speed between the card and the camera meaning faster processing on the camera itself. Compact flash cards have a greater number of receptors so speed up data transfer. Panasonics own SDHC cardsa are by far the best.
Is an extended warranty a good idea? will my camera break down? what about impacts of I drop it whilst drunk?
Digital cameras are effectively small computers and should be treated as such. On the most part they may as well be made of tin foil for the impact absorption they have. If you are afraid of breaking the camera then an extended warranty might be a good idea. Be aware that some manufacturers (Nikon, Samsung, Olympus, Casio) put a 2 year warranty on their cameras, although this wont cover accidental damage. If you are the type of person who likes to go places a camera might easily be broken, soiled by water or sand or even frozen (Snowboarding/Skiing) then Olympus do a great range of shock/water/freeze proof cameras.
Of course the cheapest way of protecting a camera is to get a decent case! Crumpler, samsonite and Lowe Pro make very good camera cases, and in the case of an SLR this will be needed to carry around extra kit too. Canon also do a good range of own-brand cases.
If a pushy salesman tries to sell you an extended warranty have a think about it because it might not always be worth it.
Every digital camera ever made takes photos in jpeg format. This is something we all know. When a camera takes a jpeg, it saves the white balance, exposure variation, colour level etc to the file, so that when you edit the picture afterwards you do it all from the extremes the camera has set in place.
More powerful cameras, mainly SLRs but also some bridge cameras (Like the G9!) have the ability to shoot in a more flexible format, called RAW. RAW is basically a digital negative, and lets you set all the aforementioned values and more besides AFTER you have taken the picture! This gives you immense flexibility when it comes to post-processing your pictures. Bare in mind though it is incredibly lax, lazy and amateurish to just take pictures and then process them afterwards. Just because RAW lets you, doesnt mean you shouldnt pay attention to the subtleties when shooting.
For most people their only stop when editing photographs is Photoshop and whilst photoshop is a bloody good piece of software, it can be far too in-depth and far too slow if you take a lot of pictures. Windows Vista comes with a rather basic 'Photo Gallery' package which is great for organising your pictures but the miniscule amount of editing one can perform isnt really worth it. If you need something with a bit more control, that is quick and easy to use and free then go with Googles Picasa software. It has a quick gallery, good organisation and better editing depth than Photo Gallery. Mac users will all have iphoto which I think is frankly a great piece of software for saying it is free with every mac. The level of editing is pretty much the same as Picasa but the addition of flickr/facebook uploaders, Apple's .mac/mobileME integration and the album/calendar ordser options make it a very quick, easy and intuitive option for the discerning amateur.
On the most part there are 2 different types of battery for a camera to use: Normal AA Batteries, and a Lithium Rechargeable. As a general rule of thumb it is a good idea to avoid cameras that take AA batteries as they just drain them very quickly, with an average of 50 shots taken before they run flat. This may be less if you are using the flash quite frequently. This can be alleviated by using some Energizer Lithium AA disposable batteries which give you ~200 shots but AA battery cameras on the most part tend to be the cheapest models around so if your budget is small then it may be something you have to live with.
The most popular type of camera battery is a Lithium rechargeable. If you've never seen one or indeed have no idea what one looks like its basically the same type of battery your mobile phone uses. One fresh charge will give you ~300 photo's and obviously when its flat you just charge it up again. All cameras come with the charger and the battery, meaning it not some sort of extra like a memory card or a case and in the long run spending the extra £20 or so to get a lithium rechargeable will save you the cost of buying more AA's. Yes, there are rechargeable AA options available but a charger plus batteries by someone like Uniross is still ~£20 anyway. Why not put that towards a better camera.
Some people, particularly those travelling may prefer AA batteries as you may be travelling somewhere with no permanent mains supply, meaning charging a camera is impossible. The only camera ive ever come across that is any good AND takes AA batteries is the Nikon P60, which also features full shutter/aperture control and can be found for ~£100 in some places.
So you've taken loads of photographs, uploaded them to your computer and found that some had the wrong settings applied when they took the picture, some were taken in the wrong lighting and some are just too blurry. Worse still you shoved the photos in your 'pictures' folder on your computer but can't remember exactly where they are and your Aunt is coming around to scrutinise your holiday snaps. What can you do? Thanks to modern computing the answer is actually quite a bit. Modern photographic software enables lots of organisation, work flow and post processing techniques and can not only speed up looking at your pictures but also enable you to correct your pictures if you accidentally shot all your beach shots in night mode.
Photographic software can be organised into 2 specific categories: Organisation and Editing.
Only an idiot uses the heirarchical folder structure to manage his or her photographs. You may not always get a thumbnail preview, you have to click through several layers of folder to find what you're after and more importantly its easy to lose and forget about pictures. With the fact that pretty much all photo organisation software is Freeware no-one has any excuse not to be using it.
Windows Photo Gallery [Windows XP/Vista/7]
WPG is a piece of software that either comes free with your computer (Vista) or is available as a free download from Microsoft (XP/7) and for a lot of people does the job. It uses the folder structure of you're computer to organise your pictures but the fact you get large previews of them in one dedicated place as well as the ability to add tags - labels that quickly describe a picture such as 'landscape' or 'wedding' means you can quickly filter through your pictures to find the ones you need. WPG also offers some basic (and I mean basic) editing options for minor touchups.
Personally im not a fan of WPG. It offers no album support, very few editing options and no exporting options to places like Flickr and Facebook, a key feature if you're showing off pictures to friends. You cant argue with the price and certainly give it a go but on Windows there is only one Freeware photo organiser you need to ever bother with:
Picasa [Windows XP/Vista/7 and Mac OS X 10.4+]
For a Windows user Google's Picasa is pretty much the best photo organisation program you can get, at least for the casual user. It offers folder organisation (as your pictures folder) if you wish to use this but you also have the option of producing alternative 'albums' that hold a user defined selection of pictures and it even sorts them all out via the date the pictures were taken, meaning you can quickly jump to last years' birthday party or the Hallowe'en of 2005 because it lists all the albums chronologically.
Picasa also offers a good level of editing options for touching up and altering your pictures to make sure they look better. It also supports exporting directly to Flickr or your gmail account meaning you can quickly select a few pictures and email them to people. You can create your own google page of web albums that other people can browse and even edit video you have shot. Heck you can also link into Google Earth to Geo-tag all your pictures with GPS co-ordinates so you know exactly where in the world your pictures were taken. Primarily designed for the layman to use, Picasa should be most Windows users' 1st point of call when looking for a photo organiser and editor.
Mac users have the option of using Picasa and are most certainly welcome to do so but for most users there is little point as all Macs come pre installed with..................
iPhoto [Mac OS X 10.4+]
For a Mac user this is usually the first and last place they go for image organisation and there is a valid reason for this: iPhoto quite simply kicks ass. The single problem I have with Picasa on my Windows PC is that it still uses the Folder structure to store pictures, so whilst I can use the albums I have created to view my pictures if I want to export any to imageshack or photobucket as a quick forum post I have to find the picture in Picasa, right click and select 'find on disk' and then copy the picture to the desktop for ease of uploading.
iPhoto works by storing all your photos in one huge 'library' file and if you want to get at them you just launch iphoto, find the picture and drag it to the desktop to copy it: easy. iPhoto also has the same amount of editing facilities as Picasa with the superb addition of 'straighten' (it still puzzles me why Google dont put this in) and support for a pile of Plug-ins. This means you can upload an iphoto album straight to Flickr or Facebook or even pop a quick image on Twitpic. Mac users migrating across from a Windows PC may prefer Picasa because they are used to it but familiarity breeds contempt. Until someone shows me something better I believe iPhoto to be the current pinnacle of Freeware photo organisation.
Editing coming soon.
Last edited by Carlos on Fri Jun 25, 2010 4:43 pm, edited 8 times in total.