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Monday, June 21, 2010

What Matters in a Camera, Point n Shoot edition

Inspired by my megapixel rant, I decided to weigh in on what I thought *was* important when buying a camera. I covered DSLRs in my last post, so now I'll tackle the world of point n shoots. Here's what I think you should look for when purchasing a new point n shoot camera:

Price. Again, you probably have a budget. The nice thing about point n shoots is that there are very few accessories that you will feel a need to buy, so you can spend most of your cash on the actual camera. I do recommend some sort of small tripod (like a Gorillapod), a simple carrying case, and an extra memory card or two, but you probably won't ever need much more than that. Also, don't be afraid to buy an older model. Point n shoots get refreshed yearly (sometimes more) with minor "upgrades," so you're really not missing that much if you go back a generation or two.

Purpose. How do you see yourself using this camera? Will it be your only camera? Or is it a smaller backup/carry around camera to go with your DSLR? Perhaps you want something more rugged and splash proof to take to the beach and not worry about? Figure out exactly how you will be using the camera and decide what features you need from there.

Size. Point n shoots range in size from super slim pocket friendly versions to something just shy of a consumer DSLR with a kit lens. If this is going to be your only camera you may want to opt for something larger, but in general I'd say go with something small enough for you to easily put it in a pocket and carry it with you. Otherwise, you're likely to leave it behind for convenience sake, and that defeats the whole purpose of having the camera. When I'm on vacation, my point n shoot lives in my front pocket (instead of the keys I usually keep there) so that I can pull it out and grab a photo any time I want.

Lens. This is an often overlooked part of a point n shoot, but the lens is critical to the quality of photos you're going to get from your little camera. There are basically two classes of point n shoot, some which sport around a 3x zoom (something like a 28-105mm equivalent), and some which proclaim ridiculous zoom ranges of 15-20x. My advice? Stick to the smaller zooms. Sure, it's convenient to zoom in on your kid's face from half a football field away, but you make a lot of compromises with that sort of lens. They're generally much slower (f/stop), especially at the long end. Superzooms are also given to large amounts of distortion, barreling at the wide end and pincushion at the tele. And really, they're just not all that sharp. There may be a "sweet spot" for the lens, but in general you're going to be looking at fuzzy images. (14 bazillion pixels not withstanding.) Look for a fast lens (f/2.8 is common on the wide end, I've even seen f/2) to help gather more light for the sensor (remember the crappy high-ISO performance). Optical image stabilization is basically a given these days, but check for it anyway. "Macro" focusing at the wide end is also a fun feature, which I think is also fairly common but I could be mistaken.

Sensor size. If possible, find out how large the sensor is. You'll be looking at between 1/4" and 2/3". In general, bigger is better, but it usually translates into a larger camera with a bigger lens (see my point about size). This is where you'll have to make a compromise, and what you choose depends on what your needs are. If you just want to document something and plan on saving the serious shooting for your DSLR, a tiny sensor is probably fine. If you're looking for something a little more high quality to show off online or even print, you probably want to suck it up and get the bigger camera.

Shutter lag. This is probably the *worst* feature of digital point n shoots: it takes an incredibly long time for the camera to take a photo once the shutter is pressed. Things have been getting better over time, but there's still a bit of a lag. Looking up shutter lag times is good, actually trying the camera is better. Also check how fast the camera can shoot (FPS). Some newer cameras have better recycle time, or can at least shoot a small burst at a decent speed. If you plan on capturing candids, this stat should be high on your list.

Video. Most point n shoots take some form of video these days. In my opinion, HD isn't really necessary for a little pocket cam, but it can't really hurt. Just know you're probably not getting true 720p resolution between the optics and the compression/upscaling. (1080p? Forget it.) I wouldn't buy one of these things to try to shoot a film on, but little documentary movies are great to have (and make fun facebook/youtube fodder). Make sure it's easy to get into and out of video mode (usually some sort of dial) so that you'll actually use it. If you have to dive through menus to turn it on, chances are you won't bother (or you'll miss the moment).

RAW. Some of the high end point n shoots will capture RAW images. RAW will give you the best dynamic range possible out of your sensor, and offer you the white balance and exposure flexibility that you get with the DSLRs. If this is going to be your only camera and you want to get the most out of it, go for it. Otherwise, it's probably not worth the hassle.

Buttons and controls. On the one hand, a point n shoot camera is beautiful in its simplicity - just point, and shoot. Buuuut if you're into photography at all, you're going to want to change certain things. Not having some control over exposure drives me crazy, and it's nice to be able to get to the other settings pretty quickly (white balance, ISO, "scene modes" - yes, I do use them sometimes). Touch screens sound cool in theory and look great in the showroom, but outside in bright sunlight (especially once they're smeared up from your fingers) you're going to have a hard time seeing what you're doing. Just skip it for now.

Memory card format. Basically, SD is the way to go. Don't buy a Sony camera that takes their memory stick unless you own other Sony devices that can share it. SD cards are inexpensive and plentiful and you have a much better chance of borrowing one if yours runs out of space or crashes at an event. (If you have other cameras that take SD cards, you may not even need to buy another one, provided you still have a backup or two for each camera.)

Other features. Ok, rather vague, but the market is so diverse it's hard for me to cover it all. There are a few cameras that will shoot time-lapse, which is very cool. Some cameras are extra rugged and may even be waterproof to 10 feet or so, perfect if you spend time at the beach (or have little kids who like to take photos). Some cameras have flip out screens, which is a handy feature for taking self-shots or shooting up high/down low. Just make sure you're not paying for features you don't really need. Often times there will be multiple versions of essentially the same camera (same lens and sensor), with the more expensive ones having additional features added or turned on in the firmware. If you don't need the features, save the bucks and get the less expensive one.

CHDK. Some of the Canon cameras are "hackable" - you can install a different firmware that will give you much more control over the camera. The beauty of this is that you can buy an older used camera and add a bunch of interesting features to it (time-lapse, manual control, RAW, live histogram, bracketing). It's rather clunky, though, and somewhat defeats the purpose of having a "point n shoot." But, if you're the kind of person who likes tinkering, it might be worth buying one of the cameras on that list so that you have the option of playing with CHDK. CHDK site here

That's all I've got. Feel free to add your own insight to the comments. Hope this helps.


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