In the previous post we listed and prioritized the types of photos a hypothetical photographer may have in mind when shopping for a camera (let’s not forget that we are talking about a casual photographer that has no intentions going into professional photography). Studying the requirement list, we concluded that our casual photographer is in fact mainly interested in outdoor photography characterized by a diversity of subjects in good light and scenes with a lot of fine details where sharpness and resolution are important qualities. Outdoor photography is usually a larger category containing landscapes, plants, wildlife, people in natural environment As any casual photographer, our friend won’t ignore a party or a social event with friends and relatives not always in good light, but he/she will not make this kind of photography his/hers main preoccupation: it is safe to assume that some compromise in this area would probably favor his/hers main interest – the outdoor photography.
Examining the requirement list helped us to create the feature list. This list will guide us in the shopping process. Probably the most important tool we need is the Internet itself. As I mentioned before, dpreview.com has an extensive database of cameras with their specifications and also offers tools like: feature search, side-by-side comparison, scores and ratings and camera reviews. I will use their tools in finding a camera for our casual photographer.
Selecting the Camera Style
We have two options here: fixed lens cameras (most compacts will fit into this category) and interchangeable lens cameras (all DSLRs and some rangefinders are part of this category). Most casual photographers will prefer the first because they don’t want to get complex or bulky cameras and also buy too many accessories (like new lenses). This is why the second category is not discussed in this post.
The fixed lens cameras can be: ultra compact, compact, SLR-like and large sensor compact.
The ultra compact cameras can be attractive in the first place because of their small size; women prefer them often because they can carry the cameras in their purses. The most serious disadvantages of the ultra compact cameras are: very small sensors, poor quality optics and lack of robustness.
The compact cameras are the most numerous in this category and they represent the largest segment of this particular market. A compact camera is reasonably small, it offers a decent compromise between cost and quality, performs well in many situations from travel to family scenes and come with a lot of attractive features from full manual control (on some models) to GPS or wireless printing. As the ultra compact cameras, this group uses relatively small sensors but with better quality optics and more sophisticated electronics capable of better performance.
The SLR-like cameras borrow some characteristics from their DSLR relatives like: bigger lenses with a better optical quality usually covering a very large zoom range (10x or higher), very good optical or electronic viewfinders, some have larger sensors offering a better image quality, manual controls are common as the ability to shoot in RAW format (to allow better post-processing).
The large sensor cameras try to overcome the most serious issue of the compact cameras based on small sensors: low image quality (especially in low-light) and poor signal-to-noise ratio. As we discussed in one of my previous posts, the larger the sensor the better the image quality could be. Unfortunately, a larger sensor will increase the size of the camera (and the size of the lens). In the best case scenario, you can get a camera that is smaller than a DSLR (but not too much) with a fixed lens that may not get the best of your sensor but it will eventually produce much better results than the small sensor cameras.
In our example we will consider the compact camera as the main candidate for our photographer.
Selecting the Zoom Range
As we saw, the zoom range should cover the general purpose area from wide angle (around 28mm or lower) to medium tele-photo (around 135mm or higher). This translates into a 5x zoom range or larger. Unfortunately, indicating the zoom range in magnification units does not tell the whole story: the same 5x factor can be, for example, 32…160mm, 28…140mm or 24…120mm. Which one is better? The answer it is not always simple: if you like taking wide angle photos, the 24…120mm range is preferable; if you prefer to shoot on the longer part of your zoom, the 32…160mm will do a better job. For most people the 28…140mm is just fine. Remember that we talk here 35mm equivalent numbers; dpreview.com does a good job converting these numbers for you and allowing you to compare focal ranges.
What about a larger range? Well, if you don’t need more than 5x but you will select in the end a camera with a larger range, consider the extra focal interval a bonus. However, a word of caution: the larger the range, the more likely that the optical quality of the lens will suffer. While large zoom range is a powerful marketing tool, the reality is that manufacturers have enough difficulty obtaining high quality zoom lenses with large focal range.
In our example, we will first look for a 5x zoom with a focal range of 28…140mm or something close.
Almost all modern cameras offer one form or another of image stabilization (IS). I highly recommend avoiding cameras with no IS or poor IS. A good IS makes a lot of sense in handheld photography especially for compact cameras that have image quality issues in low-light because of their small sensors. Don’t forget that IS won’t prevent the motion blur caused by the movement of the subject.
In landscape photography, the image stabilization is useful especially in conditions like: scenes in the shadows or taken in the evenings, scenes taken in stormy weather or deep clouds, scenes taken in forests, etc.
This is not a feature but a quality of the camera. Reading a camera review, studying sample photos taken by reviewers or other people, personally evaluating a camera in different situations may help.
When searching for a good camera, look at the custom white balance feature (most cameras have it): some times you can use this feature to correct a color casting problem or optimize the colors in a situation where the camera automatic algorithms will fail (like incandescent light where a lot of cameras experience problems). However, a camera that requires white balance adjustments too often is probably something you want to avoid – it indicates low quality and it will make your life miserable.
As consequence, a good review and/or hands-on experience is probably the best tool.
As we studied the exposure in a number of previous posts, we learned that there are many parameters that influence the amount of light that enters into the camera: aperture, shutter speed, sensitivity, exposure modes, exposure compensation, exposure bracketing. All these parameters can make one camera successful and another camera a failure. I don’t intend to repeat here what I wrote about exposure in the past. Enough to say that we will look for flexibility and performance without exaggeration or ignorance: hopefully the good sense will prevail.
In the case of outdoor photography look for the following:
- Maximum aperture: F3.5 or brighter – for example, F2.8 or F2.2; remember that the maximum aperture is not constant across the whole zoom range (except in rare cases). At wide angle you may have F2.8 while at the maximum tele-photo the maximum aperture could be F5.6. As a rule of thumb, try to stay away from cameras with a maximum aperture smaller than F5.6 on the long side of the zoom range (for example, F6.3 or F7.1).
- Shutter speed: a range of 1/1000 sec to 1 sec or larger will cover most situations. In fact, more than 90% of the cameras will provide this interval. However, cameras with large zoom range will provide faster shutters (1/2000 or 1/4000 sec). If you are tempted by night photography, look for cameras allowing exposure times greater than 10 sec.
- Exposure modes: as I mentioned in the past, aperture priority and shutter priority modes are very useful features, especially in landscape photography (but not limited to). I would recommend the full manual mode as well (for those photographers that are more creative). The vast majority of compact cameras will offer scene modes that work better for those not intending to experiment but let the camera decide in their place; the most recent models also include an intelligent auto mode that use sophisticated algorithms to determine the best exposure – while convenient for some, I find these modes lacking flexibility and sometimes prone to mistakes. But you cannot ignore their usefulness for people lacking any knowledge about photography. I would also recommend an exposure compensation range of at least ±2 EV and an exposure bracketing range of at least ±1 EV (warning: the exposure bracketing may be hidden in the camera manual rather than in the specifications).
Dynamic Range and RAW Format Support
The dynamic range is a parameter difficult to find in the specifications. Because most compact cameras use JPEG with 8-bit/channel as their default format, it is hard to find the internal dynamic range the camera uses for image processing. It is probably easier to look for features like in-camera HDR or highlight tone priority. Because these features are specific to relatively high end cameras developed in the recent years, I recommend reading the reviews and making sure that the camera does not burn the highlights and provides good shadow details.
Some cameras may provide sensor data as a RAW image file. This way you can bypass the camera image processing and use a more flexible and powerful processing tool on your computer (for example, Adobe Photoshop or Adobe Lightroom). Not all casual photographers are eager to post-process their pictures – the vast majority will prefer good results out of the box. So, this feature may not apply to you. In any case, if the extra price is not too high, consider it as a bonus feature.
Only by reading reviews and studying image samples you will get this one right. Some brands may be better than others but in the area of compact cameras cost reduction may force the manufacturers to cut some corners and disappoint you with subpar quality on some models.
In general, the manufacturers will give you little information about the optical quality of their compact cameras – in many cases you will have to trust the reviewers to do the job of characterizing the optical issues. Problems like chromatic aberrations, geometrical distortions, lack of sharpness and other optical issues may ruin your images if not taken care of in both lens manufacturing and in-camera processing. Most people will tell you that the final result is important and they may be right in some degree. My opinion is that you need the optical quality in the first place if you want to get the most out of your photos.
Sensor Size and Resolution
I said may times that size matters: a larger sensor is probably better. In fact, a lower pixel density is what matters most when it comes to a good signal-to-noise ratio. Or in a more intuitive way, a physically large sensor with a relatively low resolution will probably produce the “cleanest” image even in low-light conditions.
What is the highest resolution our casual photographer would need for his outdoor photography? When it comes to details, landscapes can be very demanding requiring high resolutions. Remember that the higher the sensor resolution, the higher the optical resolution is required to get the benefit of more details in the image. In addition, the high resolution does not mean the image will be crispier or sharper; in fact, it may have the opposite effect especially at very high pixel densities.
I would recommend cameras with sensors of 8…12 megapixels as a starting point. If you read the specifications of a camera you will find the physical size of the sensor. Use this info to calculate the pixel density. In the end, if it comes to this, pick the camera with the lowest pixel density – you will have better chances for better image quality, especially in low-light. However, this is only a suggestion, a starting point. There is nothing more important than knowing the cameras through reviews or hands-on experience and studying image samples in detail. If you can live with what you see, you are on the right track in finding your compact camera. If not, go on with your research.
Examples for the Casual Photographer
In the “Camera” menu selecting the “Camera Feature Search” on dpreview.com, I used the following inputs:
- Camera style: fixed lens, compact
- Zoom range: 5x
- Zoom wide: less than 30mm
- Zoom tele: any (or not selected) – determined by the wide focal and zoom range
- Image stabilization: both optical and sensor shift technologies selected
- Custom white balance: selected
- Maximum aperture: F3.5 or brighter
- Shutter speed range: 1/1000 to 1 sec or larger range
- Exposure modes: aperture priority and shutter priority
- Sensor size: premium compact and larger
- Effective pixels: more than 8 and less than 12 MP
The tool selected three cameras: Nikon Coolpix P7100, Canon PowerShot G12 and Canon PowerShot G11 (not in production anymore, maybe available as used camera).
Now you can go and compare them side-by-side, read the reviews, decide which one is for you and start looking for great deals…
What if you don’t like what the tool suggested based on your selection? Simple, tweak some parameters and watch the results changing. It is an iterative process that will lead you to only few cameras you need to review.
Based on the reviews and personal preferences I would pick Canon PowerShot G12. But owning Canon cameras for years I’m probably biased. I’m sure Nikon Coolpix P7100 would do a pretty good job too. As a bonus both cameras will provide RAW format support.
If the camera seems too big or too expensive, you will probably have to accept smaller sensors and tweak other parameters to narrow your selection.
Have fun my friends!