Consumes Guide to Digital Cameras
Key Features You Need

Mt. Gould in Glacier Park

Get a Useful Digital Camera

Mt. Gould in Glaicer Park, taken with a Canon a40
St. Mary Lake in Glacier National Park
   Photo Use Guidelines

Define useful, please, you may ask. Well, I will. By useful, I mean that the camera has enough features, functions and capability to do many things without you, the user, having to give much, if any thought, to it.

So, what are these key features and functions? Well, the list could be endless, depending on the photographer. However, what is discussed below and on the following pages, are features that I’ve found most casual photographers sooner or later want and use.

Camera Zoom

By far, the most useful feature. You absolutely, positively want a camera that has a powerful and good-quality zoom feature on it. Why? Simple, really. By having a zoom lens, you can get “closer” or “further away” from the subject you’re photographing. In short, a zoom lens opens up all sorts of utility (and, I’ll say, enjoyment) to taking photographs. Without a zoom lens, your photos will often seem blah and empty unless you, the photographer, put significant time into wandering around to fit your subject properly into the photograph.

Now, word of warning, this is where many cheap cameras fail. You see, making a zoom lens isn’t easy. And all too often inexpensive cameras come with zoom lenses that are so crappy that they can’t even take a sharp photo. I’ve had personal experience with many Canon digital cameras, and have never had a complaint about the zoom lens on any of them. So, I’ll recommend that any camera you get be a Canon digital camera with a zoom lens.

The next question is…how powerful of a zoom? My suggestion is to get, at a minimum, a camera with a 3x zoom. Even better is a camera with a 4x zoom, which, happily, is becoming more and more common.

Oops. I forgot to mention one unhappy fact about zoom lenses. When you zoom in close to a subject at maximum zoom, your photograph might not turn out the way you wanted. Why? Blame it on camera shake. You see, when you zoom in on a subject at maximum zoom, it becomes ever-more important to hold the camera steady. Like binoculars on maximum zoom, even a “tiny change” in how you hold or grip the camera while on maximum zoom can cause a “big change” in what the camera sees. In the world of photography, this is known as “camera shake,” or the inability to hold a camera still enough to allow for a sharp, crisp photo. When you use the zoom feature of a camera, the more zoom you use, the greater the likelihood that your photo will not be sharp or crisp due to “camera shake.”

Happily, Canon has come up with a nifty way to combat camera shake. While it’s highly technical in how it works, at the end of the day the feature you want is called “Image Stabilization.” Image Stabilization alleviates camera shake, helping you to capture crisp, sharp photographs even when using a zoom lens on maximum zoom.

Because of this, I strongly recommend that any digital camera you buy have Image Stabilization. The Image Stabilization feature can make a huge difference in the quality of your photographs when you use the zoom feature of your camera.

The Dreaded and Over Hyped Digital Zoom

Zoom lenses are nothing new, as they have been around forever in film photography. However, digital cameras usually come with not just you standard optical zoom but with another zoom type called “Digital Zoom.”

So what’s the difference between optical zoom and digital zoom? Simple. Optical zoom is identical to what you find hanging on traditional film cameras that have zoom lenses. When using optical zoom, you can get closer to a particular object without any sacrifice in image quality (assuming you have a quality lens), because the zoom feature is done optically, through the lens itself.

Digital zoom, however, is a different beast entirely. When using digital zoom, the camera itself modifies the image electronically to bring the object you are photographing closer to you. It does this by cropping the outside of the image and then blowing up the middle of the image. The result of this is that photographing objects using digital zoom usually produce grainy, blocky images that, to be charitable, look terrible.

Thus, be careful when shopping for digital cameras. Make sure whatever camera you get has a high optical zoom rating if you want to be able to zoom in on distant objects. Digital zoom is, at lest from my experience, rather useless.

Quick Recommendation on Camera Zoom

Well, so far, so good. We’ve narrowed down our search a bit. But, in the event you didn’t read this whole thing, my suggestions for features is to get a digital camera that has, at a minimum, a 3X Optical Zoom with Image Stabilization (but a 4X Optical Zoom camera with Image Stabilization is even better!). I’ll suggest Canon cameras as that is what I’m familiar with, but there are cameras from Nikon and Olympus that are also very good and come with some form of image stabilization, too.

Red Eye Reduction and the Camera’s Flash

This is another feature you positively want on your digital camera. Why? If you plan to take photos of people or animals with the cameras flash, red eye reduction is crucial to avoid having your subjects end up with “red eyes.” The camera does this by firing short flashes of light before the final flash, which makes the subject of the pictures eyes contract. This helps prevent or at least reduce glowing "red eyes".

Thankfully, red eye reduction is almost a standard feature on most cameras today. Still, always be sure that whatever camera you buy comes with this feature, because if it isn’t, I guarantee you’ll regret not having it the first time you take a photograph of your sweetie using the flash.

Long as we’re talking about the cameras flash, let me provide a quick rundown on the standard “flash modes” found in most digital cameras.

  • Automatic - The digital camera sense when to use the flash according to the lighting conditions.
  • On - The digital camera will use the flash for every picture, needed or not.
  • Off - The digital camera will never use the flash, needed or not.
  • Red Eye Reduction – This is generally a separate flash mode. Thus, when taking photographs of people, try to remember to always set the cameras flash to red eye reduction. Few, if any, cameras incorporate red eye reduction into their automatic flash (since you don’t want to use red eye reduction for anything else but taking photos of “things with living eyes.”)

Panoramic Pictures

If you like to take panoramic shots (those wide shots showing the landscape) than any digital camera you get should have a panoramic function. This function on the camera, in combination with the cameras software, allows it to "stitch" together two or more images to form a panoramic shot - sort of like those wide postcards you see. Many digital cameras, even good ones, do not have this function, so pay close attention when shopping if you would like this function. As a side note, I created the logo on this website by "stitching" three digital photos together and then scaling it down to size.

Amount of Memory You Should Get for a Digital Camera

There is probably a conspiracy going on of some kind. I don't think a single digital camera comes with anything more than a 32 MB memory card - which will hold, at best, no more than 20 images and usually quite less, depending on the resolution of the camera. Thus, make sure you buy extra memory when you purchase your digital camera. Happily, purchasing extra memory for digital cameras isn’t expensive. Because of this, I’d suggest getting at least 2 GB worth of memory cards (either one 2GB card or two 1 GB cards). And, if someday you might be away from your computer for some time and plan to take lots of photos, well…then get even more! It’s been my experience that you can almost NEVER have enough memory cards.

To give you an idea, for my Canon 20d I have 4 GB worth of memory, and have, on several occasions, come perilously close to filling them all before I had a chance to download them all to my computer. Another benefit of having “too much memory” instead of “not quite enough” is that, since you aren’t worried about running out of room to store your photographs, it’s almost a guarantee that you WILL take more photos. And, as far as I’m concerned, the more photos you take, the better, as it increases the odds of getting those “special” photos that you might miss when trying to ration your photography.

Automatic Camera Modes

Virtually all digital cameras, even the fanciest SLR ones, have automatic camera modes. Thus, I’d be shocked if you could actually find a consumer level digital camera without them. But, in case you’ve never heard of them, or just need a refresher course, here is what some of the automatic camera modes do.

Sports Mode : You turn the mode to “sports” and the camera will automatically adjust itself to take photos of fast moving objects. Thus, the camera uses the fastest possible shutter speed it can in order to capture “fast moving objects” without any blur.

Landscape Mode : You turn the mode to “landscape” and the camera will automatically adjust itself to take photos that have as much “in focus” as possible. In technical terms, this means the camera will use a longer exposure time and a smaller aperture size. By doing this, the camera will put as much of the photo into sharp focus as possible (with no background blur).

Portrait Mode : You turn the mode to “portrait” and the camera will automatically adjust itself to take photos of people. It does this by doing the opposite of what the camera does in “landscape mode.” In portrait mode, the camera does it’s best to ONLY keep the subject of the photo (usually the face of the person) in focus, while the background behind the person is blurred. The camera accomplishes this by having a short exposure time with a larger aperture size.

General Mode : The true automatic mode. Usually marked by a “green box” on the camera, the “general mode” is like handing the keys to the camera and letting it make all the decisions. The general mode works just fine for many things. However, even casual photographers will frequently want to change out of this “pure automatic mode” when conditions arise. In particular, if you are photographing sports, switching over to “sports mode” is always a good idea.

Well, there you have it...some key features to look for when you shop around for a digital camera. There are, of course, many other things you want to have on a digital camera. But, the list on this page is as good as starting point as any.

Next Page : Putting It All Together and a Final Recommendation

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