Camera Buying Guide

Buying a camera can be daunting, especially as technology now overlaps between models. Do you need a digital still camera that also takes video or a video camera that also takes photos? And sure, you can take pretty good photos and video with your smartphone these days. But when is it worth upgrading to a specialized device to get better quality? This article will give you all the information you need to decide before buy.

When it comes to taking still pictures, you’ve got plenty of options: your smartphone, a digital camera, an HD camcorder, or an action cam. Any of them are fine for still shots taken in bright light, but add some adversity to the scene like low light and a digital camera is really how you’ll get the best quality still photos. Same goes for video. Superior footage typically requires a specialized video camera, often dubbed a camcorder or action cam. Some high-end SLR cameras also can take excellent quality video, but generally, only in 30 minute intervals.

How do digital cameras work? Digital cameras aren’t that different from conventional film cameras, but instead of capturing an image by focusing light onto a piece of film, digital cameras focus light onto an image sensor which records it electronically. That image is stored as a collection of millions of tiny dots, or pixels, in a digital file usually on a memory card inside your camera.

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What are megapixels? Images are made up of pixels. When you have one million pixels, you’ve got a megapixel. So a camera that captures 16 million pixels is called a 16 megapixel camera. It’s important to remember that megapixels alone do not determine the quality of the photos you capture but the number of megapixels does determine how large you can print those photos and the amount of cropping you can do without them looking grainy or blurry. Generally, most smartphones have at least 8 megapixel cameras. For general use, 10 megapixels is all the resolution most people need so don’t let a salesperson push a camera solely based on its megapixel count. The quality of the lens has a much greater effect on image quality.

Most still cameras can be divided into two categories: point-and-shoot models, with fixed or attached lenses, and system cameras, with interchangeable lenses and other accessories. While many devices take photos, if superior grade pictures shot in very light conditions are your primary goal, standalone cameras are the way to go. They have more versatile lenses and larger sensors that allow more flexibility, particularly in low-light, where your smartphone may not do such a great job.

We test four types of point-and-shoots which generally range in price from $75 to $2,500. Compact models are small, lightweight, and easy to use because most don’t have any manual controls to adjust the exposure or focus by hand. Some also come with touch screen LCDs or lenses that can zoom up to 23 times. Their best for everyday events like family gatherings.

Super zoom cameras got their name because of, you guessed it, their ability to zoom in really close, 24 times or more. Some models can go as high as 83 times optical zoom. That’s enough to capture the craters on the moon. They’re generally bigger and heavier than compacts and are great for sports, travel, and nature shooting.

We test rugged waterproof point-and-shoot cameras to make sure they truly are waterproof to the depth claimed. Most include GPS features for geo tagging the location of your photos and can also handle being dropped. Since they’re designed to be rugged and waterproof, these models sport lenses that don’t telescope out from the body of the camera, perfect for shooting photos and video underwater or on the slopes.

Advanced point-and-shoots are the lightest advanced cameras out there and many allow you to add an external flash for low-light conditions. Unlike basic point-and-shoots, they also boast plenty of manual controls, like manual focus, which lets you precisely control the focus of your shot. These models are great if you want the ease of use of a point-and-shoot but still want the versatility and control of an advanced camera.

Mirrorless cameras have a lot of the advantages of SLRs, like interchangeable lenses, but are smaller and lighter. For that reason, many people choose them as a high-end travel camera. Expect to pay anywhere from $280 to $3,500. They have the same size image sensor, but as their name implies, don’t have the mirror SLRs do. Because of that, they also lack a through the lens viewfinder some photographers prefer. Instead, most include high quality electronic viewfinders which show you a digital reproduction of the scene you’re shooting.

SLR stands for single lens reflex. These cameras are generally larger and heavier compared to point-and-shoot models and are used mostly by people who want higher image quality, more creative options, and better performance when shooting fast-moving events such as sports. SLRs generally range in price from $400 to $3,000 and up. Here are some technical talking points to know about SLRs. Single lens means the image you see through the eyepiece is a reflected image of the scene you’re shooting.

Reflex refers to the image being bounced off a mirror. As you press the shutter, the mirror flips up and the camera captures the image on the sensor. All SLRs use interchangeable lenses and have large sensors. The larger the image sensor, the shallower the depth of field the camera is able to produce, allowing for more creative photos, such as focusing on a subject and blurring out the background. Most SLRs have plenty of manual controls, such as an exposure compensation dial to quickly brighten or darken the scene. There are also full-frame SLRs. Their image sensor is the size of one frame of 35 millimeter film, the largest of any consumer cameras. A full-frame sensor allows the camera to more accurately capture both bright highlights and dark details in the same image.

Most cameras now have digital displays, the screen on the back of the camera that lets you frame and review your photos. Some even have touch screens like those found on the smartphone. More advanced cameras may also have a viewfinder to frame your shot. These can be really helpful when you’re shooting in bright light and can’t see the image on your display. A flash is available on almost every digital camera to help illuminate your subject. There are two main types used with consumer cameras, a built-in, which can be on board or pop-up, and an external flash, which is sold separately and fits into a camera’s hot shoe. You’ll find an external flash provides a lot more light than a built-in flash and lets you illuminate a greater area from a longer distance.

There are two types of zoom lenses: optical and digital. Optical zoom is a true zoom feature because it uses the moving lenses of the camera to bring the subject closer without losing image quality. Almost every standalone camera uses optical zoom. Digital zoom only makes an image seen close-up by magnifying the center of the frame without increasing picture detail. You will almost always lose image quality using it. A digital zoom, like the one found in most smartphones, basically works the same as taking a photo and cropping it. That’s why if it’s an optional feature on your point-and-shoot, you should really disable it.

Image stabilization compensates for shaky hands and helps you capture sharp images using a slower shutter speed. The two best types of image stabilization are optical and mechanical. The optical version takes place in the lens while the mechanical version happens in the camera body. Image stabilization can make a big difference in the sharpness of photos, especially if your camera has an optical zoom greater than three times.

Nearly all still cameras these days can capture HD video. Some can also capture Ultra HD or 4k video, which has a higher resolution, four times the number of pixels of regular high-definition video, but you’ll need an ultra-high def TV to take full advantage of 4k. One convenient video feature now found on many cameras is a dedicated video button so you can quickly switch between still images and video. Taking a lot of video? Buy a larger a memory card to store it.

ISO is a term that historically referred to film speed. On today’s digital cameras, it refers to the range of sensitivity of your camera’s sensor. For instance, when shooting in darker settings, pick a higher ISO. It will brighten up your shots. When shooting in bright settings, use a lower ISO. Keep in mind that employing a high ISO, like anything over 2500 on an SLR, means you could see more image noise or graininess on your photos, like strayed color dots or pixels.

Most cameras have three options for shooting still images: the familiar single image mode, burst mode, and self-timer mode. With the press of a button, burst mode takes rapid-fire shots right in a row. Some advanced models can shoot more than a hundred shots in one burst, so if you’re shooting a baseball game, you’ve got a much better chance of capturing the exact moment the bat hits the ball if you’re using burst mode. As the name implies, self-timer mode gives you a delay between the moment the shutter button is pressed and the moment the photo is captured. Some cameras let you set the length of the timer yourself and the number of shots you can take.

When you hear the word camcorder, you might think back to a time when you inserted a full VHS tape into a giant camera. But many of today’s digital camcorders can fit in the palm of your hand and weigh as little as half a pound, yet still have at least a 10 times optical zoom lens. HD camcorders range from about $200 to $700 with some 4k models selling for $1,000 or more. Many features available on HD camcorders are very similar to those of digital cameras. The primary difference between cameras and camcorders is their form factor or shape.

For instance, while cameras are ergonomically designed for you to take the best still pictures, camcorders and some action cams are formed to provide a more comfortable grip while shooting video, same goes for the placement of the video record button, the flip out LCD panel, and the optical zoom features. Camcorders are a good option if you plan to take a lot of video and long stretches and you don’t want to lug around a heavy SLR.

Action cams are designed for people who like outdoor sports and activities, such as jet skiing and snowboarding, and who want the ability to capture a hands-free video. They range from about $100 to $600. Because they’re so light and compact, they may lack features like a viewfinder or an LCD. Although some have a waterproof exterior, many have a rugged and waterproof housing or removable case. Part of the appeal of action cams is that you can attach them almost anywhere, handlebars, a helmet, even a drone. There’s a robust accessory ecosystem filled with all kinds of mounts and straps to make that possible. Also important on an action cam: simple OneTouch controls and even Wi-Fi so you can control the camera from your smartphone while your hands are busy.

Instead of film, digital cameras, camcorders and action cams store your images on flash memory cards. SD, or secure digital, is the most common format. Others include compact flash. That’s used mostly with SLR cameras. Or microSD cards, which are often used in smartphones. Some cameras can hold higher capacity SD cards, such as SD HD models, which can store up to 32 gigs of memory, and SD XC, which stores even more. Some cameras can accept more than one type of card so check your manual.

To get your photos and videos into your computer, there are a lot of options. You can transfer media using a cable, like a USB or HDMI. Or since so many cameras offer Wi-Fi, you can transfer them wirelessly to your computer, your smartphone, or even your printer. You also can insert the memory card from your camera into your computer or a card reader, a device that attaches to your computer to read memory cards. Some printers also have card slots allowing you to quickly print photos without a computer. Surveys indicate digital cameras and camcorders are pretty reliable so it’s generally not worth spending the money to buy an extended warranty.

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