Guide to buying a digital point and shoot camera

Or, how I bought a great camera and how you can too!

There are way too many p&s cameras out there in the market and almost everybody seems to portray their products as more worthy a buy than another. But how much can we bend before we break?

I faced the same problem when I was contemplating on which camera to buy, and after a few weeks’ repeated consideration which required quite a lot of endurance, I finally ordered one. But I learned an extensive lot in the process: terms I never new existed, stuff I never knew mattered and more stuff I never knew meant nothing. And most importantly, what one’s itinerary ought to be on the map of confusion that is the market of cameras. So this is my two cents on what you ought to consider when you buy the next digital camera. Rest assured I have covered everything there is in this brief, yet informative, guide filled with all you need to know. Plus my own experience from a few days ago!

Is what I have now not good enough?

Perhaps the first question one needs to ask themselves is whether they need  a digital camera at all. A few good reasons you can convince yourself is because the images are output digitally, which means they are easier to handle and you do not have to wait for an entire reel of film to run out before you develop it (if you really like to hold it physically.)
That said, and if you already have a digital camera or a mode of shooting digitally  (I had my smartphone) do you need a new one? Again, a few good reasons might be that you need better picture quality than your lousy phone can give you, or maybe you want to pursue photography as a mainstream hobby and cannot afford (or do not want) a dSLR, so a p&s is a better option. Or maybe you have got better with photography and want to explore a world where your camera allows a tad more of those envious manual settings than can make or break an image—and only you are to blame. But it is fun nonetheless.

The main advantage of a digital camera is that it is handy and cuts out all that acutance jargon most people do not understand (and if you did not know, acutance is what the layman calls sharpness.) Even more of a reason would be those preset modes. But these are misleading, as we will later see.

What my camera would need, as opposed to what it would want

So the two main questions before us would be, what are those elements my camera absolutely cannot do without (in other words, would be a waste of an investment.) And those that will not really matter to me.

Megapixels

For new entrants into the camera market, MPs are everything. But the fact of the matter is that they mean nothing unless coupled with a golden leaf. (I will come to that leaf later.)

Megapixels, roughly translating, tells you how big a picture you can get out of a shot you have just taken. Would it be over 4000 pixels by length and height? (About 14MP.) Or just over 1200 either way? (About 5MP, maxed out.) Or, to take it further, will you be able to print out a three foot by four foot framed photograph without losing detail, introducing noise or (to put it loosely) compromising on quality?

[For the curious mind, MegaPixels really means million. Mega is a prefix used in physics, for instance MegaHertz for frequency, Megametre for a million metres or a thousand kilometers and so on. It is one followed by six zeroes and so 6MP really means your image can have up to 6,000,000 pixels—although cameras always have an option to click a picture in any lower pixel density, such as 5 or 4MP, in the settings menu.]

But even these megapixels mean nothing without our golden leaf

Image Sensors

So the image you have before you is not all fitting the LCD Live View screen? Or are those 30MPs seeming like large pixelated tiles while the guy over at the camera store told you it should be smooth as silk, like pictures from an issue of NatGeo? Blame your image sensor.

These little devices have odd looking measurement styles. If you looked at the specifications of any camera, you would find Image Sensors listed as something like 1/6” or 1/5” or moving to dSLRs, 1/1.2” and so on.

While this seems to make perfect sense to any student of photography or physics, the layman might get lost here. The idea is that the larger the Image Sensor, the better the processing is. Take graphics cards, for example: the larger their memory, the better their output. But in case of the Sensors, when we speak of large, we mean it literally.

Take 1/6” and 1/5” for instance: dividing 1 by 6, we get 0.166”; and dividing 1 by 5 we get 0.2”. Clearly, the second one (two tenths of an inch) is larger than the first. Therefore the second Image Sensor is better.

The further gameplan is this: a very small image sensor, like 1/6”, given an elephantine lot of pixels, like 14MP, will be unjust. The tiny thing will not be able to do a good job and the end result will be a noisy photograph. On the other hand, a 1/5” sensor coupled with a 3MP camera is meaningless because the input image itself is not sufficiently sharp. The right combination of these two is therefore extremely necessary.

My Canon PowerShot has a 14.1MP with a 1/2.3” sensor (about 0.45”) which is a good standard. You can perhaps use that to get an idea as to what MP goes with what sensor.

But why do manufacturers still put in such large MPs into cameras? I think it is a marketing gimmick. More than three-fourths of the consumers out there go by MegaPixels and hardly any of them have even heard of Image Sensors. But now you know.

[For those of you who have at some point of time studied electronics and circuitry, the Image Sensors that are of the Charged Couple Device type are generally better. Others might want to look for the CCD marking like ‘1/4” CCD Image Sensor’ on the device specs.]

And the others

You will be surprised to know these are the only things you absolutely must bother about when buying a digital camera. But there are a few optional things which might be interesting to consider should two or three cameras in your budget end in a tie when comparing their MPs and ISs!

Basically, the two points above are a requirement for all; but those hereafter are either optional or are for people with specific requirements. I have them below in the order of preference:

Image Stability: Nobody keeps their camera perfectly still while shooting (although there are a few tricks I, myself, follow to increase stability manually) so a digital (or preferably, optical) electronic image stabilisation feature is an excellent addition for your money.

Optical zoom: If you plan to click pictures from afar, the optical zoom feature is a must. My PowerShot has a 4x zoom in its Canon Zoom (full of awesomeness) lens and I find it sufficient for my needs. However, manufacturers add a digital zoom feature to lure innocent consumers. Find the option that lets you throw it out of the window. Digital zoom merely crops, enlarges and wrecks a part of your photograph so much that you would not even want to take credit for it any day.

Battery type: Often the option in cameras is between two battery types: AA dry cells (NiMH) or rechargable Li-ion. (when I say option, I mean cameras come with either; you cannot choose it yourself!)

The advantage with AA batteries is that there is no headache of charging. Most Nikon p&s cameras adhere to this trend. But, from experience I can assure you that if you do not get the rechargeable AA batteries, you will run out of juice soon. And even if you do, they will not last as long as Li-ion built-in batteries. Moreover, recharging makes no difference with the Li-ion batteries!

The Li-ion batteries are similar to phone batteries and nowadays come with the option of charging them in-camera as opposed to using a second charger to charge them. They also have a USB-charging feature that works best with USB 3.0+ and is considerably fast with lower versions.

Flash: Best if placed on the left of the lens (right, if you view the camera from the front.) This allows for free handling of your right hand which operates the shutter button and prevents your fingers obstructing the flash. Also use Through The Lens flash (or TTL for short) sparingly. Of better use would be the fill flash option if your camera has it, because it uses surrounding environment light as a reflector/intensifier to give you a better picture without clumsy flashes and red-eyes.

[As a side note, remember those guys in the middle of the football stadium, flashing away on their cameras? Well, they were wasting their batteries. Flash is useless beyond a maximum of eight to ten feet. Beyond that, it just consumes your battery and makes no difference to the picture. The advice therefore is, learn when not to use your flash. Parenthetically, make sure your camera has the option to turn off flash when it is not required, just like it has an option to get rid of digital zoom.]

Aperture Priority (Av): This is an indispensable semi-manual mode of shooting. If your camera has this and the Shutter Priority mode (we will come to that soon) then it is a one up. In this, one has the option to manually set the aperture size (like f/5, f/2 and so on—my personal favourite is f/8 which I find perfectly suitable to most situations.) This creates, most commonly, a depth of field. I have yet to put up photographs with varying depths of field on my photography website, and I plan to pick up a few of my older shoots and do so soon.

Depth of field is really the amount of your picture in focus (based on relative distances from the lens.) Now follow this closely: a large aperture number means a small aperture opening; a small aperture opening means the amount of light entering your camera is restricted; less light entry implies a greater depth of field where a large number of objects in the scene are in clear focus. This is best for landscapes.

Now doing just the opposite (small aperture number and so on as I explained above) gives us a small depth of field, or all the objects in the scene are not in focus. To be precise, the nearest one (most often the subject) is in focus. This is particularly helpful in macro (shooting up close) or when the viewers’ attention has to be directed to something in particular, regardless of the background (which almost always gets thoroughly blurred.)

I call this a semi-manual mode (actually, quite a few people do) because, while we control the aperture, the remaining details—most interestingly the shutter speed—which we have to set manually in dSLR cameras, is set by the camera itself. In general the formula, quite understandably, is to go in for a slow shutter speed for larger depths of field.

Shutter Priority (Tv): The other important semi-manual mode where you set the shutter speed manually. This is most useful when photographing moving things, like water, over a split second because this gives a surreal effect most commonly found coupled in HDR photographs (High Dynamic Range imaging: those almost artificial looking vivid coloured photographs some people still think are digitally created.)

Automatic mode: I do not have to put this here, because without this, the concept of a digital camera breaks down. If I still have to explain it, it is that evergreen mode some fellows refuse to switch from where the camera does all the work except clicking the shutter button.

Programme mode: This is actually a non-standard semi-manual mode one finds in select cameras which often lets the user make considerable adjustments in hue, tone, saturation, white balance, contrast, brightness, exposure, ISO and so on. (ISO is the International Organisation for Standardisation which used to set the standards for reel films; but the term has remained in use even for digital cameras and simply suggest what reel quality/standard the particular shot is going to be equivalent to if you were using a film-camera in its place.

I call this a non-standard mode because there is no single definition for this mode in the marketplace. There are even manufacturers who merge this with the automatic mode, disregard it or call the Auto mode as the Programme mode.

Internal and expandable memory: The standard internal memory for a camera nowadays is around 30 to 50 MB. Sufficient for a couple of good quality pictures, insufficient for videos. Anything lesser is bad value for money, although not a prime concern because, whether we wish to or not, buying a digital camera always means buying a memory card along with it!

Make sure you get good option to expand the memory of up to at least 4GB. This optimum amount makes sure your older photos do not get buried if you do not have the habit of regularly formatting your card and clicking tonnes of pictures and experimenting. While this is unanimous industrial standard, some cameras sway away from this rule. And you need to stay out of their path.

Panorama and Movie modes: Useful to most, and an added up to some, these give you the option of shooting films (often up to half an hour) and taking a series of pictures spanning 360 degrees. While some cameras allow you to stitch the panorama in-camera, others require a provided software package.

Pre-set modes and effects: If all the three we saw above were semi-manual modes, these pre-set modes are fully automatic. Examples include landscape, portrait, face-priority, smile/wink detection, night, fireshow, discrete, copy and a number of others. These need not all be in all cameras, but it would be a good criteria to look into before buying a camera merely as good value for your money.

Along with this are effects, such as sepia, black&white, vivid colour, red-eye reduction and so on. And additional features such as locking select pictures, cropping them and so on.

Good luck buying a camera!

Tat is quite all I have to say at the moment! Bookmark this and do keep coming back to this post because I might just keep making additions and changes (which I will clearly mark as and ‘update.’)  And if you have questions, do get in touch with me and I will do as much as I can to help.

Good luck buying that envious new camera!