Guest Post: Five Important Features to Look for in an Advanced Compact Digital Camera
Guest Post By Alex White
In today’s digitally-centered world, there is no shortage of devices that can take photographs. Smartphones can snap photos with good resolution and small, almost totally automatic “lifestyle” cameras can capture quick shots of friends and family. These trendy devices generally lack several important photographic features needed for serious photography. Happily, it’s not necessary to lug around a bulky DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) camera. The new, lightweight, “advanced compact” cameras come with an incredible array of sophisticated features,
Deciding which camera model is right for you can be quite confusing. Digital camera expert Alexander S. White offers several helpful recommendations on what to look for when evaluating the options. He says the selection process is easier if you concentrate on just a few key features.
The Basic Features and Beyond:
Most advanced compact cameras offer a group of non-automatic shooting settings, often known as the PASM modes, for Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual. They also usually have manual focus and the ability to adjust settings such as ISO (light sensitivity) and white balance.
Beyond those core features, higher-level compact cameras often come with capabilities such as continuous (burst) shooting; an internal system for processing HDR (High Dynamic Range) images; a built-in way to shoot 3D photographs; and the ability to shoot high-definition (HD) video.
The daunting complexities of technologies and capabilities include a bewildering array of features like: the type of digital sensor (e.g., CCD, CMOS, EXR, backside-illuminated, and others); megapixel count of the sensor (ranging from about 10 MP into the range of 20 MP); size of the sensor; resolution of the LCD display; type of viewfinder, if any (optical, electronic, or hybrid); presence or absence of “hot shoe” for flash or other accessories; type of output for connecting to TV sets (HDMI or standard); and focal length of the lens, which may be of a fixed value, or, more often, a zoom lens with a range that may be modest (such as a telephoto range that is 3 times the wide-angle range) to extreme (such as a range of 42 times).
One way to narrow the choices is to focus on your personal needs and preferences. For example, if you want a camera for birding, you likely will want one with a “superzoom” lens that can help you spot birds perched in treetops. If you need a camera that you can carry in your pocket or purse, focus on the most compact models. If your primary activity will be taking photos at sporting events, look at cameras with strong burst-shooting features and fast shutter speeds.
But, if you are looking for an advanced compact camera with excellent all-around capabilities, here are the most crucial factors to consider.
1. RAW Format
With consumer-oriented cameras, there generally are two main image formats: RAW and JPEG. JPEG files, which have a file extension of .jpg when saved to a computer disk, are compressed digitally to minimize disk space. This compression tends to result in a loss of image quality.
Another big issue with JPEG files is that the decisions the camera makes when the picture is taken (e.g., exposure level, white balance, sharpness, contrast, and dynamic range) are essentially “baked” into the JPEG file. You can make some changes to the image using Photoshop or other software, but the adjustments you can make are limited.
With the RAW format the camera saves the photo image data in a largely unprocessed format. This gives the photographer great flexibility to alter and process the image using photo editing software.
The image on the left was taken using a camera that does not offer the RAW image format. The exposure level was too low and the white balance was set for daylight, when the actual light source was incandescent bulbs. The resulting JPEG file is considerably underexposed and has a distinct reddish tint because of the incorrect white balance setting.
The photo on the right was taken with a Panasonic Lumix LX7 camera, which offers RAW shooting. The same improper settings were used to take the photo. However, the RAW photo file was then modified using Adobe Camera RAW software to reset the exposure level to a brighter level and to reset the white balance setting for incandescent light.
By shooting in RAW format, you can fix problems with the original capture of every image. This ability is not unlimited, but it provides you with great flexibility in the post-processing of your photos.
Recommendation: Select a camera that offers RAW format capability.
2. Sensor Size
The heart of a digital camera is its image sensor. The size of the sensor is important: Bigger is better.
Larger sensors yield greater image quality, because there is more space for the pixels and the pixels can be larger. A larger sensor also improves how well the camera can produce a sharp image with selective focus, using the blurred background for effect. Small sensors don’t do this as well.
The photo on the top was taken with a camera phone with a small sensor. While the eagle shows good quality detail, the background is hardly blurred at all.
The photo on the bottom was taken with the Sony DSC-RX100, which has a large APS-C size sensor. Here the details on the eagle are emphasized and the background is pleasantly blurred.
The Sony DSC-RX1, big brother to the RX100, has the largest sensor available right now in a compact camera. It offers a “full-frame” sensor, which is the same size as a frame of 35mm film. Very few compact cameras use the full-frame sensor. The RX1 has a retail price of about $2,800.00. Several compact models use the APS-C – size sensor, the next-largest size. These include the Leica X2, the Fujifilm X100S, and the Nikon Coolpix A. Several of these cameras retail for more than $1,000.00.
A full-frame sensor is 24mm by 36mm; the smallest is about 3mm by 4mm. The APS-C size is about 15.7mm by 23.7mm, though there are some variations within this category. A “large” sensor may measure about 9.6mm by 12.8mm. A good, medium-range camera may have a sensor of about 5.5mm by 7.4mm.
Recommendation: Choose a camera with a medium size sensor or greater.
3. Widest Aperture Setting
A camera’s aperture, designated in f-stops, is a measure of the width of the opening that lets in light to create the image. If other factors are equal, the wider the maximum aperture, the better. A very wide aperture means you can shoot with a shallow depth of field, and the lens lets in more light, meaning you can use faster shutter speeds, thereby stopping the action. The wide aperture also lets you shoot better images when lighting is dim.
The photo on the left is a close-up shot using the widest aperture available on the Nikon Coolpix P520, which is f/3.0. In this shot, the green trees and other parts of the background are somewhat blurred, but still are relatively sharp, because that maximum aperture is not very wide.
The photo on the right was taken from the same position with a Sony DSC-RX100 using that model’s widest aperture of f/1.8. In this case, the background is substantially blurred, creating a more pleasing effect that emphasizes the sharp focus on the azaleas in the foreground.
Recommendation: Select a camera with a maximum aperture no less than f/2.0.
4. Maximum Wide-Angle Focal Length
Camera makers often advertise the extreme telephoto range of their zoom lenses, using terms such as “30 Times Zoom.” The companies less often emphasize a lens’s wide-angle range, but having a strong wide-angle focal length is important when you take a picture of a large group of people from up close. The wide angle helps you avoid having to stand back a long way to get everyone in the frame. It also is useful when you want a wide view to capture landscapes, buildings, and other large expanses of real estate or scenery.
Wide-angle ranges often start at 28mm or higher. But there are also quite a few models whose widest focal length is 24mm, and that 4mm difference can make a considerable difference in practical terms.
The photo on the left shows a three-window display in a nature park, but the camera could not fit all three windows into the image with the lens set to the 28mm focal length.
When the lens is set to its full wide-angle setting of 24mm, as shown at the right, the whole set of display windows is captured in the image.
Recommendation: Select a camera that can zoom out as wide as 24mm.
5. Continuous (Burst) Shooting
Many digital cameras allow you to capture bursts of high-quality shots at speeds around 10 to 12 frames per second. Some cameras also can shoot at more than 100 frames per second, though at lower quality.
While burst shooting is great for capturing the action at sporting events, (e.g., baseball or soccer games) it also has some wonderful everyday applications. If you set your camera to take a burst of 5 or 10 shots, you have a better chance of getting one with the perfect expression on everyone’s face, or with the right angle of sunlight falling on a person’s hair. And, with children at play, taking a burst can help you catch the nicest moment of interaction between playmates.
This set of photos shows a sequence of shots taken in a burst to catch a good view of a blue jay that was flitting around in a tree. Several shots caught the bird hidden behind branches, but the last shot finally got a good, mostly unobstructed view of the elusive bird. Without the burst setting, it would have been very hard to click the shutter at the right moment to catch the bird out in the open like this.
Recommendation: Select a camera that offers the capability to shoot at least 5 frames per second in a burst of at least 5 shots, using its full image size and quality.
Use these five factors to help decide on the right digital compact camera. Know the differences between the cameras you consider so you can choose the best camera for you.
About the Author
Alexander S. White is a highly successful author of numerous books about advanced compact digital cameras. He lives in Henrico, Virginia, near the capital city, Richmond. He first started working with film cameras in the 1960s and continued with his interest in photography while he pursued a legal career in positions with federal and state government agencies. He recently retired from that career to concentrate full-time on publishing camera guide books.
For more information visit www.whiteknightpress.com