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Compact camera guide

From OCAU Wiki

Back to Photography - Camera Selection

Ok, so you’ve wandered into the photography forum in search for some advice as to what camera to buy. In light of the recent surge in “what camera should I buy under $X” threads, here’s a few pointers in the right direction to get you started.

Some of the basics first:

For some reason the whole market is mega pixel crazy. What most people fail to realize is that mega pixels does *not* equal quality. I’m hoping that if you’re here in the OCAU forums then you’re at least a bit of a geek – the mega pixel rating refers to how many million pixels are in the image. For the average user I can only think of 2 reasons why you’d want more mega pixels:

  1. You want to print bigger
  2. You want to crop in a lot (but keep mind, optical zoom is always > “zooming” digitally)

If you want to know more about photography in general (like what all this aperture, shutter speed and iso stuff is), then I suggest you check out this excellent beginners guide put out by Canon: Although it refers mainly to using an SLR, the principals are still the same for a compact.

Note that not all compacts allow you to manually adjust features (like the Nikon Coolpix range, which have “automatic scene modes” but no way of overriding settings like aperture or shutter speed)

Ask yourself some questions

The problem with the market is that there’s too much choice. I worked in camera sales for a couple of years and found that the easiest approach to a sale was to nut out all the major features the customer wanted, which would generally mean I could narrow it down to 3 or 4 cameras at the most. Answer these questions, go into a camera store and tell them what features you’re chasing and they’ll show you what’s available, then jump on the net and hunt for sample photos taken by every day people to make sure you’re happy with the image quality. If you don’t trust a salesperson, then dpreview has an excellent buying guide here: - keep in mind though that some of the cameras it pulls up in the features search may be discontinued.

Anyway, onto the questions:

  • What sort of budget do you have in mind? Keep in mind that you’ll generally want to budget for a bag ($20-$30), a memory card (say $50 for a decent sized one, although they’re getting cheaper all the time. More Megapixels = less photos on the card), and if you buy a camera that takes AA batteries, you’ll need to budget for a charger as well (say $60-$80 for a decent one
  • How big do you want to print? This will determine how many mega pixels you should aim for in your camera. Below is a handy table I nabbed from – Note that 300DPI is “magazine quality”. You could quite comfortable get a 4MP image to A4 without it looking too shabby (and realistically, most people aren’t gunna print bigger than A4). For those that want to know what paper measurements are, go here:

Megapixels -- Resolution -- common print size (roughly 300dpi)
2 MP -- 1600x1200 -- 10x13cm / 4x6"
3 MP -- 2048x1536 -- 13x18cm / 5x7"
4 MP -- 2400 x 1600 -- 18x23cm / 6x8"
6 MP -- 3000x2000 -- 20x30cm / 7x10"
8 MP -- 3600x2400 -- 30x40cm / 10x14"
Note these figures are approximate.

  • Do you want something fully automatic, or something that will manually let you adjust settings like aperture, shutter speed, etc? If you don’t know what these terms mean, then you’re lazy – go read that canon guide I just told you to read! Keep in mind that just because a camera has over-ride features doesn’t mean you have to use them straight away. I can’t think of any consumer camera that doesn’t have automatic scene modes (like portrait, landscape, indoors, night scene, etc) on it, but fewer and fewer these days have manual override. If all you want to do is point and shoot, then full auto is fine.
    If you’re after something that will allow you to manually set your shutter speed, iso and aperture, then at time of writing: the Canon Powershot "A" series of cameras still have manual override, as do some of Olympus’s cameras (not the MJU series though), some of the Sony’s, Fuji’s and Kodaks (although I personally would steer clear of Kodak – they’re a nightmare when it comes to repairs) just to name a few. Unfortunately I haven’t seen any Nikons with full manual override for quite some time, although I’ve seen a couple that have partial override modes (I.e you can set one setting like the shutter speed, and the camera automatically adjusts the other settings to get the right exposure)
  • AA’s or Lithium? I can’t really see any major striking point against one or the other. Lithium is handy because it’s lighter, it doesn’t suffer from the memory effect (i.e. you don’t have to flatten it before recharging), whereas NiMh batteries do still suffer from the memory effect to a certain degree (see: and, but at the same time, if you’re out on the road and your batteries die, you can get AA’s from just about anywhere. Any camera that uses Lithium Ion will generally come with a charger, whereas most cameras that use AAs don’t come with chargers (except Nikon cameras – all of which come with batteries and chargers). Either way, either battery system will loose its ability to hold charge after a year or two depending on usage. So:
    • Lithium Ion: Lighter, doesn’t suffer from the memory effect, and any camera that uses Lithium will usually come with battery + charger. BUT: Keep in mind, lithium batteries can be very difficult to source once the camera gets discontinued
    • AA (NiMh rechargeables): heavier, you’ll generally need to buy battery + charger separately, suffers from the memory effect, but is available anywhere, new rechargeable batteries are cheap and easy to get ahold of and will be for some time.
  • Other features: Any other specific things you’d like –
    • Smaller vs big (keeping in mind that there aren’t many small, high zoom compact cameras on the market)
    • Large LCD Screen?
    • Weatherproof/waterproof/drop proof/robust (See the Olympus MJU series of cameras)
    • Do you want a viewfinder (digital vs optical – an optical viewfinder on a compact camera won’t see what the lens/camera sees, but will give you an idea of what you’re taking a photo of if it’s bright and you can’t see the LCD screen. A digital viewfinder will live feed from the sensor, so yes you’ll see what the camera sees, but will generally mean a bulkier camera)

Right, well, now that you've got an idea of what you want, I suggest checking out the buying guide at DPReview (as previously mentioned), and/or popping into your local camera store. Having an answer to the above questions will make both your life and the life of the sales person a lot easier ;-)

Remember though, you can look at all the cameras you like on paper, but until you've actually tried the camera, you won't know if it's right for you ;-)
- fugitive86

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