Ultimate Guide to Buying A Point-n-Shoot Camera
Digital cameras represent the pinnacle of digital convenience, allowing everyone to immortalize their events and adventures anywhere and everywhere as never before.
Look at that thing in your hands, smaller than even your palm, perhaps in buffed chrome or even cheery pink. It’s a marvel of engineering. The digicam is one of the best camera gadgets that can truly enhance how we live and look at our place in world.
A digital compact camera that allows you not just to take pictures but even live video. Its battery has a run-tine for days, using rechargeable Lithium-Ion packs – while a photographer in the previous decade was always toting around spare AA batteries.
Most importantly, you have freedom from film strips. You no longer need darkrooms, you’re no longer limited to 12, 24, 36 shots at a time. Take a photo by the hundreds, as much as you want! Every smile, every ooh and aah moment, all the people you know – clickety. Click. Click.
True, your cellphone may serve as a camera in a pinch, but the picture quality and framing of even a low-end compact digital camera can’t be beat by anything but the most high-end smartphones and tablet.
Point-and-shoot cameras are aptly named. They’re ludicrously easy to use. They often have automatic modes that detect and adjust to the light level, distance from the subject, and may even feature face recognition and motion capture. Click!
If you don’t have a digital camera these days, you’re seriously missing out. In fact, not having a point-and-shoot camera may be a little bit of a deprived lifestyle. A camera you can use without limits can be a freeing thing, opening your mind to new possibilities for what you may have considered old and unfamiliar, and no matter where you go you can capture those precious fleeting moments.
Digital cameras are now absurdly affordable. You can pick one up for less than $100 and it will give you good image quality and very useful audio-video capture if you shoot in chunks of thirty minutes to an hour. Get a tripod for stability, and you’re mostly set.
If all you’re after is to take better photos of anything that might tickle your fancy, you’d probably be happy even with the cheapest model you can get.
But if you want to take objectively good photos, if you’re looking to use those photos for portraiture and printing larger than the usual 4R (4” x 6”) photos, or if you’re going on a vacation and you want to be sure you’re capturing the moments in crystal clarity… then you should mind the numbers and terms the marketing departments are going to throw at you.
Don’t get get too caught up or confused by the buzzwords. Here are the most important terms you need to remember:
- MegaPixels – probably the most common metric used to announce how ‘good’ a camera is. It refers to how many million pixels are used to create the image. Here’s the trick: a megapixel is actually an image formed by a 1200 x 900 pixel grid. So a 5 MegaPixel camera? It will take photos measured 2584 x 1936 pixel in a 4:3 aspect ratio. A 12 MP camera? It will take 4000 x 3000 pixel photos.How does this matter? Past a certain point, more megapixels only mean greater file sizes. The resulting quality of the image is indistinguishable to the human eye. You will often need to resize the picture to smaller dimensions before sharing on the Web or printing. MegaPixel counts are important, but not actually that important to the point that you need to shell out for the model with the most MegaPixels.
- Zoom Factor – it’s that X number right next to the lens, and while more is better not all zoom factors are made equal. You should be looking for optical zoom, which is determined by the lenses, and not digital zoom which merely resizes the image captured by the sensor. Look at the features and the manual carefully – optical zoom may only go so far, with the rest of the zoom factor provided by digital zoom. You are unlikely to need superzoom if you’re mostly taking indoor photos and panoramic shots.
- Focal Length – the numbers on your camera measured in millimeters. Lower numbers are more suited for wide-angle panoramic views, while larger numbers allow for zoomed-in shots. A greater range is preferable, since your point-and-shoot compact camera has a fixed lens and this implies better results from automatic scene detection.
- FPS – frames per second is mostly useful in continuous shooting mode; with the camera taking shots as long as you hold down the button. Higher fps means higher likelihood of taking photos that aren’t blurred by motion.
Now that we’ve looked over the three terms which most often determine the price tag, let’s go into the specifics of what features you should look for in a point and shoot compact camera.
- Handling and Portability vs Price and Features
The best way to choose a camera is to feel it in your hands, put it up to your eyes, and gauge your comfort level. A small camera may be more portable, but if you’ve got big hands a too-small camera may be cumbersome instead. Look at the layout of its buttons and dials, and check if it’s intuitive to your fingers. Do you feel better with a sleek slim camera, or one that’s more solid with rounded grips? Does a longer zoom lens throw off the balance when holding the camera up to your eye level, or do you prefer standing far from your subject? Would you prefer a small, lightweight camera that you can just wear like a necklace so that it will always be on hand?
The price tag is important, and you may be tempted to grab a camera with an impressive-sounding list of features, but if it doesn’t feel right in your hands it will greatly diminish your enjoyment of the experience. You’ll take better shots when your camera suits you personally.
- The LCD Display and its Size Impact
The resolution of the LCD display at the back of the camera is as important as the lens in front of it. You should have at least a 2.5” LCD to frame shots accurately, while 3 inches and above is preferred if you like seeing the details in your pictures. Almost every camera LCD display is measured in Dots-Per-Inch (DPI), but it is not necessary to chase the highest dpi if your camera LCD is a touchscreen. Greater DPI needs more processing power and may be slower to respond in changing settings and preview modes.
Of course, higher-end cameras have more powerful chips, so it is a balance. Larger screens are always helpful, but of course impact camera size and portability. They also consume more battery power.
- Image Stabilization is Increasingly a Necessity
According to most photographers, having optical image stabilization is a must for newer point-and-shoot cameras. It is a useful option in helping you take better pictures in moments, even if your hands are shaking slightly. Since it is not possible to predict that the one holding the camera will have steady hands, this is a must for cameras that will be taken on vacations and outings and/or will be handed over to children.
- Better HD Videos For Clearer Memories
Almost all point-and-shoot cameras now have an option for recording videos. However, when choosing a video, make sure that it will record in HD. Low-end cameras tend to capture videos in VGA or 640×480. This is serviceable for uploading to Youtube, but often becomes a blurry mess when resized or viewed with larger monitors, projectors and TVs. You should ask for at least 720p recording, or 1280 x 720 pixels in a widescreen 16:9 format.
This has a massive influence in the quality and clarity of your playback. Make sure that your camera has a micro or mini HDMI output port so that your friends and family can watch your vacation, party or wedding video in full resolution on their monitors and TVs.
- Sensors Matter More than MegaPixels
We’ve already discussed megapixels, but it is only one part of what makes the image saved onto your flash memory. It is the sensor inside the camera that captures incoming light and here bigger is always, always better. It doesn’t matter if one camera has 16 megapixels and this camera has 12 megapixels; if it has a larger sensor it will consistently take better photos with less grain and higher sensitivity to subtle light changes.
- Quality Photos at High ISO
ISO represents your camera sensor’s light sensitivity. This is usually automatic, but if your camera has a flash you should not use higher ISO settings. High ISO means leaving the sensor open for longer to absorb more light in low-light conditions, in a tradeoff between noise and blurring from motion. Low ISOs are just as important in being able to take clear pictures in bright sunlight or electric lamps.
Many cameras display their ISO ranges in their features list, and cameras that handle ISO 50-800 can do without using the flash in most conditions. More is better, but have that tripod ready.
- Enjoy Long Battery Life
Of course, battery life is crucial. Check the make and model of the battery and its usable charge. Practically all point-and-shoot cameras use lithium-ion batteries that are fully rechargeable and lightweight, but remember that heat is the enemy and overcharging is also a danger. Batteries can blow up. The cells inside will expand, twisting metal and break open the casing, even if it is not exactly explosive. Your battery dying should not kill your camera.
It’s better to pick a high-quality battery that can go for a long time between recharging, is less sensitive to temperature, and discharges power less when left unused. Better for taking pictures on the go and protects your camera’s circuits too. Really, it is a bit foolish to be a cheapskate for this vital component without which your camera’s just an expensive paperweight.
- Simplicity and Child-Proofing
Buying a camera that’s packed with features but is hard to use is almost always a bad idea. It is highly recommend to buy a camera that is simple to use, have all necessary functions for great pictures and videos and have comfortably arranged function buttons and dials. The best point-and-shoot cameras should work well in the hands of picture-takers of all ages. Its automatic modes should be easy to configure, and in the best of times completely ignorable as it intelligently adjusts on the fly.
- Shooting Speed
We’ve also discussed fps in taking pictures with the button held down. When is this useful? Sports and wildlife photography, for one. Taking pictures of children at play is another. When searching for the perfect photo, it may lie somewhere in a sequence; a change in expression, a pose with reduced motion blur, and a physical reaction as something is falling, bouncing, or being touched.
- Memory Card Storage
Of course, the main difference between today’s compact cameras and the film cameras of yore is breaking the limits of the number of shots you’re allowed to take. Except one – it’s still a matter of how many pictures and videos you can store in the memory card. Most point-and-shoot cameras use SD cards compatible with many devices, and can range from 8 to 32 gigabytes.
Don’t underestimate how quickly this will fill up, specially if you’re not in the habit of backing up the data to a hard disk, and your camera has high megapixels and takes HD videos. Some cameras feature dual-card slots, for automatic backups and convenience in sharing.
Other than these, there are also advanced features you may find convenient. WiFi connectivity to communicate directly with a printer, or automatically upload may be an important time-saver for you. Dials to change shooting modes and lens focal length faster than going into config options may also be important if you’re comfortable with taking control in search of the perfect shot.
The most important thing to remember in buying a camera is to take a second opinion. Be informed. Read reviews and compare features to their closest competitor before buying anything. You may find that something from slightly outdated fits your budget while still packing all the features you need, or that you may be better off with something new if you’re going to make your camera a serious component of your hobbies and activities.
Whatever you decide, take comfort in that a point-and-shoot compact camera is a gadget will serve you well for many years and is a purchase you’re unlikely to regret.
[*] Featured Image via hslgc in Flickr Commons.
How long have you been using your point-and-shoot camera? Are you happy with it, or would you consider upgrading? If so, would you buy a newer model of point-and-shoot camera or something more advanced like a DSLR camera?
Please leave a comment below and let us know. We’d love to hear from you!
- Previous Top Ten Cool Things to Do With Your New Smart TV
- Next Key Features and Tips for Selecting a Great Camcorder