Community Newsletter: Q&A forum: 4/7/06 Need help deciphering the digital camera mumbo jumbo

by: Lee Koo (ADMIN) April 6, 2006 11:16 AM PDT

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4/7/06 Need help deciphering the digital camera mumbo jumbo

by Lee Koo (ADMIN) ModeratorCNET staff - 4/6/06 11:16 AM

Question:

I am looking for a good digital camera but don't know where to start. Are megapixels or optical zoom more important? I want to be able to take multiple photos instantly by holding down one button. I want panoramic photos, as well as photos that can be enlarged to poster size without losing quality. I want all of this in a camera that will last and not break the bank in initial cost nor the cost of cards. (Speaking of cards, which is the best type of storage type to get in a camera? Can the card actually affect the speed at which the photo is taken?) There are so many questions. Please direct me to a good brand and help me decipher the technology mumbo jumbo.

Submitted by: Lee W.

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Answer:


Big question with many subjective answers. Typically with technology, the more you pay, the more you get. While this is almost always true and applies directly to digital cameras, there are also times when you get more, but it's not always worth the price difference. Still, you should decide your budget first and figure what options you can afford. Depending on your budget, you may not be able to get all the options you want. Price aside, we'll discuss some of the options below.

Megapixels and zoom aren't directly related, but one of them can, in certain cases, affect the other. The term megapixel relates to the resolution (or picture quality) of the camera's image. A 1-megapixel camera will create an image composed of approximately 1 million pixels or dots. A good representation of this is that popular novelty item where you push your face into the box and all the small pin like shafts form around your face. You can tell that if that device had 10 pins in it, you wouldn't be able to make out your face, but with 1000 pins or more, the image produced more matched your face. Imagine if it has a million pins. So, the more dots, the less likely your eyes will notice the dots and the more clear and sharp the image will be.

There are standards when it comes to resolution and picture size. The specifics could be argued, but a basic rule of thumb is a 1MP camera can print a 4x6 or 5x7 picture at 100% with a decent quality. Of course, as technology gets better, our idea of "decent quality" increases, so these days, you may actually notice lower quality in a 1MP and some say you need 2MP at least for this size. In any event, just increase the size of the print proportionally to the resolution of the camera. If 1MP will print 4x6 ok, then a 2MP should print 8x12 (8x10 in photo world) ok. A 3MP could print 12x18 ok and so on...

Note these sizes are 100% which means you will not be enlarging the original photo or zooming, cropping, and enlarging that portion. This is where resolution relates to the zoom. More commonly a problem than just the actual 100% quality, people often realize that cropping a picture causes a quality problem. Say you take a picture of a landscape and while viewing it on your computer you see an owl in a tree that was fairly far away. You zoom in and want to print a picture of just the owl. Let's say of the entire 4x6 picture, the owl is only 1 inch tall. If you cropped an inch around the owl (creating a 2" image) and then tried to print it vertical (6x4), you would in affect be enlarging that 3 times. In this case, you'd need at least a 3MP camera using the numbers stated above. There are other factors that would affect this quality including aperture and other film camera settings as well as specific issues with digital cameras. These can become very detailed, but just for basic knowledge you should understand that if you often take wide, general shots trying to capture a small distinct image, you will want a camera with a higher resolution. In addition, if you know you only want to photograph something specific, it's a good idea to zoom in as much as possible - leaving a little room for editing. This brings us to the zoom options...

Optical zoom is probably the most important factor when purchasing any camera or camcorder. Of course it depends on your exact needs, but for the typical home photographer, even in a film camera, you will typically be more satisfied with your camera and photos if you can zoom in and out versus walking back and forth. Because of how optics work, there is always a trade-off between zoom factor and size/weight. Consider the telescopes that view the galaxies of space; there's a reason they do that with telescopes the size of large buildings. You just need larger glass and more distance between the lenses to view things farther away. The same theory applies to cameras. I'm no expert on this, but it appears there is a good balance at around 3x - 5x. In addition to the length, the larger the magnification, the lower the amount of light is let in. The only way to allow more light is to use larger lenses and as we all know, smaller is better. So, a higher optical zoom will always yield a more versatile camera, and with digital cameras, this will allow more flexibility when editing/zooming/cropping your final picture. Keep in mind, that this is also one of the most expensive parts of the camera and often a cheap camera will have cheap glass or will not work as well in lower light. Again there is a trade-off, but if you want the best zoom and the most versatility in low light settings, than you'll probably want to look for a camera with larger lenses.

You'll also notice the digital zoom options. Often you'll find a cheap camera with a 4x or 5x digital zoom, but no optical zoom. You think, "5xdigital sounds much better than 3x optical", but that's not necessarily true. The digital zoom only camera may be smaller and cheaper, but a digital zoom in essence just enlarges the picture. More expensive cameras may use software to enhance that enlargement and the higher resolutions make digital zoom more usable, but you will almost always lose quality with the digital zoom. It's is a great option for necessary tasks and even for certain effects, but for the best quality always value optical zoom over digital.

Take multiple photos quickly without releasing the shutter button (sometimes called burst mode) is most likely going to be best served in a higher-end (read expensive) and most likely, an SLR camera. Will discuss the SLR later, but in order for a digital camera to have a quick burst mode, it must process each image quickly. In a film camera, this was based mostly on the speed of the film advance image and the lighting conditions. With digital, the lighting is even more important, but the processing in general is achieved with faster processor, quicker data access, better optics - all of which equals more money. When a digital camera takes a picture, the light is detected by the image sensor, processed and converted to a picture through the camera's hardware and software, and then saved to memory card. In film cameras, more sensitive film is used to handle low-light conditions. In digital, a darker image forces the camera to take longer to process which will slow your burst mode. So, a better image sensor and better software will improve the burst speed. In addition, those larger lenses which let in more light will improve bust speed. Finally, in relation to one of your other questions, a higher-speed memory card (called Ultra II by one manufacturer) will allow the camera to save that image quicker and move on to the next. Some of the more expensive cameras have internal memory called a buffer which is much faster than your memory card to store the image temporarily so the camera can move to the next image while the current one is being written to the card. In many cases, you'll see a burst speed that is much faster for the first 5 -10 images and then slows. This is because of the limit of the buffer memory size. As memory prices drop, these buffers get larger and cheaper cameras may have them installed.

So card speed can affect the speed of taking the photograph, especially in burst mode. More of a nuisance than a problem is the lag time of cameras even when not in burst mode. Many point and shoot cameras take between 2 and 5 seconds to save an image after you press the shutter button. If they do not have buffer memory installed, it can take that long before you can take another picture. That doesn't sound too bad, but you will realize how frustrating this is. In addition to the actual save time, there is often a lag time from when you press the shutter button until the image is "snapped". This is even more frustrating - resulting in too many blurry pictures of peoples' chests because you press the button and then lower the camera thinking the picture has taken only to have it snap on the way down. In this case, you should make sure both you and your subject stay still for a couple seconds before and after the picture has been taken.

Panoramic photography is handled many different ways. The most common is either with reference marks in the viewfinder to align separate images (cheaper), to software (along with the reference marks) that automatically align multiple images and save them together when selected. The results are usually pretty similar, so you should just check the information on each camera as to what the benefits are of their specific system. You should note that many computer programs make creating panorama shots easy so you may want to put more money into that than the camera option itself.

Finally, let's discuss the SLR. SLR stands for Single Lens Reflex camera. Without getting technical, most older film cameras - before automatic point and shoot, smaller cameras were invented were SLR cameras. They are generally larger, with larger lenses and often interchangeable lenses. Usually, the image you view is the image that is seen through the lens itself. (Point and shoot cameras usually have a separate viewfinder that may be smudged, or worse, they may not be smudged but the actual lens is.) Also, because they are generally considered professional or prosumer, they usally have larger buffers and better processors. The drawback is that they are larger.

So, what type of camera is the best? As I stated in the beginning, it does have a legitimate relation to price. Larger lenses, faster processors, buffer memory, and better sensors all cost more money - and produce better results. Image quality (megapixels) is very important for cropping and zooming, but that resolution does not good if your picture is blurred or missed. Unfortunately, sometimes pictures are missed because you don't want to lug that big SLR around. So, you should consider the following:

Do you plan on printing your images or just saving and emailing them on the computer? This may affect your resolution decision, but most cameras are sufficient in this area. You may want to only consider the megapixel setting as it comes down to price and you have decided on the other issues.

Does size matter? This is probably the biggest decision maker whether people realize it or not. Why wouldn't you want a camera to throw in your shirt pocket and have with you all the time? If money isn't a factor and camera response time isn't an issue, this is probably the route you want to take. There are many options for small cameras and the prices aren't bad. Think carefully about your common lighting conditions and the response times. If you want a camera to take with you to the beach to throw in your carry bag or to the theme park for basic family photos, this is probably the best choice for you. The smaller package will have more issues with low light and may be slower because it doesn't have the buffer or as good a processor. But, if you pay enough, you might find a good middle of the road.

Are you a prosumer? If you take a lot of advanced shots; say you take macro photos of plants and bugs; you take delayed shots to blur car lights and let in more light in dark situations; you want that fast shutter response for burst mode and/or you take a lot of action shots with sports; or if you want different lenses and filters for special needs - wide angle lenses for panoramas and telephoto lenses for extreme zooms. In these cases, you cannot beat an SLR. SLR's will be more expensive and you probably don't want to lug it onto the roller coaster, but they will most likely provide the best quality, best light handling, and most versatility.

It really comes down to what your specific needs are and how much you want to spend. My two best recommendations are:

1. Research the cameras in your price range. Read user reviews and check the specifications. Don't consider one person's complaints that they can't understand the manual, but if that is the overall consensus, you may want to look elsewhere.
Two sites I use for reviews are:
http://www.dpreview.com/
and
http://www.digitalreview.ca/

2. Try it out. Most local electronics stores have test models. Check the obvious things; size and response time mainly. Check the zoom and see if it works well enough for you. Also, check the options and see if you can understand the camera easily enough. Many useful options are never used on the cameras for basic point and shoot photos. (While this is unfortunate since you may be able to make use of that option, it is also important to realize that you may not ever use them and therefore don't pay a lot for many buzz words that aren't necessary). One thing you can't really check in the stores is the quality. Most don't have memory cards for review and you can't really produce real-world situations. In this case, you may want to actually try it in the real world. Places like Best Buy and online resellers like Crutchfield offer hassle-free returns. You may pay shipping charges or something, but it might be worth it to see if you really like the way it works.

I hope this information was helpful and good luck with your search.

Submitted by: Aric W.



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