Many mobile phones now have digital cameras built in so you may already have taken hundreds of digital pictures without having needed to buy a digital camera. However, there are some definite advantages to owning a digital camera, as this guide reveals.
The cameras in mobiles are getting better every year, but digital cameras still have advantages. Most of them take pictures that are sharper and have more detail. They usually have zoom lenses that make it easier to frame pictures and bring in distant subjects, and some have built-in software that can detect faces and take pictures when people smile, remove ’red eye’, soften skin tones, and so on.
What are they?
In many respects, digital cameras are just like film cameras. The biggest difference is that they use digital sensors (chips) instead of sensitised film to react to light. The bigger the sensor, the more light it collects, and the better the picture quality is likely to be.
However, some camera manufacturers have concentrated on squeezing more and more pixels (short for picture elements) out of smaller and smaller sensors - and picture quality has started to decline.
Today, it’s better to disregard the megapixel rating and use either sensor size (bigger is better) or pixel density (smaller is better) as a better guide to picture quality. This usually means looking up the specifications of various models at a camera site such as What Digital Camera? or Which? Photography.
Most digital cameras store their pictures on removable memory cards - don’t buy one if it doesn’t - and the most common formats include CompactFlash and Secure Digital. SD is probably the best choice now for several reasons:
- SD cards are very small and relatively cheap.
- They come in large capacities including 4GB and 8GB, which can hold hundreds of pictures.
- Lots of laptops have memory slots that accept SD cards, so it’s easier to transfer photos to a computer.
- Many other devices use SD cards, including mobile phones and digital recorders. You can usually use the same cards in all of them.
Lens, viewfinder and screen
The important physical parts of a digital camera are the lens, the viewfinder and the LCD screen (which is usually on the back). You can use either the viewfinder or the screen to compose pictures.
Large LCD screens are useful because they are also used to enter camera settings and to view pictures when they have been taken. Some manufacturers are now fitting touch-sensitive screens like the ones on smartphones, but these push up the price of the camera and aren’t yet worth the cost.
Bigger zoom lenses are also useful, but a 3x, 4x or 5x zoom is enough for snapshot photography. Make sure this is an ‘optical zoom’. Some cameras offer a ‘digital zoom’, which is useless - it just blows up a small part of the image. You can do the same thing better in picture-editing software.
Some cameras offer zoom lenses with much larger magnifications, such as 10x or even 20x. However, zooming also magnifies the effects of camera shake. So for long zooms, it’s much better to put the camera on a tripod.
Power and speed
Digital cameras do have some drawbacks compared to old-fashioned film cameras. You can’t just point and snap. With a digital camera, you have to turn it on and wait until it’s ready.
Even when you press the button, you may have to wait a fraction of a second while the camera focuses the lens and works out the exposure before it takes the picture. ‘Shutter lag’ is not as bad as it used to be, but some digital cameras are still too slow.
Worse, digital cameras can run out of power quickly. In general, I’ve found that rechargeable lithium-ion battery packs are the best option. However, if you want to take pictures a long way from a power source, a camera that takes AA batteries may be the right choice.
Try before you buy
Before spending a lot of money on a digital camera, it’s a good idea to try it out. Does the screen look bright and sharp? Does the camera work quickly enough for you? Does it feel comfortable in your hands? You cannot find the answers to questions like these online.
You might be lucky and know someone who already owns the camera you fancy, but if you want to choose between two or three models, look at them in a shop. You might pay a bit more than the lowest online price, but you are far more likely to get a satisfying camera.