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Shopping for a Point & Shoot camera?

<<Yep, that’s me, circa 2000.

From time to time, people approach me when they’re in the market for a new camera. Having worked a while in a camera store a decade or so ago, I sort of developed what I feel to be a pretty decent sense of what to look for in a good camera. Although it is a good place to start, I usually don’t look so much at brand names, because I think “picking a team” in as far as brands go is a little short-sighted in this game. Each brand has their list of features, which result in different benefits over other brands on different levels on the one hand. On the other hand, some brands have weaknesses where others may perform at higher capacities. To me, the most important point about a brand is whether or not it’s more of an electronics company, or more of an optics company. Since the glass quality of a lens is one of (if not THE) most important aspects of image quality, I tend to lean more towards the ones that specialize in optics. Aside from the two most obvious, which are Canon and Nikon, this also includes such brands as Pentax, Olympus, and Leica (a division of Panasonic). And really, any camera you pick from these brands is generally going to do as well a job as the others. So, to me, it ultimately comes down these 3 questions:

  1. What will I be shooting the most?
  2. What features will have the most benefits to those kinds of shots?
  3. What weaknesses (if any) = deal breakers?

Of course, for most people, the answer to #1 is typically the everyday things most of us would want photos of, like events, family, kids, pets, etc. Obviously, complicated photographic equipment is not necessary for these kinds of subjects. In fact, the quicker and the simpler it is to use, the better. So, for this post, I’ll be concentrating more on P&S (point & shoot) cameras rather than the more advanced dSLR (digital SLR) cameras. 

To keep competitive in terms of features, all brands (especially those on the higher end of the scale) like to stay relatively neck-and-neck with each other, so most of the brands out there today are quite comparable in terms of features, and more are being added every generation they release.

The main features that I’ve noticed most people seem to look for in P&S cameras these days are:

  1. Resolution
  2. Zoom Capability
  3. Image Stabilization
  4. LCD Screen
  5. Video Recording Capability
  6. Battery Life
  7. Cost Range


Okay, so let’s start with numero uno: Resolution.

The nice thing about this day and age as far as digital camera technology goes is that resolution isn’t really an issue anymore. Back in 2000, 2.1 and 3.1 megapixel resolutions (which were yielding acceptable 8×10″ and 11×14″ prints) were considered revolutionary, and were being hailed as near acceptable quality to replace the need for film.

Notice how I said “replace the need”, not “replace the quality”. The goal of digital cameras back then was not “get high enough quality to match or beat film quality”, but rather “get high enough quality to beat film from a marketing standpoint”. And of course, as we found out not long after all this, that’s exactly what they did. And then, around 2004-2006, the quality issues among point & shoot cameras began to get a bit hazy when they hit the 5-to-7 megapixel point. What I mean by “hazy” is that the issue became to be less and less important because the technology was finally catching up enough to quell image quality concerns. In fact, as of this posting, you can purchase major brand cameras such as Canon, Nikon, Sony, Pentax, and so on for starting around the $100 price point that are capable of at least 12-14 megapixel images. And the prices keep coming down as the quality continues to go up. So, in my opinion, the question of resolution has been long answered by a good 5 years or so, and should no longer be much of a concern unless you plan on printing wall-sized posters out of your images.


Zoom

This is yet another area where improvements are constantly being made. Ways are always being found to manufacture lens glass cheaper, higher-quality, and in all sizes (especially smaller). So, naturally, ways to improve the zoom function in these lenses have followed suit.

When shopping around, you’ll likely notice figures such as 3x, 4x, 5x, and so on when referring to what they call “optical zoom”. Depending on which model you’re looking at, in fact, this figure can be as high as 12x, 16x, or even 30x and so on. That kind of zoom range can come in very handy for getting in close to your subject from far away, such as when zooming in on a specific player of a football game while sitting in the bleachers.

You’ll also notice that the price tag as well as the camera’s body size may tend to follow the amount of zoom as it climbs from one model to the next. However, this can also be offset by higher-end cameras that may offer less zoom, but more high-end features, such as better video functionality or better durability, etc.

The contrary to optical zoom is “digital zoom”, which you can many times find in the ranges of up to 70x, 80x, and 90x, among many other ridiculously high numbers (camcorders were known to get into the realm of 500x digi-zoom and were virtually unusable at that magnification).

Don’t let this fool you.

Digital zoom is merely cropping your image in the camera, in effect chopping resolution right off your picture and resulting in image degradation. My advice: find the digital zoom settings in your camera’s menu, turn it off, and don’t use it unless absolutely necessary.


Image Stabilization


This feature (one that I highly recommend making sure is included) is treated in a similar fashion as the zoom feature in that it comes in two flavors: optical and digital. With optical image stabilization, there is typically an element in the lens, a piece of glass, that moves around freely so that when the camera moves, it moves in the opposite direction; like a free-floating lens piece that operates electronically, but on the principles of inertia to assist in countering camera shake, and therefore minimizing what I like to refer to as the “Blair Witch Effect”.

    With digital stabilization, the idea is the same, but in this case the image is, yet again like digi-zoom, cropped slightly (there’s that image degradation), and then the image itself is moved around digitally on the principles of inertia instead of a piece of the lens. So, if it’s within your means, optical image stabilization is the way to go.

    Be aware, however, as they’ve gotten sneaky about how they advertise which camera has which system. For example, Canon proudly marks all lenses and cameras that have “OIS”, their Optical Image Stabilizer Technology, with the word “Optical” typically in red print. If it doesn’t have that mentioning of “Optical”, you’re likely looking at a digital stabilizer. Just remember that whatever kind of stabilization you end up with, it’s an assistant, not a cure. The shooter still must be cautious of their motion to minimize camera shake where it starts.


LCD Screen

The LCD screen, while it is a handy little thing, is one of those things that have kind of a double-edged sword. They’re essential to seeing your shots the moment you take them, and the sizes and qualities of camera LCDs have seen constant advancement. Some of them even have touch-screen functionality, eliminating the need for an array of physical buttons on the camera body. And, as you climb up the feature-ladder from model to model, you’ll find that some of the higher-end models have screens you can rotate and swivel. However, there are also some cons to LCD screens. For example, the most obvious is that it chews through your battery life much quicker than using the traditional viewfinder, which would suggest moderate use, although advancements have improved on this over the past few years as well. I’ve also noticed that people have gotten so used to using LCD screens that when it comes time to use the regular viewfinder, many people have a difficult time at first remembering that you have to actually hold it up to your face, which to me is very reminiscent of watching someone try to use a regular landline phone after having used a cell phone for so long. When LCD screens started becoming popular 10 years ago, it was the exact opposite. At the camera store, I constantly had to remind people NOT to put the camera to their face when using the LCD.


Video Recording Capability

Finally, they have integrated photography and video! This is where the blog post gets a little more auto-biographical.

Before I was ever interested in photography, I was a huge A/V editing geek in high school, which was very ground-floor at the time. My junior year was the first year they offered it, so we had very basic analog stuff compared to now, but top-shelf for us for 1995/96. Then, since working at the camera store a few years later and discovering photography, I always wished the two could find some kind of happy union. Well, thanks to the ever-rushing advancement behind digital technologies in cameras, computers, and editing software, this has finally happened, and I couldn’t be any more excited about it. It was about 2007 before I noticed the advances after having stepped away from video for a few years to concentrate on photography, and I had all but completely written video production off. But when I saw where things had gone, I jumped back on it immediately with Canon’s PowerShot S5 IS. Tag price: $400

    Photographically, the S5 IS was outstanding for a point & shoot level unit, with still photo quality at 8 megapixels, 12x optical zoom, optical image stabilizer, a fold-out, 270º swiveling LCD screen, as well as the ability to record NTSC (standard definition) video clips with great CD-quality stereo audio. Before this, the only digital video I had the pleasure of shooting was on 2 previous Canon MiniDV camcorders I owned called the Optura and the Elura, which ran for $1200 and $1600 new, respectively. And to transfer video from MiniDV to PC was excruciating because it had to be done in real-time. The idea of drag-n-drop from an SD memory card to the hard drive in a fraction of the time was exhilarating to me. For the first time in roughly 5 years, I was finding myself excited about video production again, and have since sold the S5 IS, upgraded to a 1080p HD version of it in 2009 (SX1 IS), sold that, and am now shooting with the Canon EOS T2i (550D), which is the dSLR unit that shoots full hi-def video clips using a wide variety of optional lenses, resulting in a very professional film look that is incredible to me.

But that S5 IS I bought was great at shooting videos perfectly acceptable for Youtube, with a 480p resolution @ 30 fps (frames per second). While the quality isn’t high definition, it would be suitable for many other applications, including mobile.

And what’s more is that Canon offers it on their currently-priced $89 model, the PowerShot A800 (pictured above) but with mono sound, and which is also equipped to take 10 megapixels photos suitable for prints up to 20×30″. This is perfect for a first camera; something to toss in a purse or shirt pocket, is geared with enough quality to make it count, and shoots good quality videos. but has limits as far as the controls. It comes with some situational modes, such as “portrait”, “landscape”, “beach”, “snow”, and so on, but nothing in the way of manual controls to control things like focus and exposure. To get to the cameras with those options, we go up…but not far. A mere $20 rise in price to $110, and you can get 14 megapixels and 720p HD video. Full 1080p HD video awaits you at the $180 price point.

Sidenote: I have a natural affinity towards Canon, so excuse me if I tend overuse them as examples.

Battery Life

One concern that is still ringing its bell loudly in this arena is battery life. Just as with everything else that has been mentioned here, battery life has also experienced some amazing advances, but it can still be an issue if you’re not properly prepared for it, or if the camera you’re purchasing doesn’t offer that new technology. And even if it does, that situation presents downfalls in and of itself, the biggest point being whether or not the camera uses a proprietary battery, or is compatible with other, more common types of batteries.

    For example, if your camera comes equipped with a proprietary battery that is made specifically for your camera and maybe only one or two others by the same company, you’ll find that the battery likely performs wonderfully and actually retains a charge really well. Most cameras, however, typically only come with one of these batteries, and while they do hold up great, when it does finally die, you’ll either have to toss it back on the charger and wait, or purchase more of that same battery type to have charged and on the ready. This can get costly if you stick with the name brand battery, however there are usually alternative third party brands that specialize in creating lower-cost versions of the same batteries.

    On the flipside of this coin, some cameras offer the ability to use AA batteries. The problem with standard alkaline AA batteries is that they don’t last very long in digital cameras. In fact, in past models, I’ve seen digital cameras drain a set of 4 AA batteries in less than a dozen shots. However, one of the best workarounds to date for this is a line of batteries from Sanyo called Eneloops.

What makes these batteries so special is their ability to hold a charge. Sanyo has developed a technology that allows Eneloop batteries to be recharged up to 1,500 times, to last up to 2-3x longer than standard rechargeable AA batteries (such as Energizer or Duracell), to have no memory effects, to hold up to a 75% charge after 3 years on the shelf, and to top it off, they come out of the packaged pre-charged. And they’re environmentally friendly. A set of 4 Eneloop batteries plus a charger costs about $15. Or, you can get their starter kit for around $35, which includes eight AA batts, two AAA batts, two C-battery spacers, two D-battery spacers, a 4-position charger, and a reusable carrying case. Simply put, these things are awesome and can be used in anything that uses those battery sizes, not just cameras.

Price Ranges

This brings me to the most depressing part of any hobby – the money. What’s this gonna cost me? Well, as we just learned, $89 gets you into a decent P&S camera with exceptional quality. But that’s probably where I would consider the base to be, right around $100. Much less than that and you’ll be getting into unfamiliar territory with either brands you’ve never heard of, or brands that specialize more in electronics than they do optics, and end up buying something so horrible that you end up in the fetal position, crying in the corner of the room, wishing you’d spent $50 more to get something with some decent quality. If you’re more interested in testing how deep the money lake goes with P&S cameras, I would say you can find something within the range of $100-500 that will satisfy your photo taking needs, with major hitters around the $250-300 range.

Ergonomics

Now, when I began, I said there are three questions to consider when buying a camera. There’s actually also a fourth, which is ergonomics. I can’t tell you how many times when I worked at the store that I had people bring back cameras to trade them in for others they had their eyes on, just because of how it felt in their hands. Yeah, all the bells, whistles, features, benefits, resolution, video stuff, and yadda yadda that they wanted were there… but it just didn’t feel right. If you can, try to purchase your gear in a local specialty store so you can actually hold the camera in your hand and play around on the buttons to see if you like how things are arranged. Most stores, these days, are matching internet prices, and you get the advantage of a knowledgeable staff to speak with in person.

The cameras I’ve listed below are some great current options (prices current as of 9-9-11).

If you have any questions regarding anything in the feature descriptions, please feel free to comment and ask away!

_____________________________________________________________________________



Nikon Coolpix L24 – $110

•    14MP CCD Sensor
•    3.6x Wide-Angle 37-134mm (Equiv) Lens
•    Big, Bright 3″ LCD Monitor
•    VGA 640×480 (Standard-Def) Video
•    3-Way VR Image Stabilization
•    Sensitivity Up to 1600 ISO
•    Easy Auto Mode
•    Smart Portrait System
•    16 Scene Modes
•    Runs on AA Batteries
_____________________________________________________________________________

Canon PowerShot A2200 – $140

•    14.1MP Resolution
•    4x Optical Zoom Lens 28-112mm Equiv
•    4x Digital Zoom=16x Combined Zoom
•    2.7″ TFT LCD Monitor
•    720p HD Video
•    Up to 1600 ISO for Low Light Photos
•    Creative Filters (Fisheye, Vivid, etc.)
•    Multiple Shooting Modes, Inc. Easy Mode
•    Smile Detection Function
•    Macro Close-up Photography
____________________________________________________________________________

Olumpus VR-320 – $160

•    14MP High Resolution
•    12.5x Super Wide 24-300mm Zoom Lens
•    Bright 3″ LCD Monitor
•    720p HD Video
•    Durable All-Metal Body
•    Built-In Creative Magic Filters
•    Dual Image Stabilization
•    AF Tracking
•    Easy-to-Use Intelligent AUTO Mode
•    Compatible W/SDHC Memory Card
_____________________________________________________________________________


Olympus TG-310 – $175

•    14 Megapixel Resolution
•    2.7″ LCD Monitor
•    3.6x Zoom Lens (35mm Equiv. 28-100mm)
•    Waterproof to 10′ (3 m)
•    Shockproof to 5′ (1.5m) Fall
•    Freezeproof to 14 Degrees F
•    720p HD Video
•    3D Image Mode
•    Eye-Fi Compatible
•    SDXC Memory Card Compatible
____________________________________________________________________________

Nikon Coolpix S6100 – $178

•    16MP CCD Sensor
•    7x Wide-Angle 28-196mm (Equiv) Zoom Lens
•    4-Way VR Image Stabilization
•    Touch Control 3″ Hi Res 460K-Dot Display
•    1280×720 HD Video W/Stereo Sound
•    Sensitivity Up to 3200 ISO
•    Subject Tracking Autofocus
•    20 Scene Modes Inc. Pet Portrait Mode
•    In-Camera Picture Editing
•    Macro Photography to 1.2″
____________________________________________________________________________

Canon PowerShot 100HS Digital ELPH – $180

•    12.1MP CMOS Sensor
•    4x Optical Zoom 28-112mm Lens
•    28mm Wide-Angle
•    Optical Image Stabilizer
•    Improved Low Light/High ISO Photos
•    Full 1080p HD Video W/Stereo Sound
•    Hi-Speed Burst Shooting at Up to 8.2fps
•    Slow Motion Movie Mode–240fps
•    Effects Include Toy Camera & Monochrome
•    Smart AUTO Has 32 Scene Modes
_____________________________________________________________________________

Canon PowerShot SX150 IS – $250

•    14.1Mp Resolution
•    3.0″ LCD Screen
•    Genuine Canon 12x Zoom Lens
•    DIGIC 4 Image Processor
•    720p HD Video Capture
•    Optical Image Stabilizer
•    iFrame Movie Support
•    Smart AUTO Function
•    Intelligent IS Stabilization
•    2 x AA Battery Power
____________________________________________________________________________


Nikon Coolpix S9100 – $300

•    12.1MP CMOS Sensor
•    18x Wide-Angle 25-450mm (Equiv) Lens
•    3″ Hi Res VGA 921K-Dot Display
•    High Speed 9.5fps @ 12.1MP Resolution
•    5-Way VR Image Stabilization
•    Full 1920×1080 HD Video W/Stereo Sound
•    19 Scene Modes
•    Smart Portrait System
•    EXPEED C2 for Improved Quality & Speed
•    In-Camera Special Effects
_____________________________________________________________________________

Olympus SP-810UZ – $330

•    14Mp CCD Image Sensor
•    TruePic III+ Image Processor
•    3.0″ Widescreen LCD
•    24mm Ultra Wide-Angle Lens
•    36x Wide Optical Zoom
•    HD Movie with HDMI Control
•    Dual Image Stabilization
•    3D Photos Wi-Fi Compatibility
•    In-Camera Panorama
____________________________________________________________________________

Nikon P500 – $380 (This is not an SLR!)

•    12.1MP CMOS Sensor
•    36x Wide-Angle 22.5-810mm Lens
•    Full 1920×1080 HD Video W/Stereo Sound
•    5fps at Full 12.1MP Resolution
•    3″ Vari-Angle Hi Res 921K-Dot Display
•    19 Scene Modes
•    Sensitivity Up to 3200 ISO
•    5-Way VR Image Stabilization
•    Smart Portrait System
•    Dual Processing–Improved Quality, Speed
_____________________________________________________________________________

Canon PowerShot SX30 IS – $430
(This is the newest version of my old S5 IS)

•    35x Zoom Lens (24-840mm Equivalent)
•    Zoom Framing Assist for Telephoto Photos
•    14.1MP High Resolution
•    2.7″ Wide Vari-angle LCD Display
•    720p HD Video With Stereo Sound
•    Use Stabilization & Zoom for Video
•    Advanced Smart AUTO for 23 Situations
•    Optical Image Stabilizer for Sharp Pix
•    Powerful DIGIC 4 Image Processor
•    Lithium-ion Rechargeable Batteries

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2 responses

  1. I’ll refer back to this article when I begin looking for a new camera. I have a fujifilm finepix s700 which was adequate when I was doing a good bit of photography for my previous blog. I can’t remember how much I paid for it, when I got it, or why I chose that particular camera, but for the limited web based stuff I do it was fine.

    September 11, 2011 at 2:03 PM

    • Hey, thanks Larry! Ah yes, Fujifilm. I forgot to mention them. They’re actually in cahoots with Nikon, so they are made quite well and with similar build quality. I had the opportunity to shoot with a couple of different ones a few years back when considering a new point & shoot that shot video clips, and they landed probably around #5 or 6 on my consideration list. But, I ended up with the Canon after finding some sample clips online. For some reason, the Fuji’s video clips just didn’t hold up to the Canon’s.

      September 11, 2011 at 2:36 PM

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