Digital Camera recommendations…


(Feedback based update: 7/7/2004)


Due to my computer and photography interests, I get asked quite frequently to spew about my recommendations for purchasing a digital camera.  Of course I have opinions, but so do a million other photographer/computer nerds out there.  So, take what I say with a grain of salt.  What works and is important to me, may not be important to somebody else. 


First and foremost, a cheap point-and-shoot camera is capable of taking pictures as good as any high-end model.  Most of the quality comes from the eye of the photographer, not the hardware.  Yes, you can argue about barrel distortion, chromatic aberations, and moire patterns all day and night.  But if it looks like there’s a tree limb sticking out of Uncle Bob’s head nobody’s going to give a rip about all that technical mumbo-jumbo.  In my opinion, great photographs should jump out at you rather than be dependent on very close analysis.


My list of key specs is short so it should be easy to remember as you’re looking around.  It is mostly geared toward people interested in getting a camera to replace their old film-based point and shoot camera. 



You really can’t go wrong with any Nikon or Canon.  It’s not that other manufacturers can’t or don’t make products that are as good as or better than these two, it’s just a little more hit and miss with others.  Nikon and Canon have been in the camera, lens and photography business forever.  They know what makes good picture-taking-gadgets.


There’s really nothing wrong with Kodak and Olympus camera’s, or Minolta, or HP, or Sony, or Fuji, or whomever. The reason I like Nikon and Canon more is that they are the two companies that most professional photographers use (purely based on empirical evidence). Their businesses rely on keeping their reputation at a high level in the professional market, for sure. I guess I’d say, it’s “in their blood” to make a decent camera and lens. Other companies, like Sony and HP don’t have that kind of “baggage” to carry around. Heck, either of those two companies could completely drop their digital camera lines and hardly miss a beat. I don’t really know much about Olympus and Minolta, other than they’ve been competing for mindshare with Nikon and Canon for as long as I can remember.

Kodak’s in a strange position. From what I understand they have mostly relied on the profits from analog film sales. The digital boom seemed to catch them off guard, and they’ve been paying dearly. Now they’re playing catch up by pushing more in the hardware aspect of photography.  Ironically enough, some of the original HIGH end 35mm digital cameras that were available before the Nikon D1 came out were made by Kodak. BUT these cameras were actually Nikon bodies and shutter mechanisms, with digital hardware tacked on by Kodak. Go figure.

Fuji is another company I don’t know too much about other than being well known for their analog film products. They are also a humungous company, like Sony, so good digital cameras isn’t something that’s going to make or break their existence.







Compact Flash digital film format is best.  It’s the cheapest, highest capacity, and abundant form of flash memory for the foreseeable future.  Most Nikon and Canon cameras use this format.  One of the readers of this blog indicated that Canon has started using SD format memory in their smaller models.  Based on what I’ve seen recently surrounding devices that make use of memory expansion, SD appears to be gaining a foothold.  So I suppose if you’re really interested in minimizing size, SD is probably the next best alternative to compact flash.





3 Megapixel is sufficient to print high-quality 8×10’s.  When’s the last time you got an 8×10 of any of the pictures you’ve taken?  I’m guessing most of you would answer: ‘uh, never’.  When would you need more than 3 Megapixels?  Well, if you’d like to print a significant number of 8×10’s or even 5×7’s OR you’re likely to do some heavy cropping of your pictures (say for scrapbooking hobbies) you’ll want to try to maximize your megapixels.





Examine shutter lag and auto-focus lag to differentiate between similar cameras.  I’ll bet you’ll be more frustrated with long total lag (auto-focus + shutter) on cheaper point-and-shoots than any other feature or lack of feature.  If I were to spend any extra money for anything, it would be to choose the camera that has the minimum delay between when you press the shutter button and when the picture is taken.  When reading a review of a camera, say on the most excellent http://www.dpreview.com, find and take note of ‘Shutter Lag’ and ‘Auto-Focus Lag’.  The shorter the better!


By the way, one way to minimize this effect on most cameras is to pre-focus whatever it is you’re trying to take a picture of.  Usually that involves holding the shutter button half-way down a couple seconds before pushing it all the way down.  While this usually does make it easier to live with a long shutter lag, in practice (yes, I do have a small Nikon point and shoot that my wife mostly uses.  🙂 I’ve found it quite limiting and annoying.





Don’t worry about zoom, both the optical and digital type.  It is an overrated feature on most point-and-shoot cameras.  Digital zoom can be completely replicated AFTER you take a picture.  The optical zoom capability on a small camera is usually quite limited anyway.  For most situations moving closer or further from your subject can be just as effective.  To get really close (like of the Little Leage pictures on my website) you’ll need the SLR equivalent of a 300mm zoom lens.  200mm equivalence will get you fairly close to most action that’s within 30 yards or so.  Most instruction manuals and camera review web-sites will list this equivalency spec.  Here’s a nice definition if you’re interested in understanding this a bit more.


There.  5 key points to remember.  If you’d like to get more serious about photography, try to veer toward an SLR-type camera.  Here are the price ranges I’d recommend based on your level of photgraphy interest:



  • $150 to $400 – For most typical family and friend snapshots.
  • $400 to $1000 – If you want any chance of being able to take good pictures in more difficult situations than simple people poses.  For example, sports (especially indoor sports), plays, nighttime shots, etc.  Be aware that practice and patience will STILL be required to pull these situations off well.
  • > $1000 – For this amount of money, you’d be able to take fantastic shots in almost any situation  Of course, you may need to practice, read the manual, buy more manuals, spend extra money, or be extremely lucky to realize your potential, but in theory just about any type of shot would be possible.

 

Comments (13)

  1. Chris Auld says:

    Canon use SD Card memory in some of their smaller cameras like the Ixus models….

  2. Wim says:

    You forgot to add that with a digital SLR (either Canon or Nikon), the investment in good glass is probably more important than the camera body itself.

  3. Jeff says:

    I love my 10D, but I’ve been really pleased with my little Canon S400 (being replaced by 410) for on-the-go vacation type situations. I never thought I’d get the sharpness I’ve had for 8×10’s out of that little guy, and the color reproduction has been surprisingly good.

  4. One of the weird things about megapixel recommendations is that so many people seem to imagine the primary purpose of digital photos is to eventually end up on paper; in my experience, 99% of the viewing I do is on the screen.

    And for screen viewing, 3 megapixels is… well, fine basically; it lets you do a bit of cropping, and still have enough picture for a standard 1600×1200 pixel display. But there are definite gains to be had by upping the resolution a bit.

  5. Jim Griesmer says:

    Wim – Yep.

    Mike – Yeah, I kinda agree there too but I have a few more comments.

    In my experience, looking at your picture on a screen just doesn’t cut it for a lot of people. Plus, I don’t recommend just keeping your treasured pictures just in digital form, unless you’re really good about backing them up. I happen to be really good about backing them up because I’ve been reamed in the past. 🙂

    "Standard 1600×1200" display?? 🙂 I doubt most people are running that high. Heck it seems that 1024×768 is just finally starting to become standard.

    Finally, with the onset of cheap digital printing services found just about everywhere these days, getting the same results as with your old film camera (4×6 prints) is expected and probably desired. Essentially, the "digital" part of the camera just becomes a tool for making sure you’re going to get the prints you REALLY want.

  6. I had a little Nikon point & shoot Coolpix 2100 – POS. I can’t speak for their higher end stuff, but, I’d imagine it’s much better.

    I’ve been really happy with Sony’s digital cameras the past few years. I’m using one of their new 5MP ones that burns to a mini CD-RW. It takes very nice pictures, and it’s very speedy on the shutter.focus (it caches pictures in memory as you take them so you don’t have to wait on the CD burner).

  7. Lee says:

    Consumer Reports recommends Kodak and Olympus Camedia. What about those? Or are Nikon and Canon better? (I have a Canon EOS Elan 35 mm that I like a lot, but I want to get a digital, too.

  8. Jim Griesmer says:

    There’s really nothing *wrong* with Kodak and Olympus camera’s, or Minolta, or HP, or Sony, or Fuji, or whomever. The reason I like Nikon and Canon more is that they are the two companies that most professional photographers use (purely based on empirical evidence). Their businesses *rely* on keeping their reputation at a high level in the professional market, for sure. I guess I’d say, it’s "in their blood" to make a decent camera and lens. Other companies, like Sony and HP don’t have that kind of "baggage" to carry around. Heck, either of those two companies could completely drop their digital camera lines and hardly miss a beat. I don’t really know much about Olympus and Minolta, other than they’ve been competing for mindshare with Nikon and Canon for as long as I can remember.

    Kodak’s in a strange position. From what I understand they have mostly relied on the profits from analog film sales. The digital boom seemed to catch them off guard, and they’ve been paying dearly. Now they’re playing catch up by pushing more in the hardware aspect of photography.

    Ironically enough, some of the original HIGH end 35mm digital cameras that were available before the Nikon D1 came out were made by Kodak. BUT these cameras were actually Nikon bodies and shutter mechanisms, with digital hardware tacked on by Kodak. Go figure.

    Fuji is another company I don’t know too much about other than being well known for their analog film products. They are also a humungous company, like Sony.

  9. Greg Hughes says:

    I used to be a professional sports photographer, before I turned to computers and other geeky stuff. I recently purchased a Nikon D70 digital SLR, and have been pretty pleased with it. I bought the body-lens kit, and have found the zoom lens (18-70ED AF-S) is also very nice.

    I remember the first real digital pro cameras, back in the 80’s, when I was in journalism school. Canon and Nikon would send us these very expensive loaners and have us use them in our day-to-day jobs. Now that camera would be considered so low-end no one would buy it. Digital is still not what film is, but the growth of the technology and improvements in image quality have been pretty amazing.

  10. Jim Griesmer says:

    Come on admit it Greg, photojournalism just doesn’t bring in the dough like computers and other geeky stuff. 😀

    As for the comparison between film and digital? Yeah, it’s not quite at the same level yet for what I’d guestimate as .5% of the potential digital photography consumers (pro or amateur). But for the other 99.5% of that market film is dead.

    On that note, I was talking to a pro photographer during one of the games. He was probaly in his mid-60’s and has been shooting most of his life. He was using a Nikon F5 to shoot this game, but admitted he has a D1 that he’d like to use. The problem with it he saw was that unless you really concentrate it’s easy to lose detail in the shadows or highlights. He compared it to shooting slide film.

    I’d have to agree, though shooting in RAW mode (if your camera allows it AND you’re willing to take the processing annoyance) can alleviate that problem somewhat. I definitely shoot raw when I want to be 100% sure that I will get a usable image.