Image Tips and Tricks: Choosing a Camera

Certainly, the most obvious question that users have is what kind of camera they should choose. Camera users normally fall into one of three main categories: amateurs, hobbyists and professionals, and knowing where you fit can help you identify what features might be important, and what type of camera would make sense for your needs. Are you looking to just take a few pictures of family and friends, capture memories from vacations, or produce shots of nature and landscapes to build a portfolio? Also think about how much quality you are willing to trade away for portability, as cameras can range from large and bulky professional quality SLR cameras (Single Lens Reflex) to small ultra-portable cameras, some of which may not even have a flash.

Camera Categories

Cameras are typically broken down into groups: ultra-compact, compact, prosumer or hobbyist, and digital SLR, and most manufacturers build units in several categories to capture more of the market. On each end of the range, the ultra-compacts are designed to be the most portable, often fitting into pockets easily and used as key chains, while the digital SLR cameras are professional quality tools that have the widest range of options, such as external flashes, lenses and tripods (but are also often the largest and most cumbersome to carry). Most units fall into the middle two categories, with compacts having a good range of quality, resolution, and options, and the prosumer range including higher quality and greater control over manual options and accessories.

Megapixels

Buying by only the megapixel rating will mean you will miss out on the other features of the camera -- portability, accessories, a good quality flash, but it is one of the most important considerations. Less than 3 megapixel cameras are suitable for basic snapshots; the camera will be small and good enough to take basic 'I was there' shots, but the images won't be as clear if you want anything larger than standard 4x6 prints. Between 3 and 5 megapixels, you will find a good range of everyday use and vacation cameras -- you can fill your photo albums with shots from cameras in this range or use them as desktop images, as you will generally find the images are good enough that you don't need any more and will be able to make good quality prints at a variety of sizes. From 5 to 10 megapixels, you will find more serious cameras for hobbyists that want to explore photography as an art or those that are looking to stay ahead of the curve -- the images will take up more hard drive space but will be perfect for manipulation and printing out in larger sizes. A number of cameras are available across different categories with 10 megapixels or more, although this kind of resolution is generally overkill for casual everyday use. Choose a 10 megapixel or higher resolution camera if you are a professional and expect to be paid for the work you produce, if you need the highest resolution because you expect to make significant enlargements of your photos for mounting/framing, if you want more flexible cropping options, or if you simply want the ultimate in image quality.

Zoom

Zooming is another important consideration with digital cameras - there are two kinds of zoom: optical zoom and digital zoom. An optical zoom factor is one that relies on the lens itself magnifying the light coming in, so that what is distant appears larger and closer in the resulting image. A digital zoom factor is one that takes the resulting image and magnifies it after the fact. Needless to say, an optical zoom factor is much more important than a digital zoom factor (and produces better quality results).

Storage Media

The way the images themselves are stored can be a factor in your decision, as some camera makers have proprietary storage systems that are incompatible with the cameras of other makes. Some common formats are Compact Flash (a fairly common format across both compact and professional cameras), Secure Digital (SD) cards (which are fairly common in compact cameras due to their smaller size), and Sony Memory Stick (unique to Sony cameras, but also supported by Sony computers, televisions, and other devices). Storage sizes can range from smaller 8MB cards/sticks, which can hold about a dozen three megapixel images, to larger 32GB cards/sticks and higher, which can hold thousands of images, and are especially useful when storing photos in a 'raw' format (a direct unprocessed copy of the image data from the camera sensor, available more commonly with digital SLR cameras, and takes much more storage space per photo). Prices have come down on most of the memory cards/sticks making selection of the larger sizes more affordable and a smarter choice. Choose the largest size you are comfortable with, and ideally select a second smaller stick as a backup in case the first one becomes full -- for example, a combination of a 512MB with a 4GB card/stick is good if you move all your images onto your computer on a regular basis.

Image Tips and Tricks: Taking Photos

Proper handling of the camera itself can reduce the number of retakes, helping to make your day easier by decreasing the number of times you need to repeat the dreaded "hold on, I need to take one more". Taking better quality pictures means taking fewer pictures overall since you're taking fewer bad shots due to bad mechanics.

Holding the Camera

Hold the camera solidly in your hand to prevent the camera from shuddering or shifting too much when pressing on the shutter button, and watch your spare fingers so that they don't interfere with the lens. One trick is to wrap the camera strap around your fingers so that you will be more conscious of where they are. Another tip, especially with smaller cameras, is to hold your eye up to the optical viewfinder to capture the image, rather than the electronic viewfinder -- this will not only help you see exactly what your capturing, but will also help to stabilize the shot between your hands and your face for less 'camera shake'.

Focusing

As digital cameras have a tendency to take slightly longer to focus than film camera, an important tip is to half-depress the shutter button until the camera has had time to lock the focus, and then completely press the button to take the actual shot - this can often make the difference between blurry, out-of-focus shots, and clear pictures. Also, with normal picture-taking, shutter speeds are fast enough that a small amount of shake won't affect the resulting image much, however, there are times when you'd want to use a tripod to compensate: when taking pictures in low light, where the shutter speed will slow down enough to potentially make drag lines, and when using a long zoom, where distant objects are susceptible to blur. In each case, the tripod will settle the image and let you forget about shaking the image and focus on capturing what's in your mind's eye

Preview

One of the main advantages of a digital camera is being able to preview the pictures after you've taken them. If you are trying to capture a specific scene, you can review the shot and see if it looks the way you wanted -- if it doesn't, you can delete the shot and retake it to get it right. Why keep a picture if it's blurry, or someone's eyes are closed, or a person is obstructing part of the view?

Archiving

Taking that one step further, there is no worse feeling than seeing the perfect kiss, smile or sunset, reaching for your camera and clicking the button, only to realize that your storage is full and you've missed your chance. It's happened to everyone, but still, you can prevent it by clearing off your old pictures monthly (or more frequently if you are a shutterbug). Bring a second memory card/stick with you when you go on a trip, even if your primary card/stick is large, just in case you need the extra space. There are also portable storage products available that allow you to offload and archive your photos to keep your main storage free, ranging from iPod adapters to portable drives/CD burners

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