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Tips for Buying Advanced Compact Digital Cameras
The price of entry-level digital SLRs has dropped so low that one could be tempted to overlook advanced compact digital cameras. That would be a mistake. Cameras in this category supply nearly all of the sophisticated SLR-like features and controls that are found on D-SLRs. Image quality is as good or better, all else being equal, and zoom cameras offer several advantages over D-SLRs.
Compact cameras provide more performance per ounce than any other type. The camera body portion is small and light, and despite their extended zoom ranges, the lenses are fast and compact. A typical 7x zoom camera is easier to carry than a D-SLR equipped with an equivalent lens. To achieve the same 7x range, you’d have to attach an 18-125mm zoom lens to your D-SLR. Yes, such lenses are available, but they’re big and heavy—and expensive.
While a lot of attention has been placed on the bigger digital SLRs, the advanced compact camera has some technological marvels that even the digital SLR can’t match. The world wants longer zoom lenses, for example, but these can be big, heavy and expensive on a digital SLR. Camera manufacturers have been able to develop long focal-length zooms for the compact digital camera with high-quality lens features, yet at a low cost and in a very small size. That’s because these cameras have small sensors and don’t require big lenses to act like long telephotos for an SLR. In addition, they don’t need all of the special wiring and motors of their bigger brethren since these lenses are attached.
But long zooms are hard to hold still, and even slight camera movement can make the recorded image appear unsharp. Now manufacturers are adding image-stabilization technology to advanced compact digital cameras as a countermeasure, and it has become a popular feature.
What else is happening with all-in-one cameras? They don’t have true SLR viewing directly through the lens, but do see what the sensor sees electronically via an EVF (electronic viewfinder) or LCD monitor. Much development is going into making the EVF better. Higher resolutions, brighter monitors (used for the EVF) and faster frame rates (how fast the image updates) greatly improve the EVF image. With an EVF or other LCD monitor, you can preview the subject or compose the image on the LCD, which can’t be done with an SLR. The EVF and LCD also make it easier to shoot in both bright and extremely dark conditions (the sensor shows actual exposure and doesn’t be-come dim with dim light).
LCD monitors continue to get larger, making them much easier to use for reviewing and evaluating your photos. LCDs consume more energy, though, and since no one wants to sacrifice battery performance, manufacturers have developed better, longer-lasting power sources along with enhancing overall camera operating efficiency. Battery life has almost become a non-issue. At the same time, many camera makers have been able to reduce the size and weight of the battery (and thereby the camera) without diminishing output—that’s quite a technological feat!
Megapixels still continue to increase. They’re well beyond the size needed for standard printing, which means even these compact cameras can deliver very large, high-quality prints from their files. Demand for more and more megapixels forces camera makers to add bigger buffers, however, and find ways to handle large files more efficiently. This can be a challenge in the small cameras described here, but the camera designers have risen to the challenge. Internal signal processing has improved and will continue to do so. MPEG-4 video compression is being implemented more often now, and mini-movies are true VGA quality—finally useful.
For today’s user, the term “easy to use” has come to mean “easy to achieve excellence,” that is, both full manual control and expanded bracketing options along with practical and powerful shooting modes that are programmed into most of these cameras. New camera technologies now automatically remove red-eye, brighten shadow areas, create panoramics and close-focus down to mere centimeters all because of instructions that have been programmed into the various shooting modes.
Truth be told, almost every technologically advanced imaging feature was introduced on a zoom camera long before being offered on a D-SLR. Partially because of manufacturing and other cost efficiencies, advancements like 5-megapixel CCD image sensors, super-sized LCD monitors and body-integral image stabilization all debuted on zoom cameras before migrating to D-SLRs. If you want to guess what future D-SLRs might look like, study the advanced compact zoom models.
True wide-angle performance has become more commonplace among cameras of this type, and that’s a big advantage. D-SLRs typically offer a 28-85mm equivalent zoom in a standard lens kit, but some all-in-one cameras provide a lens that starts at 24mm (35mm equivalent), most notably the Nikon Coolpix 8400. Fast lenses are easier to find, too. And many of the fixed-lens zoom models accept screw-on tele and wide-angle accessory lenses that provide excellent results.
The fact that the lens doesn’t come off can be a considerable advantage. Removing the lens on a D-SLR exposes the image sensor, mirror and other internal components to contamination by airborne dust particles. D-SLR imagers can be cleaned, it’s true, but a sealed, dust-proof system trumps a blower brush any day.
Advanced compact zoom cameras offer a superb value-for-dollar proposition. Pricing pressure from D-SLRs has driven manufacturers to cut zoom camera retails to the bone. In many cases, they’re priced quite close to compact point-and-shoot digital cameras, despite the fact that compacts lack long zooms and advanced features. Digital SLRs are available for $800 or less, but adding a 7x or longer zoom lens will set you back at least $300 to $400 for even the lowest-priced lenses. You also could think of it this way: Would you prefer to spend eight hundred bucks on the cheapest entry-level D-SLR, or own the best, most sophisticated and fully featured zoom compact camera for the same money?
What To Look For In An Advanced Compact
Zoom Range. For many people, the number-one reason to consider buying an advanced compact digital camera is the extended zoom range. Look beyond the “x” number (e.g., 10x zoom), however, and check the wide-angle spec as well as the telephoto. A 28mm or wider equivalent is much more useful than a 35mm lens. How much zoom range you need is dependent on what you photograph. If you shoot landscapes and travel scenes, the wide-angle end may be critical to you; for people shots, mid-range focal lengths work; and for wildlife and sports, an equivalent focal length of 300-400mm can be helpful.
Image Stabilization. Here’s a feature that will help you achieve better results in more situations than you may at first imagine. When shooting with a telephoto in low-light conditions, when shooting macro or at any time when you want to keep the ISO setting low, you run a risk of the camera moving during a slow exposure, which will lower the quality of your shot.
Camera manufacturers offer image stabilization in certain cameras that can allow you to shoot approximately three shutter speeds slower than you normally can and still get sharp photos. Canon and Nikon both use a lens-based optical stabilization system; Canon’s is IS for Image Stabilizer and Nikon’s is VR for Vibration Reduction. Called AS for Anti-Shake, Konica Minolta cameras work off a totally new approach that moves the image sensor in response to camera movement.
Portability. Your neck can become sore carrying three pounds of magnesium alloy and glass on an inch-wide strap. Even if you do most of your serious shooting with a D-SLR and are willing to bear the weight, a compact zoom is the camera to reach for when you want all of the SLR power and performance, but want to travel light. Cameras with longer zooms and an EVF are larger and much less compact than those with flatter designs with optical viewfinders and shorter zooms. Handle a camera to see if its size is convenient for you to carry.
Ergonomics. Aside from the size of the LCD monitor, ergonomic factors are difficult to quantify. This is one judgment you’ll never be able to make until you wrap your hands around the camera and put it through its paces. When you examine the camera, carefully check the size and visibility of the EVF. Is the viewfinder easy to use? Locate all of the main controls. Are they positioned where they will be easy to change? If the fit isn’t perfect, is it something you can live with? If it just doesn’t feel right, it’s probably not the best camera for you no matter what anyone else says. A camera must fit you right or you won’t use it.
There are a few specifications that consumers often forget to check—and regret it later. If you own a D-SLR that uses CF cards, for example, you’ll do well to buy a compact model that uses the same media. Does the camera have an external computer port? Most have USB connectivity, but some D-SLRs use FireWire. Are you into macro photography? Investigate the camera’s close-focusing capability. Like to shoot in the RAW format? Better check; while most in this group have that capability, a few don’t.
Beyond these obvious factors, the other features to look for include those you’d expect to find in a D-SLR. With so many exciting, full-featured models from which to choose, you’re certain to find an advanced compact that’s perfect for you.