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How to decide which Digital Camera to purchase.

Written by "Vector"
Managing Director, The Vector Trust
One of three founding members of the team.

Mickey And Minnie welcome visitors to Disney's Animal Kingdom on Opening Day.    Digital cameras have come a long way in just a few years. They are quickly becoming more and more affordable as well as easier to use. The picture resolution has gotten close to film quality (for 4x6 snapshot sized prints anyway). The problem has become "which camera should I buy?". It seems that every film company, camera company; computer company and electronics manufacturer on planet earth has a digital camera model that is "just right for you". This proliferation has made intelligent comparison and purchase more difficult not easier. Many digital camera manufacturers started out with insanely expensive "professional cameras", a selection of "top end" amateur cameras, and then electronic toys for the casual buyer. In 1999, digital cameras cost between usd$199 for a "Barbie ® " camera (that was a pretty good value for the "thumbnail pictures it took) to the usd$34,000 camera with 5 megapixels of resolution. Today, 5Mp is available for less than usd$900 from several camera manufacturers and usd$199 buys 2Mp with a zoom lens. Consumer research shows that the average digital camera buyer is interested in taking family photos, outputting/storing them in a more convenient form, and printing copies at home to save money. Unfortunately the "hype" about digital cameras has made them appear to be "simple" to use. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you are a serious amateur photographer, or a "pro" looking forward to adding a digital camera to your "tool kit", there are several issues to consider.

Megapixels or picture output resolution quality.    Any printed picture is judge by a quality standard of "pixels per square inch". Take a magnifying glass and look at any picture in your morning newspaper. You will see that up close the photo is only a collection of gray and black dots. From a distance, the dot pattern resembles a picture. The same is true of any photo, either printed or on your computer screen. The more pixels squeezed into that "square inch", the more detailed and vibrant the picture will be. More pixels create more photographic details. If a small picture is enlarged, the new bigger print retains the image quality to the human eye.

Battery life.    The earliest models of Digital cameras were semi-infamous for swallowing batteries whole. All the electronics are power-hungry, that understandable, but now some of the newest model have addressed this issue and consume half as much power per photo. More efficient internals coupled with automatic power saving features have done a pretty amazing job of widening the spread between the "best" and "worse" models on the market. Do your homework and read the consumer and photo enthusiast magazine to see which cameras seem to do the best with a standard sized battery. Avoid cameras that require the old alkaline batteries. You'll spend your vacation looking for batteries to purchase during every stop on your trip. Nickel-Hydride batteries are a little better, but the best power source is a Lithium-ion battery. Don't be confused, but there is a similar sounding battery technology called photo Lithium. These come in AA size and are sold as if they are built "just for your digital camera". While they do last longer than alkaline batteries, they are not the same as Lithium-Ion batteries. Also, notice what size and shape battery each camera requires, before you purchase one model over another. Many cameras have odd shaped batteries that may be hard to find or only available from the original camera manufacturer. Much like your computer printer, the cost of the ink cartridges can cost many time what the printer originally cost over the life of the machine. The same is true with digital cameras and batteries.

The real Lion King, on Pride Rock, opening weekend of Disney's Animal Kingdom. Zoom lens    Serious amateur and professional photographers have a lot of money invested in interchangeable lenses for our cameras. Trying to use them with your new digital camera body poses problems. Unless you are ready to spend serious money, and you are using Nikon or Canon brand lens, you will find very few economical cameras that accept lens mounts. This means most everyone will purchase a digital camera with a built-in capability. All the Manufacturers will advertise two types of zoom lenses: optical and digital. Optical zoom lens work just as the ones in your film cameras do. It uses lens and mirrors to deliver distance and focus to the film plane. Digital zoom lens are just altering a fixed computer image. The camera is enlarging a smaller and smaller section of a fixed image, cropping the image down and reducing the resolution. Ultimately, the picture quality suffers as the zoom is extended. Most higher end digital cameras have both zooms available on the same lens. Base your purchase decision on the optical zoom lens abilities. Digital zooming, cropping and digital editing tricks are better done on the desktop with image editor software like Adobe PhotoShop.

Memory Format/Type.    It's important to think of your new digital camera as a computer that happens to take pictures, not as a camera that connects to a computer. The difference is subtle, but critical to understanding the memory storage choice that digital camera's present. Your photo images will be stored in a computer memory devise. There are several types. In no particular order they are Sony's Memory sticks, SmartMedia cards, CompactFlash, and SD cards. These are all generically referred to as "flash memory" devises. These cards are computer memory that stores data in quick burst, and can then be erased and re-used. They can be purchased in different "sizes" of memory capacity. This is one of the rare cases where a decision is easy. Buy the biggest memory capacity available, in whichever format your new camera requires. Having too much memory is never a problem. Many new computer peripherals and electronic devises use these "flash memory" storage cards. The best example is the expandable memory of a PDA, or some of the MP3 music players. If you plan well, you can re-use your memory cards in your camera, music player, PDA and some "palm-type" computers. These cards are now wildly expensive, but there is a price difference between formats. CompactFlash cards are commonly the cheapest to buy, because many manufacturers make then. Sony's Memory Stick is the most expensive, per memory MB, because it must be purchased from Sony. SmartMedia and SD cards tend to be about the same price point. SD cards also have some performance advantages so more manufacturers are using those cards in their newest design. Whichever memory device you end up needing for your camera, buy plenty. Watch for coupons, promotions and sales.

Vector welcomes a new student to the photography class at the Disney Institue. Goofy tried to impress the teacher, by wearing a matching cap and photo-vest. Computer connections.    Be sure you know what computer connection plug the camera's manufacturer supplies. Most digital cameras are sold with the new fast USB "plug and play" cables. Some cameras use the "Firewire" plug in. These cables need to connect to your computer so you can move the images from the memory devices (discussed above) to a Zip-drive, burn them to home-made CDROMs, or to store them on your hard-drive. Make sure your PC has the correct matching female port. Finding out you can't connect to your computer without a costly PC upgrade is no fun, and defeats the purpose of a digital camera's convenience. The oldest digital camera models used serial and parallel (printer) ports. These connections are very slow when compared to the newer styles. Be aware of this, if you are thinking of buying a used camera on the Internet auction sites. Most of the big "brand name" digital camera makers also include software made to work with any current desktop software. In today's environment that means Windows 98 (which is fading fast), Windows ME and XP. Apple's Macintosh OS X and earlier versions are some of the simplest to use, but not worth switching too, just for your new camera.

Disney's Animal Kingdom on Opening Day, the animals were as curious as the tourist.    I've saved the last two criterion for comparison till now, because they are more of a consideration if you are a serious sports or action photographer. Rarely will Shutter speed and weight be an important consideration for the average amateur family photographer.

Shutter speed and camera features.    If you are a photographer that takes a lot of action or sports images, learning to use digital cameras will take a little re-training on your part. The days of popping off a string of pictures with the motordrive are over too. Most digital cameras require time to "backup" the picture to the memory card, before it is ready to take the next image. A few of the faster cameras can save an image or two to a temporary file, before backing up. Some manufacturers tout this feature as "motordrive" equivalent. It isn't in our opinion. If this rapid fire shooting feature is important to your photographic needs, or your shooting style with a 35mm camera, you must critically compare each digital cameras "burst mode". This is the term manufacturer use to describe how quickly the camera makes itself available for the "next" shot after a series of pictures have been taken. The team members have "test driven" several digital camera models from more than a few manufacturers. You can read so of our product review article elsewhere. Our conclusion? We suggest you plan on getting the picture right, in the first frame of a series. You may find the quick second or third image is just not available to your trigger-finger. This recovery time increase as the image file size grows too. Re-read the paragraph above about megapixels and picture resolution quality. More than one camera manufacturer quotes the "burst mode" speed, at the smallest file size available. You will very likely be shooting at the highest resolution, to obtain the best print quality possible.

Camera size, weight and "feel".    The size and weight of a camera may or may not matter to you. It is critical to me. The team will go to an automobile race weekend and spend hours and days standing on hard concrete roadways and walking paved track surfaces. If you add heat, rain, or cold, life can become miserable quickly. Every extra camera, battery, lens, tripod, or other pieces of equipment adds to the "tonnage" I'm responsible for carrying around. It is all hanging from my hips or the photographer's vest I wear. Lighter weight is important, believe me. There is a great deal of difference in the weight of several different cameras with the same performance specifications.
The ergonomic design of digital cameras also varies greatly from camera to camera. Some manufacturers design their cameras to "feel" like a 35mm camera, and others try building the camera into the smallest package possible. How a camera feels in your hand is important. It should feel comfortable. You should be able to grip the camera securely, and hold it steady. Some people like small, tiny tools. I prefer a larger camera body that I can confidently grip, with my big hands. Neither design style is better than the other is. Take the time to find the camera body size that fits your shooting style and durability needs.

It all started with a pencil sketch of a mouse. In summary,    There is no "right answer" to which camera to purchase. In case you didn't notice, I've not mentioned any specific camera models or brands in this discussion. Each photographers needs and priorities are different. Every camera on the market is a balance of the features mentioned above. Every manufacturer thinks they have the perfect balance of features and price to attract the widest sales. Only you can decide if they have guessed right.

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