Eric Baker

Digital cameras -
a buying guide

v6.4  09 February 2017  © Eric Baker
www.chericbaker.co.uk




Contents

What to look for
Cameras to check out
Accessories

What to look for

Size

Smaller cameras are more likely to be with you when needed unexpectedly - that role tends to be filled by mobile phones nowadays, although the lack of optical zoom is a big limitation. Bigger cameras tend to have better flash range and take much better pictures. There are some quite reasonably priced cameras in jacket rather than shirt pocket sizes. Or why not have a little camera and a bigger one for special? I take that to extremes, with three cameras, all bought at bargain prices, for different roles.

Most mobiles take decent photos in good light nowadays, but even if they have lots of megapixels the lenses and sensors are so tiny and the lack of optical zoom so restricting that you cannot expect too much from them, especially in poor light. And going round flashing at people to overcome this is regarded as intrusive in most situations and doesn't work anyway with subjects over a couple of metres away.

I will always choose my SLR (top right) if I want the best quality, eg on safari or creating passport photos. But in low light social situations I often prefer my Nikon 1 J5 - it's less obvious. For distant subjects it's got to be my Sony HX60 superzoom, compact enoough to be a pocketable all rounder. If I don't have a camera with me my Moto G4 phone's OK for wide angle photos in decent light.

Megapixels

Doesn't really matter nowadays. 4MP (impossible to buy) would be more than enough up to 7x5" prints, even with cropping, and plenty for screen displays. No point in paying extra for 20MP+ unless you want to print big enlargements. In fact, more megapixels can often mean worse low light pictures with lots of noise on them (speckly) because they cram more pixels onto the same tiny sensor. It also means huge files clogging up your computer if you don't process them.

Pentax K50

Nikon 1 J5

Sony HX60

Sensor size

This is much more important than megapixels yet manufacturers try very hard to keep us confused with sensor size 1/2.3" or similar (a typical smaller digital camera size) and never seem to state the sensor area - which is what matters. 1/2.3" actually means a tiny sensor package with a sensor area of 6.17 x 4.55mm or a minute 28 sq mm. No wonder low light performance is so poor! Most smartphones are even worse, some with a sensor size of just 15 sq mm as well as minute lenses. At that size the attempt to pack over 10 megapixels onto such a tiny sensor means the pixels are almost as small as the wavelength of red light - physics decrees there's no point going any smaller. There's a superb article on this at Gizmag. Newer smartphones may have bigger sensors, eg 30 sq mm on the iPhone 6S.

My Nikon 1 J5 has a sensor of 116 sq mm, significantly bigger. Hence its much better picture quality. My Pentax K50 SLR has a massive 370 sq mm. That lets you really control depth of field, eg to produce shots where the subject is sharp but the background out of focus - just like our eyes work. See a good article at Wikipedia.

DSLRs have big sensors, eg APS-C sensors are 320-370 sq mm and the expensive ones go up to 35mm film size. That's why DSLRs have such good low light performance and depth of field (in-focus zone) control. But it does mean the lenses are big. Micro Four Thirds cameras have 225 sq mm sensors so the lenses can be rather smaller. There's an absolutely brilliant site that lets you simulate the depth of field achievable with different sensor sizes. I put in the sensor sizes for my 3 cameras (1/2.3", 1" and APS-C) and had fun with the sliders.

Low light performance

Most small digicams are not too good in really low light conditions, apparently because of their small sensors as well as their little lenses. Photoshop Elements has a filter which helps de-speckle low light pics and the Nik Collection has some good filters too. Small digicams generally have a weak flash and produce far more redeye. With a good, bigger sensor camera you have much more chance of getting good results in low light, especially if it's a modern one that can go up to 1600 or even 6400 ISO without the image quality deteriorating too badly. The image on the right is pretty speckly close up, as it was taken through glass with a pocket Fuji camera at ISO 12800 (extreme measures!). But it's atmospheric.

Screen size

Resolution matters too as does sunlight and night time performance. 3" or bigger should be fine. 230,000 pixels or better makes it reasonably sharp. A 3" 460k screen will be much better.

Viewfinder

Left out on most small cameras. Can be useful in low/bright light and also saves on battery consumption if optical. It's also easier to hold a camera with a viewfinder steady. Electronic viewfinders are much better if they have at least a million pixels.

Zoom lens

Ignore digital zoom - that just crops the edges of the picture in the camera, which you can do later (and much better) on the computer.

The wide angle end of the zoom is important. The Sigma lens on my SLR has a lovely 27-300 zoom and I wouldn't be happy with, say, a 36-400 range (no wide angle). I've also got a second hand 105-450mm zoom for long shots, eg on safari. Note that all the zoom figures I've used in this guide are 35mm equivalents.

DSLRs often come with very limited zooms, eg 28-80mm. I'm not sure they're worth getting unless you spend the extra on a decent long zoom lens. Even then you have the bother of changing lenses - I really like having a wide to long zoom always available. When I did finally get an SLR I replaced the 27-80mm lens that came with it with a bigger, heavier 27-300mm Sigma. Far more useful. I've also got 52 and 75mm non zoom 'prime' lenses for when I want maximum quality and light and don't need a zoom.

Some quite small digital cameras now have very impressive zoom ranges, eg my Sony HX60, goes from 24-720mm. Its tiny sensor allows that amazing zoom range without too much bulk.
Swan detail

Depth of field eg

Low light eg






Panasonic zoom lens from Wikimedia


Canon SX510

Anti-shake (image stabilisation)

Very useful in low light or for long zoom shots. Check it's real (moving the sensor or lens elements, not merely stepping up the ISO setting and opening up the lens aperture - that just doesn't count). Anti shake doesn't help, of course, with moving subjects. A tripod or monopod (like my hiking pole) can really help too. Bigger cameras are much easier to hold steady.

Controls

Automatic mode is often fine but it's much more fun and produces better results controlling aperture, shutter speed and ISO yourself. I generally use Aperture Priority mode on all three of my cameras. That gives you good control over depth of focus and puts you in charge of shutter speed, by varying the film speed and aperture. I've never found the scene modes you get by the dozen on modern cameras very useful. I think it's really unfortunate that manufactures are so dumbing down their less expensive cameras and would not lightly buy any camera lacking aperture priority mode.

On the right are the controls on my compact Sony HX60 camera. Set it to A(perture) mode and you can quickly change ISO via the Fn button then vary lens aperture with the ring round the lower rotary controls. There's even a separate dial for exposure compensation (to make the pics lighter or darker). I can do all that in the dark now.






Sony HX60 controls

Movie mode

Most digital cameras will now take quite good movies. They are not going to be of top camcorder quality unless expensive (eg Lumix GH5) but if it's important to you, make sure a camera you are interested in takes reasonable movie clips. It helps if you can zoom in and out mid clip but that may introduce electric motor noise. Many cameras now offer HD movie recording and some 4K. I find the video clips from cameras tend to be huge and that processing them (I use Sony Vegas Platinum) can squash them to 50% of the size or less with no obvious loss of quality if I output as mp4.

Reviews

Do check out any camera you're thinking of. There are lots of sources, for example:
imaging-resource.com
dpreview.com (user ratings per camera and some excellent full reviews)
steves-digicams.com
trusted reviews

Suppliers

Amazon are good but do look around. Some suppliers, such as Clifton Cameras and UK Digital Cameras (I've bought from both) tend to offer a 2 year warranty, as do John Lewis. If you put a supplier name into google with words such as 'problem' that should show who's unreliable. Beware too good to be true deals - they might involve a camera shipped from Hong Kong with you liable for the duty if Customs check it.

Cameras to check out

Camera Price Buster Do research the options thoroughly - prices zoom up and down alarmingly and models are often replaced at a frantic pace. Good ones that have been around a while often seem the best choice. I find the Camera Price Buster site inaccurate at the edges but good at showing when a camera's price has dropped, maybe because its successor model has just been released. The screen-shot shows how a Canon superzoom I bought a while back started out just under £300 then stuck around 200 for a while then 140. Just after Canon stopped manufacturing it Argos had it at 120 - a real bargain and much cheaper than amazon et al. The blue line is lowest price and the orange average price, showing how important it is to look around. But do read the reviews too before choosing. Zoom range has increased usefully but sensor size seems stuck at minute sizes for digital cameras that don't cost a fortune.

Here are a few cameras that may give you ideas. I haven't put in really low end ones with little zoom range (people use phones instead) and I've only included a handful as they get replaced so often. So do your own research.


Video

Sony WX350

£150 (Bristol Cameras, Jan 17). 18MP, 3" 460k LCD, 24-480mm lens, anti shake, no viewfinder, wi-fi, petite: 96x56x26mm. It's an example of a camera that is fairly cheap, has a great zoom range for its small size and although it is bulkier than a phone it will take far better pictures if you take it with you.

Sony HX60

£199 (Currys, Argos Jan 17). 24-720mm zoom, anti shake, 20MP, 3" 920k screen, 108x64x38mm (a bit chunky). No viewfinder, full HD movies, wifi. This camera has a superb (wide to very long) zoom lens but a small sensor, which hurts low light performance. It does have Aperture Priority. An excellent travel camera and it's my travel camera nowadays. It fits easily into a coat pocket or man bag and I tend to have it with me most times I go out unless I'm taking one of my bigger cameras. I get so many good shots that would be rubbish or impossible with a phone with no zoom.

Panasonic TZ100 (aka ZS100)

£500 (Peter Rogers Jan 17). 25-250mm f2.8-5.9 zoom, anti shake, 20MP, 3" touch screen, small electronic viewfinder, wifi, 111x65x45mm (quite chunky but small bag friendly). HD or 4K movies, 1" sensor. This camera has a good (wide to fairly long) zoom lens and a large sensor. Also Aperture Priority and it will take RAW images. This camera is the one I'd have gone for instead of my Nikon 1 J5 if available back then. It's in a class of its own with the combination of smallish body, larger sensor and reasonable zoom range without having to change lenses.

Prosumer (or Bridge) cameras

These tend to have big lenses with a wide zoom range and decent control over taking shots, eg aperture priority mode, although some newer ones have been dumbed down (ie made useless) with the semi manual controls left out. The other thing they need, a larger sensor to improve low light capabilities, is very hard to find (because it would make the lenses much bigger). The useless chase after more megapixels and even longer zooms goes on and sensor size, so crucial to image quality, is what seems to suffer. So bridge is a misnomer - they are mostly chunky small sensor cameras with big zoom lenses.

Fuji, Panasonic, Canon, Nikon and Olympus are among the suppliers offering bigger non-SLR cameras - do the research! This category is now feeling the squeeze from compact system cameras (bigger sensors, multiple lens, far more expensive). Fuji also does some interesting cheap prosumer cameras - check out their S series. As at January 2017 amazon were offering their S8650 with 25-900mm zoom for £135.

If money is no object the Sony RX10 III looks superb if its considerable bulk doesn't scare you off. It has a fast 24-600mm lens, EVF, 1" sensor and takes 4K video. A great beast of an all-rounder but the price (January 2017) is a scary £1275. I love my Nikon 1 J5, also with a 1" sensor, but it would be great not to have to switch lenses to get a reasonably long zoom. But two lenses to cover 27-300mm does make it a lot smaller and I often only take one lens with me.
Sony XX350

Sony HX60

Samsung WB350F










Fuji bridge camera


Sony RX10 III

Compact system cameras

An interesting alternative to traditional DSLRs are cameras with interchangeable lenses but smaller bodies because they have no mirror (and often no viewfinder either). Micro Four Thirds cameras are an example. They are not at all cheap but they and their lenses are much smaller and lighter than DSLRs and they are quite close to APS-C DSLRs in performance. Olympus, and Panasonic have a variety of models and lenses to choose from. Don't assume lenses are fully interchangeable between manufacturers as Olympus uses sensor movement image stabilisation and Panasonic puts it in the lens.

I was leaning towards Olympus but then the smaller, twin lens Nikon 1 J2 system (with a fairly big 116 sq mm sensor) was suddenly very cheap when the J3 model came out so I got one. Excellent low light performance, incredible focusing speed and accuracy, superb 1080p videos and packs into a slim bag if you detatch the lens(es). I later upgraded to the superb J5. I find having to change lenses a pain at times but it is surprising how often a venue or event will suit just one of my two lenses. Here's an example in extreme high contrast lighting conditions:
Nikon 1 J2 pic

The Sony APS sensor CSC range, eg A6300, is also worth a look - large APS-C sensors in small bodies - but the lenses are big. It's also worth a look at the Sony RX100 series. Unbelievably good cameras in some ways but no interchangeable lenses, very limited zoom ranges and staggeringly high prices. Indeed, at full price all the cameras in this category seem somewhat over-priced - maybe it's a fashion thing.



Olympus PL5




Nikon 1 J5

DSLRs

I wouldn't presume to suggest any models here - if you are considering a DSLR then you're going to do lots of research yourself before deciding. Canon and Nikon seem to be the main brands, with Sony and Pentax worth a look. They are more expensive than prosumer cameras, especially with a good range of lenses, but they can take astonishingly good shots, especially in low light because of their larger sensors. They can also be much cheaper than compact system camers, especially if you get some second hand lenses. But a cheapish DSLR with an "18-55" zoom lens (this really means something like 27-82mm) is pretty limiting if you're used to much better, eg 24-720 on my Sony HX60 pocket camera. So you really need to get two lenses - expensive and heavy to lug around - or a superzoom lens. When I finally did go for a DSLR I got a Pentax k-r and have now upgraded the body to a K50. It is superb in very low light and the anti shake is on the sensor, making extra lenses smaller, lighter and potentially cheaper than with Canon or Nikon (the market leaders). Instead of the 28-82mm lens that came with it I mostly use a 28-300 Sigma superzoom plus fast Pentax 52 and 75mm prime lenses. I also have a used Sigma 105-450mm (nominally 70-300) telephoto that cost a mere £75 - an excellent safari zoom.


Sony DSLR


My Pentax K50

Accessories

A printer is essential. I've got an Epson that will print high quality images up to A4 borderless. But with thousands of photos on our computers and on my phone and tablet via flickr I rarely get any printed nowadays. I also now crop to suit each image, not to a print format.

One thing I found incredibly useful on safari was a £2 OTG cable. This let us connect a card reader to an Android tablet so we could review and delete images on a much bigger screen (than on the cameras) then make backup copies on the tablet and a memory pen.

If you have a lens that will take one, put a UV filter on it - that protects the lens and improves sky shots.

You'll also need software for processing your images - see my post processing guide.