What to look for
Cameras to check out
What to look for
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.
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.
This is much more important than megapixels yet manufacturers
try very hard to keep us confused with sensor
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Do check out any camera you're thinking of. There are lots of sources,
(user ratings per camera and some excellent full reviews)
are good but do look around. Some suppliers, such as
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
Cameras to check out
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.
£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.
£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
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.
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:
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.
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.
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