Some of the old rules or assumptions don't apply. Misinformation (sometimes perpetrated by camera manufacturers) have caused many users to buy too much or inappropriate cameras. And there are plenty of bad habits already forming by users of this relatively young technology. Let's nip 'em in the bud.
Here are ten common buyer and user mistakes, and how to avoid them.
Mistake #1: "The more pixels, the better (part 1)" Repeat after me: Pixels. Don't. Matter. If you are a snapshooter who never makes enlargements, a camera that will deliver sharp, standard-sized 4x6 prints is all you need. And any camera currently on the market will deliver photo-quality 4x6 prints. In fact, any camera currently on the market will produce fine 8x10 prints. So, don't waste money on pixels. Spend it on cameras with the features you want.
Great print, only 5MP: I shot this scene several years ago with an $80 compact camera that only had 5MP, at full resolution. Standard sized 4x6-inch prints looked great! Alas, it's almost impossible to find a 5MP camera these days but really that's all you need.
10MP overkill? This version was shot at the same time as the above shot with a $300 camera, at its full 10MP resolution setting. The difference between this and a 5MP image, when viewing them as 4x6 prints, is minimal. These days, you can get 14MP compact digital cameras for under $300 but again, you don't need 'em. Lower megapixel models will deliver better overall image quality—especially in low light.
Mistake #2: "The more pixels the better (part II)" Squeezing a lot of pixels onto tiny imaging sensors (which is the only kind you'll find on digital compact cameras) produces image noise. Let's say you have an 10MP compact camera and you're shooting party pictures indoors without a flash, and you dial up a super light-sensitive setting, like ISO 400 or 800 so you can get good exposures. You may notice blotches, or graininess, called digital noise, in the darker parts of the pictures. At 12MP, 14MP and higher, it gets even noisier, and even at ISO 200. While some cameras have built-in noise reduction modes, these modes smooth out the grain—and everything else. Overall, images with noise-reduction applied tend to be slightly blurry.
Without going into a scientific explanation of the physical limitations of pixels on digital sensors, let's just say that this problem is less pronounced on cameras with fewer pixels--under 6MP is safe. Since there are almost no 6MP cameras currently on the market, do the next best thing—avoid grain problems with high-pixel-count cameras by sticking with the lowest ISO setting. (It's also less of a problem on digital SLRs with high pixel counts, because they use larger sensors.)
Noise Reduction In Action: Mets fans entering Citi Field, above, shot with a 10MP camera at ISO 400 with "newer, better" noise reduction applied. The shot below shows a 100% enlargment of a center detail. It's a bit blurry, but not grainy at all.
Mistake #3: "Whoa! This digital zoom rocks!" You may have seen some compact cameras described as having "3x optical/4x digital zoom, 12x total zoom power!" This is misleading. While an optical zoom will appear to bring distant objects impressively close, digital zoom simply enlarges a section of the image. It's like making a big blow-up print, then cropping it down to get a 4x6.
The problem is that while digital zoom enlarges the image, it also enlarges the pixels, and you end up with a low-resolution image when you shoot with your camera on "digital zoom" mode. You may not notice the poorer quality in your camera's LCD screen, but you probably will on prints. If you want a zoom lens, I suggest you look at the camera's optical zoom specs, and ignore the digital zoom numbers.
Optical vs. digital zoom: Above, a sharp wide zoom shot. Below, 30x digital zoom looks pretty bad.
Mistake #4:"I'm running out of room on my memory card, so I'll just shoot lower-resolution pictures." You've been shooting away, happily creating full-sized JPEG images, and notice that you only have ten pictures left on your memory card. So, you dial down the image quality setting and suddenly you have 48 pictures remaining. Unfortunately, those 48 lower-resolution pictures will look blurry when viewed at the same size as the full-res shot. Better solution? Bring extra memory cards, and always have more than you think you'll need. Memory these days is so affordable, there's no reason not to have plenty on hand.
Mistake #5: "I charged (or changed) the battery this morning. That should be enough." While this might be true, the number of pictures you take, how long you view images on the LCD screen, and how many times you use the flash will affect your camera battery's longevity. It could crap out before the day is done, and then your picture taking time is up. Get an extra battery, and always keep it charged and on hand.
Mistake #6: "I'll compose the picture in the optical viewfinder. It'll show me everything." Actually, it probably won't--unless you're using a digital SLR or an EVF (electronic viewfinder) camera. If your compact camera has an optical viewfinder (and many don't, especially if they have a large LCD screen), it likely will cut off a substantial amount of the picture along the edges. In fact, this viewfinder crop can be as much as 40 percent of the whole picture! Compare what you see in the finder with what's on your LCD screen. If there's a difference, don't trust your finder.
The good news? Not too many compact cameras have optical viewfinders any more. The bad news? Not too many compact cameras have optical viewfinders any more. Read on.
Photos © Lori Alperin Resnick (2)
Hold it right there: I'm holding a camera the right way (above left) to avoid shake, because it has an optical viewfinder (below left). But I can't do that with the camera I'm holding below right because it lacks an optical finder--which is typical these days. I have to hold it at arm's length to see the image...but that can result in shaky shots. What to do? Read on...
Mistake #7: "I'll just hold the camera at arm's length and shoot." Digital compacts that only have LCD screens and no optical viewfinder force you to hold the camera the wrong way--by holding it around 18 inches from your eyes so you can see the image in the LCD screen. Extending your arms, however, means you have very little camera support, and many opportunities to move the camera as you're taking the picture. The result? Shaky shots. The problem? Everyone's doing it.
The right way to hold the camera: Both elbows should be pressed against your body as you hold the camera up to your face. Take a breath and hold it as you press the shutter release. This turns you into a human tripod, and minimizes shake. If your camera only has an LCD screen, compose the picture then bring the camera to your face and shoot as described, rather than with arms—and keep shake reduction turned on at all times except when the camera is on a tripod.
By the way...I love those big LCD screens for viewing/previewing images! I just wish there was room for both a screen and an optical viewfinder on compact cameras!
Mistake #8: "The picture my the LCD screen looks accurate." Well, it probably shows the entire photo (unlike the optical finder), but don't rely on your LCD screen to tell you if your picture's properly exposed. Why? Out of the box, the screen may display images brighter or darker than they'll appear in print or on your computer monitor. Another reason is the ambient light in the room or location where you're looking at the pictures can affect how the scene looks on screen. Too much ambient light could make the screen image look dark by comparison. If there's too little light, the image could appear misleadingly bright.
Shading the LCD screen with your hand or using a Flipback LCD Protector may help give you a rough idea of the final result. You can also try adjusting LCD monitor brightness on your camera until it matches your computer monitor. If you're trying to assure that your photo isn't grossly over- or underexposed, this will put you in the ballpark.
Mistake #9: "I'll fix it later in an image-editing program." Yes, we know. Photoshop Elements and other similar image editing programs are wonderful things, and we encourage you to use them when appropriate. But it's always best to start off with the most accurately exposed image in the first place.
Note: If you feel you must work on an image on your computer, work on a copy, and always save the original untouched.
Mistake #10: "I can print my pictures at home on my photo-quality printer and save a bundle." Home printing has many benefits, including instant feedback and control over the final results. But it probably won't save you any money. If all you need is a stack of 4x6 prints, you may find it costs less to upload your images for online processing or to bring your memory card to a local store. A typical inkjet or dye-sub home-made 4x6 print costs around 50 cents per sheet. If you shop around, you will find online print deals for much less. 4x6-inch prints cost less than 20 cents each at AdoramaPIX print service, for instance. And you don't have to buy a printer or ink.