How to Buy the Right Pocket Camera

April 27, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

Get the Right Camera to Unlock Your Artistic Creativity.

Without a doubt, the most asked question I get at one of my classes or photo tours is "What camera should I buy?".  Please understand that cameras just capture light, and photographers create photos.  You can't buy your way into taking great photographs.  It takes practice, failure, and a willingness to try again.  So turn down your "get the right camera" volume, and increase your "find my artistic creativity" setting.  But eventually, you will need to consider what tool you want to use to create those artistic masterpieces.   I'll try to outline the best way to approach buying a camera so you get what you need, and don't waste money on the things you'll never use.

Wish-list or Wallet?

A boat is often defined as a hole in the water into which you pour money.  Cameras can also take on a similar feel.  There is always a newer, better model being announced, so it’s often difficult to know what you need and if upgrading is wise.  This article gives you ways to evaluate your needs and save you a bit of hard earned money along the way.

A camera is a tool to capture the slices of life we see and wish to remember.  Since cameras are always evolving, you should settle on the features that meet your current needs and budget.  By waiting to upgrade, you gain two significant advantages.  First you save money until you absolutely must have a particular new feature.  Secondly, you save more money by delaying buying that model until a newer one is about to be released at a reduced price. 

The Best Way to Decide Upon Which Camera to Buy is to Ask,
“What Do I Need NOW, and What Should I Save For in the Future?”

Pocket or Backpack?

The first decision is whether to choose a small pocket sized digital camera, or a larger DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) with accessory lenses.  The answer depends on your available cash, the degree to which you enjoy taking photos, and what you may want to photograph.  Small cameras have most of the features of their larger and pricey big brothers, and are great for vacation and family photos.   They are also perfect for those artistic landscapes that you may wish to capture. 

Don’t underestimate the modern pocket camera.  They typically feature fine optics, image stabilization to reduce blur from hand-holding in dim light, built in flashes for close indoor family shots, and optical zooms that mimic expensive DSLR lenses.  All this in a palm sized package for less than $300.

On the other hand, you need a DSLR to create certain photographs.  Images beyond the limits of the pocket set.  But these are not typically the type of photographs that you may ever want to take.  Here are a few situations that require a DSLR:  Very long telephoto:  I once took a wonderful photograph of the space shuttle launch that filled the frame from twelve miles away.  It absolutely required a DSLR and a special lens.  Wildlife photographers have the same requirements since close contact with a grizzly is not wise and birds in flight wait for no man.  Very wide angle:  Some subjects require extreme wide-angle lenses.  Saint Mark’s Square, Notre Dame Cathedral, and The McCoy family reunion group shot… you get the idea.  DSLR cameras also give you more choices in lenses, flash, and control over the look of the photograph.  For these and other reasons all professional photographers require DSLR cameras and are very willing to pay extra for them.

Pick Your Features

My Recommendation for Essential Features in a Pocket Camera.

  • At least an eight megapixel sensor.   This will let you print an 11 X 17 inch photo of Aunt Esther to hang at the top of the stairs.  OK, you don’t have an Aunt Esther and can’t imagine ever printing anything larger than an 8 X 10.  In that case a five megapixel sensor will do just fine.  But… what if you need to crop your photo to remove unwanted objects, or to emphasize the important subject in your photo?  Having those three extra megapixels will help a lot because the remaining image will still have enough resolution to produce a fine 8 X 10 print.  But don’t think that the megapixels are the first consideration.  Simply put, if the camera has eight to twelve megapixels, it is all you will ever need.  I have made many high quality 8 X 10 prints from 2 megapixel cameras.  Other factors, like those below should drive your decision.

  •  A higher optical zoom.  The optical zoom is the range of magnification that can be produced by the lens.  Not to be confused with a digital zoom, which is a cheap and utterly shabby way that camera manufacturers fool people into thinking that the camera has more to offer than it really does.  

Digital Zoom Should Never be Considered When Buying a Camera. 

Digital zoom is just a way to crop the image inside the camera. In other words, the camera will crop out a smaller part of the scene from its sensor.  This is not real zooming because it reduces the resolution (megapixels) of the image.  If you want to crop, do it later on the computer, with better software before printing.  Choose the highest optical zoom that your budget will allow.  Then you will be able to take wide angle, as well as telephoto shots with ease, and get great results from the printer.  At a minimum, you need 4x optical zoom.  But today’s cameras now have 8x, 12x, even 20x optical zoom built into their lens.  To me, this is a primary feature to consider.  In one lens, we are now able to get the same range of angles (wide to narrow zooming) that require three or more lenses on a DSLR.  So give a lot of consideration to the optical zoom “X” number.

  • A built-in flash.  Most pocket cameras come with flash units.  But just in case, be sure to check.  Otherwise you'll be paying almost as much again for an external flash later.  That said, don’t expect these small flashes to light anything more than a few feet away.  They are fine for holiday photos indoors, and to illuminate the family at night at the carnival.  But don’t expect to capture the next Stones concert from the cheap seats. 

  • Image stabilization.  Not long ago I would have left this as an option instead of essential feature.  But the technology has improved and the cost gone down to the point where this is well worth including.  With image Stabilization, you are able to hand-hold the camera in low light without blurry photos caused by the camera shaking in your hand.

  • At least a three inch LCD screen for viewing.  Anything smaller is old technology and too poor for comfort.  The screen is important because you use it to view and compose your pictures and review the results.  You need an LCD screen that is bright enough for use outdoors in direct sunlight, and large enough to easily evaluate your shot.   Digital photography’s best feature is that we are freed from the cost and delay of film processing.  If your photo is not perfect, just take it over on the spot.  The worst feeling is finding problems when you're making prints that you could have corrected had you discovered them when you were taking the picture.  So insist on a bright, clear LCD screen that you can view, even if you have to hold the camera above your head to shoot over the crowd surrounding the Pope mobile.

 Exposure Compensation is Possibly the Single Most
Useful Feature You Can Have.

  • Exposure compensation.  The ability to easily adjust the exposure to lighten or darken the image is perhaps the single most useful feature you can have.  Cameras are programmed to produce “average” exposures based on the way that most of the world reflects light.  But there are lots of times when your scene is not “average”.  The kids building that snowman on the front lawn will come out with grey snow unless you can adjust the exposure to brighten the scene.  That blue sky with white puffy clouds outside the window will disappear unless you can darken the setting.

  • Get a camera that feels good in your hands.  Herman Munster won’t be happy with a petite, purse-sized masterpiece of engineering.  Consider shape and size carefully.  Where will the camera reside when not in your hand?    In a case on your belt, then a small thin camera works best.  Slung over your shoulder from a long strap, then you may prefer a larger camera.  In any case, visit a camera store and test drive a few.  You don’t need to buy it there, but even if you find a great value on the internet, handle one first.

  • Don't take the salesman too seriously.  Lets face it, the camera shop's salesman has one primary job.  To get you and your money as far apart as he can.  He will woo you with wonderful techno-babble, appeal to your desire to have the newest features, and never really consider what is best for you and the way you want to photograph.  The main reason to even visit the photo shop is to get your hands on a few cameras to see how they feel.  Do your research ahead of time.  Determine your priorities.  Be your own expert before you talk with a salesman.  And consider on-line stores.  Often you will see significant savings, good warranties and return policies, and a wider range of choices.  Now, I'm not opposed to supporting your local merchant.  Without local camera stores getting to know what feels good to us would be much harder.  But calculate how much that one-on-one service is worth to you.  Don't feel guilty if you find the perfect camera by shopping around in the store and then choose to buy it on-line, especially if it saves you enough to get a spare battery or extra memory card.

I hope that these tips will help you to find the perfect pocket camera.  If you are salivating over upgrading to a DSLR, please read my post about How to Buy the Right DSLR Camera.  No matter what you choose, remember it's all about having fun.


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Read About Carl's Travels

I've completed a few photo tours of our great country and lived to write about it.   To read about my misadventures along the way, please visit my blog Travels into Wild America. 

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Carl Spence

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