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|| News Item: Posted 2005-05-31

Pushing Pixels: What you need to know about point-and-shoot digitals
By Reed Hoffmann, Blue Pixel

It's a question we hear over and over: "What camera do you think I should buy?" After all, we're professional photographers. Who better to ask? The problem is, when friends, or just folks along the sideline of a soccer game would ask me that, I had no idea what to tell them. Yes, I'm a professional photographer. That means I use expensive SLRs. What do I know about point-and-shoot cameras, or even the inexpensive SLRs? That's not a problem for me anymore.

For the last three years, a good deal of my time has been spent teaching photography. These classes and workshops are mostly about digital photography and often to consumer audiences.

I know WAY more about point-and-shoot cameras than I ever thought I would, or ever wanted to. And now I can answer that question. Before you can really help someone, though, you need to ask them a few questions.

If it's their first digital camera, I always ask if they like playing with their computer. If not, they should stick to film and dropping rolls off at the local minilab. I meet a lot of people who are totally frustrated by the whole computer side of things. Photography should be a fun hobby, not a source of frustration.

Next, find out what kind of photography they want to do. If it's general vacation and family snapshots, then most people will be happiest with one of the many compact (the politically correct way of saying point-and-shoot) cameras available, If they want to shoot sports, or action events, steer them towards an SLR.

Almost all compact cameras have a noticeable shutter delay, which will cause them to miss photos. Also, digital SLRs have larger sensors, meaning larger pixels, so they can shoot at higher ISOs and still get good pictures (a challenge with most compact cameras). Lastly, they'll have better telephoto lens choices, and faster auto-focus systems on SLRs than with the compacts.

The third question you should ask is what they want to do with their pictures? This will determine how many pixels they need. Most people mistakenly think that a higher megapixel camera will be a better camera. That's not necessarily true. More megapixels simply means the photo can be printed larger, or cropped with less noticeable degradation.

If all they want to do is email pictures and make prints up to 8 X 10 inches, then a 3 or 4 mega-pixel camera will be plenty. If they like to make big prints (11 X 14 and above) and/or like to crop a lot, then they should consider a 5 to 8 mega-pixel camera.

After those three questions have been answered, then it becomes a matter of features. Things like lens design (and build), metering, white balance controls and image processing are what determine how good a picture comes out of the camera. There are lots of choices in features, and it makes no sense to pay for features you'll never use.

Some people love Scene Modes, which is a way to further automate taking pictures, giving more creative results without having to understand a lot about photography.

For others a big zoom is essential, and they should look to the models with 8-12X optical zooms. Tell them to forget the digital zoom number. That's just cropping and resampling in camera, the same they could do later with the computer. They should also consider a model that helps eliminate camera shake, sometimes called Vibration Reduction or Image Stabilization. That can really help them get sharper pictures with the long zooms.

Some cameras have an EVF - Electronic Viewfinder - which people either love or hate. I love the feature, as it means I'm seeing in the viewfinder what the sensor's seeing, and can also see things like shutter speed, aperture, white balance, etc. It makes using these cameras in bright sun much easier, but some people don't like the feel they get looking at that digital display through the finder.

Many compact cameras actually shoot very good video. I rarely carry a video camera with me, as I know my little Coolpix will shoot TV-quality (640X480) video with good sound, in as long a clip as my SD card will hold. If that feature interests them, then they should be sure the camera they're considering captures at TV quality, at or near 30 frames per second and records sound as well.

Most manufacturers make several cameras in the same mega-pixel range, but in different body sizes and styles. That's because some people want a camera they can easily drop in their pocket while others want a camera that has some heft to it. There are body styles from black and silver to plastic, rounded or boxy, all so people can buy a camera that fits them in a style sense too.

Once they've decided on features and size, they should do some research. Magazines like Consumer Reports and PC Magazine do a good job of reviewing and rating cameras, and can be a good starting point to narrow the field. After that they should to go to a local camera store or two and play with some different models to find out what feels good in their hands and whether the controls and menus make sense. It's tempting to save a few dollars by ordering online, but most of these folks will need some help after they buy the camera, and being able to go back to a local store to get questions answered can be worth the extra cost of buying locally.

If you're not already friends with the folks at your local camera store, now's a good time to start that. Go in, introduce yourself, and tell them you get lots of questions from people when you're out on assignment. Find out what brands and models they carry, and what their experience has selling and supporting them. They'll realize what a valuable resource you can be for them, and that could result in some business being sent your way.

So the next time someone asks you what digital camera to buy, take a few minutes and help them out. Ask a few questions, give some advice. Share some of that hard-won knowledge you've learned over the years, and make friends along the way.

(Reed Hoffmann writes about digital issues for Sports Shooter. A newspaper photographer for over twenty years, he's now a partner in Blue Pixel (, a company that specializes in digital photography, training and workflow consulting. If you have an idea for a good column, please write him at

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