What’s the difference between electronic and optical image stabilization?
Optical image stabilization, or OIS, helps eliminate blur from your photographs by physically shifting either elements within the lenses, or the sensor itself. OIS is especially helpful with long-zoom lenses. Although different companies use varied (very sophisticated) techniques to make it happen, they’re usually quite effective, and don’t produce any real drawbacks besides a higher price for the camera. Electronic image stabilization, by contrast, is typically only a minor camera trick that bumps the speed of the sensor up when motion is detected. While it might capture a less blurry picture, digital noise typically becomes a problem as a consequence. Always opt for optical image stabilization. With that said, optical image stabilization is trickling down the line; even the most affordable entry-level models from the likes of Canon and Nikon now feature OIS.
What should I look for in an LCD display?
Camera manufacturers market display size quite prominently because it’s easy to visualize, but other factors also come into play. Resolution (usually measured in the number of pixels, like 461K) will determine how clear the display looks, and brightness will help determine whether it gets washed out when shooting outdoors. For a point-and-shoot, look for a screen size of 3 inches or larger. Mimicking smartphones, many cameras now offer touch-capable screens (either capacitive or resistive), while some manufacturers are using OLED (organic light-emitting diode) displays to create brighter, sharper images. Some displays can even swing out and tilt, giving you new angles for framing your shots. An optical viewfinder makes a great backup when shooting with a less-than-ideal LCD, but in order to accommodate larger LCDs in more compact bodies, manufacturers have done away with viewfinders at the low end. Note that the more sophisticated the display is, the camera will have a high price tag to match.
Is a viewfinder essential?
While those large monitors on the back of digicams are ideal for viewing and playing back images, photography enthusiasts still prefer a viewfinder for framing their shots. DSLRs utilize an optical viewfinder (the image reflected from the mirror), while MILCs use an electronic viewfinder, which is essentially a live view LCD. As mentioned, it’s difficult to find a new entry-level compact camera with a usable viewfinder, but casual users most likely won’t miss it.
What about shooting video?
Some higher-end DSLRs from Canon, Sony, and Nikon have gone Hollywood and are being used to shoot feature-length movies. Today, nearly all compact and interchangeable-lens models can shoot some form of high-definition video, and the quality is surprisingly quite good. You’ll find that both high-def video standards well represented: the razor sharp 720p that’s used in HD broadcasts right up to Blu-ray disc quality Full HD, at 1080 60p (TV quality) and 24p (film quality).
What are some other specs to look out for?
Most point-and-shoot digital cameras offer limited manual options for adjusting aperture (f/stop) and shutter speeds. Granted, many casual photographers out there couldn’t care less about this small range of potential adjustments, and will be perfectly happy firing away in Auto mode (check out our guide on how to make the most of your camera’s Auto mode). But while DSLRs and other interchangeable lens models have Auto settings too, they also let you unleash your inner Ansel Adams by shooting stunning landscapes, adjusting depth of field, blurring subjects, going black and white, and going wherever the creative muse takes you. For amateur photographers who want control over the camera, shooting modes or some sort of adjustable settings are ideal.
Most cameras need a lot of juice to keep them going, and lithium-ion is the way to go if you are looking to shoot 100-200 photos between charges. There are still cameras that rely on AA batteries as the main power source, particularly megazooms; AA batteries get drained in no time, so it’s a good idea to carry spares or rechargeable versions.
As a consequence of increased smartphone usage, being connected and having the capability of uploading images to the Web on the fly is no longer a luxury feature, but a necessity. While standalone digital cameras still beat smartphone cameras in the image quality department, the percentage of people using smartphones to take photos continues to climb – an indication that users are willing to sacrifice some quality for the ability to share.
In response, camera makers are building Wi-Fi into their high-end point-and-shoot and some interchangeable lens models. For some camera manufacturers, however, wireless connectivity is still new territory and their implementations still has some ways to go; companies like Samsung and Sony, which have mobile divisions, are faring better. Wi-Fi-enabled cameras still require access to a network or smart device to transfer images or upload images online, but some offer unique features like remote viewing and operation. Cameras like Samsung’s Galaxy and Nikon’s Coolpix S800c take it a step further by including cellular connectivity, while Bluetooth and Near-Field Communication could be introduced in the future. But radio features like Wi-Fi can affect battery life, so check the manufacturer’s stated battery life during your research.
So, what does it mean for you? Do you need Wi-Fi? If you feel the convenience of wireless transfers and smartphone compatibility warrant the price, it’s a nice feature to include on your list, but not essential for all buyers. However, in the near future you can expect to see more, better Wi-Fi-enabled cameras across the board – from low to high.
Other useful features to look for include face detection, blink detection, auto tracking, and GPS, as well as the unit’s durability in all weather and picture taking situations. Check out our take on the must-have and need-not-have digital camera features.
If you are on a limited budget ($300 or less) the choice is clear: You probably will have to buy a point-and-shoot digital camera. But it’s not the end of the world, since you can search through our reviews, where we’ve highlighted a slew of speedy models of high caliber. What’s more, there are many selections to choose from, and most camera owners out there are more than happy with the range of available choices.
Should you decide fast response and better quality are what you seek, or consider yourself a prosumer level user, it’s time to purchase a MILC or DSLR. Once you become familiar with all the capabilities these revolutionary cameras offer, even models that go for $1,000 will seem like a bargain. Especially, that is, when you start shopping for lenses, flashes, and all the other cool toys photographers can’t live without. Remember, it’s all about finding the camera that’s right for you.
Multiple members of the Digital Trends’ staff contributed to this guide.