10 Things to Look For When Choosing a Pocket Camera
If you’re like me, you’re craving a new small digital camera to carry around with you most of the time. I love my big, heavy, rugged digital SLR that I use for all my professional work. But there are times when I just don’t want to carry over 5 pounds of camera with me and it would be nice to have a quality camera in my pocket. I’ve got a little Canon S70 I bought in 2005 before I went to India but it’s showing its age and I’d like to replace it.
Since I’m in the market I thought you might like to know what I think are the most important features. Your final choice may be different from mine, but the thought process will help you make the decision that’s right for you. At the end I’ll also mention some features that don’t make much difference, and a handful that you’ll want to turn off or ignore.
10 Important Concepts & Features
These ten concepts and features are the most important to think about when choosing your next camera. I’ve ranked them in rough order of importance to me. However, any of them could be the deal breaker that leads me to eliminate a camera from consideration.
- Aperture Priority Auto Exposure. This one is critical because it’s the way to control depth of field. Shutter Priority Auto usually comes along with it, a feature I’d definitely want if I were shooting my kid’s soccer match or other sports. The built-in meters to today’s cameras are very good, so if I can control my f/stop I’m good to go.
- Ergonomics. It’s critical that any camera feel comfortable in your hands, that the controls are in places that make sense to you, and that you can easily find the settings you will change frequently in the menus. Since I shoot Canon SLRs I’m leaning toward a Canon pocket camera since the menus have a strong family resemblance and I’m already familiar with where to find things. You can’t make an intelligent decision about how a camera feels without visiting a store and actually playing with several choices side by side. Well, you could collect a bunch of friends who have different cameras and invite them over for a sharing session.
- Zoom Range. How wide do you need at the short end and how close do you want to zoom at the long end? For me, 28mm (equivalent) or shorter on the wide end is important. The widest currently available is 24mm, which would be nice for some landscapes and interiors in cramped places. At the long end around 100-135mm is enough for me. Longer lenses have diminishing returns since they’re harder to hold steady. I’ve also found that most of my work with my big SLR is within the 24-105mm range. My pocket camera will never be my wildlife camera and close-ups work better at the wide end of the zoom on these little cameras.
- Image Stabilization. This is another must-have feature.Stabilization lets you hand hold the camera 2-3 shutter speeds slower than you could without it. Make sure any camera you buy has true anti-shake in the hardware, either moving lens elements or the imaging sensor. Avoid cameras that simply increase the ISO to raise the shutter speed to reduce the effects of camera shake; you’ll just get a noisier image.
- Close-up Mode. One of the strengths of pocket cameras is their ability to focus very close to the subject. The best cameras focus down to about 1 cm from the front of the lens, letting you fill the frame with small objects. I wouldn’t buy a camera that doesn’t have very good close-up capability.
- Megapixels. More isn’t necessarily better. All pocket cameras have small imaging sensors. The more pixels the smaller each one is, which means they receive fewer photons, which translates into more noise. Digital imaging noise is the colored speckles you see in the dark areas of your photos, particularly with a high ISO. With current cameras the sweet spot seems to be around 10 megapixels. That’s big enough to make a nice 11×14 print. Anything more is overkill.
- Physical Size. Does the camera need to fit in your pants pocket or a small purse? Does it feel too small or too big in your hands? I don’t want a camera that is too small. I think it’s easier to hold and control one that is a little bigger. I’ve been looking at Canon’s G12 and S95 cameras. They have similar specs, the same sensor, and the same processor, but the S95 just feels too small in my hands. On the other hand, the G12 is too big to fit in my pants pocket, although it goes in a coat pocket just fine. Panasonic’s Lumix LX-5 is in between sizewise.
- RAW Capture. You can’t immediately e-mail or post a raw file to your Facebook page, but the benefits of saving all the image data your camera is capable of outweigh the inconvenience of having to process the files later on your computer. Think of a raw file as a digital negative that you can print many different ways in the darkroom, except its faster and easier on a computer. In-camera JPEGs have gotten quite good, but if you want the ultimate in quality and control then choose a camera that shoots raw.
- Manual Focus. This is important for close-up work, but only if the controls are easy to use. My old Canon S70 has manual focus, but it’s a bit clumsy to use. In reality, most of the time I use my pocket camera’s autofocus.
- Tripod Mount. While I’m usually going to hand hold my pocket camera, I also want to be able to mount it to my tripod for long exposures or careful composition.
Nice to Have, But Not Critical
- Optical Viewfinder. I thought I’d never say the optical viewfinder is optional, but given how universally poor compact camera viewfinders are today I’ve decided it’s just not that important any longer. Most only show about 80% of the frame, which isn’t enough when I’m trying to control precisely what is in (or outside) the image. However, the display on the camera’s back can be hard to see in bright light so you might decide having an optical viewfinder is important. Some cameras now come with an electronic viewfinder so you see what you get, but at relatively low resolution.
- External flash Capability. Most of the time I use the built-in flash only as a low-power fill flash to brighten the shadows in photos of people. Some compact cameras let you use an external flash for more power and control, but I don’t anticipate using an external flash with my pocket camera. The flash would be bigger than the camera!
- Video. All compact cameras have some sort of video mode and the newer ones shoot HD, usually 1280×720 pixels. Having worked in TV with professional broadcast equipment I’m skeptical of what you can do with a tiny camera, but sometimes you just want to capture a short clip and having vido in your camera is a nice touch.
Features to Ignore
- Digital Zoom. Turn it off and leave it off. If you need to crop, do it in your computer software later where you’re in full control.
- Scene Modes. Manufacturers seem to be adding buckets of specialized scene modes to make it easy to get good results. I think they just get in the way, and they’re hard to remember which one you’d want to use.
- Image Ratio Settings. Many cameras let you change the aspect ratio of the photos you take, with choices like 4:3, 3:2, 16:9, and 1:1. In all cases they’re just letting you choose not to save all the pixels captured. I prefer to shoot at the camera’s highest native resolution and do any cropping later in my post-production software.
Short List and Learning More
My top choices of current models at this point are the Canon G12, Canon S95, and Panasonic Lumix LX-5. I could probably be happy with any of them, but I’m leaning toward the G12.
There’s lots of information about cameras on the web. My favorite comprehensive site is Digital Photography Review. You’ll find specs for just about every camera out there, reviews of many, and a useful Buying Guide with a side-by-side feature comparison tool. If you’re unsure about some of the terms, there’s also a well-written glossary.
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