A friend recently told me his point-and-shoot digital camera had died and he was looking for some tips in choosing a new one. Knowing I use a 5 pound state-of-the-art digital SLR with more megapixels than one person can possibly eat in one sitting, he figured I could at least have a few comments on choosing a 6 ounce pocket camera. I went through the pocket camera selection process myself about a year ago when I got a dog and wanted a little point-and-shoot camera to have at the ready when he does incredibly cute things and I don’t have the time or energy to whip out a full SLR.
I settled on the Canon Powershot s95 back then after weighing several factors, and chose that camera because it had what I personally wanted for my specific needs: all automatic shooting, manual options for when I want to manipulate the settings myself and get creative, and video functions. (I needed the video functions for when my dog does something REALLY cute that only a video could capture its absolute cuteness. And man has that come in handy…)
Most point-and-shoot cameras are at a variety of price levels because they have a variety of options. How do you know which options are right for you? Not very many of them are all good or all bad- even something like megapixels isn’t universal. More megapixels aren’t necessarily better– most of us don’t make prints large enough to make use of extra megapixels and it’s not until you’re making prints 2 feet wide or larger that you need to start getting into the double-digits of megapixels. And a lot of sensors on smaller cameras can barely handle the workload of extra megapixels and can start to suffer drawbacks in other categories: most often low light performance can get a little sub-par.
When choosing a point-and-shoot camera start with thinking about what you’ll need it for. In what kinds of conditions are you going to be taking photos of things? My friend, for example, was mostly going to be taking photos of groups of friends at parties and events, and the occasional plate of muffins he makes and wants to post photos of on Facebook. So I told him to choose a camera with good reviews and features for those situations: a good flash, low-light performance, fast focusing, image stabilization, and something that’s easy to use and clearly marked buttons for when he hands it to a stranger to take a photo of him with his friends. And of course, something with good macro capabilities for extreme close-ups of muffins.
Most new cameras don’t even have a viewfinder anymore, so choose one with a wide LCD screen on the back that’s easy to navigate and fast to respond. If being able to zoom in really close to something, like taking photos of your kids at a Little League game, get a camera with a longer focal length built into the lens. The marketing for point-and-shoot cameras usually dumbs the zoom factor down by measuring it in “x” factors, like “8x zoom!” but it’s not a standard measurement system. Look at the stats on the lens itself for the best range the camera will take photos in.
For example, my camera’s lens range is equivalent to a 28-105mm SLR lens. The widest it will go is 28mm, which is good for group shots or really wide landscapes, and 105mm is a good zoom for standing about 8 feet away from someone and getting only their face in the photograph. It zooms in further than that (there’s that “x” factor, where the camera kind of crops in on the image digitally instead of the lens extending further with the optics themselves), but that’s when it starts to get more difficult to get a good photo: the camera is harder to hold steady and get a clear photo, and the resolution starts to suffer.
Experiment with your point-and-shoot to find out what its strengths and weaknesses are and you can take some great photos. And keep that manual! We’ve all had that one little blinky light we can’t figure out how to shut off or how to get the flash to turn off when you don’t want it…