Choosing a digital camera for your next Vacation or Cruise - Page 1.

One of the most common questions asked of photographers by others is "which camera is the best". The answer to this question is harder than you might believe, as there is no one camera that is the best.

There are literally hundreds, if not thousands of different cameras to choose from. Asking someone to pick a camera for you is like asking which vehicle is best? It depends on your needs, your skill level, and budget. A recommendation of a Ferrari is no good if you need a pickup.

The best approach is to help you decide which camera is right for you. In that regard, evaluate the following points:

  • What is your budget?
  • What is your skill level?
  • Simplicity. Do you want simple or flexible?
  • Special needs; waterproof, ruggedized?

Budget: There are three thresholds here; $200 and under, $200-$500, and $500 and up (emphasis on "and up"). There are clear distinctions as to what camera to purchase in each price range.

Skill level: Some cameras simply have more capability than other cameras. This does require a base skill level in understanding exposure, how to minimize or maximize blur, depth of field, and so on. While all cameras can shoot in Auto mode (or "Point & Shoot" mode), some cameras can also be put in more advanced modes, such as Program, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, or Manual exposure modes. And they let you adjust ISO, Shutter Speed, and Aperture, Color Balance, and other factors that can improve, or ruin a photo.

If your skill level warrants such a camera, you will of course go down a different path in your purchase decision. If you do not have such a skill level, you don't want to learn it while you are on vacation, as there is a risk for ruining photos. However, virtually all non-professional cameras that have these advanced modes also have an Auto mode that will allow you to take good photos right out of the box, and learn the skills necessary for the advanced modes as time goes on.

If you are a novice and purchase such a camera, you should take the time eventually to learn how to use the advanced features of the camera, or you will not realize all of the capability you paid for.

Other camera owners have no desire to learn anything about these factors, and they just want something they can "point and shoot". This is perfectly fine. However, some cameras are more condusive to this kind of activity than others. So in that regard, your skill level highly determines which camera is best for you.

Simplicity: Simplicity means small, lightweight, portable. A pocket camera is a good example. Flexible means sometimes having to carry several pounds of gear, perhaps additional lenses, and other gadgets. The main difference in the two (other than the portability) is that a simple system will give you good photos in the right conditions - namely outside in daylight conditions, where the subject is not too far away. A flexible system can give you good photos in less desirable conditions; inside, low light, fast action, distant subjects, etc.

Honestly, do you want to take all of this gear?

Special needs: Waterproof is obvious. But as cameras gain popularity, younger photographers are using them, and sometimes they get dropped. This will all but guarantee a broken camera. However, there are cameras that are waterproof, drop proof, crushproof, and freeze proof (within limits), that might be a good choice for a rugged environment.

Choosing the right camera.

Regardless of the camera, there are several characteristics that are important. While you don't have to get into the minuta here to pick your camera, the more you know about these factors the easier it will be to match the camera to your needs:

  • Megapixels
  • Sensor size
  • Lens
  • Exposure modes
  • Shutter lag
  • Type (size, form factor, special needs, etc)
  • Brand

Megapixels. Of all the factors involved, determining the number of Megapixels you need will be the easiest. However, there is a strong myth involved here that you should be aware of. To dispel that myth, a discussion of sensors is in order.

A "pixel" is literally a dot on the resultant photo, and it is represented by a "cell" in the sensor called a "photosite". A 10 Megapixel camera will have approximately 10 million photosites. The actual number varies due to the underlying technologies of the sensor, but this is a generally true statement.

The job of each photosite in the sensor is to collect light when the photo is taken. The size of each photosite in a sensor is the product of the sensor size and number of Megapixels the sensor has. Lower density sensors (in megapixels) have larger photosites. Therefore these photosites have a larger cross section (area), and can gather more light than smaller diameter photosites in sensors with higher Megapixels.

There is a trade-off between resolution and low-light capability. Higher Megapixel sensors have more resolution while lower Megapixel sensors have more low-light capability. Low light capability also means higher dynamic range, and faster responding sensors - which are better for sports.

Modern Digital Sensor

Resolution allows you to make a larger photograph without loss of quality. However, even a 10 Megapixel sensor will allow a 11x14 size print without quality issues. A 40 Megapixel sensor will allow billboard sized photos. Fact is, most people can get by with a 10 Megapixel camera. Unless you need to create huge prints, 10 Megapixels is usually enough.

Fortunately, a new technology has helped in this regard. A concept called "Backside Illumination" (BSI) allows more Megapixel density for a given sensor size by moving the connections to the back of the sensor. Typically, sensors are created with the wiring to each photosite on the same layer. But Backside Illumination puts that wiring on the underside of the photosites, allowing them to be larger. This technique results a 12 Megapixel BSI sensor to have the same size or even slightly larger as a 10 Megapixel traditional sensor.

So how to choose? Unfortunately, marketing departments have found that the novice camera buyer uses Megapixel density to guide their purchase, and have resulted in overkill in some cases by stuffing too many Megapixels into a sensor. This often results in a camera that has lower overall performance than earlier generations of the same model camera.

My recommendations:

  • Full Frame DSLRs: 12 to 24 Megapixels. Up to 36 Megapixels with BSI.
  • APS DSLRs and other cameras: 10 to 20 Megapixels; or up to 24 Megapixels with BSI.
  • Intermediate size cameras (MILC. M4/3, Nikon 1): 10 to 16 Megapixels; or 20 with BSI.
  • Compact Cameras: 10 to 12 Megapixels, or 16 Megapixels with BSI.
  • Cell phones: up to 5 Megapixels with BSI