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 Sinclairification by Grant Sinclair

What to look for in a point and shoot camera (P+S)

15 Nov 2009

Last summer, my stepmother asked me for advice on buying a digital camera for my father. My father, who just turned 61, is not a technology person… that is to say he does not enjoy dealing with technology all that much. We got him an mp3 player one Christmas, which he dearly loves, and he does use a computer for work, but that is about it. I got to thinking about it and I know a lot of people who are like that.

Honestly, most folks would rather not fidget with multiple lenses on a professional or advanced amateur camera or would like a camera they can haul anywhere and not have to lug the additional weight. I am not a huge fan of point and shoot cameras, for the most part, because they sacrifice too much in terms flexibility and quality to achieve portability. I really don’t like you can’t find a viewfinder on any of them.

But having that camera with you at all times is really nice when you spot something while just doing your daily thing. I suppose that is why I like the camera on my iPhone so much, since I have it all the time. I have often thought about getting a decent point and shoot just to stick in my pocket for those times I don’t want to lug my camera bag around or when it is just plain not feasible to have something that big with me.  If I was to buy a point and shoot, either for myself or for someone else, here are the features I would look for:

1) Resolution. Let’s talk about megapixels. The general rule of thumb of megapixels is more is better. I am a firm believer you should have a high enough resolution in your camera to generate an 8x10 print and have it look just as good as if you did it with film. For that purpose, 6 megapixels is plenty. Beyond that, your actual image quality will diminish.

I know what you are thinking: “Huh? What? That is not what I heard!?!?!”
The truth is if you increase the number of pixels without increasing the size or quality of the sensor, all you are doing is making your low light and high speed pictures grainy. Once you hit a certain threshold, it becomes a measure of quality of sensor rather than pure megapixels. A good indicator is the sensor size. The bigger (and closer to a professional camera) the sensor is, the better your pictures will look because they are able to capture more light.

2) The next part of the camera you should look at is lens. I use a Canon EOS 40D with an EF-S 17-85mm zoom for about 90% of my shooting. It is a good everyday lens, has image stabilization and, due to the APS sensor on the camera, has the equivalent range of a 27-136mm zoom on a 35 mm camera (more on that on another day). If I were looking for a camera, I would want one with a lens with a similar range. Do not be fooled by a 4X zoom or something similar. The numbers are meaningless if you do not know the lens’ range. You are looking for the 35mm equivalent range. You can give up a little on the wide end to get more zoom, but do not sacrifice too much.

Also, look at who has made the lens. If it is not a Canon, Nikon, or Olympus, chances are it was made by a third party. You do not want a no name lens on your camera. Outstanding third party manufacturers are Zeiss and Leica.

3) One of the technologies to make it to the point and shoot market is image stabilization. It basically means there are little gyros in the camera which provide some measure of protection against hand shake. This makes it possible to hand hold the camera is trickier lighting conditions and generally gives you less blurry shots, which is always a good thing.

4) Keep it small. Keep it able to be put in your front jeans pocket. If it is small, it is easy to take a long with you and you won’t feel like you are lugging it around. One trick I learned from a friend: the 80s-style wrist bands (you know the kind… kinda plush sweatband for your wrists) make excellent covers for small point and shoot cameras. When you are using the camera, just slip in on your wrist. Also, I suggest buying a piece of screen protector film to go over the LCD on the back to prevent scratches.

5) It must use either SD or CF cards. Everything else is a pain in the rear. And no xD cards. They are especially hard to work with.

6) My sister and brother-in-law have a waterproof point and shoot. It is only waterproof up to 5 feet, but I have seen many of the shots they have gotten with it that I could not get. My personal favorite is sticking the camera into a glass of beer and taking a picture through the beer. The results are rather cool. It also means you can use it in the rain without any difficulty. It is not a requirement per se, but it is definitely something to consider.

7) Be sure whichever model you decide upon has big enough buttons and markings for the user. I recommended to my stepmother that she look at the camera and make sure the buttons were big enough for my dad to see them without his glasses.

Be sure when you pick up the camera to get an extra battery and at least two memory cards. They may seem like an extra expense right now, but believe me you will be happy to have it later on.

Grant Sinclair is an amateur photographer and was a newspaper reporter/photographer for eight years.

© 2009

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