Digital Camera Buyer's Guide 2008

Here's how to find a DSLR, point-and-shoot, or ultra-compact digital camera that's right for you, with a look at models from Nikon, Olympus, Sony, Canon, and FujiFilm.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

February 12, 2008

20 Min Read

Digital cameras area a great tool for capturing special memories. But the moment you decide you want to buy one of these devices, you step into a baffling world where terms like 'megapixel,' 'digital zoom,' and 'optical zoom' are tossed around. This guide will explain some of these terms and guide you toward a camera that fits your needs.

Nikon's Coolpix S600 incorporates a technology called D-lighting, which automatically brightens dark pictures or darkens pictures that are too bright.

(click for image gallery)

Getting to know what to look for in digital cameras and finding the best device to match your photographic intentions is not as difficult as you think. The best place to start is with an explanation of the three main classes of digital cameras: Digital single-lens reflex (DSLR), point-and-shoot, and ultra-compact. We'll look at what these cameras can do and give examples of each type of camera.

The Three Types Of Digital Cameras: DSLRs, Point-and-Shoot, Ultra Compact

If taking a great picture is your greatest concern and cost is barely an issue, DSLR cameras are the way to go. And as long as you don't mind lugging a slew of lenses and components around, you won't be upset with the quality of your image.

Digital single-lens reflex cameras come in a slew of shapes and sizes. And although they appeal to the advanced photographer who wants the greatest amount of control, they range in price from $500 to well over $10,000.

DSLRs are unique because their lenses can be removed and replaced depending on the type of pictures you want to take. Because of that (and to keep the price down), don't expect a lens to ship with the camera; you'll need to purchase one separately.

In order to take the picture, DSLRs use an automatic mirror system and a five-sided prism to direct light from the lens, through the viewfinder so you can see what you're shooting. Dubbed 'lens reflex', this method of capturing images requires users to look through the viewfinder in order to frame the shot, unlike ultra-compact cameras and some point-and-shoots, which require users to frame the shot with the LCD on the back. For more on How Digital Cameras Work, click here. Aside from that, DSLRs feature three main components that not only make them superior to others in terms of quality, but also help justify the high price. First, these cameras usually feature more manual controls than any other type, which requires greater knowledge, but also allows you to get the picture just right.

Next, DSLRs usually feature a wider ISO range than the others, which helps you take better pictures in a wider array of environments with less than ideal lighting. Finally, these high-end devices usually have very little shutter lag, which contributes to a higher quality picture and the ability to capture fast-moving action.

The Olympus SP-570 UZ ships with dual image stabilization offers a full manual mode to give you the best control over the picture.

(click for image gallery)

Point-and-Shoot Digital Cameras
Point-and-shoot cameras, which usually range in price from $350 to $500, have improved considerably over the past few years and the higher-end models easily compete with the entry-level DSLRs. Unlike DSLRs, point-and-shoot cameras don't allow users to remove and exchange lenses; most of the time, photographers will use an LCD on the back of the device to frame a shot.

Because lenses can't be removed, point-and-shoot cameras are judged by their optical zoom capabilities. Optical zoom uses the optics of the lens to magnify an image without sacrificing resolution. On the other hand, digital zoom discards pixels around the edge of an image, fitting the remaining pixels into the same space to give the appearance of zoom. Because of this, a certain level of degradation can be expected. You should always choose a camera based on its optical zoom, not the digital or combined (optical and digital) value.

Aside from that, you should also look at ISO sensitivities and consider where you will take most of your pictures. Generally speaking, the more ISO modes and the higher the sensitivity, the better your chances of taking a high quality picture in any environment.

Ultra-Compact Digital Cameras
Ultra-compact cameras have quickly become popular because of their extremely small form factor. Unlike DSLRs and point-and-shoot cameras, ultra-compact digital cameras are willing to sacrifice image quality and options for a thin and lightweight design. Generally speaking, ultra-compact digital cameras sport few manual options and offer less than ideal zoom and lenses if you're looking to take high-quality pictures. That said, these cameras are ideal for those looking to take a quick shot without regard for quality or especially those people on a budget.

Not just compact, but tough. Olympus says its Stylus 1030SW is shockproof, waterproof, crushproof, and freezeproof.

(click for image gallery)

And while they may not offer the same picture quality as a DSLR or point-and-shoot, ultra-compacts still offer a host of features that govern pricing and with a typical price range of $100-$500, some may find that the more options these cameras offer, like white balance modes and ISO sensitivity options, the greater the value in owning one.

Megapixel Mysteries -- Revealed
Sadly, some consumers head to the store looking for their next digital camera and commit the mistake of judging devices based on the number of megapixels they offer.

Megapixels are a measure of resolution and help increase a photo's detail. That said, a greater number of megapixels doesn't necessarily mean that you'll be able to take a better-looking picture. In fact, there's much more to a good-looking picture than megapixels. One of the most important factors in taking a good photograph is the quality of the lens.

That said, as the number of megapixels rise, the better a larger photograph will look when it's printed. Generally speaking, a 5-megapixel camera will suffice if you're looking for an 8x10 picture, but if you want something looking larger, you would benefit greatly with 7-megapixels or more. In other words, the larger the desired size of a picture, the more megapixels the photographer will need to maintain detail.

Now that you have a solid understanding of how these three types of digital cameras work and what you should look for, check out 12 digital cameras that not only stand above the rest, but are a great option when you decide to buy your next device. A quick note: I did not have any hands-on time with these products, but chose them based on specifications and value. DSLRs

Canon EOS-1DS Mark III
Price: $7,999 (without lens)
Website: Canon

The Canon EOS-1DS Mark III is one of the most powerful DSLRs ever created and easily stands above the crowd as one of the most impressive digital cameras to date.

Although it features a hefty price tag ($7,999), the EOS-1Ds Mark III is an advanced photographer's dream. With 21.1-megapixels and white balance settings that allow the user to control color temperature, Canon's high-end DSLR is a spectacular product.

Amazingly, the EOS-1Ds Mark III features shutter speeds of just 1/8000 to 30 seconds and can even capture moving objects at up to 5 frames per second, creating 56 full-resolution JPEGs in one fell swoop.

And with the ability to interchange lenses as they see fit, consumers should find quite a bit to like in Canon's best DSLR.

Nikon D3
Price: $4,999 (without lens)
Website: Nikon

The Nikon D3 can shoot up to 9 frames per second -- ideal for fast-moving moments such as sports events.

(click for image gallery)

Nikon's high-end DSLR may not feature the same price tag as Canon's EOS-1Ds Mark III (it costs about $3,000 less), but it still offers a slew of features that would make any photographer happy.

Boasting a 12.1-megapixel CMOS sensor and up to 9 frames per second when trying to capture fast-moving moments or sports events, the Nikon D3 is a fine choice for anyone looking for a high-end digital camera. Even better, the camera sports ISO sensitivity ranging from ISO 200 to 6,400 and offers seven manual modes to fix a picture's white balance.

Much like the EOS-1Ds Mark III, the D3 features a 3-inch TFT LCD display on the back for easy viewing of pictures, as well as menu navigation, and sports a 1/8000 to 30 second shutter speed.

The Nikon D3 is a fine camera for the advanced photographer who's unwilling to spend an additional $3,000 for the slightly better equipped Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III. Olympus Evolt E-510
Price: $749 (with two lenses)
Website: Olympus

A DSLR for those on a budget, the Olympus Evolt E-510 sports an ample 2.5-inch LCD display.

(click for image gallery)

Much like Sony, Olympus makes a number of fine digital cameras that don't necessarily reach the heights Nikon or Canon's high-end DSLRs do, but do hit the right price point for the healthy list of features they offer.

Not to be left out, Olympus' Evolt E-510 looks to be a great DSLR if you're on a budget. The Evolt E-510 sports 10-megapixels and a 2.5-inch LCD display for easy viewing after snapping the picture. Just like the Alpha DSLR-A200, Olympus' DSLR sports dust reduction technology with the help of a filter that vibrates 35,000 times per second to shake any residue off the lens.

Aside from that, the Evolt E-510 features image stabilization to reduce the effect of shaky hands and sports ISO sensitivity of ISO 100 to 1600. Interestingly enough, the Evolt E-510 also includes an image-editing mode that allows you to change the photo's color to black and white or sepia, fix redeye and color depth, and resize the image without using a computer.

The Olympus Evolt E-510 is a fine entry-level DSLR that packs some nice features for a relatively affordable price. And with two lenses included in the box, it's one of the few DSLRs that will let you capture images right away.

Sony Alpha DSLR-A200
Price: $699 (with lens)
Website: Sony

Instead of throwing everything but the kitchen sink into a DSLR, Sony decided to produce a digital camera that was big on features, but low on price. And it's for that reason, that the Alpha DSLR-A200 offers one of the best values for your money in this category.

The Alpha DSLR-A200 sports 11.2-megapixels and an ISO sensitivity range of ISO 100 to 3200. To reduce the effect dust can have on picture quality when changing lenses, Sony installed anti-dust technology into the camera that includes both static-free anti-dust coating on the CCD filter and anti-dust vibration that automatically shakes the CCD to dislodge dust each time the camera is shut off.

Much like the others, the Alpha DSLR-A200 features white balance control in eight modes and sports a 2.7-inch TFT LCD display to let you manage the camera's menu and picture displays as needed.

The Sony Alpha DSLR-A200 looks to be a great device for those people who are looking for a far more affordable DSLR without sacrificing too much in performance to have it. Point-and-shoot Digital Cameras

Canon PowerShot S5 IS
Price: $400
Website: Canon

For those people who don't want to spend too much money on a digital camera and don't need a DSLR, Canon's PowerShot S5 IS looks to be a fine solution.

The PowerShot S5 IS sports 8-megapixels and a 12x optical zoom, which makes it one of the top point-and-shoot digital cameras on the market. Aside from that, the camera uses Canon's proprietary optical image stabilizer to help reduce the effect of hand movement and ISO sensitivity range of ISO 80 to 1600 means you should be able to take nice pictures in most dimly-lit environments.

On the back, the PowerShot S5 IS sports a 2.5-inch TFT detachable LCD display that allows you to frame the shot before you take the picture. Much like Canon's DSLR, the PowerShot S5 IS features seven white balance presets to adapt to the environment you're taking pictures in and can record almost four minutes of video at 640x480 on a 512MB SDHC memory card.

For a nicely affordable price of $400, the Canon PowerShot S5 IS looks to be a great alternative to DSLRs if you're looking for a high-quality photograph.

FujiFilm Finepix S8000fd
Price: $500
Website: FujiFilm

The FujiFilm Finepix S8000fd features dual-image stabilization to reduce blur and facial recognition to ensure a better-framed shot.

(click for image gallery)

Although FujiFilm has always thrived in the imposing shadows cast by Canon and Nikon, the company makes great digital cameras in its own right. And it looks like the FujiFilm Finepix S8000fd is no exception.

The Finepix S8000fd sports 8-megapixels and an 18x wide-angle optical zoom. Aside from that, the camera features dual image stabilization to reduce blur and facial recognition to ensure a better-framed shot. The Finepix S8000fd also includes ISO sensitivity of ISO 1600 at full resolution, but can be increased to ISO 6400 if resolution is reduced to 50 percent with the manual toggle.

On the back, the Finepix S8000fd offers the same 2.5-inch TFT LCD display as the PowerShot S5 IS and a mode dial that helps reduce blur or adapt to lighting. Just like the others, the camera includes white balance adjustments and can record about nine minutes of video on a 512MB SD card.

The FujiFilm Finepix S8000fd is one of the most expensive point-and-shoot cameras around. But considering the kind of functionality you can expect from it, it may be worth the $500 price.

Olympus SP-570 UZ
Price: $500
Website: Olympus

Dubbed by the company as "the body of an ultra-zoom, but the soul of an SLR", the Olympus SP-570 UZ is an impressive point-and-shoot on paper. And while it's a bit expensive compared to its competitors ($500), it offers a nice feature set that could appeal to any photographer.

The SP-570 UZ is a 10-megapixel camera that boosts its optical zoom up to an astounding 20x. The camera ships with dual image stabilization that keeps the lens steady while your hand shakes and compensates for blur as movement occurs. The camera also sports facial recognition and a full manual mode to give you the best control over the picture.

Aside from a 2.7-inch LCD display, the SP-570 UZ offers a fast shutter speed of just 1/2000 to 15 seconds and offers ISO sensitivity of ISO 64 to 6400.

Although the Olympus SP-570 UZ is an expensive point-and-shoot, it looks like an ideal solution for anyone wanting the advanced settings commonly found on DSLRs at a much lower price.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H9
Price: $430
Website: Sony

The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H9 has a shutter speed of 1/4000 second, for adeptly capturing fast movement or sports action.

(click for image gallery)

Sony has historically led the way in innovation and feature-set with its digital cameras and by the looks of things, the Cyber-shot DSC-H9 is no exception.

The DSC-H9 is an 8.1-megapixel point-and-shoot that features a 15x optical zoom and a 3-inch LCD tilt-up screen that reveals a host of simple options for viewing and modifying pictures. Sporting a relatively fast shutter speed of 1/4000 second, the camera is capable of capturing fast movement or sports action adeptly.

More interesting, the Cyber-shot DSC-HP also ships with Sony's own NightShot infrared system, which provides infrared illumination for shooting in near-dark or totally dark conditions without using a flash. Aside from that, the camera features ISO sensitivity up to ISO 3200 and HD output for viewing photos on an HDTV.

The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H9 is one of the most feature-packed point-and-shoot cameras on the market. And with a slew of options at your disposal, it looks like it could be well worth the $430 price tag.

Ultra-Compact Digital Cameras

Canon PowerShot SD8000 IS
Price: $350
Website: Canon

The Canon PowerShot SD8000 is just one-inch thick and weighs only 5.29 ounces.

(click for image gallery)

When it comes to ultra-compact digital cameras, Canon offers some of the best on the market. Included in that long list of fine cameras is the PowerShot SD8000 IS.

The PowerShot SD8000 IS is an 8.1-megapixel camera that sports 3.8x optical zoom and a stainless steel design to protect the camera if you drop it. It offers face-detection technology and a 2.5-inch LCD screen to frame the shot. To help you take a better picture, the camera also offers image stabilization.

Most important, the ultra-compact is extremely thin and can easily fit in your pocket. According to Canon, the PowerShot SD8000 IS is just one-inch thick and weighs only 5.29 ounces.

The Canon PowerShot SD8000 IS is an ideal solution for someone looking for a slew of features in a nicely compact design. That said, its $350 may scare some away.

Nikon Coolpix S600
Price: $300
Website: Nikon

Besides its DSLRs, Nikon is best known for its ability to create full-featured ultra-compact digital cameras for a nicely affordable price. And with the Coolpix S600, the company may be on to something with that formula.

The Coolpix S600 is a 10-megapixel ultra-compact that offers 4x optical zoom and a 2.7-inch wide angle high-resolution LCD to frame the shot. Along with image stabilization to reduce the effects of shaky hands, the camera offers automatic red-eye fixing, face detection and a technology called D-lighting, which automatically brightens dark pictures or darkens pictures that are too bright.

The Coolpix S600 is slightly smaller than the Powershot SD8000 IS, measuring just 0.88 inches in depth and weighs approximately 4.6 ounces.

The Nikon Coolpix S600 looks like a fine camera for those looking for a device that can be stored in just about any location. And for just $300, it looks like Nikon's ultra-compact may be worth considering.

Olympus Stylus 1030SW
Price: $400
Website: Olympus

In an attempt to do something different with its ultra-compact digital cameras, Olympus' Stylus 1030SW does something no other camera in this list can boast -- it's shockproof, waterproof, crushproof and freezeproof. And for just $400, that doesn't sound like a bad deal.

Aside from offering 10.1-megapixels and 3.6x optical zoom, the Olympus Stylus 1030SW can be submerged in up to 33 feet of water, dropped from a height of 6.6 feet, withstand temperatures as low as 14-degrees Fahrenheit and stand strong against 220 pounds of pressure. All the while, you can snap pictures as you see fit.

The Stylus 1030SW also features a 2.7-inch LCD and besides its 0.84-inch thickness, the camera weighs just 6.3 ounces.

The Olympus Stylus 1030SW may be one of the more expensive ultra-compact digital cameras on the market, but for good reason. Aside from its nice feature-set, the camera can be brought just about anywhere, and that's one feature that you won't find anywhere else.

Sony Cyber-shot T70
Price: $300
Website: Sony

Sony Cyber-shot T70 has an intuitive on-screen menu and an interactive HD slideshow mode.

(click for image gallery)

Much like Sony's other entrants in the digital camera space, the Cyber-shot T70 offers a host of features that aren't commonly found in a device that retails for just $300.

The Cyber-shot T70 is an 8.1-megapixel ultra-compact that sports a 3.0-inch touch screen LCD that allows you to use the camera's intuitive on-screen menu system to make navigating the device much simpler.

Besides that, the Cyber-shot T70 offers 3x optical zoom and face-detection technology that should help you take a much nicer shot. To make the camera more interactive, Sony also included an HD slideshow mode, that let's you pick from four pre-installed music selections to create a more entertaining show.

The Sony Cyber-shot T70 looks like a great digital camera for anyone that wants to stay on budget, but get the most bang for their buck. And at just $300, Sony's ultra-compact may be perfect. Digital Photography Links

Digital Camera Vendors

Never Miss a Beat: Get a snapshot of the issues affecting the IT industry straight to your inbox.

You May Also Like

More Insights