The best camera or camcorder for you depends entirely on how you plan to use it, and often it boils down to whether you value versatility or portability. In this buying guide, we’ll explain what to look for when shopping.
Types of Camera
Most digital camcorders are small and light, but digital cameras vary greatly in size and weight.
The biggest, heaviest cameras are DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) models that use a mirror and a prism to let you look through the optical viewfinder and see exactly what image is coming through the lens. DSLRs accept a variety of lenses, which makes them versatile but adds to their expense. DSLR cameras also vary in size, from the larger full-frame models with the largest sensors (more on that later) to small models with smaller sensors. There are also newer mirrorless designs (sometimes called Four Thirds models) that dispense with the mirror and prism (and often the optical viewfinder) to substantially decrease size and weight, but they are slow to focus relative to their larger cousins.
Compact point-and-shoot cameras have improved in quality dramatically throughout the years, but have tiny sensors, focus relatively slowly, and don’t have as many accessories compared to DSLRs. They also lack swappable lenses. You must weight these disadvantages against the convenience of portability.
Resolution and Sensor Size
Although many manufacturers tout the MP (megapixel) rating of a camera or camcorder, MP is one of the most irrelevant specifications. It tells you only the number of pixels (picture elements) the sensor can capture, but nothing about more important features of the sensor (such as physical size) that contribute to image quality.
Getting great pictures is all about capturing as much light as possible, and a smaller sensor with a high MP rating will always capture less light than a larger sensor with a smaller MP rating. Larger sensors also allow for less noise (the little speckles of color that plague shots from small sensors), and a shallower depth of field. Depth of field control is what lets photographers do things like put someone’s face in sharp focus while blurring the background.
Aperture is the hole in the lens that lets light through. The bigger the hole, the more light, and the more angles through which light can enter. On cameras this is measured in focal length, or f-numbers (f/1.8, for example), where lower numbers represent a larger hole (for instance, f/2 is significantly larger than f/4). Lenses with lower f-numbers are better for shooting in low light, and for controlling depth of field.
The optical viewfinder is the eyepiece you look through to frame a shot. Photographers are increasingly forced to rely on the large displays (digital viewfinders) on the back of the camera to frame their shots, which wash out in bright light and don’t provide the color range or clarity of an optical viewfinder.
Unless you plan to shoot with a monopod or tripod, image stabilization is a key feature. This technology reduces or eliminates the small motions inside the camera or camcorder, where images are recorded. The best form of this is optical image stabilization, where lens elements move opposite to the motion to cancel it out. Many camcorders offer a much less expensive version called digital image stabilization. The image is zoomed slightly, and a program in the camera then does all the work of making sure the center portion of the frame remains stable even though the camcorder body is shaking.
If you’re buying a camera with interchangeable lenses, you can get anything from a fixed “prime” lens with no zoom to a massive telephoto with a tremendous range. Cameras with integrated lenses vary wildly in their zoom abilities, ranging from 3x all the way up to 30x and beyond. When comparing zoom levels, don’t look at the “x” number, but instead use the “35mm equivalent” ratings: Lower numbers are better when you want a lens that can shoot wide or panoramic shots, and higher numbers are better when you need something that can shoot extremely distant subjects. For example, a superzoom with a 24-720mm 35mm-equivalent lens can back off for a wide shot or zoom up to 30x. Be aware that higher zoom levels decrease the amount of light that is let in and magnify camera shake, making it important to use image stabilization or a monopod/tripod.