Digital Cameras – The Basics

Like most things in life when your experiencing something for the first time you are often unsure how to go about it. The same can be true when buying your first digital camera. You will undoubtedly be inundated with facts, figure and more jargon than you know what to do with. We will attempt in this article to help you along with some of the jargon and show you what to look for when buying a digital camera. Some of the feature may not interest you unless you need your camera to perform specific tasks, however its always worth knowing exactly what you are buying so you can pick a good deal when you see one. So lets cut through some of the jargon associated with digital cameras.


The resolution of a camera is measured and advertised in megapixels. The idea behind this figure is the number of pixels that the camera has to take an image with. In this case the higher the number the better quality of picture you will be able to take. For example if you purchase a camera that has a resolution of 4 Megapixels, pictures that you take with that camera will be able to take images made up of 4 million pixels. Its obvious when you think about that a camera with a 2 megapixel resolution will not create as image as crisp or as detailed as the 4 megapixel one.

digital cameraIf you often print out your images on your PC or have them sent away to be printed then the megapixel rating of your camera can be very important to you. Higher megapixels on your camera will allow you to make prints larger in size while still keeping the quality. If you try to print a picture too large than what you camera was designed for then the image drastically loses quality. Since writing this article the megapixel rating on cameras have gone up dramatically. So much in fact that the many people may have cameras that are simply too good for the type of shot that they require. Take a look at our article How many megapixels do you really need for more information

The last thing to know about megapixels is the higher the resolution you take pictures in the more space on your memory card will be taken up. A picture taken on a 4 megapixel camera will need twice as much space on a memory card as a picture taken on a 2 megapixel camera. Be sure if you want quality pictures have enough memory on your camera to back it up., Either that or have spare media cards to plug in once your space has been used up.

Digital Zoom and Optical Zoom

No doubt when you are buying a camera you will want some sort of zoom function to take those in the distance shots. This is a troublesome area for some first time buyers. There are two types of zoom on the market for digital camera’s. Digital Zoom and Optical Zoom. The only one that really matters is Optical zoom, this is true a true zoom function that brings the objects closer to you using the optics of the camera. Digital Zoom is like using the zoom function on an image editing software package. It enlarges a section of the image so it looks as if its closer to you.

Anything you can do with digital zoom you can do with a photo editing package so don’t splash too much money on a camera with digital zoom only. Sometimes you will also so “total zoom” advertised this means the number that is quoted here is the optical zooms magnification added to the digital zooms magnification. Try to find out the magnification level of the optical zoom alone for the true value of the camera. There is more on the Digital Versus Optical zoom function in this article.

SLR cameraSLR or Viewfinder

The two types of digital camera you are likely to be looking at are either Viewfinders, which are the more common among the lower priced digital cameras or the SLR (Single Reflex Lens) cameras. An SLR camera is more commonly found on the higher end of the price spectrum for digital cameras and is more often used by professionals and enthusiastic amateurs. SLR’s for the most part can have many interchangeable components such as the flash and the lens its self, giving the SLR a great deal of versatility. The major difference between the two types of camera however is in the way that you see the image you are taking. With the single lens reflex camera, a mirror system allows the user to see exactly what the lens is capturing by allowing the same optical path for both, this leads to accurate picture taking and the results being exactly what you expect to see. While viewfinder camera’s are not bad, they rely on a digital system that displays the image on an LCD screen at the back of the camera. For everyday picture taking this is perfect because the technology has improved so much many shots are just as you would expect. Professionals however still favor the SLR because it has superior pixel resolution (human eye), refresh rate, contrast ratio and colour gamut to the LCD screen. The SLR camera also has far less “shutter lag” allowing for images to captured in an instant and exactly how you want them to look. Of course what the LCD screen does give you on the viewfinder camera is a chance to review your shots on screen before you download them to a computer or online. This gives you the chance to instantly reject any shots that you feel don’t make the grade.

Panorama Pictures

Many Digital Cameras now will come with a function called Panorama mode. This mode will allow you take elongated shots of the area you are in. This is especially useful if you want to take the picture of a horizon, city skyline or a picture with many people in it where a standard shot would be not sufficient. Panoramic shots are done by the camera taking multiple pictures while you pan the camera round from one side to the other. The software will then “stitch” the shots together in order to make one big picture. This will leave you with a longer thinner picture which is what is meant by the term panoramic. Panoramic pictures are at least twice as wide as they are high and can and often are even wider than that. Bear this in mind if you decide to print the pictures.

Panoramic image

Above is an example of a panoramic picture. Without a panoramic mode in the camera this shot would be impossible to take because in order to get this amount of the coastline in the shot, you would have to be so far away that making out the buildings would be an impossible task. The sweeping action of a panoramic shot was designed exactly for this type of shot.

Aperture Size

apertureWe may be going a little further here than some of you would like to care about but bear with us as the aperture size can make a big impact on your pictures. The size of the aperture determines exactly how much light is let into the camera when your picture is taken. Think of the aperture like the iris of your eye. No big deal you may think, however having more light allows you take better pictures in a variety of lighting condition, cloudy days is a perfect example.

With a large enough aperture you would be less likely to need the flash, personally I don’t like to use the flash function, the artificial flash of light does not always do justice to the picture you are trying to take. Also effects like red eye are also common.

Shutter Speed

Great effects can be made to images using a variety of shutter speeds. The thing to look for when buying a decent digital camera in terms of shutter speeds is the broadest range you can find. This will give you the best chance of manipulating the picture the way you want it. Combined with a pro-active aperture the shutter speed can make pictures come to life or freeze images in an instant.

shutter speed

Take a look at the two images on the left. The first image was taken with a camera with a fast shutter speed. See how the image is frozen almost the instant it was taken. This technique is great when you want to take moving objects exactly how they look as if they were still. The second image was taken with a slow shutter speed. This gives more exposure to the CCD (charge coupled device – the digital equivalent of film). The effect is that the picture almost seems to run. Moving objects are slightly blurred. You may think this is a bad thing but I think that these images show that there is a call for that type of shutter speed. The second image is a lot more pleasing to the eye. It is also more realistic as if you were actually there you would see the water moving and it would look more like a blurred image.

traffic pic

You can take digital photography to the extreme with a camera that has a very wide range of shutter speeds. With an incredibly slow shutter speed, you can have a long exposure of light to the CCD and hence receive pictures like this one to the left. The picture on the left is of a standard piece of road with traffic. Because any light is imprinted on the CCD and the shutter speed is slow you get a long streak of light where the car headlights have been.

ISO Timings

The ISO setting on your digital camera refers to the sensitivity to light setting. This is similar to the effects of the shutter speed. Higher ISO’s are used in lower light situations where you still want to get a high shutter speed image in order to freeze frame a moving object. There is a trade of however with having a high ISO timing, the trade off is a noisier image. Digital noise is the equivalent of the film camera’s grainy shots. Low ISO shots are nearly always advisable as they give clear shots even when zoomed in. However there are times when you need to raise the ISO setting in order to achieve the shot you want. Some of these settings include indoor sports events where the action is fast but the lighting is low, concerts where the lighting is very low or galleries and museums where there are often rules against using the flash.

Storage Media

Digital Camera’s come with a slot for a variety of media cards. Check when you buy your camera what type of storage media it requires. There are several popular types including Smart Media, compact flash and xD picture cards. As long as you know what type your is you should be able to safely by the correct type. Always ask at your local store if you are unsure. If you give them your make and model they should be able to point you in the right direction.

The size of the media card you choose depends on your budget but get as much as you can afford. More memory means that you don’t have to change media cards, and you will be able to take pictures in the highest quality all the time. You will soon learn the benefits of having plenty storage space when you start to use your camera regularly.

The good thing about digital camera’s media is that its just like a film if you do run out you can simply insert another one if you have one with you. It can be a bit of a pain when downloading your pictures to your PC but much less more of a pain than having to delete some picture because you have run of space on your media card.

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