A point-and-shoot camera is a camera that’s
The short answer―and the one you’re looking for―is that they are all easy to use (hence the term, “point-and-shoot”). The simplest point-and-shoot digicams offer little more than an “automatic” shooting mode designed to keep things simple, although most point-and-shoots also offer the user the opportunity to explore and experiment with various exposure modes (Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual), and as any precocious kid will tell you “messing around with the buttons” is the best way to learn about anything, digicams included.
(To learn more about Exposure modes refer to your camera manual and read on in this guide.)
A pixel is the basic―and the smallest―light-gathering component of a digital imaging sensor. Pixels are also basic components of LCD screens, in which they play back the image instead of recording the image. In LCDs they’re also known as “dots.” Pixels are tiny, and we usually count them in units of a million, or “megapixels” (Mp). The most basic digicams have sensors containing at least 7-9 megapixels, which is more than enough resolving power to knock out terrific prints on your desktop printer.
While a well exposed, well-focused picture taken with a 7-to-9 megapixel sensor can produce a sharp, snappy print, you can crop more tightly into a picture taken with a higher-resolution sensor in order to produce a tighter composition, or “zoom” further into a scene than the limits of the long end of your camera’s zoom lens, which is essentially what the “digital zoom” feature of your camera does.
There most certainly are differences between LCDs (Liquid Crystal Displays) and aside from screen size, the criteria for evaluating a camera's LCD should include: resolving power, does it swivel, and increasingly, is it a touch-screen display? It’s not unusual to see two models of the “same” camera offered by a manufacturer that are identical with the exception of the price―with the more expensive model featuring a larger, higher resolution and/or touch-screen LCD. And depending on your needs and/or preferences, the larger, higher resolution or touch-screen feature might very well be worth the extra $50-$100. Several point-and-shoot digicams also feature dual LCDs―one on the rear of the camera and one on the front―to eliminate the awkwardness of taking self-portraits.
Screen Size: With the exception of “kiddy-cams” and a few novelty digicams, the smallest LCD screens measure 1.8" to 2" (measured diagonally), and these smaller-size screens are predominantly found on entry level, point-and-shoot digicams. Many smaller and/or less expensive pocket cams feature LCDs measuring 2" to 2.5", with the majority of higher-grade ones featuring screen sizes of 2.5 to 3" and increasingly 3" and larger, which in most circumstances pretty much covers the entire rear surface of the camera. And as logic has it, the larger the screen, the easier it is to view.
Resolution: The most basic LCDs contain about 230,000 pixels (or dots), which together resolve enough detail to compose, review and edit your pictures. More expensive digicams feature LCDs containing more dots―anywhere from 460,000 to 930,000 dots, and a few offering a million-plus dots. As you’d expect, more dots result in higher definition screen imagery, which is easier on the eye when composing photographs, and enables higher levels of accuracy when zooming in to check fine focus―imperative if you plan on shooting in manual focus mode.
Touch-screen Displays: Touch-screen displays are becoming increasingly more common and all but exclusively with larger LCD screens. The greatest advantage of touch screens is that it’s far easier to read the larger control and menu icons displayed on touch screens, compared to the tinier and almost universally harder-to-read buttons found on non touch-screen digicams. If you choose to go the touch-screen route, make sure you always have a micro-fiber cloth handy and by all means, avoid snacking while using your camera.
Almost all point-and-shoot digicams capture image files in a format known as JPEG (Joint Photographic Experts Group), and assuming your camera and exposure settings are correct, JPEG is a fine format for snap-shooting purposes. The limitation of JPEGs is that they are defined by your pre-chosen exposure settings, i.e., ISO, color balance, white balance, contrast settings, sharpness, etc. and when they are saved they shed all “unnecessary data,” which for snapshot purposes is usually fine.
Some of the more advanced digicams offer the option of shooting RAW files, which unlike JPEGs do not shed “unnecessary” image data when you save them, and contain all of the exposure data regardless of the presets you have previously chosen (think of the vitamin content of raw vegetables versus cooked vegetables).
After you take a picture in RAW mode, the file is post-processed in Photoshop or the manufacturer’s imaging software, in which you can fine-tune the exposure and tonal qualities to produce an optimized image file that you save as a JPEG or TIFF file.
The beauty of a RAW file is that like a film negative, you can always go back and reprocess it to change color balance, exposure or any other tonal parameter as needed. It means extra work, but the results are often sharper and contain more tonal volume than the same picture captured in JPEG format.
Problems with JPEGs arise when your pictures aren’t perfectly exposed or the light balance is off, in which case JPEGs offer you limited wiggle room if you want to “correct” or adjust many of your pre-set camera settings. This is not so with RAW files, but be advised that they require more space on your memory cards.
Most, but not all, point-and-shoot digicams feature zoom lenses. Digicams with fixed (non-zoom) lenses typically come with slightly wide angle focal length lenses equivalent to a 35-40mm lens on a full-frame 35mm camera. A few fixed focal length digicams also offer wider-angle lenses, but none offer fixed focal length telephoto lenses.
The most basic zoom lenses tend to be “3x” zooms that approximate the range of a slightly wide-angle to slightly telephoto lens, most typically about 35 to 105mm. Some digicam zooms go wider-angle and many go longer.
When shopping for a digicam you should consider what your predominant needs will be. For shooting around the house or capturing dramatic landscapes, a zoom on the wider side would probably be a better choice. On the other hand, if you plan on shooting sporting events or African safaris, a digicam with a longer focal length zoom lens would be preferable. And for those whose needs go from really wide to really long there are a number of digicams on the market with zooms that go from extremely wide to extremely long―though they may not fit in your pocket.
The most basic zoom lenses tend to be “3x” zooms that approximate the range of a slightly wide angle to slightly telephoto lens, which typically equals the focal length of a 35 to 105mm lens on a 35mm camera.
Sample focal-length equivalents of typical point-and-shoot zoom lenses include the following:
The “best” zoom range is hard to generalize about because we all see differently. Some people prefer wider lenses, while others prefer shooting from longer (telephoto) distances. If you shoot indoors you’d probably prefer a wider-angle range, while sports photographers would most likely prefer shooting with a longer focal range.
As for shooting portraiture, almost all point-and-shoot digicams can be used for informal portraits, while some of the more advanced point-and-shoot cameras can be used with studio lighting. Macro close-ups are another strength of point-and-shoot cameras, mostly due to the short focal length optics they employ.
Something else to consider is the focal range of the lens on your last camera. Did it fill your needs? Was it long enough, i.e., did the telephoto end of the zoom range get you close enough? Or was it wide enough, i.e., were you always backing into walls or falling off the dock when taking pictures of the fish that didn’t get away?
Along with still images, most point-and-shoot digicams can also capture video clips. And just as you can change the file sizes of stills, you can also change the file and format sizes of video clips to fit your needs. The most basic video format is QVGA, which captures 320 x 240 images at 30 frames per second (fps). This is followed by VGA, which is 640 x 480 at 30 fps. The highest-quality video formats are HD 720p and HD 1080p, both of which qualify as High Definition, for the more critical applications.
To complement your video clips, most cameras also feature built-in microphones to record sound, most in monaural, and more than a few in stereo. As you’d expect, the pricier the camera is, the finer the quality will be. Some top-tier digicams also offer the option to connect external microphones for more advanced audio needs.
Note: The same video formats can also be found on many larger DSLRs, and just as the still-image quality produced by larger DSLRs is superior to point-and-shoot digicams containing smaller imaging sensors, the image quality of videos produced by larger DSLRs is proportionately superior to videos produced by their smaller brethren.
Price: “Kiddy-cams” and novelty digicams aside, most pocket-sized cameras range in price from $75 to $700, along with a few costing upwards of $2000―predominantly sought after by shooters with deep pockets, stock brokers and those whose professional titles end in “-ologist.” But for those just looking for a good, reliable pocket cam, the vast majority of point and shoots should fall into the $150-$400 price range.
Memory Cards and Built-in Memory: Many point-and-shoot digicams feature built-in memory, and while a select few contain an impressively ample 1 to 2 gigabytes of built-in memory, most contain enough to capture no more than a dozen or so full-size JPEGs, which means you’ll need to purchase memory cards to go along with your camera.
A vast majority (about 80%) of the point-and-shoot cameras currently on the market utilize SD/MMC memory cards for recording still and video image files. Even Sony, which until recently only supported Memory Sticks, has bowed to consumer preferences by adding SD/MMC slots on all their digicams. As a result of the spiraling reduction in size of point-and-shoot digicams, CompactFlash (CF) cards are pretty much gone from the scene among pocket cams, not for reasons of obsolescence, but because the cameras have become too small to contain them.
As for choosing the most appropriate card, you should refer to the spec sheet or owner’s manual of whichever camera you ultimately purchase, to ensure you will achieve maximum performance levels. Regardless of which brand or performance level you choose, it’s a good idea to purchase a larger-capacity (1-2GB) card, especially if you plan on shooting video.
Image stabilization is a worthwhile feature to consider when shopping for a point-and-shoot camera.Branded under a number of monikers including IS, VR, O.I.S, image stabilization allows you to handhold your camera at three to four shutter speeds slower than normal and still get sharp results.Optical image stabilization is preferable to digital image stabilization in terms of image quality, but both technologies result in sharper pictures than non image-stabilized pictures captured under low-light conditions.
Lens speed is another factor you should consider, especially if you plan on shooting under lower lighting conditions, or in locations where camera flash is not allowed. Most point-and-shoot digicams have lenses with maximum apertures of a relatively slow f/3.5 at the wide end of the focal range, and often as slow as f/6.3 or smaller at longer focal lengths. Several digicams feature lenses with apertures as wide as f/2.0, which depending on your needs, are definitely worth consideration. These wider-aperture optics are correspondingly faster at the longer focal lengths, which is where it really counts.
Shooting Modes and Scene Modes: Although the simplest point-and-shoot digicams frequently offer little more than an “automatic” shooting mode designed to keep things simple, most point and shoots (fortunately) offer the user the opportunity to explore and experiment with various exposure modes (Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and Manual.
(To learn more about Exposure modes, refer to your camera manual.)
In addition to exposure modes, almost every digicam features Scene Modes, which are pre-set exposure and tonal adjustments designed to ensure your pictures look good regardless of the weather and/or lighting conditions.
Face Detection and Face Recognition: Face Detection and Face Recognition are two features commonly found on point-and-shoot digicams. Face Detection recognizes the geometric features of a face and uses these as a focusing guide. Face Recognition goes a step further by recognizing specific faces and uses them as focusing guides. Variations of these technologies include Smile Detection and Blink Detection, which only allow the camera shutter to fire when the subject is smiling or not blinking, respectively or collectively, depending on the camera.
In-camera Photo Editing: In-camera photo editing is another feature commonly found in many point-and-shoot cameras. Included among these editing features are red-eye reduction, skin-smoothing filters and artifact-removing filters that eliminate “noise” that often occurs when shooting at higher ISO levels under low-light conditions. In-camera editing enables print-ready images without the need of spending time with post-capture software like Photoshop, Lightroom or other image-editing software applications.
CCD or CMOS? When shopping for a digital camera, you'll notice the terms CCD (Charged Coupled Device) and CMOS (Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor) bandied about when the subject of imaging sensors arises. In the early days of digital imaging, CCDs were the predominant and preferred technology while CMOS sensors, which were less expensive to manufacture, produced lower image quality and were reserved for PDAs and cell phones.
Today, the production costs of CCDs has dropped as rapidly as the image quality of CMOS technology has improved, and while there are still differences between the two technologies, it’s a wash as per which is the better of the two and should not be a factor when it comes to choosing one camera over another, despite marketing claims on either side of the aisle. The bottom line―don’t lose sleep over it.
There are a number of digicams that can be dropped, sat on, dunked and frozen. Many of these waterproof, shockproof and freeze-proof digicams can withstand drops from up to 10 feet, hundreds of pounds of external pressure, temperatures down to -14°F, and submersion below 30 feet of sea water.
Featuring glass ports in front of their lenses, over-sized controls that are easy to grasp with gloves above or underwater, and noticeably rugged overall, these waterproof, shockproof and freeze-proof digicams are also perfectly suitable for casual day-tripping at sea level under sunny skies.
Super zooms (or Bridge cameras) can best be described as lambs in wolves’ clothing. The imaging sensors they contain are physically the same size as the smaller-sized sensors found in pocket-size point-and-shoot digicams, but they resemble and emulate the features and handling characteristics of larger compact DSLRs. Optically, super-zoom cameras feature fixed 15x to 30x-power zoom lenses, with a few models offering the ability to zoom from an equivalent wide focal length of 25mm to 600-plus millimeters with a twist of the zoom ring.
Along with extended zoom ranges, super-zoom cameras also feature electronic viewfinders (EVFs), which enable you to compose pictures at eye level, similar to the way you would shoot with a conventional single lens reflex camera (SLR). The difference is that traditional SLRs (and DSLRs) have glass viewfinders, which because they are optical are clearer to view through than EVFs, which are essentially tiny LCD screens and lack the same level of clarity as glass viewfinders. Regardless, under bright lighting conditions EVFs are far easier to shoot with than LCDs, and as higher-resolution EVFs come to market these differences will cease to be of concern.
As travel cameras, bridge cameras can prove to be the perfect all-in-one solution for those seeking a camera that can handle an extremely broad range of shooting scenarios and still fit neatly into a small bag or comfortably over one’s shoulder over the course of a long day.
There are many accessories available to go along with your point-and-shoot camera, designed to enhance your picture-taking experience, some more important than others. Many of these accessories are offered by the camera manufacturer, others by third-party manufacturers, and many by both.