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Comparing digital cameras

Digital cameras can be classified as snapshot cameras, the point-and-shoot type costing some $200 or $300, and the prosumer (professional-consumer) camera typified by DSLRs (Digital Single Lens Reflex) costing four times as much. Serious photographers prefer the larger DSLR since its viewing optics afford an accurate preview of the scene to be captured, while the camera’s sensor does an excellent job capturing the scene.

The megapixel race is on with both camera types making 10 to 12 megapixels almost commonplace. If you are having trouble deciding which to buy, then you could start by looking at some of the extra features such as Image Stabilization or Vibration Reduction; but those goodies are fast becoming commonplace.

Just how many megapixels do you need? Not many for e-mail or computer monitor displays, as pointed out in a previous article. Quality printing however needs many megapixels, but still how many? As will be discussed below, six megapixels for a 10 X 8 print should do it.



Marketing hype has convinced us that the more megapixels the better the camera. Let’s examine that argument by comparing two camera types; a point-and-shoot camera and a DSLR.

The Canon SD1100 is a new snapshot camera boasting eight megapixels and a list of can’t-live-without features. The price is $220, the camera is small and cute and popular.




For comparison let’s look at a DSLR, the 6 megapixel Nikon D40. It sells for $500, has nice features, but being a bit older and a bit obsolete, its features are not nearly as extensive as Canon’s SD1100.

Why then consider the Nikon D40? It has fewer pixels, costs more and the features list is only so-so.

Forgeting marketing hype and considering some facts, I will try to show you that the six megapixel Nikon will take better pictures than any eight megapixel snapshot camera, like the Canon SD1100.

Over the years professional photographers used large format (for example 4 by 5 inch cut film) cameras to take high quality pictures; the sort you expect to see on calendars or in National Geographic nature scenes. It wasn’t until the late Galen Rowell showed us that quality 35mm film cameras, loaded with high quality film and used with care and imagination could capture wonderful nature scenes just as well.

Once we start digging into the specs of the snapshot and DSLR cameras we see they use different sensors. The sensor is an integrated circuit chip inside the camera where the film used to sit. The sensor senses the light entering through the lens of the camera and converts what it sees to digital data. It is the eyes or more precisely the retina of the digital camera.

The Nikon D40 sensor is half the size of the equivalent 35 mm film, while the sensor of the Canon SD1100 is a tiny 3%, quite typical of point-and-shoot digital cameras! The Nikon D40 sensor is faster (higher ISO rating) and exhibits truer color with less noise. As was true with film the bigger the sensor the higher quality the image.

To summarize: DSLRs with large sensors take superior photographs, while small pocket-size point-and-shoot cameras-always carried everywhere and always ready to go-result in excellent pictures. Snapshots you might otherwise have missed if your camera is a clumsy prosumer type left at home.

If your photography interests cover both categories, and you can afford it, you need both!

Here’s how I arrived at the six megapixel number. My photo quality ink-jet printer does well at 240 pixels per inch. So if I print a 10 X 8 inch picture then the width is 2,400 pixels (10 X 240) and the height is 1,920 pixels (8 X 240), so the total is width times height or 4,608,000 pixels (4.6 megapixels). The calculation is complicated somewhat when I realize that the width-to-height ratio of the digital camera image is typically 4:3, not the 5:4 ratio that the printer expects for a 10 X 8 inch print. So some small amount of cropping is in order-but still a six megapixel camera will do nicely.

Mitch Bain is a volunteer with the Gold Country Computer Learning Center. Our website is http://www.gcclc.org. For information about computer classes call 273-0497. Email Mitch with your questions at mitch@gcclc.org


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