With your cell phone camera, you can easily capture a quick selfie or snapshot to share on the internet. You can even make small prints from cell phone photos, but your cell phone camera may not provide enough resolution for poster size images. Fortunately, small, portable digital cameras offer poster quality images at budget-mindful prices. The five listed below are among the best:
Our Best Digital Camera Under $100 For 2018
How Does a Cell Phone or Digital Camera Capture an Image?
When you are taking a photo, the image on your digital display or digital image finder comes from the image sensor. Unlike film in a film camera, the image sensor receives an image constantly. Pressing the shutter simply tells your camera or phone to store the image in memory. So, cell phones and digital cameras take photos in the same way.
What Determines the Image Quality Produced by a Cell Phone or Camera?
The type, size, and “wiring” of the image sensor determines how many actual pixels per inch an image has. That means that the image sensor is a more important indicator of image quality than the effective number of pixels per inch that is sometimes listed.
There are two types of image sensors – CCD sensors and CMOS sensors. Both types use photoreceptors to capture images, and each photoreceptor equals one pixel. The size of the image sensor is one factor in determining how many photoreceptors can be placed on a sensor.
With all of the circuitry and microchips that support all of the functions that a cell phone performs crowded together in compact case, most cell phones use a smaller image sensor measuring 1/2.3 inches on the diagonal. Compact mirrorless cameras also use smaller image sensors. Larger cameras have room for image sensors ranging from 1/2.3 to 1/1.7 inches on the diagonal. At the top of an extremely technical article on image sensor formats, Wikipedia provides a link to a chart where you can find information about the size of the image sensors in various cameras and mobile devices.
To use an old school term, wiring is another factor that determines how many photoreceptors can be placed on an image sensor.
On CCD sensors, the photoreceptors are wired together in a series, and the circuitry that processes the part of the image received by each photoreceptor might be at the end of each row or even at one corner of the image sensor. This means that the pixels that make up the image are processed in batches. With the processing circuitry out of the way, CCD sensors have room for more photoreceptors, and every part of the image is captured by a photoreceptor. However, processing all of the information received by each photoreceptor as part of a batch slows the speed at which CCD sensors operate.
On a CMOS image processor, each photoreceptor is surrounded by circuitry that processes the photo information received by that photoreceptor individually. CMOS sensors operate more quickly than CCD sensors, but the processing circuitry takes up space that would be used for more photoreceptors on a CCD sensor. In addition, on a CMOS sensor, parts of the image fall on the space occupied by the circuitry instead of on a photoreceptor. So, the actual information about that part of the image is lost. The camera's image processing circuitry and software compensate by using the captured information from adjacent photoreceptors to fill in the gaps between them.
One other factor that contributes to image quality is related to how many photoreceptors the image sensor contains. On sensors with larger numbers of photoreceptors, individual photoreceptors receive a smaller portion of the overall image and can capture more of the details, textures, and gradations of color in that portion of the image. On sensors with fewer photoreceptors, individual photoreceptors must capture a larger portion of the image. Consequently, fine details are lost.
There is one exception that gives an advantage to smaller image sensors, and that is zoom photography. Smaller image sensors sacrifice foreground and background detail that extends much in front of or behind the camera’s focal point which gives them a narrow depth of field. This narrow field depth improves the focus on the subject when you are using zoom photography.
What Is the Difference Between Mirrorless and Digital SLR Cameras?
SLR cameras use a mirror that reflects the image from the camera's lens to an optical viewfinder. This arrangement enables you to see the image directly through the camera's lens. However, both digital SLRs and mirrorless cameras take the photo from the image captured by the image sensor. So, mirrorless cameras dispense with the added weight and bulk of the mirror arrangement to provide a lighter weight, slimmer, easily transportable camera that can fit in a pocket, a purse, a backpack, or your luggage. Some mirrorless cameras also dispense with a digital viewfinder, using the LCD screen for composing the picture. There is no difference in how the image is captured. The only difference is in how you view the image when composing your shot.
What Is the Difference Between Optical and Digital Zoom?
Optical zoom is a measure of how physically close a lens can zoom in on a subject. When a subject is beyond the physical range of the camera's lens, digital zoom takes over and crops the image from the image sensor to enlarge the area that contains the subject just as you might use software to crop a photo to eliminate distracting foreground and background detail to center attention on your subject. How closely digital zoom can focus without distorting the image depends, in part, on the resolution of the camera, but it does have limits.
What Is the Difference Between Lens Magnification and Focal Length?
Lens magnification only tells you how much larger the subject looks when you view it through the camera as compared to when you look at it with your eyes. The focal length tells you the width of the view taken in by the lens compared to lenses for film cameras. The lower the number, the wider the view, but the higher the number, the more distant the subject the camera can focus on for zoom photography.
General purpose zoom lenses have a range from 35mm to 100mm or 150mm. Those lenses can handle portraits, photos of small groups, and mid-range telephoto shots, but they can leave people out of group selfies. For that reason, cameras now come with wider angle lenses. In fact, 28mm lenses do better at capturing family portraits and other group shots while either 28mm or 24mm can capture panoramic shots and photos of skyscrapers, sequoias, castles, villas, plazas, and landmarks like Big Ben or the Eiffel Tower when you're traveling. So, wide angle lenses are versatile in their own right. However, to zoom in on distant wildlife subjects or athletes on the court or field, ArsTechnica.com recommends zoom lenses with a range of at least 200mm, or even super zoom lenses with a range of 40mm or more.
How Does Automatic Focus Work on Digital Cameras?
The best autofocus systems are hybrids that combine a tracking system and a system that recognizes contrasts between pixels.
The tracking system, called phase detection, quickly determines the distance to the subject, detects changes in the distance that indicate motion, and then uses general details like size, shape, and color to keep the focus on the subject. Some tracking systems can even track multiple moving targets.
The contrast detection system fine tunes the focus of the tracking system by recognizing contrasts between adjacent pixels that indicate the difference between a more lighted area and a more shaded one, the difference between the color of clothing and skin tones, the difference between lip or lipstick color and teeth, and so on. This system then brings those contrasting areas into more distinct focus. The contrast detection system provides face and smile recognition, among other camera features.
An autofocus assist lamp aids focusing at night and in low light conditions. Red light autofocus assist lamps are the least noticeable to live subjects. Strobe autofocus assist lamps can startle subjects, sending wildlife running, putting subjects of a candid shot on alert, and annoying some people.
Focusing is enhanced by image stabilization. Optical stabilization occurs in the lens as tiny gyroscopes sense changes in the position of the camera and move the pieces inside the lens to compensate. Digital stabilization is performed electronically by the camera's image processing circuitry and software after the image is captured. Because optical stabilization occurs before the image is captured, it does a better job of preventing blurred still photos and jittery movies.
What Should I Know About Image File Formats?
If your camera offers both RAW and jpeg, take your pictures in RAW when you can. RAW takes more storage space in memory, but that's because it preserves all the detail in the photograph. It can take longer for a camera to process RAW images, though, so you may need to switch to jpeg for burst mode or action shots. You may also need to use jpeg for shooting in low light conditions.
The one important thing you should know about jpeg is that it was created to save memory storage space. It does that by condensing the image file, and it will condense the file again each time you open it for editing and then save it. That means that each time you open and then save the image, you lose more and more details. To prevent this, when you upload your images to your computer, use your image editing software to save your files in either png or tiff format. These file formats will preserve the details in your images, and many sites allow you upload png files just as you do jpg files.
When shooting HD movies, a resolution of 1080p is best for playback on large screen TVs, but 720p is fine for the internet.
What Other Features Are Important?
Other Features that will add to your enjoyment of your camera include:
HD movie mode with sound
Ability to use the zoom lens while filming
Microphone jack to eliminate the operating noise of the zoom lens for better movie sound quality
Image stabilization to eliminate blurred still photos and jittery movie shots
Timer delay settings so everyone can get into the picture and for time lapse photography
A tripod socket for time delay settings, time lapse photography, and movies
Autofocus settings to use while you and your family learn photography
Manual controls that enable you to take more control over your photography as you learn
Face and smile recognition software, multiple focus points, and multiple tracking focus
Lighting jack to connect external flashes
ISO settings from at least 100 to 1000 which compare to standard film speeds
Burst mode to rapidly shoot a series of still images for photographing kids and pets
PictBridge printer compatibility
Our Top Five Digital Cameras Under 100
The Kodak Pixpro FZ4 is a mirrorless camera that comes with a 16 MP 1/2.3" CCD image sensor, a lens that zooms from 28mm to 140mm, an autofocus assist lamp, a tripod socket, and digital image stabilization. The lens provides 5X magnification with an additional 8X magnification from the digital zoom. The self timer can be set for delays of two seconds and 10 seconds or tied to smile detection. In continuous shooting mode, the PixPro will capture images for as long as the shutter is depressed, or you can set the camera to time lapse mode to capture images for 30 seconds, one minute, five minutes, or ten minutes. The Pixpro FZ4 captures jpeg stills and HD movies with sound in MOV (motion jpeg) at a resolution of 720p. ISO sensitivities equal film speeds ranging from 80 to 1600. It offers macro mode, panorama mode, landscape and night landscape mode, and portrait mode, backlit portrait mode, and night portrait mode among a selection of 21 pre-set scene modes. The camera can be set for up to nine focus points, and using continuous autofocus turns on tracking. The FZ4 includes face recognition, blink recognition, and smile recognition. As you learn, the camera's manual mode let's you take control of the settings. The settings for the built-in flash include a fill flash and red eye reduction. The camera comes in red or black. It is compatible with PictBridge wireless printers and uses Eye-Fi for Wi-Fi connection to upload photos to your computer. It has 8 MB of internal storage and accepts SD cards up to 32 GB but does not support MMC cards. It uses a rechargeable li-ion battery and has a battery life of approximately two hours or 200 pictures, so carrying an extra battery or two is probably a good idea.
The Nikon Coolpix L32 is a mirrorless camera. It uses a 20.1 MP 1/2.3 CCD image sensor. The Nikkor lens zooms from 26mm to 130mm with an optical magnification of 5X and an additional 4X of digital zoom. The L32 shoots still photos in jpeg and HD movies with sound in MOV (motion jpeg) with a resolution of 720p. ISO sensitivities equal film speeds ranging from 80 to 1600. The Coolpix offers digital image stabilization, tracking of a single subject with the use of full time focus, face detection, smile detection, and pet detection. The self timer can be set for smile detection or to delay the shutter for 10 seconds. Even when the timer is not set, the camera fires automatically when it detects a smile on someone's face. When it detects a pet's face, it automatically shoots a series of three pictures in a row. The Smart Portrait system includes a skin softening mode. Other options include macro mode and pre-set scene settings such as night modes for landscape and portrait mode, and backlit mode. When you hold the shutter down, the camera shoots continuously. The camera does not provide an option for choosing photo settings manually, but settings for the built-in flash include fill and red eye reduction. The Coolpix L32 does have a tripod socket and an autofocus assist lamp, but it does not have a microphone or lighting jack or Wi-Fi capabilities. The Coolpix uses either two AA alkaline batteries that have an average life of 320 photos, two AA size FR6/L91 lithium batteries with an average life of 950 photos, or rechargeable EN-MH1 Ni-MH batteries with an average life of 570 photos.
The Canon PowerShot SX600 HS Digital Camera uses a 1/2.3" CMOS image sensor with an effective resolution of 16.1 MP. With a zoom range from 25mm to 450mm for a magnification of 18X with an additional digital zoom magnification of 4X, this mirrorless Canon PowerShot can handle a wide range of subjects. The Canon SX600 offers optical image stabilization, nine focus points in face recognition mode, smile recognition, red eye reduction, an autofocus assist lamp, the HS system for enhanced low light performance, and continuous tracking. ISO sensitivities equal film speeds from 100 to 3200. The self timer can be set to a custom setting, tied to smile recognition, or set to two seconds or 10 seconds. The PowerShot SX600 captures photos in jpeg and full HD movies in stereo sound with resolutions of 1080p, 720p, and 480p in MP4 format. In addition to macro and portrait mode, the SX600 includes a setting that compensates for camera movement if you take a photo at night while holding the camera, and long shutter mode lets you blur moving objects for capturing city street scenes at night. The built-in Wi-Fi allows you to upload still shots and videos to storage or social media sites or send photos to your computer or your iOS or Android phone or tablet. You can also control all of the camera's features from your phone or tablet. The camera is compatible with Canon SELPHY and inkjet printers and all PictBridge printers. It uses rechargeable NB-6LH Li-ion batteries with an average battery life of 290 shots in normal mode or 430 shots in power conserving Eco mode. The camera comes in red, black, or silver.
The Nikon Coolpix L320 comes uses a 16.1 MP 1/2.3" CCD image sensor. The lens zooms from 4mm to 104mm for an optical magnification of 26X with an additional digital zoom magnification of 4X. The camera provides both optical and digital image stabilization. It captures still images in jpeg and HD movies with sound in MOV (motion jpeg) at a resolution of 720p. ISO sensitivities equal film speeds from 80 to 1600. The Coolpix L320 offers pet detection, face detection, smile detection, skin softening, panorama mode, landscape and night landscape mode, portrait and night portrait mode, and macro mode. In portrait mode, the camera can recognize three faces and adjust the settings to produce the best skin tones. The self timer can be set to 10 seconds or tied to smile detection. The camera shoots automatically when it detects a smile. In pet portrait mode, the camera can automatically recognize one or more pet faces and shoot three pictures in a row. The L320 has an autofocus assist lamp and tripod socket but does not have a lighting or microphone jack. It also does not appear to have tracking. It can use Eye-Fi to wirelessly upload photos to your computer. It uses four AA alkaline batteries with an average life of 310 shots, four AA lithium batteries with an average life of 810 shots, or four EN-MH2 Ni-MH rechargeable batteries with an average life of 450 shots.
The Sony DSCW800/B is a mirrorless camera that comes with a 20.1 MP 1/2.3” CCD image sensor. The Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar lens zooms from 26mm to 130mm for an optical magnification of 5X with an additional digital zoom of 10X. The Sony DSCW800/B uses optical image stabilization and features face detection, smile detection, and tracking of a single subject. The built-in flash has a fill mode, but red eye reduction is controlled by the camera's automatic settings. This Sony camera captures still images in jpeg and HD movies with sound in AVI MPEG4 at 720p. ISO sensitivities equal film speeds from 100 to 3200. The self timer can be set to two seconds or 10 seconds, but the smile detection shutter is a separate mode not connected to the self timer. When smile detection mode is set, the camera automatically shoots a burst of up to six pictures. Portrait mode applies a softer focus not only to soften skin for portraits but also to any other subjects you choose such as nostalgic shots or flowers. In panorama mode, instead of taking a number of separate pictures, hold the shutter button down and sweep the camera across the scene up to a full 360°. The camera shoots continuously as you sweep and then stitches the pictures together into one image. The camera also includes macro mode, pet mode, backlit mode, landscape mode, night scene mode, and settings for portraits, backlit portraits, and night portraits. While the Sony DSCW800/B has an autofocus assist lamp and tripod socket, it does not have a microphone or lighting jack. All of the settings appear to be automatic with no option for manual control. This camera comes in back or silver and uses a rechargeable NP-BN lithium ion battery pack.
Our Top Picks
For those who want an easy to use camera that takes care of all of the settings, we recommend either the Nikon Coolpix L32 or the Nikon Coolpix L320. These two cameras not only take care of all the settings, but they also shoot automatically when they detect a smiling face in portrait mode or a pet face in pet mode. Both cameras take multiple shots in pet mode while the Coolpix L320 also takes multiple shots in portrait mode.
For everyone else, we recommend the versatile Canon PowerShot SX600 HS. It does use a CMOS image sensor instead of the CCD sensor, but the PowerShot offers continuous tracking of up to nine focus points, optical image stabilization, and an optical zoom range that extends from 25mm to 450mm. You can use it to capture everything from large group selfies to architecture or panoramic landscapes to sporting events, performers on a stage, or distant wildlife.
With the Canon PowerShot SX600 HS, you can capture full HD movies with stereo sound at a resolution of 1080p that will look good when you play them back on a big screen TV, or you can capture still photos and vlog posts at 720p and use the built-in Wi-Fi to upload them to the internet from anywhere you have a connection. The built-in Wi-Fi also allows you to transfer your images and movies wirelessly to your computer or to your iOS or Android phone or tablet. You can even control all of the camera's functions remotely from your iOS or Android phone or tablet.