If you have been studying the settings on your smart phone or point-and-shoot camera to learn how to improve the pictures you’ve been taking, you might have begun thinking about how you could fine tune the settings to improve your photos even more. Automatic settings are helpful for taking a quick shot on the go, at times when you might miss the picture if you took time to adjust the settings, but they are limiting when you are ready to begin experimenting on your own. There are several things to consider when purchasing a more advanced camera.
The number of pixels per inch is one indication of image quality, but it is the type and size of image sensor that determines how many pixels per inch your camera has.
There are two types of image sensors – CCD and CMOS, and they can range in size from 1/2.3 inches to 1/1.7 inches, measured on the diagonal. Cell phone cameras and compact mirrorless cameras use smaller image sensors, while larger digital cameras have room for larger image sensors. At the beginning of a detailed, technical article on image sensor formats, Wikipedia includes a link to a chart showing the sizes of the image sensors used in various devices.
Both types of image sensors use photoreceptors to constantly record the image from the camera's lens, and each photoreceptor equals one pixel.
The more photoreceptors the image sensor contains, the more pixels per inch the images contain and the more details each photoreceptor records. The fewer photoreceptors there are, the larger the portion of the image that each photoreceptor receives and the less detail it contains. The difference between the two types of image sensors lies in the way the photoreceptors are placed on the image sensor and in the way the image is processed.
On CCD image sensors, the photoreceptors are connected to the image processing software in batches. The connection may be at the end of each row or at one corner of the sensor. This allows more photoreceptors to be placed on CCD image sensors, but the batch processing of the image slows the operation of the sensors.
On CMOS image sensors, each photoreceptor is surrounded by image processing circuitry, and the part of the image received by each photoreceptor is processed independently. That speeds up the operation of the sensors, but the circuitry takes up space that would be used for more photoreceptors on a CCD sensor. Further, part of the image falls on spaces occupied by circuitry rather than on a photoreceptor. To compensate, the image processing software must use the parts of the image provided by adjacent photoreceptors to fill in what is missing. However, miniaturizing circuitry and more advanced image processing software both continue to improve CMOS image sensors, making these more affordable, mass-produced sensors more common.
The magnification factor only reveals how much larger the subject appears when you look at it through the lens as compared to how large it looks when you look at it with your eyes. Focal length, on the other hand, tells you how wide of an angle the lens will capture in a picture. So focal length provides you with an idea of how much will be included in the image.
Lenses with smaller focal lengths capture wider angles and are the best choice for group portraits and selfies, panoramas, and photographs of skyscrapers and other tall or expansive buildings. Although it used to be common for digital cameras to come with general purpose lenses with focal length ranges of from 35mm to 100mm or 150mm, that has changed with the popularity of selfies. Cameras now are more likely to come with a zoom lens with a wider angle that can capture selfies of large groups and even crowds. Arstechnica.com and PC Magazine's online edition, PCMag.com, both recommend zoom lenses with a wide angle range of at least 28mm for group portraits of family and friends. ArsTechnica.com suggests lenses of 24mm for landscapes, panoramas, and photographs of architecture.
Lenses with longer focal lengths have smaller angles that allow them to zoom in tightly on distant subjects. These lenses are best for capturing candid shots, wildlife, or athletes or performers in action. To capture these images, ArsTechnica.com suggests zoom lenses with a range of at least 200mm or even super-zoom lenses with a range of 400mm or more.
Image stabilization systems compensate for camera movement while you are taking a picture or filming a movie. These systems even can allow you to walk while shooting so that you can keep up with active subjects.
Optical image stabilization occurs in the camera lens as tiny gyroscopes sense movement and adjust the elements within the lens to compensate. Because the corrections occur before the picture is ever taken, optical image stabilization is less likely to introduce noise or distortions into the image.
Digital image stabilization consists of corrections applied to the image by the camera's image processing software after the photo is taken. Some image editing software has adjustments for movement that allow you to make corrections similar to those applied by the camera.
If you have attempted to make corrections for movement yourself, you may have discovered how easy it is to introduce noise or distortion into the image. For that reason, optical image stabilization is a better solution for eliminating camera movement, although some cameras offer both.
Optical zoom simply refers to the physical range of the angles that the zoom lens can photograph. Digital cameras then add digital zoom to help focus on subjects that are so far distant that they are beyond the physical range of the lens.
Digital zoom uses the same process as image editing software uses when you crop a picture to better focus on the intended subject and eliminate distractions in the background or to either side. Consequently, just as there is a point when you cannot crop in on your intended subject any more tightly because the image loses focus and becomes blurred and indistinct, there is also a point when the image will become blurred and indistinct when using digital zoom.
It's better to choose a camera or lens with a longer optical zoom range than to rely too much on digital zoom if you want to practice wildlife photography or capture your kids in action performing on stage or in the middle of a competition.
Even if you are ready to take more control of your camera's settings, a camera with a continuous or tracking autofocus, makes it easier to capture images of moving targets. Wikipedia provides a thorough if sometimes technical article outlining how various autofocus systems work, how they evolved, and how they compare with each other.
The best autofocus system is a hybrid that combines a tracking, or phase recognition system, with a contrast recognition system.
Phase recognition or tracking systems let you set one or more focus points, which the camera then identifies by features such as comparative size, shape, and color. The camera uses predictive software to track the speed and direction of the subject or subjects to keep them in focus in general.
To bring the subject or subjects into the sharpest focus, the camera uses contrast detection. The contrast detection system measures how blurred the image is by determining the amount of distinct contrast between adjacent photoreceptors on the image sensor. It continues to improve the focus until it achieves a clear distinction between each pixel received by the photoreceptors. This is also the system that cameras use for features such as face detection, pet detection, smile detection, and blink detection.
Cameras that use optical focus systems, such as phase and contrast recognition systems, rely on an autofocus assist lamp to operate in low light.
The best type of lamp uses red light, which is the least likely to be noticed by your subjects. It won't startle wildlife subjects and frighten them away, and it won't awaken a sleeping pet, child, friend, partner, or spouse if you happen to capture one of these subjects in a cute, goofy, odd, or otherwise priceless pose.
Some cameras use a quick strobe-like flash of white light. This will definitely startle wildlife, and it is likely to startle people as well. These types of assist lamps can ruin photo opportunities, especially if you are trying to capture a candid shot.
With the continuing popularity of sharing photos on social media, some cameras come with the ability to connect to the internet on their own. As long as you have a Wi-Fi connection, you can upload your photos as soon as you take them. Some cameras also allow you to use the Wi-Fi connection to control some or all of your camera’s functions remotely from your smart phone or tablet. This capability makes it easy to include yourself in a group shot, make sure that every person in a large group is in included, or film yourself giving a demonstration or engaging in some other activity for a vlog post. A Wi-Fi ready camera also may allow you to transfer pictures directly to wireless printers.
NFC capabilities allow you to share photos from your camera with friends and family members who have phones, tablets, or cameras that also have NFC capabilities. Simply touch the devices together.
At one time, cameras offered the choice of taking photos in RAW or JPEG. The RAW, TIFF, and PNG formats preserve all of the details in your photographs, but that means they also require more storage space on your camera, computer, tablet, or phone. JPEG, on the other hand, conserves space by condensing the image as it saves it. However, each time you open a JPEG image to edit it and then resave it, it is condensed yet again. So, each time you resave an image in JPEG, you are losing more and more of the image. For that reason, before editing your images, you should use your photo editing software to save them as either TIFF or PNG files. The PNG format has become one that is commonly used, and images in that format can be uploaded to most sites.
MP4 is a popular format for movies, and HD movies with resolutions of 720p are fine for sharing on the internet. If you want to show your movies to family or friends on a widescreen TV, though, they will look better in full HD with a resolution of 1080p.
The Canon PowerShot SX-620 comes with a 1/2.3 inch 20.2 MP CMOS image sensor, optical image stabilization, an LCD viewfinder, a tripod socket, an autofocus assist lamp, and a zoom lens with a range of focal lengths from 25mm to 620mm for an optical zoom magnification of 25X with an additional digital zoom magnification of 4X. With macro mode, you can come as close as 1 cm to your subject. You can fine tune the image stabilization by choosing settings for shooting stills, for shooting stills as you pan the camera, for shooting movies as you walk, or for shooting movies or stills while using a tripod.
The SX-620 can track up to nine subjects, and the camera can be set to automatically take the picture when someone smiles, signals the camera with a wink, or when an additional face, the photographer’s face, enters a group shot. It captures still images in JPEG and movies in full HD in MP4 format with monaural sound at a resolution of 1080p.
In addition to burst mode, the SX-620 offers a combination of video and still photography, hybrid auto mode, that shoots up to four seconds of video before capturing the still shot. At the end of the day, the camera then edits these hybrid auto mode shots into a highlight reel in HD format with a resolution of 720p, which would be a perfect way to commemorate holidays and family gatherings, vacations, birthdays and anniversaries, and weddings, graduations, and other special occasions.
You can use the automatic settings or take increasing control of the settings yourself through “P” or program mode.
The Wi-Fi connection lets you upload photos to social media sites, store them for sharing later, wirelessly transfer images to your computer or wireless printer, or control all of your camera’s functions from your iOS or Android smart phone or tablet. The NFC connection allows sharing between NFC devices.
The SX-620 uses rechargeable lithium ion NB-13L batteries with an approximate battery life of 295 shots in standard mode or 405 in Eco (economy) mode. An external, high-powered flash is available as an optional accessory.
The Canon PowerShot ELPH 190 includes a 20.0 MP 1/2.3 inch CCD image sensor, an autofocus assist lamp, an LCD viewfinder, a tripod socket, and a zoom lens with a focus length ranging from 24mm to 240mm for an optical magnification of 10X with an additional digital zoom magnification of 4X. The ELPH 190 provides optical image stabilization that can be fine-tuned for specific shooting situations, such as shooting or filming while walking, shooting while panning the camera, or filming while using a tripod.
The ELPH 190 captures still images in JPEG format and shoots HD movies with sound in MP4 format at a resolution of 720p. It can track up to three subjects and recognize up to nine faces, and you can tie face detection to the self-timer to delay the shutter until the face of the designated photographer enters the shot. In macro mode, you can capture your subject from as close as 1 cm.
When you’re ready to start experimenting with the camera settings on your own, simply switch to “P” mode.
With the ELPH 190, you can connect to the internet to store images, upload them to social media, or send them to a wireless printer. You can also control the camera from your iOS or Android smart phone or tablet. The camera’s NFC capabilities allow you to send photos to other NFC devices with just a touch.
The ELPH 190 uses rechargeable Canon NB-11L lithium ion batteries with a battery life of approximately 190 photos in regular mode or 245 in Eco mode. An external high-powered flash is available as an accessory.
The Canon PowerShot ELPH 360 comes equipped with a 20.2 MP 1/2.3 inch CMOS image sensor, an LCD viewfinder, an autofocus assist lamp, and a lens with a focal length that ranges from 25mm to 300mm for an optical magnification of 12X with an additional digital zoom magnification of 4X. As with the SX-620 and the ELPH 190, the optical image stabilization system can be set to compensate for a variety specific of shooting situations.
The ELPH 360 can track up to nine subjects and the self-timer can be tied to smile detection, wink detection, and to the recognition of a new face entering the shot, like the photographer’s face. The camera captures still photos in JPEG and movies in full HD with sound in MP4 format with a resolution of 1080p. Macro mode allows you to shoot small subjects at a distance as close as 1 cm.
Like the SX-620, the ELPH 360 comes with hybrid auto mode. You can set the camera to shoot up to four seconds of video before it captures the still image. At the end of the day, the camera compiles all of the files together into an HD highlight movie at a resolution of 720p.
As with the SX-620 and the ELPH 190, switching to "P” mode allows you to experiment with the camera settings and change them to suit your preferences.
The ELPH 360’s NFC connection allows you to share photos and movies with other NFC devices just by touching them together. The Wi-Fi connection allows you control your camera remotely from your iOS or Android phone or tablet, upload images and movies to share on social media sites, store them for editing or sharing later, or send them to wireless printers.
Like the ELPH 190, the ELPH 360 uses rechargeable Canon NB-11L lithium ion batteries with a battery life of approximately 180 photos in regular mode or 265 in Eco mode. An external high-powered flash is available as an accessory.
The Sony DSCWX220 offers an 18.2 MP 1/2 .3 inch CMOS image sensor, an autofocus assist lamp, an LCD viewfinder, a tripod socket, and a zoom lens with a focal length range of 25mm to 250mm for an optical zoom magnification of 10X with an additional 4X of digital zoom. It includes optical image stabilization that supports sweep panorama shots of up to 360° in panorama mode.
The camera captures still images in JPEG and movies in full HD with sound in MP4 at a resolution of 1080p. When you are shooting a movie, you can use a control on the camera to reduce the wind noise picked up by the microphone.
Motion shot video captures the subject in motion in a series of superimposed images displayed in isolation against a single background. Imagine your child leaping with the basketball to make a basket; passing a football; making a goal or a touchdown; leaping a track hurdle; completing a triple axle; or racing across a finish line.
Face recognition can be tied to the self-timer to delay shooting until everyone is in the picture. The DSCWX220 also uses face recognition when shooting in sweep panorama mode to reduce distortions when stitching the individual images together, even if the owners of the faces happen to be moving as the sweep panorama shot is being taken.
The DSCWX220 allows you to choose some camera settings, such as selecting the white balance setting to compensate for shade, fluorescent or incandescent lighting, or other lighting conditions. You can also choose among ISO settings from 100 to 3200. This camera doesn’t allow photographers full manual access to the settings, however.
You can create Blu-Ray discs with the DSCWX220, and the Wi-Fi connection allows you to control the camera’s shutter remotely from your Android phone or tablet. You can also use either the Wi-Fi or NFC connection to share photos with Android devices.
The DSCWX220 uses rechargeable NP-BN lithium ion batteries with a battery life of approximately 210 photos.
The Nikon CoolPix B500 comes with a 16.0 MP 1/2.3 inch CMOS image sensor; optical image stabilization; a tripod socket; a flexible, pop-up LCD viewfinder; an autofocus assist lamp; and a Nikkor lens with a focal length range from 22.5mm to 900mm for an optical magnification of 40X with an additional digital zoom of 4X. With macro mode, you can shoot from as close as 1 cm away from small subjects.
The automatic focus uses face recognition to give priority to the faces it detects. If it detects more than one face, it gives priority to the closest face. If it does not detect any faces, it divides the frame into nine focal points and gives priority to those with objects that are closest to the camera. If your true subject is not one of the objects closest to the camera, move one of the focal points to your subject to select it, push the shutter halfway down to lock the focus settings, compose your shot, and press the shutter all the way down to take the picture.
The CoolPix B500 captures still photos in JPEG and movies in full HD with stereo sound in MP4 with a resolution of 1080p. Nikon’s Snapbridge app connects the camera to your iOS or Android smart phone or tablet, allowing you to take remote control of the camera, transfer pictures to your devices, or upload your images to the storage space Nikon provides to Nikon camera purchasers. In addition to Wi-Fi and NFC connections, the Coolpix B500 also connects to Bluetooth devices.
Like the Sony DSCWX220, the CoolPix B500 does not provide photographers with many options for taking manual control of the camera’s settings.
The camera uses four AA batteries which can be LR6/L40 alkaline batteries, FR6/L91 lithium batteries, or rechargeable EN/MH2 batteries. The alkaline batteries have an approximate battery life of 600 photos, the lithium batteries have an approximate battery life of 1240 photos, and the EN/MH2 batteries have an approximate battery life of 750 photos.
While each of these cameras have unique and interesting features, we award the title of best camera under 300 to, drum roll please, the Canon PowerShot SX-620. The SX-620 offers automatic controls to those just starting to learn about photography, while giving developing photographers the most access to the camera settings, which allows them to experiment and continue to learn. The range of focal lengths provided by the zoom lens comes close to ArsTechnica.com’s recommendation of 24mm for landscapes and architecture and exceeds their recommendations for wildlife, sports, and other types of long distance or telephoto photography. Being able to fine tune the image stabilization for different situations is a definite plus. The ability to tie the self timer to face recognition, smile recognition, or wink recognition is another plus. We like the idea of the video highlight reel for commemorating special occasions. The ability to control the camera remotely is a great asset to those who include themselves in the action. The ability to connect directly to social media sites to upload videos and photos provides freshness, immediacy, and a you-are-there feel, not only for those sharing memorable events with distant friends and family members but also for vloggers and citizen journalists. The features of this camera benefit a wide range of users, and that is why we recommend it.