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Selecting a compact camera, Part 1 (03/27/2005)
By Tom Hirsch

What is the best camera buy? If there were a simple answer, it could be told in this sentence and the article would be over. The "best" camera is one that has all the features that the buyer will use. When selecting a camera, it helps if the prospective buyer has some idea of his or her needs and/or wants, and can match these to the options that can be found on a single camera.

Basically, the choice of camera is between a compact and a single-lens reflex (SLR) in either the 35mm, digital or APS systems. Because of their popularity, price, size and convenience, most first-time camera users, and many old time users, opt for a compact. Most of these cameras come with built in flash, a decent size viewing window, compensation lines in the viewfinder for close subjects, and provisions for mounting the camera on a tripod.

Price might be the first priority when buying a camera, but it shouldn't be. The least expensive cameras come with a wide-angle lens that provides good picture quality up to snapshot size. There is no focusing, so shots taken within four feet will be out of focus. These cameras are fine in bright daylight, but they allow for no exposure compensation so they are not suitable for subdued or artificial light conditions, except when flash is used. The built-in flash is effective up to about fifteen feet or so.

A step up is also a non-zoom camera, also with a wide-angle lens, but it provides automatic exposure control so it can be used under various lighting conditions. Lens quality is better than that of cameras in the lowest price range. Most of these cameras have autofocus, allowing for pictures to be taken down to about thirty inches. With some cameras in this category, you can get much closer. Remember, though, that whenever you take pictures within five feet with a compact camera, you must always use the distance compensating lines in the viewfinder for proper composition.

Next are cameras that have features similar to those in the previous group, with the addition of a moderate zoom lens, usually 35-70 millimeters, which adds to the versatility of the camera, and also increases the price. The zoom lens allows you to zoom in for a portrait, out for a scenery shot, and control the size of any image by changing the lens' focal length at will. You can control the size of image without changing your location.

Finally, increasing the zoom range on a compact camera to about 35-105 or greater will add more versatility. It also adds greatly to the cost. These cameras typically have more options than can be found on cameras in the first three groups. In fact, if you want to spend the money, you can purchase a compact camera that has most of the features found on an SLR.

But compact cameras in this group have some advantages over SLRs. First of all, compacts are compact. Most weigh quite a bit less than SLRs, and are less bulky. Viewing windows are typically larger in a compact, making viewing easier and faster, and most compacts are considerably less expensive than most SLRs, but there are some very expensive compacts and some inexpensive SLRs.

The advantages of an SLR over a compact include more precise framing, interchangeable lens capabilities, provisions for the use of filters, and generally better metering systems. The last advantage is only valid when shooting 35mm slide film.

If your final decision is that you really want a compact camera (and this would be a good choice), there are several factors besides automatic exposure control, automatic focusing and a zoom lens that you might want to consider. These will be covered next time. 


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