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Chapter Four. Buying a Digital Camera > Types of Digital Cameras

Types of Digital Cameras

In traditional film photography you can choose from a wide range of cameras and formats—from the disposable camera to the 20-by-24-inch Polaroid camera used to create museum-quality photos. Digital photography offers less range in categories of cameras, but if you understand the types of digital cameras available, what they can and can't do, you'll be able to choose the best camera for your needs (Table 4.1).

Table 4.1. Types of Digital Cameras
TypeTypical UsersCommon Uses
Entry-levelNovice photographersBasic snapshots, Web site use
Deluxe point-and-shootAmateur photographers, business usersQuality snapshots for personal and business use
ProsumerSerious amateursHigh-quality prints, catalog use
Professional digital SLRProfessional photographersFine-art gallery displays, magazine use
Digital backsProfessional photographersFine-art gallery displays, magazine use
Other capture devices (Picture phones)Anyone wanting fun, spontaneous shotsFun!
Note: Visit www.digitalphotobook.net for a current list of specific cameras in each category.


As digital camera technology continues to advance and prices drop, entry-level has gone from meaning a camera you settled for rather than chose, to a respectable camera that does a good job provided your expectations aren't too high.

Entry-level digital cameras offer 2- or 3-megapixel sensors, which provide excellent quality for 4-by-6-inch snapshots (Figure 4.1). Those cameras will also enable you to produce good 5-by-7-inch prints. And if your images are tack-sharp and properly exposed, you can even push the file to produce good-quality 8-by-10-inch prints.

Figure 4.1. Entry-level digital cameras don't offer all the best features, but they are still able to capture images of excellent quality, provided you don't need to produce large prints.

Where entry-level digital cameras skimp is in extra features. Most have limited options for manual exposure control, their zoom range is often restricted to 2X or 3X, and they probably don't offer a hot-shoe or PC cord connection for accessory flashes.

While these cameras don't boast the best features, you'll still get a good camera at a reasonable price. They're a good choice for novice photographers looking to take snapshots of family and friends and to post photos on a personal Web site—assuming large prints are not the final goal.

The disadvantage of buying an entry-level digital camera is that it doesn't leave room for growth. You'll save money up front, but you may end up spending more in the long run if you need to upgrade to a camera that better meets your needs as your photography improves.

Deluxe Point-and-Shoot

The deluxe point-and-shoot digital cameras offer more flexibility (Figure 4.2). They typically have a resolution of 3 or 4 megapixels, with some models now sporting 5-megapixel resolution. This allows you to produce 8-by-10-inch prints of excellent quality—and even 13-by-19 or larger if your shot was perfectly sharp.

Figure 4.2. Deluxe point-and-shoot digital cameras offer excellent flexibility and enable you to produce 8-by-10-inch prints of excellent quality.

Photo credit: Jeff Greene / ImageWest.

Optical zoom of 3X is standard with cameras in this category, with some offering even more zoom. This category also offers a wide variety of shooting modes to help you produce excellent results in tricky conditions such as fast-moving action, low-light or night scenes, and backlit subjects (Figure 4.3). Some of the deluxe point-and-shoot digital cameras also include a hot-shoe PC cord connection or so that you can use external flashes to better control the lighting.

Figure 4.3. The special shooting modes offered in deluxe point-and-shoot digital cameras allow you to easily photograph scenes that might otherwise present a challenge to capture properly.

The deluxe point-and-shoot cameras are an excellent choice for the following types of users:

  • Those who want the best quality possible in smaller prints and don't need to produce large prints

  • Those who have more than a beginner's interest in and commitment to photography but still want to let the camera do most of the work

  • Those who need to produce high-quality prints but aren't professional photographers—such as real estate agents who want to show prospective clients photos of the homes they're listing (Figure 4.4).

    Figure 4.4. Deluxe point-and-shoot digital cameras are an excellent choice for real estate agents who want to show off homes they have listed for sale.

As full-featured as the deluxe point-and-shoot cameras are, they still don't tend to offer serious amateurs all the flexibility they might require. If you're looking for more control over your images and are passionate about your photography, you'll want to step up to a prosumer model.


The prosumer digital cameras are for the “power user” photographers, including serious amateurs—and even some professional photographers (Figure 4.5). This category includes both cameras with fixed zoom lenses and basic digital SLRs with interchangeable lenses (Figure 4.6). These cameras sport high resolutions—currently 5 or 6 megapixels—allowing you to produce excellent prints up to approximately 16 by 24 inches and even up to 20 by 30 inches and beyond if you really nailed the original shot.

Figure 4.5. The advanced features prosumer-level digital cameras offer makes them a great choice for the serious amateur or even the professional photographer.

Photo by Jack Davis.

Figure 4.6. A prosumer-level digital SLR offers all the features a serious photographer needs, and still provides the flexibility of interchange-able lenses.

Courtesy Canon USA.

Flexibility and control are the hallmarks of the prosumer camera (Figure 4.7). In addition to supporting interchangeable lenses (for SLR cameras) or accessory lenses (for fixed-lens cameras), these cameras offer a slew of special shooting modes, full manual exposure control, multiple focus points, and various metering modes. They also include a hot-shoe mount for accessory flashes.

Figure 4.7. A prosumer digital camera with a fixed lens offers excep-tional control for the photographer in a compact package.

Photo by: Jeff Greene / ImageWest.

The prosumer digital cameras are an excellent choice for those who take their photography seriously:

  • Advanced amateurs

  • Business users who need excellent performance in a convenient camera, such as a journalist

  • Commercial photographers who produce images for print publications

However, if you are a professional photographer who routinely needs to make large prints, or if you spend considerable time photographing outside in extreme weather, then you might want to opt for a professional digital SLR.

Professional Digital SLRs

If you're looking for a digital equivalent to a 35mm film camera, a professional digital SLR camera is your best option (Figure 4.8). A professional digital SLR camera meets the needs of the working professional photographer, with excellent image quality and control. These cameras feature the highest resolutions possible in a digital SLR—currently 11 to 14 megapixels. You can easily print images at 20 by 30 inches, and even go larger with your best images.

Figure 4.8. The professional digital SLR camera offers all the advanced features of the best film cameras and adds the benefits of digital capture.

Courtesy Canon USA.

The professional digital SLRs also use an imaging sensor that's the same size as the 35mm film they replace, so there's no effective focal length multiplier. That means lenses will produce the same results many photographers have grown accustomed to from years working with 35mm SLR cameras (Figure 4.9).

Figure 4.9. Professional digital SLR cameras allow you to produce the best photo-graphic results possible.

Photo by JohnShaw/johnshawphoto.com.

Professional digital SLR cameras support interchangeable lenses, giving you access to the wide range of lenses developed for 35mm film cameras. They also feature a flash hot shoe, a robust body, and multiple focusing points.

Their largest drawback is their high price compared with that of film equivalents.

Digital Backs

When even big prints aren't quite big enough, a medium- or large-format digital back offers a solution. A digital back is a device that attaches to a medium- or large-format film camera body in place of a film back, and allows you to use that camera to take digital images (Figure 4.10). Current digital backs offer resolutions ranging from a modest 6 megapixels to a current average of 16 megapixels to the present high-end of 22 megapixels. The higher-resolution digital backs produce huge files that allow you to produce 30-by-40-inch prints of exceptional quality with ease, and considerably larger output when needed. (The upper end of this range is theoretically unlimited; if the viewing distance were long enough, you could get away with huge, billboard-size prints.)

Figure 4.10. A digital back attaches to a standard medium-format camera, allowing you to photograph digitally with a camera body designed for film photogra-phy.

Courtesy Eastman Kodak Company.

Of course, all those pixels come at a price. At this writing, digital backs start at $12,000. That doesn't include the camera body or lenses required in front of the digital back. Clearly, digital backs are reserved for the serious professional photographer who demands the best quality for the largest prints. You'll need to be generating considerable photographic revenue to recover your investment.

Besides their high price, digital backs also involve a compromise in flexibility. This isn't because of any inherent limitation of the digital back, but rather it's due to the relatively small selection of lenses available for medium- and large-format cameras. The 35mm SLR format simply offers more flexibility, although without the huge number of pixels you can capture with a digital back.

Digital backs come in three types. The single-shot variety function in much the same way that the other types of digital cameras work. The sensor captures the scene in one exposure, capturing color information for one color per pixel and then interpolating the color values for the remaining two colors per pixel, as discussed in Chapter 3, “How a Digital Camera Works.”

Multiple-shot digital backs capture three exposures for each image, using a red, green, or blue filter over the full sensor for each of the three exposures. The three exposures are then assembled into the final image. This provides excellent image quality but requires that the camera and subject remain motionless during the full exposure with consistant lighting, necessitating the use of a tripod.

A scanning back functions much like a flatbed or film scanner to produce an image. It records the image one row of pixels at a time, with the sensor moving across the image projected by the lens until the full scene is captured. As with multiple-shot digital backs, the camera and subject should remain motionless during the full exposure.

If your line of work requires big prints to make big sales, a digital back for a medium- or large-format camera will give you the performance you demand. Just understand that it will come with a big price (Figure 4.11).

Figure 4.11. What digital backs for medium-format cameras lack in flexibility, they make up for in resolu-tion. They allow you to cap-ture large image files from which you can produce excep-tionally large prints.

Photo by: Neal Farris Photo-Design

Other Devices

Besides the digital cameras we've talked about so far, a variety of other devices can enhance your photography. These range from digital video cameras to cellular phones and other gadgets that also take pictures.

Video cameras

In Chapter 3 we briefly mentioned that many digital cameras allow you to record short video clips. Because of the very low resolution they use, the quality is poor. If you want to record video you can actually display on a TV for friends and family, a digital video camera is the better solution.

The quality of these video cameras varies with price. At the low end you can spend a few hundred dollars and get a video camera with minimal features and good image quality. For a few thousand dollars you can get a video camera with a wide range of features and excellent image quality.

Photo phones

Even cellular phones are getting in on the popularity of digital photography. More and more phones are offering the ability to take pictures, either as a built-in feature or through an accessory camera attachment. The quality isn't great, but it's adequate for sharing candid moments (Figure 4.12). You can send images to other similarly equipped cell phone subscribers or download the images to your computer to share via email or the Web.

Figure 4.12. A cell phone that allows you to take digital images won't offer the best quality, but it does offer a unique way to capture candid moments you might otherwise miss.


We all love saving our memories in the form of photographs, and you might on occasion find yourself taking those images with gadgets rather than cameras. Despite the low quality they tend to provide, these devices add an element of spontaneity that might gain you some of your favorite candid images (Figure 4.13).

Figure 4.13. Photographic gadgets such as Webcams can add a degree of fun and spontaneity to your photogra-phy, although the results won't be of a quality suitable for printing.

Such gadgets include Webcams for taking low-resolution images from your computer, camera attachments for your PDA (personal digital assistant), and cameras for video game consoles. Even Barbie has her own brand of digital camera gadget that provides a way for kids to enter the world of digital photography, although with low-quality images.

If you buy a gadget for taking images, keep in mind that they offer more novelty than image quality, and just have fun with it!

Ready to Buy

There's no shortage of digital cameras that offer a bounty of features to make your photography more fun and rewarding. No matter what type of photography you're doing, there's a digital camera to meet your needs. Now that you understand the types of digital cameras and their features and capabilities, it's time to select your digital camera.

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