Abstract: Choosing a digital camera - digicam or DSLR?

Bob Atkins Photography


Choosing a Digital Camera

Which one is right for you?


Digital cameras can be divided into 6 broad categories, though of course there is some overlap between many of them. These categories are:

  • Super-Compact
  • Compact
  • Full Featured
  • 4/5MP Ultra-Zoom
  • 8MP Ultra-Zoom
  • Digital SLR
Which is right for you depends on your particular needs. For example if you're a wildlife photographer or a sports photographer, you'll either want a digital SLR or an Ultra-Zoom camera so that you can utilize their telephoto lens capability. These cameras are usually fairly large and not "pocketable".

If you're looking for something simple for general family and travel use, one of the compacts might be the best buy for you. They generally offer the best "bang for the buck" for the general shooter with the best ratio of features and performance to price.

If you're an advanced amateur and anticipate doing a lot of flash work, one of the full featured models with a hot shoe or PC socket for external flash would be the best for you. They usually allow more flexibility in exposure and have faster lenses for better blurring backgrounds and shooting in low light.

The ultra-compacts sacrifice some features in order to achieve their small size. The built in flash is often not as powerful, they don't usually have a wide selection of exposure modes and you pay a little extra for the small size. However if you need something that easily fits in your pocket - and is "cute" - these might be the camera for you. Several of then (Canon SD10, Sony DSC-U40) are even available in a choice of colors!

Before you look at camera specifications, make sure you read my Digital Camera Primer, so you know what the manufacturers are talking about!

Things you might want to check out are:

  • Price (of course!)
  • Pixel count (3MP is good, 4MP is better, 5MP is better yet)
  • Zoom range (typically around 35-105mm in compacts)
  • Lens aperture (faster is better)
  • ISO range (typically 100-400 in compacts)
  • Aperture/Shutter priority exposure available?
  • Manual exposure and focus available?
  • Metering modes (spot metering?)
  • Hot shoe for external flash?
  • Memory Type?
  • Battery (AAs or built in rechargable?)
  • Size?
  • Weight?

So let's take a closer look at each type of camera and I'll provide my pick of models you might consider buying. There are so many choices now it's impossible to review them all, and I'm sure some of the ones I haven't chosen are just as good as the ones I have. At least my picks will give you a place to start looking!


These are the smallest, lightest digital cameras (but often not the cheapest). They often have a fixed focal length lens, or a short range 2-3x zoom between around 35mm and 105mm. Many of the cameras in the class are fully automatic, i.e. they don't have aperture or shutter priority exposure and they lack manual override of many functions. They are mostly in the 2-3MP and prices are usually in the $200-$400 range. In exchange for their tiny size (some of them will easily fit in a shirt pocket) you sometimes have to give up some features.



These are the "middle of the road" digital cameras. Still pretty small (but not as small as the super-compacts) but often pocketable. They typically have sensors in the 3-5MP range, a 3-4x zoom lens (in the 35-140mm range) and a variety of exposure modes from full auto to full manual override. Prices run from $300 to $500.


Full Featured

These are higher-end, more expensive cameras. The lenses tend to be 3-4x zooms with a large maximum aperture (f2 to f2.8) and 4-5MP count. They usually have a full range of both automatic and manual override features. Many have provision for external flash. They are typically somewhat larger in size, sometimes really too large to fit comfortably in a pocket. Prices range from $400 to $800.



These cameras have zoom lenses in the 5x to 10x range, ranging from 28mm at the wide end to over 400mm at the long end and imaging sensors with 4-5MP. Most, if not all, use electronic viewfinders (EVFs) rather then optical viewfinders. They are typically significantly larger than cameras with smaller range zooms and typically will not fit in a pocket. Most are full featured with a wide angle of autoexposure options with manual override. Their advantage is the range of their zoom lenses, their disadvantage  is their size. Their prices run from under $500 to over $1000.


8MP Ultra-Zooms

Recently a number of companies have introduced 8MP ultra-zoom cameras. Sony were the first, but they have been followed pretty quickly by Nikon, Canon, Olympus and Konica-Minolta. 8MP is currently (February 2004) the highest pixel count found in any consumer digicam. A few Professional DSLRs have 8-14MP sensors, but they are much more expensive. Of course the number of pixels isn't the only guide to image quality. Pixel size counts too and these cameras use small sensors with very small pixels. The consequence of this can be increased noise in the images at higher ISO settings. There are other downsides to small sensors too, but the upside is that they make the camera smaller and cheaper while still yielding excellent image quality at ISO settings from 100 - 400. The Canon EOS 1D Mark II has a large digital sensor, but sells for close to 4x to 5x the price of these digicams!

Digital SLRs (DSLRs)

These look, feel and operate much like conventional 35mm film cameras are typically similar in size and weight. They use much larger digital sensors (resulting in lower noise levels and higher image quality, and they take a range of lenses - usually the same lenses used on film 35mm cameras from 14mm to 800mm. ISO settings between 100 and 3200 are often available (most of the other types of digital camera have a maximum ISO setting of 400, with a few offering an 800 option). DSLRs run from 3MP to 14MP and range in price from around $900 to $8000. They can do anything a film camera can - sometimes more!

The choice here really depends a lot on what you already own and what you want to do with the camera. For photographers who already own a Nikon, Canon or Pentax 35mm SLR and a collection of lenses, the choice is pretty simple. If you want to use your existing lenses, you go with the DSLR body that will work with them.  If you don't own an SLR or you don't have a lens collection, your have more choice! Really you should look at the system - what lenses and accessories are available and how much they cost. All the DLSRs are capable of giving excellent results. My own preference is for the Canon system since I've been using Canon EOS bodies and lenses for over 10 years and I've been happy with them. One point to note is that the sensors in the lower end DSLRs (in fact all DSLRs under about $4000) is smaller than a 35mm film frame. This effectively results in your lenses seeming longer in focal length when mounted on a DSLR body. For example a 20mm lens mounted on a Canon EOS 10D gives you the same angle of view as a 32mm lens mounted on a film body. In the case of Nikon it's equivalent to a 30mm lens.

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