Cameras are around us everywhere we go. You can’t go anywhere in public without someone next to you with a camera, ready to snap a photo. Every phone today has a built-in camera, random devices like tablets and some pens even have cameras built-in. And then there are actual digital cameras, which all are becoming more sophisticated and advanced with every passing year.
Camera technology has become so advanced that they’ve proliferated into all areas of our lives today; altering how we interact in public – for better or for worse.
However, with all of these advancements made with cameras today, understanding their specs is still very confusing, and can make you scratch your head in bewilderment. Knowing what specs you need to look for, when choosing a camera that’s high quality, can be a chore. Camera spec sheets can look like a jumble of words and acronyms that you can’t make heads or tails from. With that said, most cameras today will do the trick and take impressive photos for you; but when you need a little more from your camera, you’ll need to understand how to properly read camera specs in order to choose one that will meet your photography expectations.
So let’s go over and learn about basic camera specs and features, so that you can learn to choose the best camera for the type of photography work that you’re looking to do.
We’ve all heard about pixel count with every new camera phone that’s released. It’s the one metric that we’re all most familiar with. Intuitively, we know that the more pixels a camera has, the better the camera will probably be, and this for the most part, is true. Cameras that have more megapixels (a megapixel is equal to one million pixels) take higher quality photos. Thus, these cameras can create larger prints, compared to cameras with fewer pixels, without the image becoming pixelated; assuming that the camera’s focus and other photo taking features are optimally set.
So, when you’re printing large photos and the quality is just not there, you can be fairly certain that the pixel count on your camera is too low. Looking at the below number “1”, we can clearly see how a higher pixel count improves the quality of the depicted number – makes it more discernible.
As rules of thumb, when it comes to pixel count:
- A 5-megapixel camera is good enough to print high quality 8 by 10 inch pictures
- A 8-megapixel camera is good enough to print high quality 11 by 14 inch pictures
- A 10-megapixel camera is good enough to print high quality 13 by 19 inch pictures
- A 13-megapixel camera is good enough to print high quality 13 by 19 inch to 16 by 24 inch pictures
In today’s market, many camera phones are 12 megapixels, which shows how far camera technology has come along. But even with an older model camera that has 3-megapixel resolution, you will still be fine – if you’re simply using the photos for sharing with friends and family online. A super high-quality camera is not necessary, and is overkill for basic online photo sharing, or for posting on Facebook.
Cameras with larger sensors and lenses typically take better quality pictures, and this is irrespective of the camera’s megapixel count. What we mean is: yes, the megapixel count is important in a photos resolution – it’s all we hear about – but the pixel count doesn’t tell the entire story of whether a camera can produce the highest quality of images. With a large sensor, the bigger the photosensitive surface area will be; and thus, the more light will be taken in at the time a photo is taken in order to produce higher quality images.
Let us go a little deeper into this subject by looking into full frame cameras. With full frame cameras, their name is derived from their sensor size, which matches the “full frame” of 35mm film. This is the favorite camera choice for most professional photographers for that reason. Now, with a full frame camera that has a 24mm lens, you will receive that exact focal length. Yet, if the sensor is two times smaller than full frame, you will get two times the focal length. Thus, with a 24mm lens, you would get a focal length of 48mm.
Below we see a comparison between various camera sensor sizes. From this schematic, we can easily observe how a larger sensor can capture more data, and as a result, produce a higher quality picture. However though, with a larger sensor, the camera will be physically larger, and the price of the camera will be greater as well.
Also, with a digital camera sensor, the sensor is basically the film of the camera. When you snap a photo, this sensor is exposed to light and the other parts of the camera record what the sensor sees.
Picture aspect ratio and image area
The aspect ratio is in reference to the shape, or format, of the picture created by a camera. This ratio is sourced from dividing the width and height of the image together.
The image area we are going to refer to as the number of pixels within the image. The pixels are the unit of measure used to depict the size of the sensor.
Thus together, the image area and aspect ratio are in reference to the size and resolution of the pictures a camera can produce. So, if a camera’s specs state that a picture at 4:3 aspect ratio with 4000×3000 pixel resolution can be produced, that means that you can take a picture at 4:3 aspect ratio with a resolution of 12,000,000 pixels, or 12 megapixels. Also good to know, a popular camera outputted picture spec size that you may have seen before is: pictures with a 16:9 aspect ratio and a resolution of 8 megapixels. Keep in mind, however, the aspect ratio of an image has nothing to do with the megapixel count. From what we saw earlier in the diagram with the number “1” depicted with the various pixel counts compared, a given aspect ratio can simply have less pixels depending on the camera used. Imagine two regular 3″x5″ photos, where one photo is pixelated as it was taken with an old digital camera, and the other photo is taken by a new age digital camera, where the image looks perfectly crisp and focused.
Also, going over another scenario, pictured below, part of the 4:3 image is removed, as shown in the reddish color, to create the blue 16:9 image. As a result, it’s clear that the blue rectangle that is cropped out of the reddish rectangle has less pixels. In other words, the sensor resolution is the same in both instances, but the 16:9 image just has less pixels due to cropping.
So, check if the photo sizes that you want to produce match with the picture aspect ratio a given camera can deliver. The camera’s specs may tell you that certain photo sizes with a certain quality are not possible. And yes, in this day and age photos can be effortlessly cropped, but it’s always nice to produce your envisioned photos without excessive cropping, which may lead to a lower resolution photo – depending on how the image is cropped.
Key camera settings
There are three key settings that you need to know about when trying to take high quality photos; if, of course, your camera even has these settings to begin with. The settings are: ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. These three settings work together in a camera in order to produce high quality photos.
Together, these three settings are called the “Exposure Triangle”, because of how they work in concert together. The mating of these settings is displayed in their definitions below, which showcases how they’re dependent on one another.
- ISO: How sensitive the camera is to light
- Aperture: How much light the camera is being exposed to
- Shutter speed: How long the camera’s exposure to light lasts
We’ll now dive deeper into each of these three settings to see what they’re all about.
ISO, which is not an acronym, but is rooted from the International Organization for Standardization, is the first key setting from the exposure triangle that we will discuss in detail. ISO is a measurement of the amount of light that a given film can absorb – the sensitivity of a camera to available light. Thus, a higher set ISO level means that the image taken will be brighter, and will be high exposure; and, a low ISO level would then lead to low exposure. Typically, the ISO scale starts at 100 and continues to double thereafter up until a given limit: 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, and so forth.
So, with an ISO level set to 200, the exposure is doubled compared to an ISO level of 100. However, it’s important to note, typically, the lower the ISO level is, the better the picture quality will be. When the ISO level is doubled, the exposure is doubled, which in turn doubles the digital noise. Doubling the exposure is done through digitally amplifying the data collected by the camera during the exposure, which reduces the detail of a photo. As a result, the photo will have more of a grainy look.
If you take a photo in the day time, typically an ISO level of 100-200 will work perfectly fine. And, as your surroundings become darker, due to lack of natural or artificial light, then you will want to increase the ISO level accordingly.
This setting is measured with that strange “f” number you may have seen before. To understand this setting, it’s important to first know that most lenses have the ability to limit the amount of light that goes through them by using an internal element, which is called a diaphragm. The diaphragm can extend in and out. So, when you want more light, you would pull the diaphragm back; and when you want less light, you extend it all the way out – limiting the incoming light to a narrower opening.
From the schematic shown below, we see how pulling the diaphragm back (in our schematic, this would be pulling the diaphragm to the left), a greater amount of light will enter into the camera. Conversely, pulling the diaphragm all the way out (in our schematic, this would be pulling the diaphragm to the right), less light will enter into the camera.
In other words, aperture is basically the measure of the diameter of the opening of the lens. So, a low f-number points to a wide aperture – allowing for more light to pass through; and a high f-number indicates a greater amount of light that will be blocked. Typically, f/2.8 is an extremely low number.
When choosing a low f-number, it’s important to realize that your camera lens will receive a lot of light from all directions. Now, because of this high level of unfocused light, anything in front or behind the main focus of the photo area will look blurry. As a result, you’ll be left with a piece of the photo that is in focus, while the rest is blurry. Thus, to fix this issue, a higher f-number is needed in order to increase the focus of the entire photo through focusing together all of the light rays into one stream of light.
Shutter Speed and Shutter Lag
Shutter speed is how long the camera collects light before an image is taken. This measurement is in seconds, so a shutter speed of 1/100 means the shutter is open only for one one-hundredth of a second when a picture is taken. Typically, a higher shutter speed means that the camera will capture a shorter period of time; thus, produce a higher quality image. This is ideal for capturing a focused action type shot. So, with lower shutter speeds, more light will pass through the lens, but if the object is not at standstill, the image will come out blurry more times than not.
The pictured surfer below is a clear illustration to why having good shutter speed is important, in order to best capture action type shots. We see how every detail of the water, and the surfer riding the waves, is perfectly captured in time. The water droplets are clearly outlined, and the surfer’s contorting body riding the waves is discernible without any blur. Now, try taking this photo with a regular old camera, and you will see how the image becomes a large blur of colors.
To dig deeper, in order to better understand the importance of a camera’s shutter, we’ll go over shutter lag. To begin, we need to first understand how certain components of shutter lag lead to poor quality photos. Let us look over three factors below that lead to shutter lag:
- Slow shot-to-shot time
- Slow startup to first shot time
- Autofocus that lags and cannot properly lock into a crisp shot
What you need to know: to find out if a camera’s shot-to-shot time is adequate, find the camera’s “burst mode” or “continuous shooting” count, in shots per second. This metric will tell you how many photos the camera can take in quick succession when you hold the shutter button down. If you’re shooting high action events, you need to find a camera that has a continuous shooting value of at least 3 shots per second.
Also, with the continuous shooting speed, it’s typically in reference to times where the camera’s flash is off and the camera’s focus and exposure is primed for the first shot of a series of shots only; this then leads to poor quality shots with every subsequent shot after the first. So, if a camera has a high continuous shot rate, the image quality may be poor, as the camera tries to increase the speed of the image processing and write speeds. However, there are cameras that have a continuous autofocus feature in order to maintain high quality images when shots are taken rapidly. This is an important feature if you need to take rapid succession shots.
With slow startup time to the first shot, check to see how long it takes the camera to turn on and then have the ability to immediately take a shot. The ideal time would be close to one second.
Finally, check to see how long the camera’s autofocus system takes to focus in on a shot after the shutter button is pressed halfway down. The camera should lock in, in ideally one second.
For most of us, a good camera zoom is important, especially if you’re taking more than selfie type photos. If you’re into nature and sports photos, a good zoom is imperative to get the shots that you want. A camera that has a 6X optical zoom lens can take photos at a zoom that are six times the minimum lens setting, and this zoom is significant for capturing details from afar.
With added zoom, especially once you go over 20X, it’s critical that the camera has good image stabilization. Thus, be sure that the camera has optical image stabilization, or a very fast shutter, otherwise, you will need a tripod or very steady hands to avoid blurry photos that are taken from a distance.
What to look for when shopping for an ideal zoom lens:
- Check the camera’s autofocus at full zoom. The camera should be able to quickly focus at maximum zoom.
- Check for the wide-angle end of the optical zoom, the lowest number, and the telephoto end of the optical zoom, the highest number. A lens that is approximately 28mm or less is good for taking wide angle shots; imagine group photos taken at a distance where a wide angle is necessary. The lower this number is, the wider the angle shots that the camera can take.
Also important, you need to understand what “digital zoom” is. Digital zoom is the camera simply magnifying the image that has already been taken. As a result, the quality of the image taken will be compromised with digital zoom. Therefore, pay close attention to optical zoom versus digital zoom; optical zoom is the lens moving forward in order to magnify the object going to be shot, which is ideal.
So, when a camera is advertised as “extended zoom” or “simulated zoom”, a lot of the time this really means that the optical zoom is combined with digital zoom. Here the image is digitally cropped and then zoomed in on. Yet, as we just learned, this will compromise the image quality.
Cameras that have lenses with optical IS (Image Stabilizer), have the ability to move in the direction opposite to any direction of small movements that you the camera holder make. This steadies the image that will be captured, making the captured image sharper.
There are other different stabilization techniques cameras use, but just remember that “digital image stabilization” is a marketing ploy similar to digital zoom, and it will not help stabilize photos that are taken.
Operable Flash Distance
The camera specs will list the distance over which the camera’s flash can work best. A minimum and maximum distance will be listed. So, if the person or object remains in the given distance, then the captured picture will come out fine with proper illumination.
This is something to keep in mind, as you want a flash that can capture images in low light at the distance you will be taking your photos from.
It’s never easy buying a camera. There are so many cameras to choose from. And when your iPhone takes photos that are near just as good as your dad’s old thousand dollar, plus camera, it becomes difficult to know what to purchase anymore. In most instances, the quality of everyday photos captured by most cameras, including your phone’s camera, will look near identical.
Ultimately though, it comes down to the type of photos that you want to be shooting. After you read the specs of different cameras, and visualize the type of photos that you want to take, you can see what specs will best fit you; thus, see the big difference that specs can make.
And once you have a camera in mind, it’s very important that you test the camera against other cameras that you may have been considering; especially when they’re higher priced cameras. Thus, see how well each camera works for you; because even after understanding and reviewing all the specs, you will never know how well the photos will come out until you test a specific camera out.
Shop carefully, and have fun snapping awesome photos!