Anybody new to digital photography must wonder what specs actually matter when they’re buying a new digital camera. With camera makers dishing out new shooters every now and then, each of which come with fresh technical features, it’s easy to get confused. Many would simply believe that the camera’s megapixels are the one major factor that determine the overall image quality captured by the camera, but is that true? What specifications of a camera that actually play a role in its image capture capability? We’re going to talk about the answers in this post.
First thing’s first, let’s make it clear that a digital camera here refers to all cameras that make use of digital image sensor, instead of traditional film, to capture a moment. Thus, it’s not just limited to pocket-sized point-and-shoot cameras but also digital SLR and mirrorless cameras. With that out of the way, I’m going to address the first question, is the camera’s megapixel important?
As far as image quality is concerned, megapixel has very little to do about it. It simply shows the amount of pixels the camera is able to capture in one shot. In fact, if the camera’s sensor is small in size, a high number of megapixels often translate to poorer image quality (compared to a camera of the same sensor’s size). The reason is because the camera has to include so much information (worth in pixels) in such a limited imaging surface, resulting in noticeable level of noise on the captured photos. Recent technologies have been able to ease this issue to a degree, but still you’d better not count on the megapixels alone if you want to get a spectacular image quality.
There are three things that are directly related with the quality of the image captured by a digital camera: sensor, image processor, and lens. Let’s take a look at each of them.
A digital image sensor is the equivalent of a film in conventional cameras. The moment you push that shutter button, this sensor will be exposed to light, triggering other components of the camera to record and capture a scene that it sees. Image sensor in digital cameras differs greatly in size, but generally we can classify it into three groups: full frame, cropped sensor, and smaller sensor.
The latter is used in many compact as well as smartphone cameras. Manufacturers have ways of calling a camera with cropped sensor. Nikon calls it a DX camera, but most go with Canon’s term, which is an APS-C camera. Another type of cropped sensor camera is Macro Four Third which is made popular by Olympus and Panasonic with their range of highly capable mirrorless shooters. If you’re new to digital photography, there’s really no need to get a full frame camera.
Although cameras with smaller sensor have been able to churn out some spectacular photos, you can always expect that image quality is always better with bigger sensor camera. This means a full frame camera like Canon EOS 5D Mark III will always better than an APS-C camera like Canon EOS 70D. The difference in image quality will be more apparent in low light situations as full frame cameras have the advantage of larger sensor that can capture more light.
Unless you mainly shoot in RAW, the image processor of your camera can play a major role in determining the end result of your capture session. Many experienced photographers would prefer to shoot in RAW any day of the week because the unprocessed images give them much flexibility during post-processing later. However, you will have a moment when you’re required to get a good set of photographs in such a short notice and there isn’t any other option but to shoot in JPEG. In this case, you’ll be thankful to have a camera with powerful image processor.
Common issues like uneven lighting can be easily fixed by the camera’s processor. It can adjust the camera’s settings as to ensure the photos will be well exposed. You can even add some certain effects. All of this can be done without you doing the hard work. Fast processor also allows for rapid burst shooting while maintaining the focus. Although it won’t influence the image quality right away, with many frames captured per second, you can relax when you shoot a fast moving action or object. You’ll be sure that you won’t miss the right moment.
The lens is pretty much like the eye of your camera. You can’t expect it to capture amazing photos if it can’t see well and there’s a lens for a certain situation. While users of DSLR and mirrorless cameras have the options to switch from one glass to another, those who choose to go with point-and-shoot cameras can’t enjoy the same flexibility. Due to their compact size, point-and-shoot cameras adopt a fixed lens design.
When it comes to lenses, the first thing you want to check out is the maximum aperture it supports. Aperture is an opening on the lens through which light comes in. The wider it opens, the more light enters the camera, which will ultimately affect its image quality especially in darker scene. Lens aperture is measured in f-stop values. Standard kit lens that comes with an interchangeable lens camera mostly has maximum aperture of f/3.5. A higher-end point-and-shoot camera such as Sony Cyber-shot RX100 Mark IV has a fixed lens that can open as wide as f/1.8. Wide apertures – helpful in low light situations – are normally considered between range of f/2.8 – f/1.4.
Last but not least, there’s the matter about how sharp is the lens. For this, there’s no other way to figure it out but to take some field test. A number of stores protect its buyers with a sound return policy, so you can always have the camera for a test for one or two days. If you’re not happy with what you get, you can return it without problem. If this isn’t possible, another good way to ensure that a camera can deliver outstanding image quality is by checking out its sample images. There are many online reviews of cameras that provide you with real sample photos. Some reviewers are extremely technical, but they should help you understand more about the camera you’re looking to buy.