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You are hereHome > Articles > Digital Camera Categories

Digital Camera Categories

Choosing a digital camera can be a confusing exercise if you do not know where to start your search. In this article we examine the different categories of digital cameras.

Categories

I am sure you have heard or read about Point-and-Shoot and Prosumer digital cameras, and have wondered what differentiate one from the other.

Besides these two categories, there are two more: Beginner and Serious amateur photographers.

It helps to understand that camera manufacturers typically target these four categories (or, in marketing speak, market segments) and introduce digital cameras that answer the needs of each of these segments.

An understanding of these four categories will help you to figure out in which category you fit and therefore which digital cameras to research.

Point-and-Shoot

The Point-and-Shoot (P&S) market segment typically wants a digital camera that takes good pictures without having to fiddle with any settings. In fact, the simpler the operation, the better. Point-and-shoot digital cameras tend to be compact and ultra compact, and can therefore be easily carried anywhere. There is an Auto Mode, and many P&S digital cameras also now include some Scene Modes. If there is a Manual Mode, it is a very limited one, perhaps limited to using a long shutter speed for night scenes. Camera manufacturers preset many of the settings so images straight out of the camera look pleasant, saturated in colours, and sharp.

If Auto Mode automates everything (shutter speed, aperture, ISO, sharpness, etc.), why then do we need Scene Modes? Because some picture-taking situations can "fool" the camera's light meter and need special intervention on the part of the photographer for best results.

For example, if you are taking a picture of your friend on the beach, the abundance of sand on the beach reflects the sun's rays and "fool" the camera's light meter telling it that there're lots of light. In effect, the camera on Auto Mode exposes for the sand, not your subject, with the result that the sand may be perfectly exposed, but your subject is underexposed. The way a knowledgeable photographer would fix this is to give a positive exposure compensation, resulting in your subject being correctly exposed (the sand now is overexposed, but most people won't care). The Beach Scene Mode on your P&S digital camera automatically sets this exposure compensation for you.

If you desire a digital camera strictly for snapshots and have no desire to fiddle with any of the settings (besides selecting an appropriate Scene Mode), then you fall into the Point-and-Shoot category.

Beginner

If you are new to photography and want to take it up as a hobby, then you fall into the Beginner Amateur Photographer category. Camera manufacturers target this market segment with digital cameras that are P&S easy to use, but that also provide some exposure flexibility, allowing you to try a few things without getting overwhelmed.

Typically, besides Auto Mode, there is Program Auto Mode, Shutter-Priority Mode, Aperture-Priority Mode, and Full Manual Mode. Many digital cameras also provide Scene Modes.

Remember, in Auto Mode, the camera makes all the decisions for you, selecting a shutter speed, aperture and even ISO, to obtain correct exposure. One difference between the Auto Mode in this camera and the Auto Mode in a P&S camera is that Sharpening and Colour Saturation may be left to you. This often results in images that appear "soft" (some may think the images are "out of focus") straight out of the camera. You may select a Sharpening level in camera or, as is most commonly done, perform sharpening in post-processing in an image editing software such as Photoshop.

Program Auto Mode (also called Program AE or Programmed Auto) is similar to Auto Mode in that the camera still determines the shutter speed and aperture for you, but lets you decide on the ISO, metering option (if available, e.g. spot, center-weighted average, matrix), and allows you to manually set exposure compensation. This is in effect a more powerful and flexible "Auto Mode" and that is the preferred mode for most photographers.

Shutter-Priority Mode goes one step further than Program Auto and also allows you to select the shutter speed. For example, to stop action, you may want to select a fast shutter speed; to depict motion and have your subject(s) a bit blurred, you may want to select a slow shutter speed. The camera determines the appropriate aperture for correct exposure.

Aperture-Priority Mode is similar to Shutter-Priority but you may now select an aperture and the camera will determine the appropriate shutter speed for correct exposure.

In Full Manual Mode, the camera relegates all decisions to you.

As you can see, the availability of those exposure modes allows a beginner to experiment and learn.

Serious

Once a beginner has experimented with his or her digital camera and has reached the limit of what the camera can achieve, it is time to move on to the next category: the Serious Amateur Photographer category. Digital cameras in this category are similar to those in the Beginner category, but the difference is usually in the range of flexibility provided.

Typically a larger image sensor is used for better image quality; better lens optics are used that eliminate chromatic aberrations; there might be more zoom power; the range of shutter speeds and apertures are extended; there is a better ISO range with less noise at higher ISOs; there are different metering options; the camera accepts optional attachments, filters and external flash; etc. -- and the availability of these settings is migrated from the Menu to special buttons that make it easier and quicker to select the settings.

The serious amateur photographer does not want the camera to be a limiting factor in obtaining the picture. There are cameras that cater to every interest: cameras with wide-angle lenses for those who need that wide-angle coverage, such as in landscape and real estate photography; cameras with long zooms for those who need to bring far away subjects close, such as in birding photography; cameras with long shutter speeds for those who love night photography; cameras with BULB (where the shutter stays open until you manually closes it) for those into astrophotography; etc. etc.

As you progress from being a Beginner Amateur Photographer, and your interest crystallizes, you will want to find a digital camera that allows you to take the kind of photography you like.

Advanced / Prosumer

So far, all the digital cameras we have described above fall under the "Consumer" market segment. This is to differentiate them from the other market segment known as the "Professional" market segment where photographers use cameras for a living and therefore require equipments that are reliable, durable, flexible, etc. For a photographer to be able to make a living out of photography implies that the photographer is pretty experienced (in the type of photography the photographer specializes in).

But what about an amateur photographer (and here "amateur" does not imply "amateurish" but simply someone who takes pictures for fun, not for a living, i.e. not professionally) who is also very experienced in his or her type of photography?

The market has come up with a new term: "Prosumer" as in "Professional Consumer." These Advanced Amateur Photographers are pros and demand the best in equipments. They want the best image quality, the best handling, and have the highest standards. Some purchase the same equipments that professional photographers invest in, but most do not want (or cannot afford) to spend that amount of money, so are willing to put up with some constraints, but not much more.

Digital cameras in this category need to output the highest image quality, or quickly end up on the reject heap, as some camera manufacturers have discovered to their chagrin. Wild claims of some exciting features on paper are not going to sell these cameras; in-the-field actual-use proofs with image samples to back up the claims are what prosumers are after. Tolerance for defects or inconsistent performance are very low, and quickly announced and denounced in forums.

Currently most of the prosumer models have 8MP on a 2/3 in. image sensor, but even this image sensor size is too small. The next improvement is to use an APS-sized image sensor which would bring image quality on a par with the professional models.

Some of the features to look for in an "ideal" prosumer level digital camera (some of which we are still awaiting for):

  • Large APS-sized image sensor allowing the use of high ISOs without noise
  • No practical shutter lag
  • Fast and accurate autofocus, even in low-light
  • Image stabilization
  • Long wide-angle zoom
  • Large aperture ("fast lens")
  • Accurate Auto White Balance

Most of us would be satisfied with the first three features mentioned.

Digital Single Lens Reflex (dSLR)

A new category has recently appeared that straddles the one between Prosumer and Professional. Professional digital photographers use dSLRs which use full-frame image sensors (i.e. 24x36mm, the same size as 35mm film) or APS-sized image sensors (approx. "half-frame"). Equipments in this category are usually very expensive and prohibitive for amateur photographers.

Camera manufacturers have started introducing affordable dSLRs that use APS-sized image sensors. They have all the features mentioned above and since they are affordable, prosumers can now consider them. In a sense, the affordable dSLRs are the "ideal" prosumer digital cameras. In fact, in some cases, for the price of a prosumer model, you could buy a dSLR. So, if you are after the best in image quality, look at the dSLRs.

There is a caveat. dSLRs come with interchangeable lenses, which can be a good thing in itself (you get a range of lenses to choose from) or bad (getting dust on the image sensor can be a pain in the derriere to clean up). However, while prosumer models typically have long zoom lenses, a corresponding focal length coverage for a dSLR raises the price appreciably. The resulting equipment is large and heavy compared to a relatively compact prosumer model.

Some camera manufacturers are concentrating on building special lenses for their dSLRs that will match size and price of prosumer models. Other camera manufacturers are also introducing dSLRs that are quite compact, even rivalling the size of prosumer models.

Why Not Simply Buy The Best?

Good question that deserves a serious answer. Why, indeed, not simply buy a dSLR or a prosumer model, and use Auto Mode to obtain the best image quality? "I can afford it," you may be thinking, "and I want the best even if I only intend to take P&S snapshots."

Perhaps the best way to answer this question is to digress (just a bit) and talk about cars.

A P&S digital camera can be thought of as a Toyota Corolla with automatic gear shift. In a P&S digital camera, all you have to do is turn the camera on, point to your subject, and press the shutter release button -- and the camera worries about exposure, ISO, etc.

Driving a Toyota Corolla with auto gear shift is similar: you get in and turn the car on, turn the steering wheel to where you want to go, and press on the gas pedal. The car shifts gears appropriately for you.

The handling is pretty good: the car goes straight even if you move the steeringly wheel a bit clockwise or anticlockwise, so that one-hand relaxed driving is possible. The car also responds pretty well when you want to turn, accelerate or brake. And your heart rate is never elevated by driving a Toyota Corolla (never mind the ads on TV).

Ah, but now step into a sports car. First, you sit pretty low to the ground and feel every bump of the road and every action of the car. When you press slightly on the gas pedal, the car lurches forward; when you turn the steering wheel slightly, the car follows right away, which means one-hand relaxed driving is out of the question: you need both hands firmly planted on the steering wheel. Most sports car drivers drive manual shift; you could use auto gear shift, but performance is not quite the same. And you heart always gets a work-out after driving a sports car.

Now, step into a tractor trailor truck. Duh, you may still be on auto gear shift, but I bet driving this monster is not quite the same as driving the Toyota Corolla. To qualify to drive this truck, you need different driving skills and need to take a special driving test.

Note that in all three automobiles, we used auto gear shift, but got very different results, and needed different driving skills.

Perhaps you can now appreciate a little bit more why using Auto Mode on a P&S is not quite the same as using Auto Mode on a prosumer digital camera. A P&S digital camera usually has some sharpening applied to the images it capture. It may also saturate the colours, so that the final result straight out of the camera appears as a sharp and brightly coloured photo.

In a prosumer digital camera using Auto Mode, no sharpening is usually applied with the result that photos straight out of the camera appears soft (or, to an untrained eye, out of focus). You can then adjust it the way you want in an image editing software in post-processing, applying any amount of sharpening. You have full control (whereas in a P&S, the camera made many irreversible decisions for you), and that is the way pros want it. In fact, some pros use the RAW file format to record images where no, or very little, processing is done to the image in camera: the data captured by the image sensor is practically dumped to your memory card. You cannot even "see" this data ("digital negative") until after passing it through a RAW Converter.

Hopefully, an understanding of the different digital camera categories will help you situate the category you fall in currently and make selecting a digital camera easier for you. We have labelled each of the digital cameras on our site with the category we deem most appropriate for it, and even though just looking at their specs they may not match exactly as we described them here, we believe they are correct. Don't worry if you do not agree with a digital camera labelled under a particular category, don't fret or feel bound by it. The categories are there to help you, not to constrain you.

If this article has been helpful to you, why don't you send it to a friend? Please give us your feedback on how we can make it better, or what articles you would like to read next.

 

 

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