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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
- Large APS-sized image sensor allowing
the use of high ISOs without noise
- No practical shutter lag
- Fast and accurate autofocus, even in
- 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.
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
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
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,
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
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
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