How To Choose The Best Digital Camera

Buying Advice
By Tommy Penick ⋅ Review Editor, OutdoorGearLab - Friday May 23, 2014
How do you choose the best camera to take on your adventures? With the techy nature of camera equipment, in combination with new technologies continually changing the game, choosing a camera is a massive task. We took the nine best cameras in the game and put them through everything we could think of to give you a real-time comparison.

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Like all batteries, the RX100 II faded quickly on us in the cold, but a quick warm up in our glove and we were back to shooting images like this in the Sierra backcountry.
Credit: Tommy Penick

Digital cameras started to be seen in professional markets in the mid to late 90s, but few of us made the leap from the film days over to the then lesser quality images produced by early digital sensors. But despite the naysayers, modern digital cameras produce fantastic images that actually beat film cameras in a lot of ways.

At OutdoorGearLab, we aim to not only lead you through the buying process, but also educate you about the industry terminology and how that affects your purchase.

Why Get a Digital Camera?

There are tons of options in price range, portability, size, and features of a digital camera. Where do you start? For many people, an iPhone camera gets the job done. But if you’re feeling trapped by the lack of features, crunchy images from compression, and lack of optical zoom, then it’s time to solve your problems with a digital camera. In choosing the cameras to test we omitted cheaper, small digital cameras because high-quality camera phones are largely eliminating that market. We wanted to test the next step in camera addiction; advanced point-and-shoots.

The Resolution War

Camera manufactures realize that consumers harp in on certain specifications that they think determine an item’s quality. The old adage of “you can blow a film photo up really big” transferred to digital, and resolution became the foremost deciding factor for most consumers. However, we’re here to tell you that it doesn’t really matter. In 2001, Canon produced the first professional-grade digital camera in their 1 series—the Canon 1D, which boasted a 4.1 megapixel sensor, an absolute beast at the time. The images looked great and many of them still do. I’ve won a number of shows, even recently, that were shot on my trusty 1D, even at print sizes up to 30 inches wide.

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Credit: Tommy Penick

The takeaway? Resolution doesn’t matter unless you’re going to be cropping tons off the image or printing them huge. Modern digital cameras have between 10 and 20 megapixels. This is plenty; only in rare situations will you notice the resolution difference between two cameras. Unless a camera’s pixel count is way under the competition, it’s not a factor.

What made images off that old camera so nice? Good lenses, high dynamic range, a large sensor, and good ISO performance, which is a derivative of other internal functions of the camera.

Lenses

Image Quality based off Lens

With all of the digital distractions with camera design these days, we often forget about lenses. Some of the sharpest lenses with great color reproduction and contrast of all time were made in the 40s by Leica. Similarly companies like Zeiss have been making cinema lenses for decades that many rental houses haven’t bothered to update. Lenses are still king. A camera with a great sensor, processor, egronomic design, quick function, instantaneous auto-focus, and ten billion frames per second would be worthless if it had terrible glass. With this category of cameras, some models ask a lot out of their lenses. For example, the Canon SX50HS has a 24-1200mm (35mm equivalent, see below) lens. If lenses with this large a range functioned as well as lenses dedicated to a smaller range, don’t you think professional photographers would have much smaller bags? While the mega-zoom lenses featured on the Panasonic Lumix FZ200, Canon SX50HS, and Nikon L820 cover a lot of ground in a pretty small package, there are drawbacks that are covered in their individual reviews.

One of the easiest flaws to pick out in a lens is ghosting, seen below.

(ghosting/no ghosting)
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Focus on the detail of the trees in the foreground and in the reflection around the lake. The "fuzziness" seen in the image on the left shows ghosting, while the one on the right does not. As you may be picking up on, the mega-zoom cameras we tested had worse optics--which should be expected considering making prime lenses like on the Ricoh GR or the X100s is much easier.
Credit: Tommy Penick

Sharpness of a lens and sharpness of a photo are not the same, but if you eliminate enough factors you can figure out if it’s the lens. Here’s an example:

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Lens sharpness is shown by comparing two large crops of the Nikon L820 (left) and the Sony RX100 II (right). As you can see, the pine trees at the top of Donner Summit aren't even visible in the image on the left. While this might be "pixel peeping" at its finest, lens sharpness plays a larger role into overall image quality than you'd think.
Credit: Tommy Penick

For this test we eliminated focus issues, shake issues, and motion blur by shooting a stationary object using a tripod.

Lenses also affect color and contrast, but with fixed lens cameras like the ones we tested, it’s difficult to tell if color biases come from the camera or the lens.

Range and distortion

We tested a huge range of lenses on these cameras — from the prime 24mm (aka fixed) lens on the Fuji X100s to the mega-zoom of the Canon SX50HS. For many people, fixed lenses like those on the Ricoh GR and the Fuji X100s are a huge disadvantage, although others may not be bothered by it.

Lens distortion is when the image appears to be bent — straight lines, like on the greenhouse below, come out bent.
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The Panasonic LX-7 had big issues with wide-lens barrel distortion, as well as sharp vignetting, or dark corners, as seen in this photograph.
Credit: Tommy Penick

This is typically an undesired feature, though extremes have been creatively used in the past, such as every 90s skate film with copious amounts of fisheye barrel distortion, as demonstrated by the photo below:

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This image was shot with a 15mm fisheye on a 1D Mark III which has a 1.3x crop factor, making the lens act more like a 19.5mm lens. However, the construction of a fisheye lens embraces the barrel distortion which can be used creatively. Notice how the surface of the water bends. But if you're going to have one lens stuck to your camera for life, you don't want distortion.
Credit: Tommy Penick


Sensor Size

Sensor size is the secret ace-in-the-hole for image quality. Why are images shot by professional photographers so sharp and clear? Sensor size is the most commonly overlooked statistic to affect image quality. One of the big things that sets photographs apart is the background separation. For example, this image of the X100s, shot with a 5D Mark II and a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens.

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The Fuji x100s.
Credit: Tommy Penick

Traditionally, depth of field is controlled by: 1.) aperture (lens opening), 2.) distance from camera to the subject, and 3.) distance from the subject to the background. But this was in the days where everyone was speaking the same language — 35mm film. While other formats absolutely exist, the norm was 35mm W x 24mm H. While we no longer shoot film, digital sensors now represent the film plane, and the physics are almost identical. However, the high cost of building a large sensor and a camera to house it has plagued digital cameras since their advent. Cameras we tested ranged from 1/1.8” up to the popular DSLR “APS-C” size. Look at this side-by-side comparison of sensors to put it in perspective.


A lens focuses beams of light into a cone of light, which gets projected onto a plane. The sensor then captures it as RGB components, and then the processor turns it into an image we can see. When using a small sensor, you’re only capturing part of that cone of light, much like moving a projector closer or further from a wall. The takeway: bigger is better when it comes to sensors.

Camera manufacturers are starting to listen. Full frame (sensors the same size as 35mm film) sensors have been introduced into more DSLRs for less money, and point-and-shoot cameras are starting to use larger sensors as well. It's no surprise that the Ricoh GR and the Fuji X100s exhibit the best image quality of the cameras we tested.

Dynamic Range

Another unspoken hero of digital cameras is dynamic range — the camera’s ability to capture bright and dark areas of a given situation. For example, if you took a photo of a white car in bright sunlight, the wheel wells would be incredibly dark, while the top of the car would be exploding with light. A camera that has more dynamic range can capture this more efficiently than a camera with less dynamic range. This statistic is rarely published for still cameras, but it's incredibly important. When you finally summit Mt. Whitney while ski mountaineering, you don’t want blown-out snow, shadowy faces, and a mediocre backdrop. That photo better be awesome! A camera boasting more dynamic range will allow your faces to be seen, the landscape to be stunning, and hopefully a little detail in the snow, too.

ISO Performance

You can hear the sales pitch, “You don’t even need flash any more.” Camera sensors have become very sensitive and can have high ISO’s, which is a simple standardized way to list a sensor’s sensitivity to light. In the film days, this was known as ASA or film speed. In addition to shutter speed and aperture (lens opening), ISO is a basic control for exposure, and you can set this on the camera (typically listed as 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600 and so on). The higher the number, the more sensitive to light the camera becomes.

But here’s the caveat: since the film days, and still in the digital era, higher ISO’s produce digital noise—the nasty, grainy, specs of color that ruin pictures. A camera’s ability to silence this digital noise is crucial to overall image quality, especially when shooting in low light situations. If you have a camera only to shoot summit pictures on bluebird days, ISO performance won’t be as critical.


A Word About Color and Contrast
With the current ease and simplicity of editing software, almost any image can be edited in color and contrast. Cameras use profiles, which help the camera’s processor decide how to process and reproduce colors, inherently making photographs look different straight out of the camera, depending on the profile designer’s taste and the manufacturer’s desires. Don’t let these differences influence your decision. Color profiles in camera can be altered, and you can fine tune color tone, saturation, contrast, and sharpening in any post-processing, even in freeware programs. For most situations, we did not edit the images in order to let you see the image straight out of camera.
Tommy Penick
About the Author
Tommy is a professional commercial and outdoor photographer who currently lives out of his converted 5x10 utility trailer throughout the continental US. Between traveling for assignment work, Tommy is an avid whitewater kayaker, mountain biker, and skier, and likes to see if he can do at least one every day.

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