December 4, 2008


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2008 photo gift guide
Camera features that will confuse you this year

By John “jaQ” Andrews

Every year, as consumers get hip to the fact that more megapixels does not necessarily equal better photos, digital cameras acquire more bells and whistles. \What should you look for to make sure you’re getting the most value for your dollar?

In the past, I’ve written about several different features. You already know that:

• a large, glass lens is better than a small, plastic lens;

• optical zoom and image stabilization are better than their digital counterparts;

• different shooting modes offer pre-configured settings for sports, close-ups and other challenging scenarios; and

• free printer offers abound, so keep your eyes open.

Believe it or not, that’s not the be-all, end-all of the discriminating digital camera shopper’s knowledge. There are a few more things you can look out for.

• Sensor size: Just like a bigger lens will produce a clearer, more vivid picture when all other factors are equal, a bigger sensor inside the camera will do the same. The sensor, sometimes called by its technical name of CMOS or CCD, is what gets exposed to the light coming through the lens and is the component that actually has all those megapixels. The more pixels on the sensor, the more detailed the picture — in theory. In practice, if the sensor is too small, the pixels can get muddied together and your image isn’t as sharp.

You probably won’t see sensor size as a specification on a camera’s tag in the store, or even on the box. You’ll probably have to visit the manufacturer’s Web site to see a full technical rundown. Bigger cameras, though, tend to have bigger sensors. That’s right, those more expensive ultra-compact cameras might produce slightly worse photos than the cheaper, bulkier ones.

• Smile detection: Face detection, covered last December, automatically focuses on faces for nice portrait photos. Smile detection, on the other hand, waits for your subject to smile and automatically triggers the shutter release at that precise moment. Not essential if all your friends are emo, but nice for shots of kids whose moods vacillate wildly.

• SDHC support: I don’t know if the figure is actually over 50%, but it seems to me that the majority of digital cameras out there use Secure Digital (SD) memory cards to store images. Regular old SD cards have an upper capacity limit of 4GB, and it’s rare to see any larger than 2GB. 8GB, 16GB and even 32GB cards are only possible with a newer standard called SDHC — that’s High Capacity, y’all.

Cameras with SDHC support can recognize these more spacious cards in addition to the lame little 32MB cards they’re most often packaged with. For high-megapixel cameras, larger memory cards are essential. Fortunately, they’re also fairly cheap.

• RAW support: Once the purview of only high-end SLR cameras, RAW images are now recorded by cheaper and cheaper models. Despite the capitalization, RAW doesn’t stand for anything — it means what the word means: the raw image data captured by the camera sensor. Rather than instantly developing the photo to a JPG image file, keeping an image in RAW format gives the photographer more options later on to get precisely the picture he or she wants with photo editing software. Each camera’s RAW format is unique, but most new editing programs will support major camera brands. The camera might even come with its own software plugin.