Which Digital Camera Features Do You Really Need?

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Everybody loves getting more bang for their buck, which helps to explain why most digital cameras offer scads of functions. However, the more features are packed into a camera, the more difficult to use the camera may become. There may be so many features that you have no idea what most of them do, when to use them, or how they affect your pictures.

To help you choose which features you really want and need, here's a quick rundown of the most ubiquitous and popular:

Absolutely Essential Digital Camera Features

  • Removable Memory Card: All but the most inexpensive digital cameras save images to memory cards, whose capacity can vary widely. When you run out of space, it takes only seconds to pop in a spare card. To transfer pictures to a computer, simply remove the card and slide it into your computer's memory card reader.
  • Anti-Shake: Even the steadiest of hands aren't completely still when pressing the shutter button. This can produce blurring, streaks or soft focus when shooting in low light or when maxing out your telephoto lens. Anti-shake (aka image stabilization) helps neutralize jitters, producing sharper images. Many cameras allow you to turn off this feature, but it's a good idea to leave it on at all times.
  • Burst Mode: This function allows you to take multiple shots in rapid succession, like a pro's motor drive, so you won't miss that all-important action shot. However, lag time between taking each image varies widely.
  • Macro Mode: To capture detailed close-ups, such as an insect on a flower, macro mode allows you to focus within inches of your subject. How close you can shoot varies from one camera to another, so read the documentation before buying.

Digital Camera Features that Keep It Simple

  • Auto Focus: Even professional photographers tend to keep their cameras on auto focus. As long as you understand how it works by recognizing the area(s) of focus within the camera's viewfinder, auto focus is usually better than manual.
  • Auto Exposure: Making sure that you capture the right amount of light is key to good photography. Auto exposure makes decisions for you regarding relevant settings such as shutter speed or f-stop.
  • Focus-Assist Lamp: A camera lens can't focus in a dark room. Pressing the shutter halfway on many cameras produces a red or green light, or a series of preflashes, that provides just enough illumination for a camera's auto-focus function to work properly.
  • Face Recognition: By identifying faces in your picture, this feature provides optimum exposure and focus for portraits or group shots.
  • Best-Shot Selector: A camera may display several versions of a picture, either shot milliseconds apart, or using a variety of color or exposure settings. You select the one that you like best.
  • Shooting Modes: Many cameras offer several preset modes for shutter speed, f-stop, focus, etc., appropriate to a variety of special situations like a beach, fireworks or a moonlit landscape.
  • Auto Correct: For even greater versatility, you can adjust a picture's exposure, color, and in some cases, shadows.
  • Touch Screen If you prefer to not to bother with buttons, touch-screen controls, in which you use your finger or a stylus, can be more intuitive and quicker to use.

    Digital Camera Features for Taking Control

    • Aperture and/or Shutter Priority: Good exposure requires balancing the amount of light entering the camera (aperture or f-stop) with the duration of exposure (shutter speed). With aperture priority, you select the f-stop you want, and the camera will automatically choose the shutter speed that will give you optimum exposure. With shutter priority, you set the shutter speed and the camera selects the appropriate aperture.
    • Manual Exposure: By uncoupling shutter speed and aperture, you can use your knowledge of photography and select the right exposure. This is particularly useful when shooting in mixed light, or when you want to experiment with exposure.
    • Manual White Balance: A powerful tool, white balance allows you to define what the camera "sees" as white, thereby eliminating any color shift caused by the ambient light. Incandescent (indoor) lighting and sunlight require different white balancing.
    • Manual Focus: Sometimes, your camera's auto-focus function will lock in on the wrong focal point or subject. Manual focus allows you to take control of that all-important aspect of your creativity and composition.

    Interesting Features You May Or May Not Use

    • Video: Most cameras offer some sort of low-resolution video capability that's appropriate for the Web. Better cameras feature higher frame rates and full-frame size.
    • Time Lapse: Set up your camera on a tripod to take a series of pictures over a period of time.
    • Voice Recording: Use your camera to save conversations, memos about your pictures or to capture the sound around you.
    • Panorama Assist: Frames in your viewfinder help to capture a series of pictures that can be stitched together easily (using computer software) into a panoramic view of a canyon or skyline.
    • Wireless Remote: This is handy for self portraits.
    • Text Tagging: You can add captions or keywords to your picture files to help identify and sort them.
    • Slide Show: Show compilations of your pictures, either on your camera's screen, on an attached TV or computer, or, with some cameras, save the slideshow and share it.
    • Wireless Connectivity: If you want to send your photos to an e-mail address, website, or to a computer or printer, this is the ticket.

      Features of Dubious Value

      • Red-eye Preflash: A series of preflashes supposedly reduces red-eye by closing your subject's pupils, but all it does is annoy people and make them move out of pose because they think the picture is already taken. We prefer the red-eye removal tools available in a camera's playback or in photo-editing software.
      • Digital Zoom: Digital zoom merely spreads the pixels apart to appear to extend your telephoto lens, while causing significant image degradation.