Digital Camera for college?
June 14, 2008 11:48 PM   Subscribe

I'm heading off to college in a few months and I'm absolutely overwhelmed by the myriad of point-and-shoot cameras on the market. I ran through some pictures (well, actually many pictures) on Flickr to try and get a feel for what I was looking for, but some pictures are naturally more appealing than others and the quality is affected by various factors, so I ruled that method out as an objective option. I'm pretty sure more megapixels isn't always more quality and that there are other factors to account for, such as noise and shutter speed, but I'm at a loss at what really matters in a digital camera. I hope I don't sound completely uninformed, but I've scoured previous topics and while they're very helpful, they're a little outdated. I would really appreciate recommendations on a compact/ultracompact camera that takes pretty pictures! I'm willing to spend up to 300, but hopefully no more than that :) Thoughts? Suggestions? Jeers? :(
posted by tihleigh to Technology (26 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
With digital cameras nowadays one of the most important considerations is sensor sizeā€”the size of the sensor onto which the megapixels are crammed determines how much light gets appropriated to each of those pixels. Merely cranking up the MP isn't automatic awesome quality.

That said, point-and-shoots aren't known for lavish sensor sizes. Shutter speed and ISO ("noise", but really, sensor-sensitivity to light, formerly "film speed") do affect the quality of an image, but many cameras offer variable options for this.

For a point and shoot, you should look for at least 8-10MP, since the pixel count does still matter, and look for a decent lens.

One metric you can consider is Flickr's camera finder. It shows you what's most popular.

I'm no expert and I don't own a point-and-shoot, but I think that differentiation between PS' is considerably more myopic than differentiation between SLRs. That is to say, past a certain feature set/MP-level/whatever, it doesn't matter and comes down to personal preference. There are plenty of sites with comprehensive reviews, like DPreview, which features a handy buying guide and lots of help.

Finally, check out Retrevo for a somewhat slow but powerful comparison engine with review aggregation and stuff.
posted by disillusioned at 12:09 AM on June 15, 2008

What Ken Rockwell says. And get it insured.
posted by holgate at 12:12 AM on June 15, 2008 [5 favorites]

Optical vs. digital zoom. My advice is to get a camera with as much optical zoom as fits within your budget. You won't regret it. Don't be fooled by cameras that tout high digital zoom and "total zoom" (optical x digital) numbers. Optical zoom is key.
posted by Balonious Assault at 12:25 AM on June 15, 2008

Cameras get lost, broken, and stolen all the time. My attitude: buy a $150-200 camera now, and you'll get another one in 2 years.
posted by k8t at 12:28 AM on June 15, 2008

Because I make my living as a photographer I'm frequently asked to weigh in on decisions like this. Of course, my needs in photographic hardware are completely different than those of the average individual though.

My general answer is to suggest that you take a hard look at the various Canon cameras that fall within your price range. I'm not a loyalist to this brand, but they haven't come up with too many dogs over the years.

Their "A" series point and shoot cameras have a relatively broad feature set for the money, and their smaller pocketable models are nice too.

No matter what you buy, make sure you have plenty of memory cards and an extra battery.
posted by imjustsaying at 12:46 AM on June 15, 2008

I ran through some pictures (well, actually many pictures) on Flickr to try and get a feel for what I was looking for, but some pictures are naturally more appealing than others and the quality is affected by various factors, so I ruled that method out as an objective option.

Once you've made a shortlist, the aforementioned dpreview site has samples galleries of various shots - close-ups, portraits, landscape, architecture, night-shots etc - for all their reviewed cameras: this will give you a significantly more objective option. That's how I wound up with teh awesome Nikon P5100. For optical zoom bang for your buck, you can't go wrong with the equally awesome Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ3.
posted by forallmankind at 1:33 AM on June 15, 2008

I'm on my fifth digital camera, I think - it's an (aging) Fuji f31fd. My tips would be...

1. You'll use your camera in low-light conditions (I guarantee it). Flash is horrid; so go for one which has excellent low-light performance. (My Fuji f31d has such).

2. If you want to try some snazzy picture effects, like long exposures, then you'll need a camera with some manual controls too. Many point and clicks do; many don't.

3. Don't go for an SLR. They're heavy, bulky, and you'll never carry them about with you. Cameras work best when they're taking pictures, not in a drawer - when they're catching the unexpected or the newsworthy.

4. Do invest in a cheap case to put it in (Muji have them for under $20) and do bargain on replacing your camera in a year or so.

5. Spend the money on a flickr pro account. Use that to store and organise all your photos, and order a DVD of them every year just in case Yahoo! decide to delet! your! photos!
posted by jamescridland at 1:35 AM on June 15, 2008

As jamesscridland suggest, for a camera you'll be using at university, there will be a lot of situations you'll be in where light is scarce (again, as jamesscridland says, the flash on a point and shoot makes photographs look awful in many cases). For that, my FujiFilm F30 is great, and the picture quality in other conditions is pretty good too.

The F30 is well out of date now, but the F100fd seems like its successor, so maybe it's worth a look?

A Digital SLR would probably be out of your budget, but I don't think it's what you'd be after anyway: a camera like the F30 or its derivatives is more likely to give decent results with the mimimum of technique in most of the enviornments you're likely to find yourself in at university (i.e. drunken ones).
posted by chorltonmeateater at 2:51 AM on June 15, 2008

I used the point and shoot camera of a friend. A Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX33. (well, actually the previous model FX30).
Having only used an older digital camera I was amazed by the optical stabiliser option. It's great to be able to take pictures with the available light, no flash, and have them come out sharp. And I don't have very steady hands either.
That combined with good optics and a size that makes it easy to have it always available in my pocket. In that sense I second the points jamescridland makes.
So that's the camera I bought when I was in the US.
My point is not the exact camera but that image stabilisation is imo a great feature.
posted by jouke at 3:07 AM on June 15, 2008

If you're not already aware, flickr compiles data on which cameras are most popular among its users, with graphs over time and each has a link to a handy page with more information about the camera. URL is just scroll down to the point-and-shoot section. You'll see that Canon PowerShots are the top three right now. My first 'real' digital camera was a PowerShot A75. Liked it so much I bought a second one off eBay to have around. My current camera is a Canon Digital Rebel XT, which was bought based on that flickr page, and haven't regretted it.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 3:58 AM on June 15, 2008

If you want to see up-to-date comparisons and prices of digital cameras, I suggest Digital Camera HQ. They have complete feature set listings and unbiased reviews.
posted by netbros at 4:05 AM on June 15, 2008

Canon SD1000, buy it on Amazon. It's cheap and it takes good pictures.
posted by bertrandom at 4:10 AM on June 15, 2008

Seconding the Canon SD series. My SD400 has served me very well for 3 years now and still works just as well as it did. The battery life is amazing, it has good optical and digital zoom, it has some manual settings, but works great even if you never touch them.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:05 AM on June 15, 2008


You will be confronted by the "Tyranny of Choice"... i.e., too goddamned many things to choose from. You can spend a year fretting over a $300 purchase if you want.

There is no perfect. There are scores of excellent and scores of adequate cameras. Every day, a few new ones are released.

Once you choose one and figure it out, you'll find it has problems in certain areas and works perfectly in others.

Since you are seeking point and shoot, and since you've limited yourself financially, a 'bad decision' on your part is not the end of the world. It's not like you are buying a house.

I have bought two point and shoots recently, and my criteria were sound recommendations from people whose opinions I trust, followed by flexiblity, then battery-life. Of the two, Fuji Fine Pix FX-30 or its immediate successor seems to win on pix quality, wonderful battery life, feature set. You could do worse. It might be hard to do better. Price slightly higher than $300.
posted by FauxScot at 5:12 AM on June 15, 2008

Everybody starts off thinking the camera maketh the photo. Then they buy the same camera as somebody whose photos they admire (either someone they personally know, or somebody whose photos they have seen on Flickr). Pretty soon they realise their photos aren't as good...

Then they think: I must be using the wrong settings. So they start writing comments on sites such as Flickr along the lines of: "Great photo. What were the aperture and shutterspeed settings?" They set their camera to those settings, but eventually realise that they still aren't satisfied...

Then they reach the point I've reached: in the overwhelming number of instances it's not the equipment, nor the settings that made the shot. It's the ability to recognise/create interesting composition and great light. And you can't buy that.

But the internet does give you a great way to expose yourself to lots of great photography, and digital does let you experiment, and get better, incredibly cheaply.

This of course doesn't really help answer your question. But the quicker you get past the first couple of stages, the more rewarding you'll find photography, and the better you'll be placed to decide which equipment will help you realise your vision (and which gear you'd love to own, but not fool yourself that you'll take better photos because of it).

The reality is digital cameras have reached a stage where they are all pretty good. Better than the person holding them in 99 out of 100 cases (and I count myself in those 99).

My advice is don't buy the latest and greatest - you're paying a big premium for the minutest of advantages. And don't get too hung up on image quality comparisons on and the like: ease of operation is more important to getting the great shot.

Could do worse than a Canon though ;-)
posted by puffmoike at 5:37 AM on June 15, 2008

A picture truly is worth a thousand words (or many thousands of mine)...

Go to, click on 'Special Projects' and then 'Image America' and you'll find a gallery of photos taken with a 1.3MP camera phone that any camera you can buy today would obliterate in any technical comparison ...
posted by puffmoike at 5:43 AM on June 15, 2008

I went through this a few months ago. A little slogging through the web of dozens of nearly-identical models convinced me to -- go to a camera store (not a big box, a little shop that has been there for years) and pay about $200 for a neat little Olympus FE-280 (black) which was about the only suitable camera they carried. It was $40 less online, but $40 seemed a reasonable 'finders fee'. Also, no shipping, I could see & touch the camera before purchasing it, and I owned the camera minutes after first seeing it.

A friend told me that manufacturers create this endless blizzard of models to protect their various markets--so it is difficult to compare the offerings of the various on-line and in-store retailers. I notice there is now an Olympus FE-340 that seems to be identical to the 280.

I also got a 1gig card which holds hundreds of pictures. Haven't come near filling it yet.
posted by hexatron at 6:50 AM on June 15, 2008

Get a Canon SD750 for $175 on Amazon. Or more precisely, read some reviews and decide for yourself if that camera suits your needs.
posted by Mike1024 at 7:53 AM on June 15, 2008

I'm with the people who say get a simple Canon and forget about it. I've had a few Canons and they're great. Top name, reliable, not that others necessarily wouldn't be. You've mentioned that you don't know what makes a good digital camera and I think that's a good indicator of the type of use you'll put it to. You're going off to college and are going to be taking fun shots of your friends at parties, and probably not any Ansel Adams stuff. I also agree with the person who says get a basic camera for now and upgrade if needed in few years. At that point you'll have a better idea of how you really use it and what you really want out of it. And given that it's college, the odds of loss, theft, and damage are increased, so maybe you don't want something super nice.

Megapixels: The baseline megapixel standard in point and shoots is now well above where normal people need it. I don't think the average person needs more than 5 or 6, with the above-noted caveat that the size of the sensor matters, but you'll probably wind up with 8 or 10mp by default. How many of us even print out 8x10 photos anyway, much less anything larger? You can easily do a fine 8x10 with today's average camera, but more than likely you'll just be putting them on Flickr and Facebook, which will just downsample them anyway.

Zoom: Definitely get the longest optical zoom you can, as others have said. Digital zoom is a gimmick. It's the equivalent of putting the picture on your computer and then blowing it up, with the resulting quality loss, except it happens inside the camera by sort of cropping part of the maximum-zoomed image and blowing it up to full size. Most point and shoots have 3-4x optical zoom, which sucks for anything any appreciable distance away. Most of your stuff will be close enough so that it's not a big deal, but there will be some times (concerts, shuttle launches, whatever) when you'll wish you had more. I've seen some prosumer cameras (half way between point and shoot and DSLR) that have 10x optical, which would be great, and some bigger point and shoots like Canon's A series, that have like 6x. But even the A series is bigger and heavier than I want to carry around these days. If it's not easily pocketable, you won't use it much. So there are tradeoffs.

Viewfinder: These days some point and shoots are leaving off the optical viewfinder and going LCD screen only. That's great unless you're outside and bright sunshine or glare keep you from being able to see what's on the LCD. You're shooting blind at that point. I'd go for viewfinder just in case.

Storage: SD, Compact Flash, XD, etc. I'm an SD man. I'd go with that or compact flash over some of the less widespread formats. It's easier to find them, to find adaptors and accessories for them, etc. CF is bulkier than I want, so I like SD. They have mini and micro SD too but they start to get so small that they're even hard to hold. And easy to lose. A 2gb card will be all you need unless you're on a long vacation tour or something where you can't offload your pics till you come home.

Other: I wouldn't worry about the special features. I bet you money you won't use filters, macro, any of the manual settings like white balance, etc. Point - shoot - fun.

There's a book called the Paradox of Choice, which discusses the paralyzing number of options we have these days and the value of simply choosing and moving on. Don't think. Just pick a midrange camera from a top name - Canon, Nikon, Pentax, etc., take a quick look at its review on, and you'll be happy. This is from a guy that did comparison spreadsheets when he bought his first digital camera. I want those hours back!

Example: Canon PowerShot SD870IS. $249 at Amazon. Another idea is buy last year's model for a big savings. Sub $200.
posted by Askr at 7:54 AM on June 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

2ndiing Ken Rockwell. And you don't really need to get the camera insured if you go with one of his suggestions, the Canon A530. Of course that article is a bit old, but the Canon Axxx series tend to get good reviews in general. One thing I like about them is that they use standard AA batteries. This means they are bulkier but it means you never have to worry about running out of batteries. Get 4 rechargeables and a charger, and you can swap the pairs of batteries as they run out. If you're traveling and both batteries die out, you can buy AA's anywhere, even in foreign countries.
posted by Deathalicious at 8:17 AM on June 15, 2008

Canon SD800IS. It's lens is just slightly wider than most, which makes it much easier to take arm's-length self photos -- something you'll do a lot at parties or the bar. And the IS means "image stabilization," which helps it take better pictures in lower light.

I shill for this camera all the time on here, but I swear that the extra wide-angle lens makes a huge difference for close-range photos, which is what most of us young folks use their cameras for. You have a little bit less zoom on the telephoto end, but you won't even miss it.
posted by MrZero at 8:18 AM on June 15, 2008

This month's issue of Consumer Reports has another excellent report on currently available digital cameras. It has a nice 'How to Choose' segment. You should be able to pick up a copy of the magazine at a nearby market or pharmacy, or view the article online.
posted by X4ster at 10:57 AM on June 15, 2008

Best answer: I'm not sure what I can add to what has already been said, but I'll try.

1. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ3 (and it's relatives) is not an awesome camera. I think a lot of people are seduced by the Leica lens. By most accounts, its a great lens, but a lot of that greatness goes out the window in all but great lighting conditions because of excessive and attrocious noise reduction that shows even when the image is scaled down. My mother has one, and a good portion of the pictures have detail replaced by odd smearing.

2. Don't worry too much about manual controls over focus, shutter speed or aperture if you are buying a compact camera. In theory, they'll give you all the manual control you'll need. In fact it won't mean much.

Tweaking shutter speed directly will let you control how much motion blur is in the final image, but you can accomplish roughly the same thing by adjusting the sensitivity (ISO) setting, and letting the camera automatically adjust the shutter accordingly.

Tweaking the aperture allows you to control the depth of field, the range of objects that appear to be in focus. Opening the aperture up a lot leads to a shallow depth of field, which can help you isolate your subject from the background because the background blurs out. The problem is that due to the optical characteristics of compact cameras, the depth of field is always pretty deep, so there isn't much point.

Manual control of focus is handy too, but it is usually a bit of a pain on small cameras. Instead, learn how to tell the camera to focus on whatever is in the center of the frame. Point at the subject you want in focus, press the button half way to focus on it, then keep the button pressed half-way and recompose the image before pushing the button all the way and taking the photo.

Control over shutter and aperture is useful for adjusting the exposure in situations when the camera makes a bad guess (often in scenes of high contrast), but most cameras will let you adjust the exposure compensation. Also, some will let you set things so that it meters on the center spot when you press the button half way.

3. Optical image stabilization isn't all that. Yeah, it does a lot to deal with blur from the shaking of your hands. That doesn't matter that much with short zooms though, because if the shutter speed is low enough that camera motion will cause blur, then it's also low enough to show blur if your subject is moving (which it probably will be if you are taking candid photos of friends).

4. Really long zooms aren't all that either. First it makes for a bulkier camera, which you'll be less likely to carry. Image quality isn't generally as good as it is with shorter zooms (though it may be good enough). Also, you can zoom with your feet. If your subject is too far away, walk closer (that said, I really like using the telephoto on my SLR to take candid photos of people at some distance). The super zoom cameras don't generally help you at the wide end, which is where you have less flexibility because you can only back up so far indoors if you want to get more people in the frame, or outdoors if you want more of the landscape.

I'm going to be shopping for a new compact camera soon. I'll either get a canon SD, because I've had very good luck with them, or I'll get one of the fuji's because some of them have larger sensors which makes for better low-light image quality.
posted by Good Brain at 1:22 PM on June 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Canon SD 870 (older than the new 890 ... but better, IMHO).
posted by mahoganyslide at 7:19 PM on June 15, 2008

I have the newer cannon elph sd1100IS (IS is the image stabilization) and it's portable, drop resistant, and takes amazing pictures in spite of my incredibly poor skills.

I've had an older canon camera which I thought I was happy with, but turns out the IS is really the tits. Splurge for the $200 camera and get yourself a nice memory card and battery pack when you can afford it.
posted by shownomercy at 12:20 PM on June 16, 2008

And I almost forgot ... if you want the fancy features like long/short exposure, and I don't even know what else, check this out, it's programs you can drop onto your canon SD camera (don't worry, it won't brick it!)
posted by shownomercy at 12:20 PM on June 16, 2008

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