4 Affordable Digital Cameras for Small Business

by Carla Schroder

Sorry, camera phones just don’t cut it for business. When you're ready to step up to a real camera, try one of these excellent digital cameras to enhance your small business images and videos.

Good photos and videos play an essential role for all kinds of small business purposes: real estate sell sheets, product photos, website images, tutorials and educational videos, insurance claims, appraisals, and loads more. Camera phone quality (remember when phones were for talking to people?) has improved greatly, and they're super-convenient. But when you need higher-quality images you need a real camera.

You can choose from dozens of digital cameras, so where to start? This roundup introduces you to four different models that range from $200 to $700—and from simple to more complex.

What to Look For in a Digital Camera

Digital cameras are basically little computers, and they're programmed to deliver boatloads of functionality. These little wonders have zoom lenses, and shoot both still photos and videos. Yes, even low-end digital cameras take acceptable videos.

An articulating or tilting viewfinder is handy for taking photos from unusual or awkward positions. Some cameras have touchscreen controls. All cameras support the JPEG image file format, which is a lightweight format for websites—JPEG images have a smaller file size. Cameras with more advanced features support the RAW image file format, which is for people who need maximum image editing control.

JPEG is a lossy format, so you can't edit it very much without degrading your images. RAW is the raw image data as captured by the camera, with the addition of some metadata such as date, camera model, and exposure. RAW files need special software so that you can convert them into JPEG, PNG, or some other usable image file format.

Every camera ad makes a big deal out of megapixels. Don't get hung up on megapixels. It's easy marketing to boast about having "eleventeen megapixels!," but it's not all that meaningful. Any digital camera made in the past five years delivers excellent quality images.

All compact digital cameras have zoom lenses, and they also make marketing boasts with dubious numbers like "10x optical zoom and 40x digital zoom." Digital zoom is not worth bothering with because it's just magnified pixels: the higher the digital zoom the lower the image quality. The 10x or 40x (or whatever) designations don't mean anything either, because they're relative to the camera's image sensor size. Digital cameras have multiple image sensor sizes (figure 1). Smaller sensors cost less, and because smaller sensors use smaller lenses they can pack a super-zoom lens into a small camera.

compariosn of sensor sizes in digital cameras

Figure 1: Comparison of digital camera sensors (Image credit: CCASA 3.0 license, courtesy of Wikipedia)

For a meaningful zoom measurement, look at focal length. Because of all the different camera sensor sizes, the usual convention is to translate all focal lengths into their 35mm equivalent. For example, the first camera in our roundup, the Canon Elph 340, comes with a zoom lens with a native focal length zoom range of 4.3mm- 43mm, which is equivalent to 24mm-240mm on a 35mm camera. The sweet spot for everyday photography such as landscapes, portraits, architecture, and product photos is 24mm-80mm. Anything over 100mm gives you a nice longer telephoto range.

A holdover from the days of film cameras, 35mm is still the standard for digital cameras. A digital camera with a sensor the same size as a 35mm film frame is called a "full-frame" camera.

Image stabilization is standard on most cameras, and it's a nice feature because it compensates for camera shake. It does not compensate for fast-moving subjects or lots of camera movement, so you still have to hold the camera still, or shoot from a tripod. You can't beat Joby Gorillapods for compact cameras:  inexpensive, lightweight, and they wrap around tree branches, fence railings, and other objects.

4 Great Digital Cameras for Small Business

Now that you've got the basic gist on features, let’s take a look at our four outstanding digital cameras.

1. Best Cheap and Simple Camera: Canon PowerShot ELPH 340

This little gem is super-simple to use, has a good optical zoom range, and delivers excellent image quality. You should be able to find one for around $199. Some of its many features include

  • Pocket-sized
  • Large bright LCD viewscreen
  • Built-in flash
  • 1080P HD video
  • Stereo microphone
  • Control from your smartphone or tablet
  • GPS
  • Wireless file transfer
  • Optical zoom from 25-300mm
  • Rechargeable Li-ion battery
  • 6.08mm x 4.56mm sensor

Canon PowerShot ELPH 340 digital camera

Figure 2: Canon PowerShot ELPH 340

The camera's controls are few and simple. You can shoot videos and still images, and easily upload to Facebook, YouTube, and other online social services. The Elph has low shutter lag and shoots 2 frames per second, which is not all that fast compared to other cameras, but it's like lighting compared to most camera phones.

It offers something even better than a fast shutter: fast autofocus—you won't get frustrated waiting for the Elph to acquire focus on a moving subject. You can easily connect to a PC, smartphone or tablet, and even control your camera remotely from a phone or tablet.

If you do a lot of low-light shooting, however, this little camera is not for you because it's slow to acquire focus at low-light levels, and the pictures are grainy. Otherwise it's perfect for getting good photos without fussing with a lot of controls.

2. Big Bang For Buck: Panasonic Lumix ZS20

The Panasonic Lumix ZS20 is my pick for all-time best budget go-everywhere camera. Check out some of the goodies you get for under $200:

  • Pocket-sized
  • Large bright LCD touch viewscreen
  • Superior Leica lens
  • Built-in flash
  • 1080P HD video
  • Stereo microphone
  • Super optical zoom from 24-480mm
  • Optical image stabilizer
  • Fast shooting speed, up to 10 frames per second
  • Built-in GPS
  • Rechargeable Li-ion battery
  • Pretty good editing software
  • Easy uploads to Facebook and YouTube
  • 6.08mm x 4.56mm sensor

Panasonic Lumix ZS20 digital camera

Figure 3: Panasonic Lumix ZS20

The best camera is always the one you carry with you and actually use. This little jewel slips easily into a pocket, and its amazing optical zoom range means you can photograph far-away objects in comfort.

Low-light performance is very good, and it has special settings for challenging exposures such as campfires, backlit subjects, and sunsets. Built-in GPS means you'll always know where your photos were taken. The Lumix has a wealth of in-camera editing tools and special effects like panorama, 3D, sports, portrait, and landscape modes.

3. Superior Image Quality and RAW: Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-RX100 II

The Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-RX100 is for the photographer who wants more controls and finer image quality. The RX100 II packs a 1-inch (13.2mm x 8.8mm) sensor into a compact body, and it supports the RAW image file format.

Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-RX100 II digital camera

Figure 4: Cyber-Shot DSC-RX100 II

You get a bright, tilting LCD viewfinder that you can read in sunlight. It includes a pop-up flash, and a hot shoe for an external flash. The zoom range is a useful 28mm-105mm, and the high-quality Zeiss lens has a maximum aperture of F/1.8, which makes it a bright lens for low-light situations.

You get both manual and automatic controls. It's a fast shooter with a 10-frames-per-second burst mode, and of course it shoots HD video just like everyone else. This excellent little camera goes for around $700.

4. Micro Four-Thirds System: Olympus PEN E-PL5

The Olympus PEN E-PL5 is a wonderful compact camera that takes interchangeable lenses. It's a micro four-thirds camera, which is a new digital camera system invented (in 2008) by Panasonic and Olympus. The sensor size is 17.3mm x 13mm, and you can mix and match lenses and accessories from different vendors. You can get the E-PL5 with a 14-42mm zoom lens (28-84mm equivalent) for around $500.

Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-RX100 II digital camera

Figure 5: Olympus PEN E-PL5

While all of the cameras in our roundup focus fast and shoot quickly, the Olympus is exceptionally fast. All it takes is a light touch on the zoom button to frame your shot, and when you hit the shutter button it takes the picture with no delay or backtalk. It has a bright, tilting touch viewfinder, logically-arranged controls, and its in-body image stabilization works with any lens.

It offers all the usual scene modes, video, and special effects, but what sets this camera apart is the large selection of lenses. If you like super-zooms, you can get a 70-300mm lens for about $400. This is equivalent to 140-600mm on a full-frame camera, at considerably lower cost and size. The Olympus 70-300mm lens is 5-inches long and weighs 1.3 pounds. Compare that, for example, to the Canon EF 600mm lens that costs $13,000 and weighs nine pounds.

You can choose from a large and excellent assortment of lenses, everything from primes to macros to zooms at all focal lengths, and you can learn all about them at Four-thirds.org.

Best Photography Books for Beginners

There is a wise and true saying that the photographer is more important than the camera. You can get great photos with modest equipment, and the best books for beginners are Scott Kelby's Digital Photography Boxed Set, Volumes 1, 2, 3, and 4.He presents in-depth knowledge in a friendly, easy to understand style.

Carla Schroder is the author of The Book of Audacity, Linux Cookbook, Linux Networking Cookbook, and hundreds of Linux how-to articles. She's the former managing editor of Linux Planet and Linux Today.

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This article was originally published on Monday May 12th 2014
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