Digital Camera Basics

When thinking about buying your first digital camera, you need to do some research, to ensure that you pick up the one that’s going to best suit your needs. Fortunately, many of today’s cameras have many great features as standard, but for people looking to get a little bit more than basic snaps, then a little bit of planning can prevent money being thrown down the drain.

If buying from a shop, then it is easy to get carried away with a salesman who might be more interested in his sales targets, than providing you with what you actually need. If buying on-line, you might be faced with many impressive pictures and a table full of specifications – but what do they all mean ?

This article aims to cover the basics of digital camera terminology.


The first thing to consider, when buying your first digital camera, is picture quality. In fact, for me, picture quality is everything. The quality on a digital camera is measured in megapixels. Put simply, the more megapixels (dots that make up the picture), the sharper will be the images produced with the camera.

However, it should be noted that the higher the resolution, the more storage space each picture will take up on your memory cards / sticks – so there is a trade-off to consider. That said, storage cards are relatively cheap in today’s market. Realistically, you don’t want anything lower than a 5.0 megapixel camera – but unless you are looking to make a living out of your photos, or blowing them up for large wall photos, then you can probably get away with anything up to a 10.0 megapixel camera – and these are still very much at a budget price of less than $80.00.

Shutter Speeds

The next thing to consider is shutter speeds. When talking about shutter speeds, the numbers mentioned are in their 100’s – i.e. you might read that a camera has a shutter speed of 600. In reality, this means that the speed is 1/600 of a second.

The rule of thumb is that if you are going to take lots of fast-moving sporting action, then you need a fast shutter speed. Slower shutter speeds are used in dimmer light, or when you want to add effects (like the trails seen with someone waving a sparkler or the effect seen with a long trail of car lights on a night-time shot).

In reality, shutter speeds can vary from 1/16000 of a second to several hours (for photographing star trails, for example). Anywhere between 1/16 and 1/2000 will more than cover the average photographer’s needs.


Put simply, the aperture is the hole through which the light travels. If it is narrow, then the image will be sharp. If the aperture is wide then the image will only be sharp on the thing that is being focused on – with the surrounding area being blurred. There will be occasions when a blurred image will be required (for effect).

The aperture will also determine how dark the resultant image will be for any given exposure time.


ISO initially referred to film speed and in particular that film’s sensitivity to light. However, like the other things mentioned in this article, the terminology has also transferred to the digital world, with much greater flexibility now. Previously you bought a whole film with a specific sensitivity (e.g. ISO 100). Now, you can change the ISO after every shot – depending on your surroundings.

So, if you are out in the bright light, and then go inside (at a zoo for example) and didn’t want to use a flash, then you could adjust the ISO from 100 to (say) 1600, with a slow shutter speed (1/30 sec) and get excellent results.


I’m not talking about the padded case that you put your camera in here. By storage, I’m referring to the memory cards that slot into the side of your camera. Everyone’s requirements will be different. In reality, you only need enough storage to be able to hold onto the pictures until you are in a position to download them onto your computer (or store for printing) and then clear the card (known as formatting) ready for use again.

As mentioned previously, the higher the megapixel for each shot, the more storage you are going to need. Also, most cameras allow for MPEG movies to be taken. If you are in the habit of taking short video clips you are going to need significant storage space on your memory card / stick.

That said, storage cards are large enough to hold several hundred photos – that’s more than enough for even the keenest of photographers on their two-week vacation.

As a minimum, I would look for a storage card / stick at 1GB – although professionals might want to look at 16GB or even higher. I also tend to take a spare….. There’s nothing worse than having a camera with only one (damaged) storage card.

I hope you enjoyed this brief look at digital camera basics. There will be more in-depth articles published at a later date, covering all elements of photography.

Related Reading :

  • Digital Camera Glossary of Terms
  • What Camera Should I Purchase

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