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What Is A Digital Camera?

Kyle Schurman Avatar

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The best DSLR camera or digital camera can be confusing.

If you’ve arrived here, then you’re probably scratching your head, wondering what is a digital camera? Not more than a few decades ago, they were considered a novelty, especially at their introduction. Serious photographers didn’t take them, well, seriously, figuring digital cameras could never approach the image quality of the film. Modern cameras like the Canon Rebel T6i (Editor’s Choice) continue to prove them wrong. And at that time, most photographers, regardless of skill level, probably couldn’t have even answered the question: what exactly is a digital camera? Well, put simply, a digital camera is a type of camera that captures the photographs to digital memory instead of film like an analog camera.

Unlike film cameras, digital cameras store images digitally in a memory card or internal memory rather than exposing images to analog film. The memory card, often a compact SD card, allows you to store hundreds or thousands of digital photos in high-resolution settings. Photos can be transferred from the memory card to computers and other digital devices.

Early digital cameras had very limited internal memory, requiring small memory sticks to be inserted to save each photo. But storage capacities have grown tremendously, allowing today’s digital memory cards to hold weeks’ worth of high-quality image resolution photos. The move from limited film to virtually unlimited digital memory transformed photography, allowing casual users to snap photos freely without wasting film. Easy photo storage, transfer, and sharing were enabled by this switch to digital memory in today’s digital cameras and devices.

Little did anyone realize that digital cameras would completely flip the world of photography. Continuous technological improvements not only allowed digital cameras to equal and then surpass film cameras in performance and quality, but they basically eliminated film as a photography option and more importantly a necessity. Add in the simplicity with which you can record, edit, review, and share digital photographs, and it’s easy to understand why digital cameras now dominate the world of photography, even among professionals. Today’s best video cameras would look like magic to someone from 50 years ago.

Table of Contents:

Digital Camera Advantages

In the most basic sense, a digital camera works a lot like a film camera. But, in the case of the digital camera, the film is replaced by an image sensor.  And unlike film, an image sensor can both measure and be sensitive to light. This is to say, that one component is needed to perform two tasks; measure light and capture an image. Moreover, an image sensor doesn’t need to be kept in complete darkness until used or developed, as the film does. If you need more help understanding digital SLRs, we have a guide covering how do DLSR cameras work.

Quite a few other advantages exist for digital cameras, whether you’re comparing them to film cameras or smartphone cameras.

  • Image Sharing: The ability to share images digitally is a significant improvement over film prints, as digital images are instantly shareable an unlimited number of times. And with many digital cameras, such as the one in our Nikon D810 review, now containing WiFi connectivity, sharing is even easier.
  • Zoom Lenses: Many fixed-lens digital cameras have strong telephoto lens capabilities, which sets them apart from both film cameras and smartphone cameras. Additionally, many top Polaroid digital cameras feature a powerful zoom lens that is great for capturing distant subjects.
  • Immediate Review: Digital cameras contain a display screen, which allows you to review the photos right after you shoot them, meaning you can re-shoot immediately if necessary to correct an error. So you see? DSLR is better than SLR in that sense.
  • Image Editing: If you know the old film print terms “burn” and “dodge,” then you know the incredible hassle of performing even the most minor editing adjustments to a film print. Editing digital prints on a computer, or even inside a digital camera, is an easy process.

What to Know About Digital Cameras

Canon Rebel T6i Digital Camera
The Rebel T6i comes from one of the best digital camera manufacturers in Canon.

Modern digital cameras are great pieces of equipment, providing a wide range of photography features available at dozens of price points. While smartphone cameras are chipping away at the lower end of the camera market, there have never been more choices and great options in the intermediate and upper levels of the digital camera market.

Digital cameras contain a set of electronic components, including a lens, image sensor, processor, and electronic viewfinder or LCD screen that enable the capture and preview of photographs. Higher-end models may have larger sensors, like APS-C sensors, that provide improved performance in low-light conditions and increased dynamic range.

Features like optical and digital zoom capabilities, wireless connectivity, and burst shooting modes give photographers diverse options and control. Advancements in digital camera technology have put excellent imaging abilities into affordable, portable devices suitable for both casual users and professionals.

Most of the major camera manufacturers are those that migrated over from the world of film, and the eight top digital camera makers are:

  • Canon Digital Cameras: Canon creates cameras that range from simple the best point-and-shoot camera models to highly advanced digital SLR cameras, which use interchangeable lenses. Canon’s Rebel line of DSLR cameras is popular with all levels of photographers.
  • Nikon Digital Cameras: While Nikon may be best known as a high-end camera maker, it also has plenty of beginner-level cameras in its Coolpix line. And Nikon DSLR cameras (like the D3300 camera) appeal to both intermediate and advanced photographers, just as did the company’s high-end film cameras.
  • Samsung Digital Cameras: Samsung is one camera maker that didn’t join the market until the introduction of digital cameras, yet has managed to have success.
  • Olympus Digital Cameras: Olympus offers plenty of mirrorless ILCs (interchangeable lens cameras) and “tough” point-and-shoot cameras.
  • Fujifilm Digital Cameras: Fujifilm’s designers offer retro-looking cameras in their collection of mirrorless ILCs.
  • Sony Digital Cameras: Sony has been specializing in high-end fixed-lens cameras and mirrorless ILCs.
  • Ricoh/Pentax Digital Cameras: The strong Pentax brand from the days of film cameras is still around, now manufactured by Ricoh.
  • Panasonic Digital Cameras. Mirrorless ILCs have become the specialty of Panasonic, along with thin large zoom options. And, since they’re mirrorless, you won’t be cleaning a camera mirror.

Final Thoughts

When seeking a digital camera, you’ll want to pay particular attention to image quality, which is determined in large part by the physical size of the camera’s image sensor. A larger sensor typically yields better image quality, as explained in our Best Digital Cameras of 2015 list.

Then you need to think about whether you want a big zoom lens, a camera that’s easy to use, WiFi connectivity, waterproof capabilities, and/or a touch screen display.

Stick with major manufacturers while seeking out models that fit those desires and that fit within your budget, and you’ll end up with a great digital camera!

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