best flash for nikon dslr

When it comes to choosing the best budget flash for nikon and the Best Flash For Nikon Dslr cameras, there are plenty of great choices available on the market – from cheap flashes with limited functionality for beginners, to advanced speedlights with complex features for demanding professionals. Choosing the right flash can be an overwhelming task for beginners, especially for those who are just getting into flash photography. In this article, I will go through different options (both low-budget and high-demand) that are available today and provide my recommendations.

1) Why you need an external flash

I remember when I purchased my first DSLR, I expected it to be a world better than my old point and shoot that I used for years. It certainly was much better when taking pictures on a sunny day outside, but not that great for taking pictures indoors with flash. To my disappointment, the images from my DSLR looked almost as flat as images from my point and shoot camera and I could not figure out if it was me doing something wrong or the camera that had limitations for taking pictures indoors. Next, I read about low-light photography and using on-camera pop-up flash and while my images did get a little better overtime, they still looked flat due to the harsh direct light. The shadows on my subjects looked even worse.

Indoors professional flash photography
NIKON D3S + 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 24mm, ISO 1600, 1/50, f/8.0

Does this sound familiar to you? Are you relating to this story? If you have only been using your on-camera pop-up flash, I am sure you feel exactly the same way I felt back then. And now you are looking for a solution to the problem and don’t know where to start.  

If you want your indoors pictures to look better, you will need something more capable and more powerful than your pop-up flash. You need to invest in a dedicated external flash, also known as a “speedlight” in the Nikon world. A speedlight will help you overcome your problems with indoors portraits and will open up new opportunities to take great professional-looking pictures with your DSLR. Let me show you why external flashes are so much better than pop-up flash:

  1. External flashes are much more powerful. With more power, you get more range, so you can can illuminate a larger area and reach your subjects. More power also means that you can diffuse the light without worrying much about losing power, to get a much softer, more natural-looking light.
  2. External flashes do not drain your camera battery. Pop-up flashes operate off your camera battery and external flashes rely on a different set of batteries that are used just for flash operation.
  3. They are a larger source of light. Compare the size of the flash area on your pop-up flash with the flash area on an external flash and you will quickly realize that the latter is much bigger. Bigger light always means softer light in photography.
  4. They are versatile. Many of the external flashes allow you to tilt the flash head in many different directions in order for you to be able to bounce the light off different surfaces.
  5. They recycle faster. Whether you are firing very little light or plenty of it, external flashes recycle and recover quickly for you to be able to take many pictures sequentially.
  6. They can be used off-camera. Some of the more-advanced flashes allow you to take them off-camera for creative flash photography.
  7. They reduce red-eye. Red eye happens when flash fires from a very close distance to the camera lens. External flashes are typically tall, which helps with reducing the effect of red eye. You can even get special accessories/holders that lift external flashes even higher, which will completely eliminate red eye.
  8. They can be grouped with other flashes. Some of the more expensive external flashes can be grouped with other flashes for more power or be used in different configurations.
  9. Lots of accessories for external flashes. You can get lots of different accessories for an external flash, from various gels, bounce cards and light shaping tools to battery packs and radio control units.

As you can see, external flashes have a lot of great advantages. I am sure I missed some other advantages, but you get the idea…

Best Flash for Nikon D3500

The Nikon D3500 is Nikon’s latest and best selling entry-level APS-C DSLR camera. If you want to shoot better pictures, you’d better get a flash/speedlite for Nikon D3500. Here are recommended flashes for Nikon D3500 that we have reviewed and tested.

Nikon SB-300 AF Speedlight – Check Price at Amazon/B&H Photo Video/Adorama

The Nikon SB-300 AF Speedlight is a lightweight on-camera flash that is compatible with Nikon cameras featuring i-TTL support. The SB-300 has a guide number of 59′ at ISO 100 and a coverage of a 27mm lens with FX-format cameras. Additionally, the flash has a distance range of 2-66′.

Features:

  • The flash head can be tilted up 120ø for excellent bounce flash performance
  • A compact and lightweight design that is extremely portable
  • Simple operation
  • Guide number: 18/59 (ISO 100, m/ft)
  • FV lock function
  • Flash color temperature information communication
Godox TT685N Thinklite TTL Flash – Check Price at Amazon/B&H Photo Video/Adorama

With full support for Nikon i-TTL, including high-speed sync, and a built-in 2.4GHz radio system, the Godox TT685N Thinklite TTL Flash will make it easy to create both simple and elaborate lighting setups. When mounted on camera, it is an effective lighting tool with a powerful guide number of 197′ at ISO 100 and 200mm, a zoom range of 20-200mm, and the ability to tilt from -7 to 90° and rotate 360°. As a TTL-capable unit, the TT685N can also operate as a full wireless master or slave unit with TTL functionality.

Features:

  • This TT685N camera flash applies to Nikon cameras and is compatible with I-TTL II autoflash. With this I-TTL II compatible flash, your shooting will become simpler.Suitable for Nikon DSLR Camera
  • With 2.4G wireless transmission, X1N (for Canon) can be used to trigger camera flash, studio flash and camera shutter over 100 meters’ distance
  • Support for I-TTL II autoflash, 1/8000 high-speed sync, flash exposure compensation, flash exposure lock, modeling flash, etc.
  • Two Transmitting Styles to Offer Creative Light Effect,Optic transmission with even illumination and stable output,2.4G wireless transmission with all-in-one functions and 100 meters further transmission.
  • Convenient Dot-matrix LCD panel,With dot-matrix LCD panel to offer clear and easy operation.
Nikon SB-700 AF Speedlight – Check Price at Amazon/B&H Photo Video/Adorama

With a rated guide number of 92′ at ISO 100 and 35mm, the SB-700 AF Speedlight from Nikon is a moderately compact flash unit packed with features for high-performance on-camera lighting capabilities. The flash is compatible with the i-TTL system for automatic metering with both FX- and DX-format cameras and is optimized for use with Nikon’s Creative Lighting System for complete control over your lighting setup. Additionally, the auto zoom head has a coverage range of 24-120mm with FX-format cameras which can be extended down to 12mm with the use of the built-in wide-angle diffusion panel.

Features:

  • Guide number at the 35mm zoom position measures 92′ at ISO 100 and 128′ at ISO 200
  • Manual power output from 1/1 full power to 1/128 power
  • Light distribution angle is automatically adjustable to the camera’s image area in both FX and DX formats
  • Auto zoom head reaches from 24-120mm with FX format and 14-120mm with DX format
  • Coverage of 12-17mm in FX and 8-11mm in DX when using built-in wide-angle diffusion panel
  • Thermal cut-out protection shuts off the flash to prevent damage from overheating
  • Flash head tilts with click-stops at -7°, 0°, 45 °, 60°, 75°, and 90°
  • Flash head rotates left and right with click-stops at 0°, 30°, 60°, 75°, 90°, 120°, 150°, and 180°
  • Distance range of 2-66′
  • Flash exposure compensation from -3 to +3 EV in 1/3 EV steps
  • Backlit LCD panel with nine selectable contrast levels and a rotating dial assist in viewing flash status and changing settings
  • Eleven custom settings
  • Flash duration of 1/1,042 to 1/40,000 second depending on output setting
  • Flash-ready indicator lights
  • AF-assist light, modeling illuminator, monitor pre-flashes, and test firing settings
  • AF-assist light, modeling illuminator, monitor pre-flashes, and test firing settings
  • Automatic color filter detection for adjusting the camera’s color temperature settings and an optional color filter pack is available
  • Firmware can be updated through camera
Godox V1 Flash for Nikon – Check Price at Amazon/B&H Photo Video/Adorama

Offering a powerful 76Ws output along with a distinct design, the Godox V1 Flash is an advanced light source with features that clearly reflect the current state of the industry. Compatible with Nikon i-TTL, this flexible on-camera light is distinguished by its round head, which provides soft, smooth light with gradual fall off that augments the flattering output. The head rotates 330 degrees, tilts -7 to 120°, and has a magnetic surface for lightning-fast attachment of Godox’s accessory light modifiers.

Features:

  • The 76Ws Godox V1 flash features stable color temperature at 5600±200K over the entire power range, The zooming head (28-105mm) features automatic and manual control, and it has 330 degrees of rotation and 120+ degrees of tilt
  • Being able to work with light is the key to creating better, more creative images. Thanks to a built-in smart magnetic mount, can be easily clicked on and off or stacked to help you achieve exactly the effect you want
  • Godox V1 offers 480 full power flashes, 1.5 sec. recycle time with a charge time of just 3.5 hours. 1/256th power to full power in 1/3 stop and Tenth’s increments, and Flash Durations is 1/300 to 1/20,000s (t0.1)
  • 10 Level SMD LED Modeling Lamp. Backlit Matrix LCD. Multipurpose Buttons with Digital Marking for Faster Navigation. Laser AF Assist Lamp For Instant Autofocus. Level Lock Hot Shoe Foot Clamp.

Basics of photography

Every camera, from the tiny webcam embedded in your laptop to the full-frame pro cameras built by Nikon and Canon, operates under the same set of basic principles. They come from the very name of photography, the roots of which are the Greek photos, meaning light, and graph, meaning to draw or record — ergo, a photograph is essentially a map of light. When you take a picture of your favorite cityscape, you’re not actually documenting the streets, or the skyscrapers, or the milling crowds — you’re drawing up a recording of the light reflecting off of them.

The most common technique for making this recording is by channelling light through a lens onto a photosensitive material that soaks it up and turns it into an image. That light-absorbing canvas was once film, which has since been replaced by electronic sensors in modern digital shooters. In either case, initiating the light capture is done by opening a shutter in front of the photosensitive surface. By adjusting how long that shutter stays open (shutter speed), the sensitivity of the digital sensor (ISO), and how much light passes through the lens (aperture), you can control exactly how your image appears.

Since light is the only information your camera collects, it should come as no surprise that well-lit scenes typically come out looking sharper and nicer than dark and moody shots illuminated only by a streetlight — more light just gives you more information to work with. When shooting in the dark, the camera must work either harder (with higher ISO) or longer (with a slower shutter speed) to properly recreate the image in front of it. That’s where the flash comes in, a strobe of white light synchronized with the opening of the shutter. It comes with tradeoffs of its own, though: the strength of the flash can wash out fine detail in nearby subjects or lead to the infamous red-eye effect. Tripods are also invaluable in counteracting the blur caused by shaky hands. Unfortunately, they can do nothing about motion within your composition, and they aren’t exactly portable.

Ultimately, the number one lesson in photography is that there are always tradeoffs. If you want the best possible image quality, you’ll need specialized, expensive, bulky equipment. Should portability be your highest priority, you’ll have to accept that some photos and creative ideas will be beyond your reach. There are a number of other considerations to take into account when composing an image — and, consequently, choosing the best camera for the job — which we’ve detailed below. Once you’ve wrapped your head around what they will mean for your intended photography adventure, you should have a good idea of the kind of camera that will best suit your needs.

The key settings

If you’re new to digital photography, the three things you should acquaint yourself with first are the ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. The three work in concert, and if you can manipulate and control them all, you’ll take fabulous photos without even touching the rest of your camera. Together, they’re known as the Exposure Triangle, because they control how much light you’re exposing the camera to (aperture), how sensitive the camera is to that light (ISO), and how long your exposure lasts (shutter speed).

For some help calculating the depth of field for your chosen camera, aperture setting, and focusing distance, you can use Simple DoF on iOS or DoF Calculator for Android.

ISO

Coming from the International Organization for Standardization, ISO (it’s not an acronym) describes the light sensitivity of your camera’s sensor set against a common standard. It was originally known as “film speed,” as it was a static measure of the amount of light a given type of film could absorb, but in modern digital cameras ISO can be adjusted up and down. Higher ISO means a brighter image, which is achieved by digitally amplifying the information collected during exposure. It’s an imperfect process that generates errors, which become apparent in your pictures as discoloration and noise — the unattractive speckling effect you usually see in low-light photos.

The quality of your camera’s sensor and noise-reduction processing will affect the maximum ISO at which you can produce images that are still worth using. From among the cameras we’ve tested ourselves, Canon’s 5D Mark III and Nikon’s D4 are the best in that respect. They can shoot at ISO 12,800 the way most cameras perform at ISO 1000, allowing you to keep shooting in significantly lower light.AS BRUCE DICKINSON MIGHT SAY, I’VE GOTTA HAVE MORE LIGHT!

APERTURE

Measured using the horribly confusing f-number scale, the aperture is another dead-simple setting saddled with obtuse nomenclature. Basically, most lenses have the ability to constrict the light that passes through them using an internal element (called a diaphragm), which can be extended and retracted using controls on the camera. If you want more light in your image, you pull that diaphragm back as far as it goes, or if you need less, you extend it and limit the incoming rays to a narrower, more focused hole. Aperture, therefore, is just a relative measure for the diameter of your lens opening. Lower f-numbers indicate a wider aperture, with f/2.8 and below being the extremes, while higher ones signify that more light is being blocked.

One side effect of a wide-open lens is that it lets in a lot of unfocused light rays. The result is a shallow depth of field, meaning anything in front of or behind the area on which you’re focusing will appear blurry. Wide aperture settings tend to constrict the in-focus area to a razor-thin sliver, particularly on nearby subjects, giving you the much-desired soft background “bokeh” effect.

When you want a larger focus, the obvious countermeasure is to tighten up the aperture to f/8 or narrower — it bundles up the incoming light into a more focused beam, which will result in greater depth to your focus area. The most extreme depth of field effects are the exclusive preserve of large-sensor cameras; you simply can’t achieve the same defocusing effect with smaller sensors, which retain a generous in-focus depth even at f/1.4.

SHUTTER SPEED

Shutter speed controls how long the camera spends collecting light, as opposed to ISO and aperture, which direct how much light is absorbed at once. It’s measured in fractions of a second, so a shutter speed of 1/125 means the shutter is open for one 125th of a second. Higher shutter speeds mean the camera captures a shorter period of time, which is key for getting blur-free action shots, while lower speeds allow you to soak up more light, albeit at the risk of blurry results if your camera and subject aren’t still.

Of course, you don’t always have to fear motion blur. Strap your camera to a tripod and you can exploit the blur to your advantage — that’s how the pros create those pictures of highways decorated by streaks of light or waterfalls that look like they’re composed of cascading wisps of smoke instead of frozen drops of water. Most of the time, you’ll want to match your settings to your circumstances, but it’s also good fun to sometimes start with a given set of attributes and rearrange your scene to match them.

Other features that matter

The trifecta above represents the most important controls on your camera, but there are other attributes you need to be mindful of in the pursuit of the best image quality.

LENS SHARPNESS

You can tweak your settings as much as you like, but without a truly sharp piece of glass to filter light through, your pictures will never look their best. The distinction between sharpness and softness in imaging is one of detail: sharp photos retain a clear separation between edges and colors right down to a pixel level.

Unfortunately, nobody has yet invented an easy metric for quantifying lens quality, so you won’t be able to simply walk into a store and order up the Superlative Edition of your favored lens. Part of the problem is that lens performance varies both with aperture and zoom level. The sharpest lenses at f/4 are typically f/1.8 or f/1.4 lenses that have been pulled back from their highest setting. Similarly, lenses start to exhibit distortion at the extreme wide (16mm and lower) and telephoto (135mm and above) ends of their zoom range, which some cameras are able to automatically correct for with software.LENSES ARE LIKE SUNSCREEN: ALL-IMPORTANT

There are a couple of easy guiding principles that can steer you in the right direction. First: construction materials matter. Canon’s L series of lenses and the higher end of Nikon’s Nikkor line are both built out of real glass on the inside and extremely robust materials on the outside. The kit lenses bundled with DSLRs and the non-removable lenses on cheaper cameras are made from plastic both on the inside and out, which makes them less reliable in the long term and less impressive when you come to review your results. That’s not a universal rule — there are some exceptionally good lenses with plastic optics — but generally, you’ll be able to tell a good lens by its considerable weight and durable feel.

The second point to remember is that prime lenses — those without a zoom function, whose focal length is fixed — tend to perform better than zoom lenses thanks to their simpler construction. For the absolute best results, you’ll want a camera capable of exchanging lenses, along with wide-aperture lenses at each of the most common focal lengths: 24mm, 50mm, 80mm, 100mm, and 200mm, for instance. That’s more than a backpack’s worth of gear to heave around with you (and quality glass weighs quite a bit anyway), so do it only if you’re unwilling to compromise a little sharpness for a lot more flexibility.

AUTOFOCUS

A common misconception is that shutter lag actually has anything to do with the shutter. Sure, there’s a minuscule delay between the instruction to open and the shutter actually opening, but the lion’s share of lag actually comes from the automated focusing and metering systems. Metering is where the camera judges how long it needs to expose the image for, while autofocus is a little more self-explanatory. Cameraphone makers have gotten wise to the fact that people want to see the picture taken the moment they press a button, so we now have phones that continuously refocus and re-meter the scene so as to be ready at a moment’s notice. Samsung even features a “Best Shot” feature on the GS4, which takes a dozen photos while you’re focusing and firing and then chooses the best one automatically.

Every phone and camera maker is trying to dodge the problem of focusing speed, but the only true solution is more focusing points on your camera combined with a faster focusing motor for the lens. The reliability and speed of autofocus, particularly in low light, is one of the ways in which professional cameras still stand head and shoulders above the rest. Canon’s EOS 1D-X packs in a whopping 61 AF points, 41 of them of the more precise cross-type variety. Stick a fast-focusing lens on that camera and you can bid adieu to shutter lag.

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STRAYING BEYOND 8 MEGAPIXELS IS OVERKILL FOR ALL BUT THE PROS
Url-28Highres-pen_e-p5_silver_back_2_1366982150WHETHER OPTICAL OR ELECTRONIC, A GOOD VIEWFINDER IS WELL WORTH HAVING

SENSOR SIZE

If there’s one rule to follow in photography, it’s that bigger sensors mean better photos. That’s a generalization, of course, but it’s based on a very basic empirical truth: the bigger the photosensitive surface area, the more light is taken in at a time. Practical evidence for this is abundant, from the Nikon 1 series that disappointed everyone with its undersized CX sensor, to the Nokia Lumia 1020, the best cameraphone on the market largely thanks to its enormous 1/1.5-inch sensor.

Full-frame cameras derive their name from the size of their sensors, which match the “full frame” of 35mm film, and are predictably the professional’s favorite option. With a full-frame camera, a 24mm lens gives you exactly that focal length, whereas with smaller sensors, you’re subject to a crop factor that tends to turn everything into a slightly more zoomed-in version of itself (i.e. if the sensor is 1.5 times smaller than full-frame, as with Nikon’s popular DX format, you get 1.5 times the focal length; with a 24mm lens; that’d mean an effective focal length of 36mm).

Alas, price and sensor sizes scale rather proportionally, so medium format and full-frame cameras are usually outside the reach of most enthusiasts, which is why the most popular digital SLRs like the Canon Rebel T4i today feature the APS-C format. It’s a happy compromise.

MEGAPIXELS

Strictly speaking, a megapixel contains 1 million pixels, but it’s somewhat meaningless to know that your camera shoots 10 million pixels at a time. What you want to know, and what the megapixel count truly tells you, is how big you can make your image without having to enlarge it digitally (and suffer the resultant degradation in image quality). A 3-megapixel photo is more than dense enough to be printed out at the US standard 6- by 4-inch size at 300ppi, while 9 megapixels get you closer to a regular sheet of paper at the same density. Compromise a little on the pixel density, say down to 200ppi, and you’ll get massive printouts from a humble old 12-megapixel shooter. Now, there are no guarantees that the actual photo would look good — megapixel numbers only measure the number of data points recorded by the camera — but at least you’ll be able to do it.

Practically speaking, however, you’re not likely to need such huge images. Most digital imaging ends up being consumed on computer screens, and if all you need are new profile shots for Facebook even a solitary megapixel will suffice. If you’re shooting for billboards, murals, or other enormous photo sizes, you should get all the megapixels you can (like the whopping 36 from the Nikon D800) but for the average photographer, other specs matter far more.

VIEWFINDER / LCD

Optical viewfinders are a funny thing. Until you use one, you wonder why everyone bothers with the effort, then you get your first DSLR and suddenly you can’t live without one. Mirrors in SLR cameras reflect the exact image that will be imprinted onto the sensor through a sort of porthole atop the camera: that’s your viewfinder. Once again, the more expensive models offer a more luxurious experience, with the Canon 7D and Nikon D700 featuring bigger, more comfortable viewfinders than entry-level DSLRs. Electronic viewfinders (EVF) are getting much better and starting to compete, particularly in Sony’s line of single-lens translucent (SLT) cameras like the A77, and they offer helpful guides and more information to make your shot better anyway. It’s features vs. accuracy, and while the purists tend to stick with optical viewfinders, the electronic variety is catching up quickly.

If your camera doesn’t have a viewfinder, then you’d better make damn sure it’s equipped with a good LCD. You’ll be using it to both frame and review photos, so any shortcomings in terms of color fidelity or resolution can force you into a guessing game you don’t want to play. LCD resolution is measured in dots, with 230,000, 460,000, and 920,000 being the typical values. The more dots the better, obviously, but do take a moment to check out the quality of the screen as well. Sony and Samsung are using OLED displays in some of their latest cameras, which look fantastic. Touchscreens are finally starting to get good, too, from the tap-to-focus features on the Olympus PEN E-P5 to the completely touch-friendly Canon T4i — they’re not essential yet, but are increasingly a great thing to have.

WHITE BALANCE

Like a big-name actor who’s too important to sit in the middle of the cast list but not so crucial as to headline the show, the camera’s white balance (WB) gets a dedicated slot at the end. This is the function that everyone leaves on auto, which is why the majority of indoor pics on Facebook look yellow. In simple terms, cameras are a bit dumb. If you don’t tell them that you’re under incandescent lights (which cast a yellow hue), they won’t account for it and will try to balance the colors before them based on their presets. All modern cameras have a WB preset for artificial lighting, but only the more professionally inclined ones give you granular control over white balance and the ability to easily tweak it on the fly.

The best solution we’ve found for overcoming unnatural color tinging is to feed your camera a sample image. The majority of DSLRs now have the option to set WB by taking an image of something that you know is white under the particular lighting conditions you intend to shoot in. Thus, when the camera snaps a nice white sheet of paper under the lurid orange and violet lights of a trade show floor, it’ll calibrate itself to know that white looks a little different at that spot.

VIDEO CAPABILITIES

It was only a few years ago that video recording was considered a novelty in still cameras, but today HD video is a standard, and assumed, feature. Still, there are pitfalls to beware, such as a selection of cameras that will lock the focus and zoom when video recording starts (for example, the otherwise excellent Canon S95), significantly limiting your options. Reliable autofocus, in the cameras that are capable of it, remains a mirage. You’ll do well to learn to love manual focus if you want your videos to be free of the irritating focus jumps that cameras do when they get confused as to what you’re trying to film.

Cameras with larger sensors make capturing video a harder process compared to simpler point-and-shoots, owing to their greater sensitivity, bulkier bodies, and typically mechanical zoom and focus mechanisms. They give you more to worry about, as lens operation noises are often picked up by the integrated microphone. However they also provide access to a range of cinematic effects that smaller cams can’t touch. Want to start your movie masterpiece with a gorgeously circular bokeh that gradually comes into focus on your leading man? You’ll need something in the class of a Canon 60D with a wide-aperture lens to match.Zoom-comparison-5602Zoom-comparison-5604Zoom-comparison-5603Zoom-comparison-5601FIGMENTS OF MARKETING IMAGINATION: DIGITAL ZOOM AND DIGITAL IMAGE STABILIZATIONPanasonic-fz70-top2-800

ZOOM

Zoom is a simple concept — it’s how close you can get to whatever you’re shooting without having to physically move closer — but it’s not always obvious what you’re really getting. The actual x-multiple of your zoom is much less important than the angle measurements at the widest and closest settings, which measure how much you can fit into your photo. A camera that starts at 28mm and has 10x zoom will ultimately get closer (280mm) than one that begins at 24mm (240mm when zoomed in), though the tradeoff is a slightly smaller field of view when you’re zoomed out. If you want to be as close as possible to your subject, the most important number is the telephoto angle — more so than the x-multiple.

But be warned: cameras with huge zoom tend to be hard to hold steady when zoomed in, so getting sharp photos might be tough even with the best image stabilization. Additionally, as we’ve mentioned, great zoom comes with image quality dropoffs — lens makers have to compromise on something, so if you’re going after a massive zoom range, it won’t deliver sublime images the way a fixed focal length might.

When it comes to zoom operation, fixed-lens cameras have the upper hand. They usually have powered zoom mechanisms, allowing you smooth control at the press of a button. Interchangeable lenses are more fiddly for the newcomer, as their zoom is usually (but not always) controlled mechanically with a ring around the body of the lens. That gives more granular control to those who want it, but can be off-putting to the casual user.

Finally, do yourself a favor and ignore the very idea of a “digital zoom.” It’s done either by enlarging the picture (and reducing its quality) or cropping down to a smaller area of the sensor, both of which you can do much better with dedicated post-processing software on your computer — a few phones like the Lumia 1020 offer clever ways to zoom and re-process on your device, but they can’t match Photoshop or even your average desktop viewer.

IMAGE STABILIZATION

As with digital zoom, digital image stabilization (IS) is more of a marketing ploy than a useful feature. The optical stuff, however, is a whole other story. Lenses with optical IS are equipped with internal elements that move in the opposite direction of any small movements you make, steadying the image that arrives onto the sensor. Nikon’s “Vibration Reduction” is particularly effective, allowing you to shoot at two or three steps slower shutter speed than you usually would be able to without motion blur. For example, if 1/40 shutter speed is your floor before you start seeing blurring on a regular lens, its VR version will move that down to 1/25. Canon’s version of this is called the “Optical Image Stabilizer,” Panasonic’s is “MegaOIS,” and virtually every other camera and lens maker has its own variety too.

Sony and Olympus have made a habit of building image stabilization right into the body of their DSLRs, simplifying lens design and reassuring users that all of their lenses will be stabilized. Ultimately, whichever system you choose, each serves the purpose of reducing the deleterious effects of unintended motion and should be considered highly desirable in a camera. If you’re going after a shooter with a long telephoto zoom, optical IS should be the first thing you look for.

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