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Digital Camera Buying Guide – Features & Comparisons

By Sandra Parker

digital cameraBefore you ever step foot in an electronics store, it pays to know exactly what you’re looking for in a digital camera. Otherwise, you’re likely to leave the store empty-handed – or, even worse, having selected a camera entirely unsuited to your needs.

However, you can avoid this situation by first determining what kind of a camera user you are, in addition to researching the various features and specs of a variety of digital cameras.

What Kind of Picture Taker Are You?

To select the best camera for your needs, first determine your user profile:

1. Casual Snapshot Taker

The casual snapshot taker emails pictures to their friends or posts them to Facebook. Occasionally, they will order a few small prints. They need a camera that’s easy to use and small enough to tote around.

  • Resolution: At least four megapixels
  • Cost: $150 to $300
  • Lens: 3x zoom minimum
  • Media Storage: SDHC/SDXC removable memory card
  • Photo File Format: JPEG
  • Connection Capabilities: USB/ NTSC (television connection)
  • Exposure Control: Automatic
  • Focus Control: Automatic
  • Extras: Automatic red eye removal, automatic image stabilization, HD movie capture, and HDMI output

2. Casual Photographer With a Large Budget

This user likes to get the latest and greatest must-have gadgets before anyone else. He or she may be motivated to impress friends and family, or simply prefers top of the line. This user has a budget, though the bar is a lot higher than most.

  • Resolution: At least four megapixels
  • Price: More than $300, but less than $800
  • Lens: 5x zoom or better
  • Media Storage: SDHC/SDXC removable memory card
  • Photo File Format: JPEG
  • Connectivity: USB and/or HDMI or component HDTV to TV
  • Exposure Controls: Automatic
  • Focus Controls: Automatic
  • Multimedia: High-definition video recording with sound and functional zoom
  • Extras: Ultra sleek, compact design, multiple, interchangeable lenses, webcam compatibility, voice recording, Wi-Fi capable, geo-tagging support, three inches or larger LCD view screen, automatic image stabilization, and face detection

3. Semi-Professional Business User

This user needs to be able to take professional-looking photographs without hiring a professional photographer. Usually, he or she will be taking pictures of people, places, or things that ultimately end up being used in print ads or online. This camera may or may not be office community property.

  • Resolution: At least six megapixels or more
  • Price: Between $250 and $500
  • Lens: 5x zoom or greater
  • Media Storage: SDHC/SDXC removable memory card
  • Photo File Format: JPEG
  • Connection Capabilities: USB/NTSC (television connection)
  • Exposure Control: Choice of metering modes and shutter priority
  • Focus Control: Automatic or manual
  • Multimedia: Voice recording, internal built-in speaker for audio playback
  • Extras: Wi-Fi capability, geo-tagging, text-capture mode, HD video, and HDMI output

4. Serious Amateur or Freelance Professional

This user needs to be able to create special effects when shooting pictures and manipulate images after shooting. He or she needs to have full control over the exposure of the shot, and uses different lenses and accessories. This user also often needs to print 8×10 photos or larger at home.

  • Resolution: 12 megapixels or more
  • Price: $400 and up
  • Lens: Supports lens converters or interchangeable lenses or zoom with widest focal range possible
  • Media Storage: SDHC/SDXC removable memory card or CompactFlash
  • Photo File Format: JPEG, RAW
  • Connection Capabilities: USB 3.0 (high-speed USB)
  • Exposure Control: Choice of metering modes and shutter priority
  • Focus Control: Automatic with manual overrides for multiple focal points, or manual
  • Multimedia: Voice clip recording with voice annotation capabilities
  • Extras: Compatibility with existing 35mm camera lenses and accessories, fully customizable user modes, mechanical image stabilization

Once you determine which type of photographer you are, you can examine a range of specs to determine the ideal digital camera.

what type of photographer are you?

Megapixels

How many megapixels your digital camera should have is directly related to how crisp you need your picture to be. Most cameras today shoot at a high enough resolution to satisfy most users. There is a very slight chance that you will find a camera that doesn’t offer enough megapixels – but there is often the temptation to buy a camera that offers too much.

It’s important to understand that more megapixels doesn’t necessarily mean better picture quality. In the world of point-and-shoot cameras, a 12-megapixel camera produces the same results as a 14-megapixel camera, with the exception that the picture taken by the 14-megapixel camera is much larger in terms of file size. The main reason that manufacturers bump up the megapixel rate on these types of cameras is merely to justify a price increase.

That said, megapixels do have some bearing on image quality under specific conditions. For instance, if you crop one part of a photo and enlarge it, the image captured with a higher-resolution camera will produce a clearer, less grainy image than if it were taken with a lower-resolution camera.

Lenses

There is a lot of variety in the marketplace when it comes to lenses, which can be particularly confusing for novice buyers. Each lens type has a specific purpose and directly affects the outcome of the picture.

There are four basic categories, each corresponding to a particular user profile:

1. Fixed Focal Length Lenses

These are basic lenses that do not zoom, and are usually included on models where auto-focus is available.

Advantages:

  • Fixed focal lens-equipped cameras allow the manufacturer to maintain a smaller, sleeker design.
  • Because the lens does not require any manual adjustments, they are easier to use than other designs. Users can simply “point and shoot.”
  • These cameras are the least expensive to acquire.
  • Fixed focal length lens cameras generally offer users a wide-angle view, which is great for landscapes and group shots.

Disadvantages:

  • Unfortunately, these cameras do not have a zoom capability, so users must be at the appropriate distance from the subject of their photos.
  • These cameras are very basic, and do not accept converters for light filters.
  • Generally speaking, these are the lowest quality cameras available on the market.

These cameras are designed for the casual snapshot takers.

2. Folded Optic Lenses

These lenses are much like fixed focal length lenses, with the exception that they are mounted on a panel that allows them to fold away sideways into the chassis.

Advantages:

  • Because the lens folds into the chassis of the camera, manufacturers can make an even sleeker design than fixed focal point cameras.
  • The lens is protected from scratches and breaks by the body of the camera when not in use.

Disadvantages:

  • As with the fixed focal length cameras, there is no support for light filters.
  • These cameras are generally considered to be about the same quality as the fixed focal rate cameras, but are generally more expensive.

These cameras are designed for casual snapshot takers, as well as those who have a larger budget and enjoy pricier gadgets.

3. Fixed Zoom Lenses

Fixed zoom lenses offer telescopic zooming for detailed photographic capabilities from a distance, and are fixed to the face of the camera. These lenses do not retract into the camera when not in use.

Advantages:

  • These models offer a bit more user control functionality than the previous models, with zoom capabilities up to 26x magnification.
  • The lens is usually manufactured to accept lens covers and converters (such as wide-angle lenses or close-up lenses) for more picture control.
  • Many cameras with fixed zoom lenses offer better zoom control via rings on the lens, rather than buttons on the chassis.

Disadvantages:

  • Because these cameras are of a higher quality and feature more functionality than their point-and-shoot counterparts, they tend to be bulkier and somewhat harder to tote around.
  • Novice users have a steeper learning curve when it comes to figuring out how to use all the controls, as they are generally more plentiful and complicated than the less expensive models.
  • These cameras are often significantly more expensive than the previous models.

These cameras cater to a slightly more experienced picture taker. Semi-professional business users, as well as serious amateurs or freelance professionals, will be served well by such devices.

4. Interchangeable Lenses

Digital SLR cameras, also known as “hybrid point-and-shoot cameras,” allow the photographer to completely remove one lens from the camera and replace it with another. This is especially useful if you have existing 35mm lenses from an older film camera.

Advantages:

  • Cameras with interchangeable lenses are generally equipped to provide the best quality images out of any of the digital cameras available.
  • These cameras are favored among photography professionals, as they offer the most flexibility in terms of image capture options.
  • Upgrading this camera is easy because users only have to purchase additional lenses, and do not need to upgrade the entire unit. This makes for a more cost-effective setup.

Disadvantages:

  • These are the most expensive digital cameras on the market.
  • Each lens is heavy and fragile, which makes them difficult to tote around.
  • The user controls are extremely complicated for all but the most well-versed photographer.

These cameras should be left to the professionals.

photographer

Camera Batteries

The only other real consideration to take into account is the battery life vs. cost. Some cameras require model-specific rechargeable batteries, which tend to offer a longer battery life. However, they also are often more expensive than disposable batteries.

Other models allow you to use rechargeable universal batteries, which are less expensive than the model-specific versions; however, these have a shorter lifespan between charges. And then there are disposable batteries, which are the least expensive to purchase, but have to be replaced frequently.

Final Word

Regardless of whether you are a novice shutterbug or a professional photographer, owning a digital camera makes taking photos and managing your library easier than ever. By taking the time to consider what type of photographer you are and what features you desire, you can be confident that you have purchased a camera that will meet your needs for several years to come.

Have you recently purchased a digital camera that you’d recommend? What were some of the most important factors that led to your decision?

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