Although the sheer number of digital cameras and features is enough to make anyone shudder, it's important to focus when it comes to buying one. Don't worry, there isn't just one right answer out there, your perfect imaging soul mate. It all depends on what you're trying to accomplish. So to help narrow the field, here are ten smart leading questions to start you on the path to new camera bliss.
1. How rugged does your digital camera need to be?
From Sony's super-slim Cyber-shot TX20 to Pentax's husky K-30, the market is flooded (so to speak) with a wide variety of cameras impervious (at least to some degree) to water, weather, dust, drops, shocks, and freezing. If your camera will be bounced around a bunch in your bag and/or subjected to harsh environments when shooting, consider something more durable. Whether or not you're a world-class scuba diver or mountain biker, the important point is to begin factoring the conditions in which you'll be shooting.
2. What body type/size works best for you?
The technology in today's cameras levels much of the playing field. In other words, bigger isn't always better. Although DSLRs do have their advantages, especially as you get more technically advanced with your photography, compact cameras that slip into your pocket also have tons to offer. And there's a whole other huge emerging category, "bridge cameras," which blend some of the finer points of each. Again, picture how and where you'll be taking shots and that may help decide whether you want the convenient size or larger, adaptable lenses.
3. What brand(s) are you drawn to?
Your choices include film-to-digital crossovers (Canon, Nikon), general electronics giants (Casio, Panasonic, Samsung, Sony), and a whole host of familiar names and others you don't yet know. How much do you care about the company? Is there a particular brand that appeals to you for whatever reason? (If you think Ashton Kutcher's cute and it makes you want to buy their camera, more power to you.) The point is: If you have one or two in mind, that'll greatly narrow down the field. But even if you do, answer the other questions on this list and you may discover a new favorite brand.
4. What's your price range?
If you're thinking about spending less than $100 or more than $500, that's another great way to eliminate a ton of also-rans. Don't worry, you'll still have plenty of good choices on the low and high ends. But there are substantially more cameras in between than outside those figures. To further break down that massive middle section, decide whether you're in for more or less than $300. Similar to the size factor, you don't have to spend a ton to get plenty of camera, but knowing your budget is obviously an important limiting factor.
5. What kind of photographer are you?
In a way, this re-encapsulates the previous four questions, in terms of the style, size, and price of a potential camera you'd buy. But this also has to do with aspirations. Casual types may be fine with a handful of special effects settings; folks looking to build their skills may want to look into bridge cameras; and shutterbugs already know what they want for a body and will tend to spend more time looking for lenses. Furthermore, how informal or disciplined you are as a photographer also has implications for how automatic you'd like it to be—or how much creative (i.e. manual) control you want. Some, like the Sony Cyber-shot RX100 and Canon PowerShot S110 offer a compact size and manual control, but for a price...
6. What kind of photos are you planning to snap?
If it's mostly landscapes and scenery, pay attention to the optical zoom. Something greater than 5X is good and anything in the 20X to 40X range is great. Also, investigate how easy it is to take panoramas. Some let you sweep across to choose the direction and capture all at once (sweep panorama), whereas others don't or make you select the direction beforehand.
If you're shooting lots of action shots, you'll want superior image stabilization. But the main essential is a fast shutter speed, the offspring of which are the ability to take continuous bursts of stills and even slow-motion video. Five to 10 frames per second is good and anything 30 and up is super.
Lastly, if you're looking to do more close-up and portrait work, look for something that does well in low light; and the ability to see various exposures is nice—either as you're framing the subject or during playback. You may also be interested in a camera that can detect smiles, blinks and particular faces. Maybe not for formal posing shots, but for quick ones on the go, it can be priceless.
7. What features are most important?
How easy is it to defocus the background? For panoramas, is there a selection right on the control dial or do you have to fumble through menus? Is there an option that lets you save your favorite settings to quickly snap back to after you've been experimenting? Some might enjoy a 'partial color' effect, where most of the image is black and white, except for a certain color. Some cameras choose a primary color for you. Others let you select from three or four. And some we've seen even let you select one from a dozen hues to pop out in the shot. If you don't have the luxury of borrowing a camera to try it out, be sure to go to a trusted, in-depth review site like DPReview to see how they rate cameras with particular features you like.
8. How would you like to share your photos?
Are you going to want to upload them instantly? Look into getting a memory card or camera with WiFi built in. (Samsung has a whole wireless line of what they call Smart Cameras.) Do you want to print out instantly (as with this new zero-ink Polaroid) or at home? Would you like the ability to view your pictures on a big screen? Figure out whether its video out is HDMI (better quality) or composite (the yellow-red-and-white cables)...and if the appropriate cable is included.
9. What image quality will serve you best?
It's not all about the megapixels, but the size and quality of the image sensor. For size, anything approximating one inch is fantastic. But don't expect more than half an inch in compact cameras under $300. And on the quality, that's again where brand comes into play. The high-end are the names you know. Then again, if you're not printing them out, and are just viewing and sharing them online, you may not need the highest quality.
10. When and where should you buy it?
To help make your final decision, go to Decide.com. They factor in heaps of data, reviews, and other information to come up with a rating out of 100. You can quickly see how your top choices fare in their eyes, then do a price comparison right there. And for $2.50/month members can arm themselves with price and model predictions, so you can (supposedly with 77% accuracy) know if it's better to purchase your dream camera now, or wait for a new model or lower price. For $30 a year, the ability to minimize potential buyer's remorse seems especially worthwhile if the camera you're buying is more than $300. But they also offer this info/service for a bunch of other electronics and household items as well.
Fodors.com Travel Technology Columnist Scott Tharler is an expert in gadgets, gambling, and travel. He's written four books, plus hundreds of mobile and wireless tips for Sony and PC World. In addition to his daily Discovery News gadget blog, you can find links to other gadget articles, social feeds and lists of his current favorite gadgets at about.me/gadgetfans.
Photo credit: Digital camera via Shutterstock