Travel Tech Series

Top Tips for Buying a Digital Camera

Posted by Scott Tharler on December 03, 2012 at 2:58:37 PM EST | Post a Comment
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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

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  • Poppy_Nidaba on Dec 5, 12 at 10:18 PM

    Good wee article! As somebody who still uses his Nikon film bodies & lenses, but familiar with digital, (which only now is approaching the sheer quality of fine film, which can always be digitised frame by frame, and encourages the photographer to take TIME over their shot rather than the new digital concept of "take enough shots and at least one or two will be of the required quality and compositional perfection!", I agree that sensors are deadly important. But as with either film or digital, lens quality is, perhaps not ALL, but to my mind, at least 80% of the importance of the hardware. I have found in my trialling that the big names like Nikon, Canon and Olympus, rightly famed for their superior optics, are to be considered before your electronics companies' forays into imaging.
    There is one company, however, that stands out above your Sonys and Samsungs, and that is PANASONIC. The best digital images I have personally seen and taken are by quite a long way, apart from the several-grand-to-buy top-end pro DSLRs by Nikon & Canon, Panasonic's LUMIX range, from compact through bridge to THEIR $1000+ beauties. What is so good about them is not like some who think that the more features the better (absolutely untrue) is their superior sensors and crucially, lenses. Panasonic Lumix use LEICA lenses; since the first 35mm cameras, Leica have rightly been known for having the finest optics known to man. Their digital lenses are no exception, delivering images crisper, sharper, with such perfect contrast and high aperture quality than any others; it pains me to say it, but at lower Mp, the lenses on almost every Lumix I have tried outperform my beloved Nikkors.
    They are every bit as good as their film lenses and, for any of you who do not intend building the ultimate Nikon DSLR system, I urge you to look first at these marvels, which retain the essential levels of manual control (auto is fine but can NEVER fully replace the instinct of the photographer who is well versed in the technical aspects of light, composition and the capture of the moment, the human brain always being better than a program) - you will be amazed at just how good these are. Leica and Nikkor lenses have always been recognised by photographers as being the best conduits for those things that REALLY matter when making digital or film images, sharpness, light capture, contrast and colour that is true and accurate. Why mess with inferior lenses which require Photoshop-tweaking merely to render your subject well, or in some cases of names which should really be better given their histories and reps, just ACCEPTABLE?
    Everyone can now take images of quality. Nikon DSLRs and the wonderful Panasonic/Leicas will give anybody with half a photographic mind pictures you would never have believed possible only 20 years back, when SLRs were at the top of the game and my Nikon FMs the manual standard nobody could, or now probably never will, beat.
    Lumix, folks. Go for the good old Leica with the best electronica!!!
    Love & Peas, Poppy xxx

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