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Going Digital? A Buyer's Guide
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Going Digital? A Buyer's Guide

What type of digital is best for you?

Buying a digital camera can be a frustrating experience. There's a lot of information competing for your attention. But, in reality, there are only a handful of things you really need to know. Basically there are three types of digital cameras available today—compact cameras, advanced zoom cameras, and digital single-lens reflex cameras. Once you've narrowed your search down to one category, a lot of your work is done.

  • Compact cameras. These are point-and-shoot cameras, the least expensive rung on the digital-camera ladder. They're perfect if what you want is ease of use in a pocket-sized camera. You'll get a few less features (like exposure options) and a limited zoom lens range, but image quality is surprisingly good. The great news is that all of the standard features—LCD screen, auto-exposure, built-in flash—are standard. Expect to pay between $100-$200 for most cameras in this category.

  • Advanced zoom cameras. This is a hybrid of the compact camera and the more advanced single-lens-reflex camera (see below). These cameras come with a full complement of exposure options (including a manual exposure mode for more advanced shooters) and a heftier zoom range (in some cases 12X that of the standard lens). The downside is that the camera's standard "electronic viewfinder" (EVF) displays a video image on both the LCD and in the "peephole" viewfinder instead of a live view. Users say that looking through an electronic viewfinder is like looking at a closed-circuit TV monitor—it's not for everybody; try before you buy.

  • Digital single-lens reflex or DSLR. The DSLR is the great grandchild of the traditional single-lens-reflex camera, named so because the image that the lens sees is reflected by a mirror and prism system in the viewfinder. This system is a useful feature because there is no discrepancy between the "taking" lens and what you see in the viewfinder. This is not always the case with non-SLR cameras. With the SLR (and the DSLR), what you see is almost exactly what you get. Popular with professional photographers, the DSLR is fast becoming popular with novices, mostly because manufacturers have affordable models in the $500-$600 range. One of the primary advantages of this camera is that most are fully adaptable with a whole range of accessory lenses and other bells and whistles.

How many megapixels do you need? Because a digital camera's resolution is based on how many pixels its sensor contains, it would stand to reason that the more megapixels a camera has, the better the image quality and the larger the prints you can make. This is actually true, but with some caveats. For one, since a five-megapixel camera will make a perfectly good 11x14-inch enlargement, there seems to be little need to leap to the 8-, 10-, or 12-megapixel cameras that are available. Why? Because pixels must be smaller to fit more of them onto the same size sensors, so image quality diminishes rather than increases with larger megapixel counts. Our advice: don't go lower than five megapixels, but don't break the bank to own a camera with the highest number. A 6- or 8-megapixel camera will provide years of great pictures.

How much zoom lens do I need? Most compact cameras provide a minimum zoom range of about 3X, which means that the longest telephoto zoom setting (the setting that brings distant subjects closer) is about three times the widest setting of the lens. If you're shooting mostly wide views of city streets or on a cruise-ship deck, a 3X zoom will do fine. But when it comes to snapping things like small architectural details, or isolating a single boat in a harbor, a bigger zoom range is important. Many advanced zoom cameras have lenses in the 8X to 12X range and that's a very impressive range.

When comparing zoom ranges, only compare the "optical" zoom range, the actual focal lengths produced by the optical lens design. Disregard "digital zoom" claims by camera makers—the camera is just using digital cropping of the image and the quality suffers greatly. You can get better results by just cropping the image during editing. Digital zoom is a bogus feature that manufacturers would do well to stop mentioning.

How easy is the camera to use? Digital cameras come with a whole battery of dials, buttons, and switches. Some are much easier to operate than others. The Kodak EasyShare cameras, for example, are simple enough to hand your grandmother out of the box (they use words like "better" and "best" when it comes to setting image quality). Before you buy any camera, ask the salesperson to let you handle it a while and see if you can at least get your finger on most of the controls and read the menus (even if you don't know what they mean yet). And see how bright the LCD viewing screen is when you're standing by a bright window. You'll find a lot of reviews online for various cameras, but when it comes to measuring ease of use, nothing beats a hands-on visit in the store.

Next: "Dos and Don'ts"

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