How to Buy a Digital Camera: A Layman’s Guide

I am a teacher at a small private school. By default, that gives me a fair number of responsibilities to keep me busy. One of those responsibilities is that of being head of the yearbook staff, a responsibility that I have enjoyed now for several years. When I first started out as head of the yearbook, the staff was using a regular film camera. Being a technogeek, I introduced the yearbook crew to the concept of taking digital pictures, and we have been using digital photos, almost exclusively, ever since. As a digital camera enthusiast, I am occasionally asked, “What kind of digital camera should I get?” That is not an easy question to answer. There are a number of things to consider when buying a digital camera, and a number of questions that only you, the camera user, can answer.

Resolution
In the printer world, the amount of detail you get on the printed page is measured in DPI, dots per inch. The more dots per inch of printed area, the finer the detail. In the world of digital cameras, the quality or depth of a camera’s picture is typically measured in megapixels (MP’s). On the box of a typical digital camera, you will find this listed under resolution. There it will tell you the camera’s resolution is 2 megapixles, or 3, or 4, or 8, or whatever. Sometimes, it might be listed as a pair of numbers such as 1024 x 768, but megapixels is the norm. In either case, the higher the numbers, the better the picture quality. Obviously you want to buy a camera with the most megapixels you can afford. I say it that way because the more megapixels a camera has, the higher its price.

So, given the cold, hard truth that price and megapixels are tied together, you have to ask yourself: “What am I most likely to do with my pictures – print them, or share them via email and web?” If you’re more likely to print them, then I would recommend a camera that is at least 8 MP’s; higher if possible, especially if you plan to use your digital photos professionally. If your main intent is to use your pictures on a website, or to email them to Aunt Betty, then a 2 to 5 megapixel camera will more than fit the bill.

Here’s a quick buyer’s tip: There’s no shame in buying last year’s model, or getting one that’s a little older still, as long as it’s in good condition. The highest megapixel camera today might cost you an arm or a leg. Wait a year or two, and it might cost considerably less – like a foot or a toe. 🙂

Zoom… Read the Fine Print
When it comes to zoom capabilities, read the fine print! Most packaging on digital cameras will boast the high zoom capabilities: 10X, 24X, 30 Mile Zoom! Okay, maybe the 30 mile zoom is a little bit of an exaggeration, but the fact remains, when you consider a digital camera, be sure to read up on the details! There are basically two types of zoom, or magnification, that digital cameras offer: optical and digital (or interpolated).

When you look at the specs for the camera you are considering, look at how its optimal zoom capabilities are broken down. A camera boasting 24X zoom, may only have 3X optical zoom and the remainder as digital, or interpolated zoom. “What does all that mean?” you ask. Good question. Optical zoom is the amount of magnification a camera can achieve with its actual physical lens. Digital zoom is the amount of magnification the camera’s software can mimic (read ‘fake’). If you have a digital camera and you turn on its digital zoom, it will look like you can see for miles! It won’t look like that when you look at the actual picture. Often it will come out pixelated (fuzzy), because with digital zoom, the camera is guessing what the object will look like at its extended magnification. When I photograph with my digital camera, I turn the digital zoom off because I want the real deal, not a facsimile. What does all that mean when it comes to buying a digital camera? It’s simple: get a camera with the most optical zoom you can find. If you plan on doing photography professionally, look for a camera that also offers you the most lens options. In other words, can you get more lens attachments for better zoom, wide angles, etc.? Most of your easy-to-use point and shoot type cameras will not offer you that option. So, you have to ask yourself: “What kind of pictures do I plan to take – typical family events, or photojournalist calibre material?” If your plan is to use your camera to take pictures of vacations and birthdays, a point-and-shoot camera with 3X optical zoom will work just fine. But if you plan to use your pictures for things like school yearbooks or magazines, you’ll want something better than a point-and-shoot, and something that will allow you the use of additional lenses and filters.

Burst Rate
Burst rate is the speed at which your digital camera can capture pictures. A slow burst rate can be a problem for the average digital camera. Consider how the technology works: Do you remember the cameras from the cartoon series The Flintstones, and the little bird that chiseled the picture onto that stone slab inside the camera? It’s almost the same concept, except they use electrons to do the work now. But the technology has come a long way since the early days of the digital camera, and many go stride for stride with film cameras when it comes to burst rate. It all comes down to price – again.

So, here’s another question you have to ask yourself: “What kind of pictures do I usually take – are they posed pictures and stills, or do I take a lot of action shots?” If most of your shots are posed pictures and stills, a slower burst rate camera will do just fine. But don’t despair. It doesn’t mean you can’t take action shots. You just have to do a little more planning. Get familiar with your camera; learn how long it takes between the time you press the button and the time the shutter clicks; and time your shots. That way you can still catch Johnny at bat just before he makes contact with the ball.

Storage
Most cameras will come with some sort of memory storage medium. My most recent camera purchase came with a 32 meg CompactFlash ™ card. Other cameras may come with smaller or larger memory cards; and there are a variety of storage mediums available. If you have another electronic device with a particular kind of storage medium, you should try to get a camera that can use the same kind just for convenience sake. You should also plan on getting an extra storage media card for your camera, the bigger the better. Rememeber: the higer resolution pictures you take, the more storage space they are going to require. If you have a small card to go with your camera, and you take lots of high res pictures, you’ll use up that card pretty quickly; and most camera experts say that you should take pictures at the highest resolution your camera willl allow.

Software
Most digital cameras come bundled with some kind of software to help you enjoy your pictures. Usually they are “lite” versions of their more robust counterparts, the thinking being that if you get hooked with the lite version, you’ll go ahead and buy the full version. Personally, I don’t often use the software that comes bundled with the camera, unless there is a piece of bundled software I need to download the pictures from the camera onto my computer. (In many cases, not even that is necessary.) Normally, I use the software I already own. You can, too. If you have MS Office you should at least have Word, and maybe even Publisher. Granted, they’re not full blown photo editing programs, but they’ll do a lot of what you need. And then there’s the open source (free) software that’s available. Two that I recommend are Serif DrawPlus 4.0 and PhotoPlus 6, both available from http://freeserifsoftware.com.

Printing
One thing that is often overlooked by beginning digital camera users is the printer. Even if you plan to email most of what you do, or put it up on the web, you still ought to consider the kind of printer – and paper – you want to use with your camera. I won’t take a lot of time to discuss printers here, but when it comes to printing digital photos, be sure to use good photograph paper and a high resolution printer. There are a lot of printers on the market today that are designed specifically for producing high-quality digital prints. Just remember: the higher the printer resolution, the better the print.

Conclusion
Don’t make a digital camera an impulse buy. Take your time and seek out the camera that is best for you. It will save you hours of frustration and disappointment, and hopefully give you many years of enjoyment in return!

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