Camera Buying Guide

For the uninitiated purchasing a camera can seem quite daunting. But if you keep in mind a few basic things, your purchase will be rewarding for years to come.

The first thing that you need to do is determine how much money you want to spend. Setting a budget range will help you key in on the cameras you can afford and save you time by avoiding those cameras outside of your range. Camera prices range from $50 for a decent point and shoot digital up to $18,000 (or more!) for a professional 18-20 megapixel high speed portrait camera.

Next, you need to consider what you most often will be photographing. Most people use their camera to photograph family and to record special events and trips. Whatever you use your camera for, look for a camera that has the best features for your needs. For instance, if you typically shoot sports and action, find a camera that can shoot at high speeds and in rapid succession. Will you be doing underwater photos? You will need to either purchase a special case or a specially designed waterproof camera. If you are photographing people often you may want to consider a camera with red-eye reduction and autofocus. If you are photographing children, you definitely want to consider a high-speed camera to capture all of those facial expressions that so quickly come and go. One special note--if you are purchasing a camera for a child, it is wise to get a camera made especially for children. These cameras are designed to take a little extra abuse and are relatively inexpensive.

The next question you want to ask yourself is, “what is my experience level?” Beginners should look for camera that seems simple to use. If at all possible, go to the stores and handle the cameras personally. A beginner will probably want a camera that is as automated for things like flash, aperture, light level and so on. If you are more experienced, you will want a camera that gives you more control. A very experienced photographer will probably want a camera that has detachable lenses for wide angle or zoom photography. You may even consider interchangeable flashes. If you expect to get better in your photography skills, it is suggested you buy a camera that is one step above what your experience level is now so that you have a tool you can use for a longer period of time.

The next thing you will want to consider is how large of a print you will normally make from your digital photograph. For casual family use most of your prints will be 4”x6”. For this purpose, a decent 2 to 3 megapixel camera will probably be sufficient. If you plan to make larger prints, and make them frequently, you will need more megapixels. Otherwise, your larger print will begin to lose definition and sharpness.

While we’re on the subject, let’s define a few terms for those not familiar with them. What does megapixel mean? Megapixel is simply a measure of how detailed a picture is. A 2 megapixel photograph will have 2 million pixels, or individual dots of color that make up the picture. An 8 megapixel photograph would place 8 million points in the same picture. This provides four times the clarity! Therefore, when you print both pictures in a larger format, the 2 megapixel photo would most likely appear to be grainy and not as vibrant as the 8 megapixel photo.

What about the difference in optical versus digital zoom? For example a camera with 6x zoom may have a 2x optical zoom and a 3x digital zoom. This simply means that the optical zoom lens of the camera has the capability of doubling the size of the image with no digital manipulation. This camera also has the ability to increase the size of the image 3 more times by digital interpolation. You multiply the two numbers together to arrive at the 6x rating. In general, if you take a lot of close up photos, you will want to get the camera with the best optical zoom you can. Quite simply, this camera will take clearer pictures.

Another thing to consider is how you plan to store the pictures you take. Digital images take up computer space and the more megapixels per image the more space these images take. If you have a computer with little available hard drive space you may want to consider burning your images to CD or DVD for storage. If you don’t have a CD or DVD burner and a small hard drive you probably shouldn’t purchase a high megapixel camera even if it is within your budget. The images will simply be too large to store. Conversely, if you do have a way to convert images to CD or DVD or you have sufficient hard drive space, go for it!

Speaking of memory, do you already have devices that use a certain type of memory card? For example if your phone, mp3 player, and digital camcorder all use the Secure Digital (SD) memory card, this may be a major deciding factor when purchasing a digital camera. It probably wouldn’t be wise to spend extra money on multiple styles of memory card when you can just use the same card for all of your electronics. Also, make sure the camera you choose has more than one way to transfer files. You most definitely want a camera that uses USB technology because most computers today have USB ports. This will allow for simple transfers on a variety of computers and make uploading those images to popular social networking sites like Facebook or Myspace even easier. If the camera you choose only allows transfers via your memory card, this may make life difficult if your computer doesn’t have a card reader. Some of the more advanced models are even using wireless Bluetooth technology for transferring files, but these require special receivers that many desktop computers don’t have, although they might work with a laptop with wireless connectivity.

Once you have chosen the features you most want, it’s time to narrow down the list of possibilities. You want the features most important to you so that it will be a good fit. For example, if your budget is less than $300 but you must print quality images, find the cameras offering the most megapixels for that amount. Once you have narrowed down your models it’s a good idea to do some comparative online shopping. There are many sites online that allow you to compare various models features side by side. Knowing the specifications of the models you are interested in will help you to avoid rushing into a bad purchase and avoiding pushy salespeople.

After you narrow down the list of models you want, visit some stores and personally handle the cameras (even if you plan to purchase online). You’ll be able to pick up on the nuances of the camera that may be important to you. Is the LCD screen of high quality, size, and brightness? If you can’t see the LCD image, it will be difficult to know if your pictures are turning out well. How does the camera feel in your hands? Are the controls intuitive for the way you think you’ll use the camera? Does the camera use alkaline (or lithium) or rechargeable batteries? If you take a lot of pictures, rechargeables are the best choice. Less expensive cameras may not provide the option of battery type, so if you must purchase standard batteries, purchase lithium. They are worth the extra price, as they will last up to 8 times as long as a regular battery.

Now you’re ready to purchase. Do your homework and look around. Camera dealers can vary by hundreds of dollars on various models!

Lastly, consider the accessories you will need. An absolute must is a quality camera case or bag. If you purchase a camera that uses interchangeable lenses, you’ll want a bag that provides sufficient protection for the lenses. Extra memory cards are also a great idea. There’s nothing worse than getting ready to take that perfect prize-winning shot and realizing you’re out of memory! Get a case to hold the memory cards also. The cards are relatively expensive, small, and easy to lose. Another good investment is a quality tripod. A tripod is invaluable for taking group shots, low light or long exposure photos, and making self portraits. If your camera uses rechargeable batteries, go ahead and purchase an extra if it is within your budget. You’ll be thankful you did when you are on that family outing and your battery dies halfway through the event.

Most of all, enjoy your camera! They are terrific tools for preserving family memories or for the business person, giving you the edge over your competition.