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Digital Camera Buyer’s Guide

Posted By On November 9, 2004 @ 11:27 AM In Digital Photography | Comments Disabled

Buying A Digital Camera

It’s time for a digital camera huh? We get oodles of questions every week about which camera is best, what to look for, how much resolution, and on and on. For most people, it would be easy to spend several weeks sifting through the sands of digital camera gadgetry and terminology. Hopefully this series will scrape some time off that learning curve for ya!

So here’s our ever-so-humble opinion of what to look for—and to avoid—in purchasing a digital camera.

Megapixels

When it comes to digital cameras, the first thing everyone wants to know about is megapixels.

Well, in general, the more the better. Megapixels are the horsepower that drive your image quality and potential print size. I recommend a minimum of 3, but 4 or 5 is great. If you have the money to spring for one of those new 6 or 8 megapixel bad boys, that’s even better.

Why do you need so many? Well, the more you have, the bigger you can make your pictures. As a very general guideline, “photo resolution” is 300 DPI or so. Beyond that, only a trained eye behind a magnifying glass is going to see much difference.

Based on the above information, you’d need around 7.2 megapixels to make a “photo quality” 8×10. (3000 X 2400). If suddenly film is sounding a lot better, don’t worry, I’ve got some good news.

We did a test to see if a 2.3 megapixel camera (actually 1.92 – 1600 x 1200) could produce a good quality 8×10. We took a measurement and the resolution was a painfully low 150 DPI at 8×10. (For you pixel counters, yes, we had to crop in to make the picture proportional to 8×10.)

Even so, we found a good print could be had – if you have the right paper and printer. We used HP Premium Plus photo paper with an HP 970 series printer and produced a fairly good 8 x 10. I was really surprised when I saw it, much better than expected.

Sure, upon close examination you could tell it could’ve been a bit better, but hold it out at arm’s length and all the imperfections melt away.

Our conclusion after testing is this – If you really want good 8 x 10s, you may want to go with a 4 megapixel camera or better – and invest in a good photo printer. It can be pulled off with lesser equipment, but the results just won’t be as pleasing.

Optical vs Digital Zoom

You’ve probably noticed that most digital cameras have both a specification for digital and optical zoom. Pay attention to the optical zoom, and pretend the “digital zoom” doesn’t exist.

The optical zoom magnifies (zooms in) using glass. The digital zoom basically crops out the edge of the picture to make the subject appear closer, using software algorithms to keep the resolution up.

In short, digital zooms are a gimmicky feature that’s easy to add to the camera. Since “Digital Zoom” is one of those terms that sound good on paper, they get added to cameras in hopes of overshadowing a lackluster optical zoom. Don’t fall for it!

That said, make sure you get enough optical zoom. A 2x zoom is going to be a constant reminder that you should’ve sprung for a better camera – especially when you try to crop in on the kiddies.

A 3x used to be the average lens on the typical digital camera. Thankfully, many now have a lot better range than that. A 3x isn’t bad, but personally, I’d look for a 5x or better if you can swing it.

Also, verify when you’re playing with the camera that it has adequate wide-angle coverage. Digital cameras tend to excel at the telephoto end, but when it comes to wide-angle shots they can be frustrating. Especially the time I kept stepping back and tumbled off that ledge…

Connection

This used to be a big consideration, but nowadays just make sure the camera has a good USB or firewire connection. If your computer has USB 2, I’d be nice if the camera did as well. Of course, you can always get a card reader (the best way, if you ask me).

Oh, if you happen to run across a camera that connects via a serial port – keep on runnin’. You’ll be in for a life of slow loading misery if you snag that puppy.

Storage

What does the camera use to store images with? If it’s a memory card, make sure you consider buying additional cards when you get your camera. The typical 8 or 16 meg memory card that comes with the camera isn’t going to get you far – especially if you invest in big megapixles :-) .

Check with the store you’re purchasing from to get an idea of how many pictures you can store on various sizes of memory cards. Remember, the more memory you have, the more pics you can take before you have to transfer them to your computer.

As for memory card formats, don’t get too hung up on that. There’s no real “dogs” out there. If this is a second digital camera, you may be better buying a camera that can share the same card. Beyond that, don’t worry about it.

You may still find cameras that use mini CDs or even disks for storage. Generally speaking, you’re probably going to be happier with the more reliable, more reusable memory card type cameras. They tend to be easier to work with and the memory cards are much more durable than any kind of disk. There’s nothing quite as useless as a scratched CD full of vacation photos.

Finally, avoid cameras with “built in” memory that can’t be expanded with memory cards. You’ll never have enough memory and end up running out of “digital film” constantly.

Picture Formats

When you’re trying to decide on which digital camera to get, check and see how many different picture formats it supports.

You may want something that can produce both uncompressed (usually TIFF) and compressed (usually JPEG) images. I personally use the high quality JPEG setting on my camera for most of my casual shooting. TIFFs chew up lots of memory card space and, unless you’re into studying pixels, the difference in quality is slight.

Note that some of the more advanced cameras may include a “RAW” format too. This is basically the “raw” information from the CCD sensor with no in-camera processing. You do all the work on the computer. More on RAW files another time…

You’ll also want to have the ability of shooting at a lower resolution than the camera’s maximum. That way, if you’re running short on memory you can squeeze out a few more shots.

Also be aware that some cameras will, whenever you turn them on, go to a “medium” quality setting. Egad! I didn’t pay the big bucks for my camera to shoot at a lower quality setting than it’s capable of (well, unless I’m almost out of memory :-) . So, be sure that when you tell the camera to give you its best quality it remembers that fact when it’s turned off and back on again.

Auxiliary Lens / Flash

While most digital cameras have a good lens for “general shooting”, sometimes they just don’t offer enough range. If you’ve ever found yourself wishing the lens would go wider – or get you in closer – you may want to check and see if the camera you’re considering can accept auxiliary lenses.

For most digital cameras, these simply screw onto the front of the existing lens. Check with the manufacturer of the camera you’re looking at if you think this option is going to be important.

Another thing to consider: Interchangeable lens digital SLRs have come way down in price. Rather than having extra lenses that screw in, the lenses come off the camera and can be replaced with wider or longer glass. If you have the money – and don’t mind the larger camera – going this route is a no-brainer.

Another annoying shortcoming of digital cameras is their flash range – typically 20 feet or so. If you anticipate needing to cover a longer distance, check for the availability of an auxiliary flash unit.

Oh, as an added bonus, an external flash can be placed on a bracket and eliminate the heck out of red-eye.

Battery Type

Ahh, the overlooked battery. A source of constant financial drain when chosen poorly, a source of joy when chosen wisely (OK, “joy” may be a bit much).

At any rate, ask someone who owns a digital camera and they’ll likely tell you the thing will devour batteries the way a sumo wrestler does a buffet.

In light of that tidbit, make sure the camera can run on regular “AA” type batteries or some sort of rechargeable battery. You don’t want a camera that eats through expensive lithium batteries every 10 shots or so (unless you have stock in Duracell or something).

Speaking of batteries, if your camera uses “AA” I recommend getting some Nickel Metal Hydride rechargeables for it. I have some for mine and they have saved me a fortune. NOTE – Check with the owner’s manual to verify it’s safe to use rechargeables first!

Final Thoughts…

With a universe of digital camera types, styles, and capabilities, choosing one isn’t easy. In the end, only you can determine which features you need and which you don’t. Just remember as you part with hundreds or thousands of dollars, the decision needs to be a careful one (no pressure :-) .

My advice is to make a list of things you want to be able to do with the camera then go somewhere that can help you make a good purchase decision. If you find yourself explaining the concepts of this article to the salesperson helping you, it’s probably best to move on to another store (or find a brighter salesperson). Frankly, your local camera store will probably give you the best advice.

Finally, buy the BEST camera you can possibly afford. Or wait until the price drops on one with the type of features you want / need. Digital photography is getting cheaper by the hour, but it’s still a far cry (nearly a full temper-tantrum away) from affordable. It’s going to be at least a few bucks to do it right, so check the digital pool for water before you take the dive!

Good luck!

~ Steve


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