How to Buy a Digital Camera

By Lynn Truong on 12 August 2009 (Updated 8 February 2010) 15 comments
Photo: Taking photos

As much as I appreciate a great photo, having a digital SLR in my hands is useless. My husband has the Pentax K10D, along with several lenses. It's heavy (although this model is heavier than others because of its weather-resistant feature), and no matter how many times he explains the settings, I can't figure out how to adjust them to the current environment. But the camera produces some damn good photos. 

That being said, my husband is trying to get me to try out some of the newer DSLRs with excellent automatic settings. Seems like the over saturation of point-and-shoot cameras have caused manufacturers to open up new markets -- namely, the point-and-shoot graduate. The heavy hitters like Canon and Nikon are developing DSLRs that are smarter and can sense and adjust to the environment very well.

At any price point, there are any number of camera options. Whether you're in the market for a DSLR or compact point-and-shoot, it's not about getting the best features (there are too many). Get a camera that best fits your lifestyle and preferences.

Here are some tips to help narrow down your options. And once you get one, make sure to check out all the different ways to use a digital camera!

Size matters.

How often do you envision carrying this camera around? My point-and-shoot is in my purse, all the time. If we only had the DSLR, I wouldn't be taking any photos at all. The last thing I want to do is lug that thing around. Even though there are DLSRs that aren't as heavy, they're still bulky. If it becomes inconvenient (it doesn't fit in your purse or pocket), you might opt to leave it at home, which means less opportunity for impromptu and more casual photos.

Megapixels don't matter.

Okay, what I mean is, megapixels aren't as important as most people think. Many base their buying decisions solely on the megapixel count, but it's not the feature most can take advantage of.

There are point-and-shoot cameras offering 10 megapixels, but for most users, it's no different than a 5 megapixel camera. Megapixels are only important if you want to produce large prints (very large). 5 megapixels is enough for a print up to 11 x 14. If you aren't going to make prints larger than that, the extra megapixels don't offer any benefits.

Photo files are large.

The more megapixels, the larger the file size. Do you want to buy larger capacity memory cards to accommodate more photos? Do you need a larger hard drive to store and archive your photos? Do you know how to resize the photos so you can email them to friends and family?

If you end up with a camera that you liked for non-megapixel reasons, you can set the camera to take pictures at a lower megapixel, so you can save space on storage.

There's learning curve.

Digital SLRs are great because you can make very specific adjustments to get a good shot in any setting. If the lighting is bad or low, there's a setting to make it work. If you're trying to catch an action shot, no problem. But how much manual control do you really need? How many of the manual settings will you actually change? Even a lot of the higher end point-and-shoot cameras come packed with special settings and options.

Cameras with a lot of manual controls will allow you versatility and flexibility in getting the shot you want, in any environment. While that all sounds great in theory, in practice, few take advantage of all the controls. Decide how much you're willing to put into learning to use the special features and controls before choosing a camera that has a lot of them.

Choose your quality level.

How much does quality matter to you? Do you have an eye for it, or do average photos suit your purposes fine? DSLRs will produce images at much higher quality. But that's not to say that point-and-shoot cameras don't deliver excellent shots. They do, and they're improving every day. But the DSLRs will deliver even better shots. Will you notice and appreciate that quality difference? Because you'd be paying a lot more for it.

Also, is your desire for creating really nice photos enough to carry a DSLR around with you? Or is creating pretty good shots with a small, convenient camera enough for you?

Ignore the digital zoom.

Digital cameras often have two types of zooms: optical zoom and digital zoom. Ignore the digital zoom.

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The optical zoom is what allows you to adjust the lens to take a closer shot. The digital zoom only enlarges the pixels. The image quality goes down dramatically when you use digital zoom.

If you like to zoom, choose a camera with a large optical zoom capability. But keep in mind that zooming makes the image more sensitive to motion. Keeping a steady hand (or having a tripod and/or image stabilization feature) is more important.

Additionally, having more megapixels means you can crop sections of your photo without losing any quality, negating any use for digital zoom at all.

Decide on a battery.

If you use your camera for infrequent shots, battery life and type of battery probably doesn't matter much to you. Even when a camera is low on battery, you can often still get several shots in before it dies completely. But if you like to take photos throughout the day at events, you should pay attention to the battery options.

Some cameras have their own rechargeable battery while others use standard AA batteries. Read reviews on battery life and decide whether you'd prefer to carry spare AA batteries around, or you're confident you'll be able to charge up your camera before you need it (and have it last the whole time you're using it).

Many, many features.

The list above is just the tip of the ice berg. When it comes to digital cameras, features abound. Make sure you pay attention to the features that really affect you, and ignore the ones that you know you won't use, no matter how cool they seem.

For example, many cameras offer video capture. But how often will you want to record video? And keep in mind that it'll never replace your camcorder (not yet, anyway), as it only records a few minutes at a time. It also takes up a lot of space on your memory card.

One very cool feature that I'd love to see in my next camera (but would not pay extra for), is face detection and other "smart camera" functions. For example, some cameras will automatically take a photo when it detects a smile. Perfect for capturing baby shots when a smile could come too quick to react to.

Still not cool enough? Sony is launching their Party-Shot accessory. What does it do? Put the camera on this dock that pans 360 degrees and tilts 24 degrees and it automatically takes photos.

Direct link to Sony Party-Shot promo video
 

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Guest's picture
Guest

You're right about the megapixels. In order for the quality of the image to double, you need to quadruple the megapixels. So for a 5.0 megapixel camera to be replaced with a camera that will double the quality of photos, they need to be making a 20 megapixel camera.

Guest's picture
Dan

Actually, many of the new Nikon digital SLRs do HD video. Not only that, but it is of a quality good enough that several of my fellow photographers have started using them instead of dedicated video cameras.

Guest's picture

Good enough is relative. Using a DSLR for video is the equivalent of using a video camera for photography.

Guest's picture
Kevin

We decided it was good value to get my wife a dSLR one. Because a few years back when she was disappointed in herself for not painting enough and letting her artistic side get rusty, I started encouraging her to channel it into photography.
Now, taking her out on an afternoon photo safari is one of her favourite things in the world, and it costs us nothing more than gas and whatever we pack for lunch.

So we get a lot of free quality time because of photography, and when it was time to upgrade, the dSLR was a no-brainer. She's much, much happier now.

That being said, we don't like to take it to things like weddings, so we have a little pocket cam for events like that.

On the video front, if you're at all serious about video, then don't worry about what kind of video features your still camera comes with, because you'll need an actual video camera.

Still cameras with a video feature are fine for capturing quick moments and unexpected things, or if you just want to throw some cat videos up to youtube.
But if you're planning on putting any kind of care into the art of quality home videography, then you are going to want image stabilization, a GOOD built-in microphone, and preferably the option to attach an external mic, and you will want to pay attention to the bit rate that the video is encoded at. Also, you don't want to be wasting your still camera's battery and memory on video when there are pictures to take.

I once shot a ski video with lots of fast horizontal movement, and when my video camera's battery died, I pulled out my still camera and kept shooting. The quality on the still camera is alright, but the sound is poor and there is visible image tearing on the pans; plus, it's shakier. It's fine for youtube.

Lynn Truong's picture

@Dan  Thanks for the tip! I've edited the error. I didn't know DSLRs have finally come out with video capability.

I agree with @Kevin though that for now, a dedicated video camcorder is better to rely on. I can imagine the amount of battery the video must use up on a DSLR. Also, with the awesome flip cameras and other super portable and high quality (yet very afforadable) camcorders around, it's just a matter of slipping it in your pocket as pull the DLSR over your shoulder.

Guest's picture

Huh, wow I had no idea there was so much to purchasing a digital camera. Thanks for the help!

Guest's picture

Good guide. You are right-on with your suggestions, but keep in mind that even with a DSLR on automatic, you won't get the same spectacular results as the pros. Generally, it's the photographer that determines the shot, not the camera. I've seen great photos taken on cheap cameras by those in a know, and a few too many lackluster shots taken on a $700 DSLR.

That being said, a good compromise is the "prosumer" line of cameras made by many manufacturers. These point and shoots have many of the features found on DSLRs and allow full manual control, but very versatile lenses as well. The PowerShot
Canon Powershot SX10IS is a perfect example.

In some instances, a DSLR can be more limiting than a point-and-shoot if you don't buy good lenses. You talk about taking action photos, but the stock lenses that ship with DSLRs are not suited for sports photography.

Lynn Truong's picture

@Daniel  You are absolutely right about the lens. I neglected to put that in the guide. Buying extra lenses is indeed a big factor when it comes to investing in a DSLR. My husband has several of them, and it's definitely something to consider as far as additional cost for a DSLR, to take full advantage of it.

Guest's picture
MSH

When I shopped for my first digital camera in December, I also stopped in several different stores and checked out the menus and buttons to see which ones made sense to me. On some of them I could not figure out how to get around the menus or even how to delete a picture. If you cannot make sense of the basic functions of the camera, that may be a bad sign for you. I also took notes on how they fit in my small hands.

Guest's picture

I was definitely headed this way after an incident last year at California Adventure with our Nikon Coolpix then I got an iPhone 3GS and it's reached the "good enough" status that I use it as my primary camera. Ansel Adams I am not but I'm afraid the dSLR is just not on the budget list for this year. Great tips Lynn thanks for making me wish I had a dSLR.

Guest's picture
Kevin

Another tip, choose the brand of DSLR very carefully!

When you become a better photographer and feel that it's time to move up to a more advanced DSLR, you'll probably want to stick with the same brand because you've invested some serious coin into all those lenses!

There are some third-party lens makers like Sigma who will sell you some pretty good lenses for half the price of the official equivalent. But third party lenses aren't cross compatible either, you tell them you have a Nikon and they'll show you only Nikon-compatible lenses.

Guest's picture
Kevin

And I forgot, you will need a clear UV filter for each lens you have.

They're about $50 or so, depending on the manufacturer.

Think of it as an insurance policy, it's better to have to replace the $50 filter than the $400 lens.

Don't believe me? My wife cracked her UV filter on her second day with the camera, when she walked it into the corner of a table. But it saved the lens.

Guest's picture

Great guide. Alot of people have the misconception that more megapixels = better quality pictures.

Guest's picture
Guest

This is really useful to buy a good camera as well as taking some nice shots .