Buying a digital camera can be a daunting task. Start by making a list of the features you need and a list of the features you want. Prioritize those features making some decisions about what features you can’t live without. Then figure out how much you can afford to pay. Digital cameras range in price from a couple hundred dollars to several thousand dollars. To some degree, you get what you pay for. With your list of features and price in mind, start comparing cameras until you find one that meets your needs.
BY BRADLEY WILSON
Digital cameras require batteries that need frequent replacement or recharging. Compare cameras that take conventional AA or AAA batteries with those that take longer-lasting, but often more expensive, custom batteries. You can save a few bucks on a camera that takes AA batteries and spend the difference in cost over a year just in batteries, so sometimes the more expensive batteries, particularly the rechargeable ones, save money in the long run.
Digital cameras use a fixed, light-sensitive, silicon chip that comes in two varieties: CCD or CMOS. This chip determines the frame size and the light sensitivity of the camera. Look for digital cameras with larger chip sizes for larger images.
Digital cameras capture files in the range of, on average, 4 megapixels to 8 megapixels or more. More information is generally better. If you need to crop out a portion of a photo, that’s where extra resolution comes in handy, for both printing and Web display. If you started with a 4MB image, but cropped out half of the image, you’ve ended up with only 2MB of information, only enough for a 1.95”x4” yearbook photo. However, if you started with a 7MB image, but cropped out half the image, you’ve ended up with 3.5MB of information, enough for a 3.4”x4” yearbook photo. (Another good reason to remind your photographers to move up close and fill the frame.) So, for most print media work, look for a camera that captures at least 5 megapixels, preferably 7 megapixels. For Web work alone, such high resolution is not necessary.
Digital cameras use a conventional optical viewfinder or electronic viewfinder like that used on camcorders. Especially with point-and-shoot models, however, photographers often find themselves using the LCD that displays the scene. The LCD can be hard to see in bright light and uses a lot of battery power.
Stores images as digital files on reusable memory cards or discs. While Compact Flash is the standard storage medium, alternative forms are available. Be sure you have a reader that can hook up to your computer for when you don’t want to plug the camera in directly. Other storage media that are compatible across many platforms include the microdrive, Secure Digital card or Secure Digital High Capacity card.
Digital cameras store images in one of three typical formats: JPEG, raw or TIFF. JPEG is the most efficient however the file compression may result in lower image quality. Raw files require additional software before they can be widely shared, printed or uploaded but retain the highest quality file information. Raw files are becoming the standard for professionals. TIFF images are large and slow, but avoid some of the quality problems associated with JPEG files.
If you’re looking to buy a camera with interchangeable lenses, consider buying a brand that fits with the lenses you already have. They’ll work just fine in most cases. Remember, the lens is in front of the picture and the camera behind it.
Look for a camera that allows you to set the camera to fully automatic for when you just don’t have time to think about the aperture and shutter speed. But also find one that allows you to set aperture priority (A), shutter priority (S) and fully manual (M). You should also look for the range of ISO settings. A wider range of ISO (say from 200 to 3200) will give you more flexibility in varying lighting conditions.
Resolution • measured in megapixels, all cameras on the market have adequte resolution for all but the largest of images in high-resolution reproduction such as yearbook
Price • Point and shoot: $150 to $300; semi-pro: $301 to $1,500; professional: $1,501 to $10,000
Lens type • built-in zoom encompassing at least 38mm to 114mm, 35mm equivalent); detachable lenses should include one wide-angle zoom and one telephoto zoom at least
Storage media • CompactFlash preferred; others: Memory Stick, xD-Picture Card, or Secure Digital/MultiMediaCard
Photo file format • JPEG, raw
Interfaces • USB, NTSC/PAL television connection
Exposure controls • Automatic, programmed scene modes, exposure compensation, manual; shutter priority (Tv, S); aperture priority (Av, A)
Flash modes • Automatic, fill, red-eye reduction
Multimedia • VGA (640×480), 30fps video-clip recording with sound
Cool features • black-and-white mode, in-camera red-eye removal, image stabilization, face detection, 720p HD movie capture
Digital Photography Review has just about everything you’d ever want to know about digital cameras all in one place. Compare individual cameras, learn about various models and chat with other users.
C|NET is full of information about all types of digital cameras including reviews of most digital cameras on the market. You can even compare cameras on the C|NET site.
about.com is another site that reviews cameras and offers a wealth of information about individual cameras, manufacturers and information on digital photography in genera.