Choosing a camera can be confusing
Choosing a camera can be confusing

You are very confused. You’ve taken a quick tour of the big electronics stores checking out the bewildering array of digital cameras and now what?

Which one?

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This is an important decision. After all a digital camera is really a complex computer with a lens and the choice an important one – not your typical impulse buy.

Besides price, it all comes down to how answer these questions. How do you plan to use your new camera? What do you plan to do with the photographs? What features are important? And why do we care about mega-pixels?

We are going to talk about just point & shoot cameras right now, later we will approach the digital SLR area of photography.

Sharpness and size are related to pixels and sensor size.

If you plan to only use the camera to create snapshots for e-mail and perhaps the occasional 4×6 inch print, then three mega-pixels will work just fine. But if you want to make larger prints like 8x10s then you will need more resolution.


But don’t go overboard! Anything more than five isn’t necessary unless you plan on cropping your pictures a lot or you plan on making BIG prints.

For starters let’s say a four mega-pixels camera will do just fine.

Other important things

In addition to sharpness and size, good colour reproduction is important. This is where you have to do your homework and research on the Internet and/or magazines for camera reviews. I really like http://www.dpreview.com and www.fredmiranda.com.

Those sites have an amazing amount of information for the careful shopper and forums in which you can ask questions from a variety of camera users.

Remember, this shouldn’t be an impulse buy.

I don’t have all the answers, nor have I sampled all the cameras out there, but I can get you started.

Dpreview also has sample images from different cameras for you to compare.

Before I bought my family a new camera a few years ago, I researched on the Web exhaustively, checking out comparisons of different cameras, technical specifications and sample pics. Also, what did users of those cameras have to say about ease of use and image quality.

I ended up with a Canon Digital Elph S400. Four mega-pixels, small enough for a shirt pocket and great colour and sharpness. But enough resolution for creative print making. Remember, this was about four years ago and cameras have grown in pixel size and in capabilities. The main thing to remember is to do your homework.

To zoom or not to zoom

There are two kinds of zooms available: optical and digital.

Digital zoom is not really a true zoom. Digital zoom is where the camera crops a smaller portion of the image and then blows it back up to full size making a rather messy looking image. It is trying to make something from nothing in a poor simulation of a zoom.

(If you have been using digital zoom and your images don’t look quite right, then that can be one of the reasons. )

An optical zoom allows for perspectives from wide-angle to telephoto. Look at the numbers for optical zoom; higher numbers mean you can bring the subject in closer. For example, a 10x optical zoom gets you closer to your subject than a 2x zoom.

Getting up close and personal

Do you want to be able to make close-up photos of flowers or insects? Then check on the macro function that is offered (or not). What is the minimum distance you can focus?

Let’s talk memory

Many cameras come with proprietary memory cards. In other words, they only work in that brand camera. Personally I prefer cameras that use more universal memory cards, like Compact Flash or Secure Digital. These can be used in a great variety of popular brands saving you money when you upgrade cameras.

Time to go shopping

Okay, you have done your homework and you have a general idea of what you want in a new camera – and of course, you have it all written down, right?

Things to look at

How does the camera feel in yours hands?
Is it too heavy or too small?
Are the controls easy to reach?
Is the screen on the back big enough for you to see the pictures?
Does it work with your eyesight?
Can you understand the menu?
Can the salesperson put in a card and let you test fire some shots?
How does the shutter respond?

What else do you need?

Most cameras come with only the very basics, a small memory card, one battery and charger or set of double ‘A’s.

So you will need:

Extra batteries

If the camera uses double ‘A’s then be sure to buy rechargables otherwise you will go broke buying batteries. I like cameras that use their own type of batteries, usually Lithium-ion I find them more economical in the long run.

Extra memory

Once a memory card is full, you’ll either have to delete images or load them onto your computer. A second or third card comes in handy.

Don’t put all your digital eggs in one basket. Two 1-gig cards are better than one 2-gig card.

A memory card reader makes transferring images easy or try a docking station, a camera cradle that remains hooked up to your computer.

Software

Most camera packages come with some sort of software with which to edit your pictures, but be sure to check out the free download Picassa from Google for PCs and iPhoto for the Mac. I understand they are quite easy to use with lots of fun features.

Just like with computers (and my latest camera) as soon as you buy it, a new biggerbetterfaster one will come out. Don’t worry about it!

Oh, one last thing. READ THE MANUAL. It contains a lot of information that will help you understand your new camera and all its bells and whistles.

“Many pictures turn out to be limp translations of the known world instead of vital objects which create an intrinsic world of their own. There is a vast difference between taking a picture and making a photograph.”
— Robert Heinecken

Next week: Part two of choosing a camera (or digital glossary)

Lara Hartley is a professional photographer and writer in Southern California’s High Desert.

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6 COMMENTS

  1. Another important feature is an optical viewfinder. When taking pictures outdoors in very bright light, it is very difficult to see what you’re shooting at if you’re using the little “TV screen” on the camera.

  2. “If the camera uses double ‘A’s then be sure to buy rechargables otherwise you will go broke buying batteries.”

    Definitely agree.

    “I like cameras that use their own type of batteries, usually Lithium-ion I find them more economical in the long run.”

    Definitely disagree.

    AA rechargeable batteries are the only way to go. Lithium batteries for a certain camera can be hard, if not impossible, to find, especially in remote regions. And used ones have to be packed out. With rechargeable AA batteries you can use a solar charger and never have to carry many spares or have to pack used batteries out. Tho I typically replace my AAs every year as SOP, I think that still limits landfill use over lithiums.

  3. Extra Memory – Format it in the camera before taking pictures. Some cards come with free software, that when put in a card reader, will start loading instead of your photographs.

    Consider where you will use the camera. Will you take it rock climbing, you want a rugged unit. Will you take it to of your kids outdoors sporting events in the rain, you want a weather resistant unit.

    I also prefer an eye piece for bright days.

    I also prefer cameras with their own battery. The specialty Lion batteries usually go much longer between charges. I’ve also found AC/DC chargers so I can recharge anyplace I have a wall outlet or cigarette lighter outlet.

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