Ten Tips for Digital Camera Shopping

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Ten Tips for Digital Camera Shopping

It can be intimidating trying to figure out which digital camera is right for you. There are just so many factors. Make sense out of all the confusion with this tutorial on choosing the right digital camera for you.

1. Define your needs.
Decide what you want to do with the camera. The kinds of pictures you take and how you view them will dictate what kind of camera you need. If you want to make prints, resolution is an important issue (see below); if you're capturing images for emails or websites, it is less important.
The camera's lens specifications are also important: long focal lengths (4x zoom or more) are essential for action shots, while wide angles (30mm equivalent or less) are vital for interiors and group shots. If you take lots of indoor shots, adjustable white balance (or a good auto white balance system) is an advantage as you can match the conditions to the camera's colour balance settings.

2. Make a list of the features you'd like.
Today's digital cameras can do lots of neat things, like capturing short video clips or action sequences, stitching pictures together to make panoramas, shooting extreme close-ups and recording sound clips. A few models even come with communications capabilities that allow them to be connected to the Internet. Check out what functions are available and prioritise them in order of their usefulness. This will help you to explain your preferences when you visit a store.
Decide how much manual control you want. If you want a digital camera to take snapshots, full-auto operation is fine, but if you like to control the camera's focus, lens aperture and shutter speeds, manual overrides are essential. Many high-resolution cameras also offer aperture priority and shutter priority auto exposure - just like most 35mm SLR cameras.

3. Decide on your budget.
This should cover not only the cost of the camera itself but also a flash media card adaptor to make downloading images to your PC easy, one or more spare flash memory cards so you have plenty of shooting capacity and a spare set of batteries - or two (digital cameras are notorious power consumers). A carry pouch or bag could also be a worthwhile investment. Be a bit flexible (allow up to $200 above what you'd like to pay - just in case the perfect camera is there at a higher-than-budgeted-for price). Don't be tempted to penny-pinch; digital cameras are one product groups where you truly get what you pay for. At the same time, don't expect the $1500 digital camera you bought today to have the same feature set as the models on offer this time next year; this market is very volatile, with typical product life cycles of 6-9 months and new innovations appearing even more frequently.

4. Look for bundled 'goodies'.
These include software, cables, battery chargers, carry pouches and docking stations; in short, anything that will make your experience as a user more enjoyable. Some digital cameras come with 'light' versions of sophisticated software programs, such as Adobe Photoshop. These can offer a cheap and easy upgrade path to the 'full bottle' program and are definitely worth having. Favour cameras that come with everything you need for capturing pictures and downloading them to your PC; remember you'll have to budget for all necessary add-ons.

5. Check the camera's resolution.
Digital images are made up of discrete picture elements or 'pixels'. These correspond to the photo-sensitive elements on the camera's image sensor that capture the colour and intensity of the light coming from the subject. The more pixels it has, the more colour and intensity information the sensor can capture and the higher the resolution of the images it produces.
The resolution of a digital camera is normally expressed in megapixels (although for low-resolution models, video equivalents are often used). A one megapixel sensor typically consists of an array of 1280 x 960 pixels (which is its maximum resolution). A two megapixel sensor has a maximum resolution of 1600 x 1200 pixels, while a three megapixel sensor offers 2048 x 1536 pixels. Cameras with VGA resolution capture images with 640 x 480 pixels (which matches the resolution of most TV sets), while those with XGA resolution reach 1024 x 768 pixels (which matches the resolution of many computer monitors).
Resolution is important if you plan to make prints: the higher the sensor's resolution, the larger the prints you can make before the image starts to break into pixels and lose its detail. For screen viewing, low resolution is acceptable but you can take advantage of the better image quality offered by a high-resolution sensor and compress the captured image to match the screen viewing conditions.

6. Know the difference between digital and optical zoom.
Most digital cameras come with zoom lenses and many also include a 'digital zoom' function. Optical zooming involves changing the lens focal length to zoom in on part of the subject. Digital zoom involves recording the pixels from the central section of the subject area and enlarging them to fill the field of view. There is no loss of resolution with optical zoom because the lens does all the work. For digital zooming, 20-40 per cent of the pixels are discarded to 'enlarge' the central portion of the image. Consequently, fewer pixels are used to produce the image and resolution is lost.

7. Check the lens angle of view.
One of the big deficiencies of digital cameras is their poor wide-angle coverage. This becomes very noticeable when you're taking pictures in small rooms or trying to capture largish groups of people. The reason for this is the digital image sensors are very small, compared with the size of a single 35mm frame. It is much more difficult (and costly) to design wide-angle lenses that can image on small areas, which means you can't expect to get coverage equivalent to 24mm or wider from a digital camera - unless you use a wide-angle accessory lens. If wide-angle coverage is important, add a hundred dollars or so for this item.

8. Look at the options for image data storage and compression.
Captured images are generally stored on a removable flash media card, which is supplied with the digital camera (in some low-resolution models this is built-in and non-removable). The camera manufacturer generally dictates which type of flash media card is used and will supply a card that can capture between one and about seven images at the highest resolution. All types of flash media perform equally well but some offer more capacity than others. Check your local store for the latest products.
Captured image data files are generally large, especially from cameras with high-resolution sensors. To optimise the number of pictures available, most digital cameras will compress these large files so they can fit more of them on the flash media card. The most commonly-used compression is JPEG (developed by the Joint Photographic Experts Group) and many cameras offer several selectable levels of compression (low to high).
Many high-resolution digital cameras can capture and store every bit of data from the sensor as an uncompressed file. The size of this file is large: a typical two megapixel sensor captures a 6MB data file, which almost fills an 8MB card!
High levels of compression can introduce artefacts, which are defects in the image that are normally only visible at high magnifications. Check this out by enlarging an image at maximum compression until you start to see its pixel structure (on-screen viewing should reveal any artefacts; there's no need to make a print).

9. Research independent camera reviews.
Several Australian photography magazines (including PhotoReview!) offer independent camera reviews that can assist your choice. Be wary of reviews from overseas publications because the same products are not always available locally, and sometimes the specifications will differ from country to country.

10. Shop where you can receive well-informed advice.
It's worth paying a few extra dollars to know you've bought a camera that will truly meet your needs and that you're comfortable using so seek out a store with staff that are prepared to spend time with you. Don't buy a camera that feels uncomfortable to hold; it'll end up on the shelf. Finalise your decision by taking a couple of shots and asking the salesperson to display them on a computer screen and make a print so you're sure the camera's performance matches your expectations.