The Big Picture
So you’re in the market for a digital camera. Megapixels, USB ports, optical vs. digital zoom-how do you know what you need? Digital cameras come with a wide variety of options, and you need to know what you are looking for before heading to the store. Digital cameras have come down in price in the last three years, but they are still a significant investment, and you need to make sure you get the most for your money.
Features of a Digital Camera
While the styles and varieties of digital cameras abound, they all have similar features. The first thing you are going to need to determine is the amount of resolution you need. Resolution in digital cameras is measured in megapixels. Let me explain what megapixels are and how they work.
In any digital image, whether on screen or in print, the actual image is made of tiny dots, called pixels. The more pixels that are in each inch of the picture, the smaller the dots are, and the clearer the image. A megapixel is one million pixels. Now, resolution is extremely important if you are planning on printing your pictures, especially if you are planning on making enlargements. A resolution of three or four will be sufficient for every day pictures and prints. However, if you are going to need quality enlargements larger than 8 x 10, you will need at least a five-megapixel camera.
The second important feature of a digital camera is its zoom capabilities. There are actually two types of digital camera zooms: digital and optical. Optical zoom takes a higher quality picture, because with optical zoom the camera’s lens actually moves, allowing the picture to absorb more light as it takes a closer picture. Digital zoom is more like a cropping tool. With digital zoom, the camera is zooming in on the picture, but the lens does not move. Basically, the zoom is zooming in on the picture as it already is. Digital zoom does not allow any more light into the camera, and as a result some picture quality is lost. Most of today’s digital cameras have a combination of digital and optical zooms. Read the fine print, and be sure there is some optical zoom. Keep in mind that a camera that advertises 10x zoom is probably not offering 10x optical zoom-some of the zoom is probably digital.
The third feature that the digital camera shopper needs to consider is the type of memory card the camera takes. There are five different types of memory available currently. Kodak cameras tend to use the SD memory card. This card is relatively small, and offers the user the option to lock the card to prevent accidentally erasing the pictures. Fuji and Olympus recently started using a xD card, which is also small and can lock. The xD card claims to have a faster write speed, but sites like epions.com seem to think differently. Prior to the advent of the xD card, Olympus and Fuji used a Smart Media card. The most common format used for digital camera memory cards is the Compact Flash card. This card is the biggest of the types, but works well, and is used by the most digital camera brands, including Nikon and Canon. Sony uses a memory stick, which can be used on all Sony products, a big bonus if you have other Sony electronics. While some may argue, the type of memory card your camera will take makes little difference in the quality of your pictures. It is important that you purchase a card with enough memory space. If you are going to take your camera on vacation, read up on how many images at a high resolution the cards can hold. Nothing would be worse then going on your dream vacation and running out of memory!
The final consideration when making your purchase is the type of battery your camera takes. Make sure you purchase a camera that can use rechargeable batteries. That being said, some digital cameras use AA batteries. AA batteries can be a benefit, because they rechargeable AAs are easy to find, and if your batteries die unexpectedly, you can replace them with some disposables. Many digital camera manufacturers have created their own types of batteries for their cameras. These batteries tend to hold their charge longer, but are more expensive to replace. Whatever type of battery your camera has, make sure you have a spare.
The rest of the features you will have to choose from on your camera are a matter of personal preference. I will caution you about one more feature, though. Some lower-end digital cameras do not come with a viewfinder, the little window you can look through to take the picture. These cameras rely on the LCD screen for all pictures. This can be a problem when shooting pictures outdoors. LCD screens can be difficult to see in the bright sunlight. Also, LCD screens take up a lot of battery life. Make sure your camera has a viewfinder in case you find yourself in a situation where you need it.
Once you have determined your needs it is time to head to the store. Make sure you shop around for the best price. Visit stores where they have the cameras out for display. Make sure you have been able to play with a display model. Check to see that the camera is comfortable in your hand. A recent trend in digital cameras is for them to be extremely small. A tiny camera may look cool, but they can be cumbersome and difficult to handle. Pick a camera that will meet your needs and feels comfortable in your hand.
Keep in mind that digital cameras have significant lag time between shots. This time allows the camera to write the image to the memory card. Play with different cameras to find one with a short lag time. Also, some cameras come with internal memory. This is a great feature in case you manage to leave home without your card.
Another option feature you might want to consider is the ability to take a short movie. Movies take up a lot of memory card space, but they can be a lot of fun. Look for a camera that has easy to use dials and buttons. When the perfect shot happens, you don’t want to be scrambling with your camera trying to get it set correctly.
While its not always possible, one of the best ways to decide if you have found the right camera is to see pictures that were taken with it. Sometimes stores will have sample pictures they took with the camera. These photos can give you a feel for the quality of the camera.
Once you have decided on your camera, be patient! Digital cameras go on sale quite frequently. Sometimes stores will offer a package deal where you can purchase the camera and then get a memory card or printer free, often after rebate. If you are patient and know what you are looking for, you can get a great deal!
The world of digital cameras is constantly changing. It can be intimidating to venture out into it. But with a little education and a lot of research, you can buy the perfect digital camera!