(97) Buying a Digital Camera (Updated 12/16/04)

by Robert A. Burns

I am often asked my advice regarding the purchase of a new digital camera. The following discussion is intended for people who are in the market for a reasonably-priced camera that will produce good photos at 4x6, 5x7, or 8x10 sizes. If you are planning to shoot professionally, or you are a serious hobbyist who understands f-stops, shutter speeds, and the function of various lenses, then skip the following advice.

Here is a list of the features I recommend:
Manufacturer: You choose
4 Megapixels
Optical zoom of at least 3X
Compact Flash or Secure Digital Card
Rechargeable batteries or battery pack
Fast shutter response
Special features?

There are many good cameras on the market. Most top brand manufacturers produce high-quality, reliable products.

How many megapixels do you actually need? I have obtained nice quality 11x14 prints from a cropped 4MP image. A year and a half ago, I paid $539 for a 4MP camera. Today, a comparable camera can be had for about half that price (or less on special models). Don’t pay for more camera than you need. If you are toting around a 6MP Digital SLR and you keep it set on "Automatic," you have basically purchased a $1000 point-and-shoot camera.

An optical zoom is a necessity. (Digital zoom is merely a software trick that enlarges your image, but lowers the resolution). A zoom in the range of 3X to 4X should suffice. Some cameras come with a 10X zoom, but unless you are shooting in bright light, or unless you are shooting with a tripod, a 10X zoom will result in blurry photos due to camera shake.

Compact Flash (CF) and Secure Digital (SD)cards are readily available, and they are getting faster and cheaper.

Digital cameras consume a lot of battery power (mainly due to the LCD monitor). Rechargeable battery packs are desirable (and while you are at it, buy a spare). Avoid cameras that use AA batteries.

On some digital cameras there is an annoying delay between the time that the shutter button is pressed and the time the photo is actually taken. You want a camera with minimal shutter lag. Try it before you buy it.

Finally, if you think that you will want to experiment with shutter speeds (to capture sports action, say) or lens apertures (to vary depth of field) then make sure that your camera can perform these functions. Red-eye reduction, shooting in black & white, and the ability to capture video are other functions that may be important to you. Also find out how the photos are transferred from the camera to your computer or printer, and make sure you are comfortable with the process.