The most important thing to keep in mind when choosing a type of camera is what you want to do with it. Learn here what you need to know before you buy a digital camera. Also look into the top picks off to the right side as evaluated by professional reviewers.
Why Switch to Digital?
If you haven't already made the switch from film to digital, what are you waiting for? There's a whole new world of photography waiting for you to explore. Here are several reasons to make the switch:
* '''Versatility''': Digital cameras are sophisticated enough for advanced photographers yet easy to use for beginners.
* '''Fool Proof: '''They can transform even the worst picture into something spectacular with editing technology and without wasting money on mediocre prints because you can delete them on the spot.
* '''Quick and Easy Results: '''The fastest way to print your photos without leaving your house.
* '''Convenience: '''Take more pictures without having to switch rolls of film. No worries about improperly loaded film.
* '''Cost: '''Initially more expensive to buy, but very cost effective in the long run.
Choose by Photography Profile
* '''Basic:''' If you like to keep things simple, your camera should be simple too. Don't spend money on features that you know you won't use, such as manual controls or video recording ability. Likewise, if you are the type of person who only takes pictures once a year, don't go for something that is too costly. Try a nice compact model that you can throw in your bag or an ultra-compact model that you can stick in your pocket.
* '''Advanced Amateur:''' You like control over what you shoot and you know how to use a camera. You want something powerful with plenty of features that are easy to access. Try an advanced compact for portability, a super zoom for improved quality, or for ability to improve your photography skills, get an advanced SLR-style digital.
* '''Professional''': If you're going to go digital, a digital SLR (Single Lens Reflex) is the way to go for the best quality, versatility, and power. SLRs are the standard for serious photographers. They're the cameras with the detachable lenses that you focus on your own. DSLRs are the digital equivalent of the 35mm SLR predecessors.
Still need direction? Ask yourself what are you using the camera for and what feature is most important to you. See the following guides for more detailed information on Ultra Compact Digital Cameras, Ultra Zoom Digital Cameras, and Digital SLR Cameras.
* '''Price and simplicity'''
** Compact cameras are easy to use but offer limited control.
** Compact cameras are what you would call point-and-shoot models. These are perfect for the occasional photographer and novice. They are simple to aim, feature image stabilization and usually are equipped to auto-focus. Plus, they don't require that you know how to adjust aperture and shutter speed to get the proper lighting for a shot.
** Price ranges $150 to $450 for a compact digital camera.
** Subcompact cameras (aka ultra-compact point-and-shoot) are easy to carry with you but have smaller, harder-to-use controls.
** These are a great option for those who are looking to tote their cameras with them daily -- they can fit even in the smallest purses. No matter where you go you won't be troubled hauling along a clunky camera and you can still save the memories as you go. Plus, a lot of models are really sleek and sexy looking.
** Price ranges $200 to $500 for a subcompact digital camera.
** Super-zoom cameras have excellent range but are heavier. Slightly more advanced than a point-and-shoot.
** If you enjoy photography a lot and often take photos of things like landscapes, cityscapes, or even travel photos, you may want to consider a camera with a zoom that gives you telephoto lens capabilities.
** Price ranges $350 to $450 for a super-zoom digital camera.
* '''Versatility and power'''
** SLR cameras for professional and artistic photography boast top-notch features, but at a price.
** If you really want to have artistic control, plus manual override features to handle tricky lighting and a variety of other situations, you may want to opt for an SLR. However, it will cost and weigh substantially more (2 lbs. plus). They do offer longer battery life though, as well as shorter shutter lag, quicker shooting, and the benefit of being able to change lenses, add filters, external flashes, and more.
** Price ranges $700 to $1500 for entry and mid-level digital SLR cameras.
** Advanced compact cameras are for difficult lighting settings and have a good range, but weigh more.
** Usually these are a good choice for someone who wants to have some of the manual override features of an SLR, without the hefty price tag or bulk.
** Prices range from $300 to $600 for an advanced compact digital camera.
Protecting Your Camera
Camera cases are helpful for carrying your high-tech gadget around easily while protecting it from the elements and other damage it may incur through travel. Check out some recommendations below for protecting your digital camera model.
Deciphering the Jargon
When shopping for a digital camera you will find yourself being faced with lots of jargon. For amateurs, some of it is important and some of it isn't. Here is an outline of the major points and what you need to know to make the right purchasing decision.
* Resolution is measured in megapixels, MPs. Each megapixel is a million light-sensing elements that are called pixels.
* Resolution determines the maximum size of the print that can be made from the image in the viewfinder. '''It does NOT directly affect print quality.''' A 4x6" print of the recorded image will look just as good taken with a 2MP camera as it will with an 8MP digital camera.
* A rough rule of thumb is that 1MP image is required to make a good 4x6" print, 2MP for a 5x7, 3MP for an 8x10, 4-6MP for an 11x14, etc. 1MP or less is all that's needed for pictures displayed on television or computer screens.
* There is a widely held belief that more MPs make better pictures because people can't always fill the viewfinder with the image they want to print. When they try to make a 4x6" print of the bird in the tree that's only 1/10th the area of the viewfinder, the bird's image is made up of only 1/10 of the camera's MPs. In this example the bird would not be enough pixels big for a good 4x6" print with anything less than a 10 MP camera (1/10 of 10MP = 1MP).
* High resolution digital cameras also prevent the Moire effect from occurring in your photographs. If a shot contains more detail than a camera's resolution can handle, an unattractive wave is created. An anti-aliasing feature can lessen the problem (though it also lowers pictures' contrast).
* You can probably get by with a 2 or 3 MP camera with no optical zoom, if your pictures are mostly of family and friends in situations in which you can walk up close enough to fill the viewfinder with the image you want to print.
* If you're going to be taking pictures of birds, kids playing soccer and football, or whenever you can't get close enough to fill the viewfinder with the image you want to print, you'll be better off with more optical zoom rather than more MPs.
* Refer to the following explanation of "'''Zoom'''" for more information about the trade-offs between optical zoom and MPs.
* Most digital cameras come in mega pixel ranges that you can find 2 to 5 megapixel digital camera, 5 to 7MP, 7 to 9MP, 9 to 11MP, and for the highest resolution, over 11 megapixels digital camera.
'''Memory and Storage'''
* Instead of film, digital cameras use removable memory, either in the form of a card, chip, or stick.
* The higher the resolution you plan to use, the more memory you will need.
* Most digital cameras come with a 16 MB or 32 MB memory card, or equivalent internal memory that will usually store only 5 to 10 high-resolution pictures. That's not a lot. Definitely buy extra memory.
* See the memory buying guide for more detailed information.
* Compact flash I & II
** Inexpensive, versatile, and easy to find. Bulkier than other memory cards types.
** Supporting manufacturers: Canon, Fujifilm, Nikon, Olympus; used mainly in digital SLRs.
* Look for memory in various gigabyte sizes, such as 1GB SD, 2GB SD, 4GB SD, 6GB SD, 8GB SD, and Multimedia cards.
** Great for small cameras and they feature a write-protect switch for data security.
** Supporting manufacturers: Canon, Casio, Epson, HP, Kodak, Konica Minolta, Kyocera, Leica, Nikon, Samsung
* xD Picture Card
** Very small with big capacity.
** Supporting manufacturers: Fujifilm, Olympus.
* Memory Stick
** Proprietary technology for Sony devices and cameras.
* Most digital cameras come with their own integrated rechargeable lithium-ion battery so that you won't have to bother with alkaline batteries or even standard rechargeables.
* Standard alkaline batteries and rechargeable have their pros and cons.
** Alkalines tend to have a shorter life. That means switching batteries often. This can be a problem if you work off a tripod unless the camera has a side-loading battery compartment.
** Even rechargeables need to be changed quite often, compared to a proprietary lithium ion battery.
** The good thing about standard batteries is that even if you lose them or they die, you can always replace them with a trip to a camera store, pharmacy, or supermarket. Proprietary batteries need to be ordered and charged ahead of time so that you don't get stuck empty-handed while in the field.
* The main concern about proprietary batteries is their capacity and their charging speed. Obviously, the larger capacity, the longer you can go without having to recharge, and the longer you can leave your screen on, etc. Recharging, however, does take time, and nobody wants to get stuck while they are on vacation with a dead digital camera. If you are a serious photographer, definitely invest in an additional battery.
* '''Weight''': Having something lightweight is always convenient, however keep in mind that you will have to sacrifice features for something ultralight and compact. Lightness is usually acquired because the body itself is made of plastic. Sometimes this means a less sturdy camera. That doesn't mean you have to buy something that is poorly constructed though.
** Choose your camera wisely depending on what you want most out of it. If you know that you are an avid photographer, don't skimp on features just because you want something that won't weigh a lot. There are plenty of advanced EVF digital cameras or entry-level digital SLRs that are fairly compact and lightweight.
** If you like to be on the go, don't waste your time with something bulky. Most lightweight portables weigh less than a pound and can fit in a purse. Some models are so small, namely the Pentax Optio S4, that they fit in an Altoids box.
* '''Grip''': The camera should fit well in your hand and feel solid. The bigger the camera, the larger and more ergonomical a grip you will want. The worst thing you can do is drop your camera because it is either too big or too small.
** Verify that the strap is adequately placed. It should not get in the way of the battery compartment, the memory card compartment, or your grip.
** For large cameras, see if they offer a non-slip grip coating. It makes carrying an SLR much easier.
* '''Buttons''': Think about the features that you plan to use most and make sure that they are grouped according to your needs. This goes both for the placement for taking pictures as well as for reviewing, tagging, and printing or emailing them (a feature on some models).
** Buttons are sometimes quite small on ultra-compact models, which may be difficult to use for people with big hands. Beware of buttons on the sides of the lens barrel or nearby. Sometimes they can be pressed accidentally.
** Along with buttons, there may be mode dials (found on cameras with manual functions). 35mm SLRs tend to have more features on the mode dials. Digital SLRs often depend on using the cameras menu accessed via the LCD monitor and or LCD status screen.
* '''Size: '''If it is small enough to fit in your pocket, you may be more apt to bring it along with you. Of course, SLRs and more advanced models will all need a camera case or neck strap to carry it along.
* Just as with film photography, it's important to always try to fill the viewfinder with the image that you want to print or display.
* '''Optical zoom''' accomplishes this by actually enlarging the image falling on the camera's image sensor so that the object being photographed contains more pixels in order to make the print or displayed image larger.
* '''Digital zoom''' operates by recording only the center part of the image falling on the image sensor, which is then enlarged to fill the viewfinder. (This can be compared to enlarging a newspaper photo by increasing the size of the dots that comprise the photo, and then cropping the photo so that only the center of the image is viewed.)
** Digital zoom is a marketing gimmick that should NOT be considered when comparing camera specs.
** Digital zoom should be turned off whenever possible so that you can easily judge how many pixels you have in the image you want to print. For instance, if you know you're only going to make 5x7" prints you can probably make do by setting the 4MP camera to 2MP as long as you can fill the viewfinder. But if the bird only fills half the viewfinder you would want to change the setting to 4 MP. This practice allows you to fit more pictures on your memory card.
** If you later decide you need to "blow up" the image, you can do it using your photo editing program.
* Optical zoom on most point and shoot digitals is typically 3-5X, but models are available with optical zoom up to 10X or 12X. The amount of optical zoom with Digital SLRs is dependent on the lens. One popular digital SLR comes with an 18-55mm lens, which is about a 3X optical zoom, (55/18 = 3). This is approximately equal to a 30-90mm lens on a 35mm film camera.
* In order to accurately determine how much a specific model will cost you, you will need to add on the costs of any extra equipment utilized to hook up your camera to your computer, such as cables, memory cards, readers, and/or USB hubs.
* You may be interested in checking out photo printers with PictBridge, a new technology that allows digital cameras to connect directly to printers so that photographs can be printed directly from the camera without the need for an intermediary computer.
'''Shutter Lag & Next-Shot Delay:''' Characteristics not always specified except for digital SLRs.
* How long after depressing the shutter release before the photo is actually taken?
** This delay can usually be minimized by holding the shutter release button halfway down so the camera can pre-focus before the shutter release is pressed all the way down to take the picture.
* How long does it take to store a picture in memory before another consecutive shot is possible?
** This time can sometimes be reduced by using high speed memory cards.
* What is the continuous shooting burst speed in frames per second (fps)?
* Does the camera have the ability to bracket (take multiple shots with graded exposure to capture the best lighting)?
* You may think that you'd want a really big screen, however large LCD screens that are constantly left on will not only use up the battery life very quickly. In addition, they add to the size and weight of the camera load, especially if you want both a big LCD screen and a viewfinder. Most of the cameras with a 2" LCD or bigger will not have a viewfinder.
* Check to make sure that the viewfinder is comfortable to look through if you don't want to drain the battery or if the sun is so bright that you can't see it. You'll want to get a very bright LCD screen, if you plan to be using the camera outdoors in bright daylight. Some cameras offer a glare-resistant LCD that is perfect for outdoor shooting.
* On SLR and advanced models the LCD screens are usually adjustable, meaning that they either flip, twist, and/or extend. Depending on whether or not you will be using a tripod often and other shooting positions, this is important to consider.
* If you shoot with a tripod or from waist level, you will appreciate having a camera with a flip and twist LCD screen. Many models now feature this "flexible" LCD screen, but for the average user it is probably an unnecessary frill unless you want to look cool. The Panasonic D Snap SD Series are a good example of this.
* '''Automatic Shutter Priority''' and '''Scene Modes''' (night mode, self-portrait, etc.)
** Advanced cameras always offer these features, and the majority of point and shoots do as well.
** For the casual photographer, these are really nice to have because you won't have to think about whether or not you need a flash, how much to zoom, or whether or not the picture will come out blurry.
** A number of camera manufacturers are now coming out with an image-stabilization processor that nearly eliminates all camera shake. For really high-quality shake-free technology, look for the cameras that offer stabilized optical zoom.
* '''In-Camera editing'''
** Many cameras allow you to resize, copy, or make other changes to your images before you download them to a computer or print via a photo printer. Some allow you to edit video clips in-camera as well.
* '''Manual Control Override.'''
** This feature is found in part on some point-and-shoot models, but primarily this is a feature intrinsic to dSLRs. All 35mm SLRs will certainly feature this.
* '''Weather-resistant''' models.
** This does not mean waterproof. For going underwater, you will need an underwater camera.
** Pentax Optio WP: Can go up to 5 ft. underwater for up to 30 minutes.
** Olympus Stylus Series: Rain and snow resistant.
* '''Dedicated 4x6" Printer-Docs''' and all '''Printers with PictBridge Technology.'''
** These are good for those without a computer, or simply for people who just want to have the simple convenience of printing their pictures at home or on-the-go with ease.
** The primary drawback of printing 4x6" photos on any kind of printer is that the prints will cost between 25 and 38 cents each for paper and ink, which is ''not'' cost effective since there are dozens of retail and web-based businesses that charge only 12 to 15 cents per print.
** Printing 8x10" photos on a full size printer, however, can be very cost effective.
** If you own one or more cameras in your household, or if you like the ability to edit without a computer, try a photo printer. You can also hook them up to your computer if you want.
* '''Video/audio''' capability and quality.
** You want it to have a minimum of 640x480 resolution, plus the ability to take AVI, MOV, MPG, and WMV files.
** There is also something called voice annotation, which allows you to record your voice as an attachment to the photo you take. Models that offer this feature are the Pentax Optio S and WP series, Konica Minolta's X series, Maxxum dSLR, and the M series by HP PhotosmartFujifilm.
** One of the most recent trends are the digital camera/camcorder combos. They are more expensive, but are very compact and powerful.
* '''Anti-shake''' features, or image stabilization processors.
** Panasonic's line of cameras all feature this.
** So does the Canon PowerShot S2 IS, the Sony Cyber Shot DSC-H1, and the Nikon Coolpix 8800.
* '''Multispot metering'''. Also known as multipattern or Digital ESP (Olympus).
** This is more important when you are considering buying a dSLR. It is available in both automatic and manual settings and is used to help avoid getting an under- or overexposed shot by metering several areas in the shot.
** Models that are known to offer this feature are the Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III and the EOS 1D Mark III.