The purchase of a digital camera is one of the more important tech decisions you will make, and one that you will live with for quite a while. Here is our guide to making that important decision easier.
The digital camera marketplace has continued to grow and change rapidly over the last ten or so years. There are features available today in even inexpensive cameras that were not even possible a few years ago. Automatic smile recognition may seem like a very odd function indeed, but it can come in handy and was not even a gleam in a camera designer’s eye in 2004. Changes of this scale have also taken place in the size of cameras, how the market is segmented by camera type, and prices. It can be a real jungle out there.
The first decisions that you will have to make concern the type of camera that you want and how that fits into your financial capabilities. There are three major digital camera categories for you to consider, with subcategories within each:
Compacts- These are very small lightweight cameras, generally meant to be carried easily in a pocket of purse. Their small size does not necessarily mean that you need to sacrifice features. Some have very rich feature sets, indeed. Within camera lines by the same manufacturer, these are often the lowest priced.
Prosumer- These fill the gap between “Compact” and “DSLR” cameras, usually larger and more feature-packed than the compacts, but using a single lens in all situations, relying mainly on zoom and other internal features to get the job done. The “Prosumer” category has become more and more impressive, so that you can get much of what you want in a camera without having to spend the big bucks on a DLSR.
DSLR- These are some of the most expensive digital cameras, using interchangeable lenses for different purposes. Not only do the camera bodies tend to be expensive, but multiple lenses are required to cover different photo situations. Unless you have a lot of disposable income, these cameras are for serious amateur and professional photographers.
A quick look at a couple of camera lines will give you an idea of camera prices. For example, a few minutes spent on each of the Canon, Nikon, and Sony sites will tell you what the price ranges are. Then think about what you are going to use the cameras for. If what you need is portability and convenience, and are mainly interested in what are colloquially known as “snapshots” then it is likely that the compact variety would fill your needs. There is a wide variety of prices and features in this group, so you still have a lot of work ahead of you.
If you are a little more serious about your photographs, but don’t want to go to the expense of buying a pricy camera body plus several lenses, the “Prosumer” cameras might be good for you. They are larger than the compact cameras, of course, but also more feature-rich and generally take higher quality photos. Many of these have larger optical zoom ranges, a broader range of high-end features, and look more like film SLR cameras of old. There are a number of people that have two cameras: a nice compact and a Digital SLR. The Prosumer camera is enough of a blend that it is possible to have only one camera.
If you really enjoy photography as a hobby, and if you are willing and financially able to invest a great deal of time and money in that hobby, you should be getting a DSLR. Please note that at any price range “reasonable” to most of us, you will still not be buying professional equipment. One of my friends is an AP photographer. He only uses Nikon and almost always has $100,000 worth of camera gear with him. He has several lenses that were more expensive than my car. The hobbyist DSLR owner works at a lower level, in all senses of the word.
Once you have determined the general type of camera that you want, you can begin to home in on a specific camera. You can’t go wrong with one of the Big 3 noted above (Canon, Sony, and Nikon) but there is no need to ignore other brands, like Panasonic, Kodak, Samsung, Pentax and Olympus. Read the descriptions of the cameras on the manufacturer sites until you find a few that seems to have all the features you want. At this point it would be good to talks over brands and features with friends that have the same photographic interests that you do.
Find the cameras, from manufacturers you trust, with the features that suit what you want to do. Is it small enough to fit conveniently into your lifestyle? Does it take point-and-shoot photos when you just need some shots like that? Do you want to have full manual control over exposure and focus, and will the camera do that? Do you need anti-shake control for longer zoom shots? Do you want to take panoramic shots? Do you need a lot of optical zoom for high quality zoom photos (digital zoom is not so good as optical).
There are a million possible questions, I suppose, and only you know which questions to ask and which answers to look for. I spent part of my life taking and selling photographs as part of my living. I had several camera bodies and bags of lenses to go with them. I now have a Sony DSC HX1 that does pretty much everything I want and need. It has a single lens with 20x optical zoom and an excellent lens and electronics. It is capable of taking good photos in full automatic mode, but I generally shoot in full manual mode with automatic exposure bracketing. This is the perfect camera for me at this point in my life. Your perfect camera will almost certainly be different.
And don’t leave the camera in your cell phone out of the equation. I have an iPhone 4 with a 5 megapixel camera. True to the maxim that the best camera is the one that you have with you, I have gotten a number of very good shots with my phone, though not nearly as good as the ones I get with my Sony HX1. So if you have a good cell phone camera, you might already have a reasonable equivalent of a compact camera.
At any rate, all of this research should bring you down to just one or two cameras that fit the bill. Look those camera up by searching on the exact model number (see this column for more detailed online shopping tips) and checking the prices with various vendors that you trust. You are undoubtedly spending all you reasonably can on this purchase, and you need to trust the vendor, as noted in that shopping column. When you have finally found the right camera at the right price from the right vendor, order it and start tapping your foot until the delivery truck stops in front of your house.