WHICH DIGITAL CAMERA IS BEST FOR YOU? Good question, but one that can be more easily answered than you might think. Once you know exactly what to look for, the list of contenders usually becomes surprisingly small.
In the last 10 years since I left IBM, I've given over 500 presentations on the topic of digital photography to hundreds of PC User Groups. During that time, I've owned six different digital cameras and taken about ten thousand photos, both for personal and professional purposes. What's more, my family members have used my cameras, so I've had a lot of experience with what to like and what not to like in a digital camera. Here are the cameras I've owned:
- Kodak DC120
- Nikon 950
- Nikon 990
- Sony DSC-W50
- Nikon D70s
I can't really say I liked any of the cameras "best," because I was careful about getting the best camera for my purchases available at the time of purchase, so I liked them all.
So, let me share my real-life experience with what I look for when buying a digital camera. Interestingly, it's not what the manufacturers or retailers necessarily want you to be comparing (because if they listed the most useful specifications on their little spec sheets, it would mean that they'd probably confuse buyers even more, and confused buyers mean lost sales). So here's help on how to be truly savvy when buying a digital camera:
- Form factor (size and type of the camera) is the first thing you'll want to consider, because it drives all of the other decisions. If you're in the market for a Single-Lens Reflex (SLR) professional or pro-sumer camera, then you probably know enough about digital photography already to pick out a good one from Nikon or Canon. I love my Nikon D70s, but I've heard and read good things about Canons as well. This Guide is written for those who want a reasonably inexpensive ($100 to $500) but excellent pocket-sized digital camera for everyday use. Obviously, you'll want one small enough to fit into your front shirt-pocket, but you'll also want one that doesn't break the first time you forget it's there and lean over and it slips right out of that front shirt-pocket. In other words, unless you get a protective case that ALSO fits in your front shirt-pocket, I'd be careful about carrying around a camera there. I've had my smaller Sony fall out about a dozen times now - and finally the battery latch broke.
- Megapixels matter, but they're over-emphasized. This should really be #3 or 4 on the list of important things to look for, but here's how to tell how many megapixels you need:
- 1 megapixels is all you need to take pictures that look great on eBay or the web or a computer screen. Here's the math: The most common computer display resolution is 1024x768 pixels, or .786 megapixels. Yup, less than one megapixel is all it takes to produce a photo that looks great on screen.
- 2 megapixels produces a decent 4"x6" print if you print at 300 dpi.
- 3 megapixels produces a near-perfect 4"x6" print and a very decent 5"x7" print.
- 4 through 7 megapixels let's you get outstanding full resolution prints of any size up to 5"x7," as well as decent 8"x10" prints.
- 8 megapixels is the threshold to get outstanding full-resolution prints of any size up to 8"x10" at 300 dpi.
- 16 megapixels is required to get outstanding full-resolution prints of any size up to 14"x16" at 300 dpi.
- Image stablization is even more important than megapixels, in my opinion, because you'll get a MUCH sharper, clearer picture with a camera sporting image stabilization than you will without. It's like being able to take pictures without using a tri-pod and still get pictures that look as if they were taken using a tri-pod.
- Battery life and convenience is much more important than you might think. Here's why: when you're on vacation and you reach for your camera to take that once-in-a-lifetime photo and the battery is dead, well, it doesn't matter how good the rest of the camera is: you're camera is worthless until you can either charge or replace the batteries. Also, the more often you have to change batteries, the more annoyed you'll get at your camera. Look for a camera that uses replaceable AA batteries, so you can purchase inexpensive rechargeable NiMH batteries (don't use alkaline batteries in a digital camera unless you enjoy spending a ton of money on batteries) and always have a few extra (charged and ready to go) with you in the camera case. If you buy a camera that uses a non-standard battery, then you will need to purchase a second (usually pretty expensive) battery so you can always have a spare available. So be sure to also check out the comparative battery life of any camera before you buy.
- Card-slot - Forget about buying an ultra-cheap camera with no digital card slot and nothing but built-in memory. It's a suckers bargain. BE SURE you get an expansion slot that uses a standard memory card so you can get more and more memory (larger and larger cards) to hold more and more pictures as memory gets cheaper and cheaper - and it always does. Also, having a card means that you'll have more flexibility when it comes time to copy the pictures to your PC - you won't be forced to use a cable, which can be slow and tedious. So what kind of card is best? Well, it's a trade-off. Compact Flash (CF) cards are the least expensive, and come in larger capacities, but make for a bigger camera. Secure Digital cards are almost as inexpensive as CF but don't usually come in capacities as large as CF. Sony's Memory Stick are generally more expensive and come in smaller capacities, but Sony sometimes does everything else right, so you may want to at least consider Memory Stick. I would be careful before buying a camera that doesn't use one of those 3 types. My rule of thumb is that if I see the card in Costco or Sam's Club or even CompUSA at competitive prices, then I'll consider buying a camera with that type of memory card.
- Automatic settings for a variety of situations can be a huge convenience. The best cameras don't require you to access a menu of choices but rather let you turn a dial on the top of a camera, point, and shoot. The choices should include such choices as Automatic, Scenery, Portraits, Macro or close-ups, Scenery, Sports or Motion, Night-time, and so on. Also look for the ability of the camera to delay the shutter, so you can run and get in the picture after pushing the shutter-release.
- Responsiveness is how long it takes for the camera to get ready between pictures. In other words, how quickly does it let you take a 2nd picture? This is another one of those things you should try out or check out before buying a camera. It can drive you crazy if it takes too long to take that 2nd picture when you took the first one too soon and the window of picture-taking opportunity is about to close.
- Optical zoom - 3X is good, higher is better. Ignore digital zoom specs, because you can do the same thing as digital zoom (or better) using most photo editing software. Digital zoom specs are essentially meaningless - make sure you focus on optical zoom.
- Video - If your camera takes DVD-quality video (namely 720x480 or 640x480 resolution and 30 frames per second), then your digital camera can double as a digital camcorder, and you can make some great-looking music videos / slide shows with a software program named muvee autoProducer.
- Size of the image preview window - 2" or 2.5" is great. Smaller and you can't see your pictures as well; larger and you get poorer battery life.
- Flash - Just make sure it has a built-in flash that works. Red-eye reduction feature is a nice bonus feature.
- Durability - Finally, try to get a feel for how sturdy and rugged the camera is. Don't expect miracles, but look for an automatic lens shutter/cover and an LCD that doesn't stick out ready to break the first time you drop your camera.
So that's it - you probably won't find any camera on the market that excels in every particular, so look for the one that has the most of those features above that matter most to you.
I hope this Guide and my experience with digital cameras over this past decade has been helpful to you. If not, let me know where you think I'm missing the boat - feel free to contact me via eBay. If it has been helpful, won't you take a moment and encourage me to write more Guides by clicking on the Yes button below? Many thanks and may your digital camera experience be a wonderful one!