Whether you desire to be a pro, want to explore photography as a new hobby or just want to capture those “Kodak Moments,” sooner or later, you’re going to be faced with the need to buy a camera. But with so many options out there, the process of choosing the right camera can be a daunting one. And all too often, shutterbugs either spend too much and get too big a camera, or return a camera disappointed because it didn’t take the pictures they expected. But with a few questions, a dabbling of definitions, and some solid research, even a first time digital camera shopper can get the perfect camera for their needs. Here’s a few tips …

Summary:

  • Ask Questions
  • Know your lingo
  • More MP is not necessarily better
  • Don’t fall for digital zoom
  • Go Hands On
  • Don’t forget the extras

1. Ask yourself a few questions

Before you head to the Internet, or go to Best Buy to look at cameras, it’s important to ask yourself a few questions to help clear the picture:

  • What is your budget? Knowing how much you are willing to spend will prevent buying a camera you don’t need, or really want.
  • What do you need the camera for? Is it to capture the moment or to get a Pulitzer in photography?
  • What type of photography will you be doing? (portraits, landscapes, macro, sports)
  • What conditions will you be shooting pictures in? (indoors, outdoors, low light, bright light)
  • What experience level do you have with cameras?
  • What type of features are you looking for? (long zoom, image stabilization, large LCD display etc)
  • How important is size and portability to you?

2. Know the lingo

When you head to the store, you’ll hear a bunch of buzz words which will muddy up the waters. So here’s a few quick definitions to help keep things straight:

  • MegaPixels:This is the number of pixels each camera sensor uses to process the camera information. It is essentially the resolution of your camera and how sharp your images can get. And it’s measured in millions and is multiplied by the amount of pixels in rows and columns. For instance, 10 MegaPixels equals 10,000,000 pixels. A pixel is the smallest unit that light is exposed to.
  • ISO:ISO is the speed of your camera’s light sensitivity at a particular setting. During the film days, this was referred to as ASA and had to do with how fast film soaked up light when you took a picture. The faster the film, the higher the ASA. It also meant, though that the film would be grainier, less sharp. In the digital world, its ISO, and the higher the ISO setting, the faster the light can be imaged. But like film, the faster the light gets imaged, the more noise gets invited to the party.
  • Aperture: Aperture is the size of the hole that the light travels through on its way to the sensor.
  • Shutter speed: This is the duration of the light being cast on the sensor as the shutter opens and closes. This is quite literal in digital SLRs, but for point and shoots it’s a time value for imaging the light as point and shoots don’t have literal shutters.
  • CCD: CCD stands for “Charged Coupling Device” and is the sensor that point and shoot cameras use to capture the image in the camera. It then processes it. CCDs tend to be VERY small, about the size of your fingernail and as such, can cause a lot of noise if stuffed with too many megapixels. But they are ideal for the compact nature of point and shoot cameras.
  • CMOS: CMOS stands for “Complementary Metal-oxide Semiconductor.”  This sensor design is primarily used by digital SLRS and can be as large as a full frame 35mm negative. The benefits to CMOS sensors are obvious – greater size equals more light captured for the image and greater resolution. The downside has been that when shooting moving video that the image can get a bit skewed, referred to the rolling shutter issue.
  • Focal Length: Focal Length is essentially the range of your lens. Whether 3x or 35x it is the ability of the camera to zoom from its widest point to its farthest. And the further you can zoom, the slower the lens gets. So it’s important to keep that in mind.

3. DSLR or Point and Shoot? Which should you buy.

There are two categories of cameras … digital SLR (single lens reflex) and point and shoots (which are divided into compact and MegaZooms). When looking at cameras, it largely depends on the kind of camera you want and how you’re going to use it. DSLRs have the advantage of being able to swap out lenses, full 1080p HD video on most models, and provide splendid depth of field. But they are require quite an investment. Point and shoots are inexpensive and offer great capability for capturing the moment. And the HD video they shoot has gotten pretty darn good by comparison to its DSLR cousins. And they have the advantage of fitting in your shirt pocket. But they tend to have smaller zoom lenses. In the middle are the MEGA zooms, which offer up to 40x zoom (equivalent of 600mm) and are cheaper than DSLRs. But they tend to be heavy and do not fit in your pocket. There is one other category that is fairly new and that’s the Micro 4/3s camera. These cameras have electronic shutters (like a point and shoot) but give you the ability to change lenses. So you get the best of both worlds. But they can be pricey.

So when choosing a camera, go back to the questions you asked above and consider which category answers most of them and appeals to your particular picture taking habits.

4. Beware the “more Megapixels is better” myth

Contrary to popular belief, more megapixels isn’t always better. In fact, it can be worse if the increase in megapixels isn’t accompanied by an increase in size of the sensor. What can happen when cameras are stuffed with more megapixels is that a sensor can become less sensitive to light, not more and that means more noise in a picture. And according to a recent study, the “butter zone” for taking snapshots is 6mp. Anything above that for prints up to 8×10 is largely overkill. And considering that only 1 in 5 actually print their pictures, looking at cameras with 14 MP and above is akin to buying a Ferrari for a trip to the supermarket. Sure, it looks good, but you may never use it to its full potential.

5. Beware of the more zoom ploy

Many manufacturers try to lure customers in with large zooms up to 45x and above – especially with megazoom cameras. But the trick with these large focal length cameras is that the camera will suffer from camera shake that becomes more pronounced at the extreme ends. Even with image stabilization, a slight movement can be exponentially larger when taking a picture. And the longer the focal length, the slower the lens. Which can cause a lot of blurry images due to movement. So if you’re thinking about buying a mega-zoom camera, plan on buying a monopod or tripod as well.

Additionally, cameras have a digital zoom feature. This is where a camera can go beyond the physical focal length of the camera by essentially magnifying the image digitally. The downside of this is that the resolution starts to break down and become “artifacty.” And it’ll also become darker as the lens speed drops. And again, camera shake becomes more pronounced. And while some cameras have improved their digital zooms, it’s really more beneficial to the photographer to simply ignore the feature or turn it off altogether.  Then, if you want to take your footage and zoom further, you can just do it in a video editor like Adobe Premiere or with After Effects and get a far better result.

6. Read reviews

When you’re honing in on a particular camera, it’s important to take a look at reviews to get an overall impression of designs. You can go to photo magazines and look on websites like here at GadgetReview. But another valuable review resource is Amazon.com. Go to the product page of the camera you’re thinking of buying and read the user reviews. Toss out the highs and lows (to eliminate the fan boys and the haters) and you’ll have a pretty good grasp of how well a camera performs under real world, daily conditions from people like yourself who have bought them.

7. Go Hands On

While most people are now buying their cameras from online sources like Amazon, do not underestimate the importance of going to a local “brick and mortar” store to try out a camera. Holding a camera in your hand and feeling the weight and form factor will pretty much sell you on one model over another.

Additionally, if you’re thinking of investing in a DSLR system, it may be beneficial to rent a camera from a local “mom and pop” camera store. And many will deduct that rental fee from the purchase price if you buy from them.

8. Think about ‘extras’

When looking for a camera, and making your budget, you’ll want to set aside some money for the extras. Cameras will come with a recharger for the batteries, or will include a USB cable to connect to your computer to recharge (which we don’t recommend). But unless bundled in a kit at the time of sale, they won’t include a camera case, memory cards, or a spare battery. So it’s important to keep those expenses in mind when making your budget. Another consideration is a flash. Most point and shoot camera flashes are designed to shoot a portrait of small group. As such, they flash will dissipate and become largely useless outside of about 10 feet. So if your camera has a top flash attachment (called a “hot shoe) and you’re planning on doing some distance shooting in limited light, then an external flash is a good investment.

9. Shop around

When you’re ready to pull the trigger, go to pricegrabber.com. This is an excellent site for finding the best deal on the camera (or anything for that matter), that you’re looking to buy. You want to pay attention to feedback ratings. This is important. And sometimes the cheapest price may not always be the best bottom line deal (if one is charging more for shipping, for instance). And some online sources will also offer a dirt cheap price to get you to order and then will try and upsell you on extras. And when you don’t, they’ll simply cancel your order. So always remember the old adage – let the buyer beware. But if you stick to the main sources like Amazon, Best Buy,  Costco (which has a nice 90 day return policy) and other mainstream dealers, you should be able to steer clear of that scam.

10. Extended Warranties

Many will want to sell you and extended warranty, and for a big ticket item like a Digital SLR they’re a good idea – but only if they come from a reputable source like the manufacturer. For smaller items like a point and shoot they’re just a cash cow for the retailer. That’s because if a camera is going to go bad, it’ll do it within the regular warranty of a camera (or sometimes immediately after). The older a camera gets, the less likely it will fail. And so the retailer is banking that it’ll be able to pocket the entire cost of an extended warranty and not have to make good on a repair as the camera gets older. And salesmen are encouraged to sell them because they can make up to half the cost as a commission.  Additionally, if you’re paying by Credit Card factor, chances are your credit card company may offer extended warranty protection as a perk of membership.  American Express is one such company, which automatically tacks on an additional year.  And CitiBank Cards theft and drop protection during the first 90 days.

11. Patience is a virtue

Finally, whatever camera you decide on, give yourself time to get used to the camera.  Don’t just take it out of the box, shoot some pictures and expect them to be the quality of Life magazine.   I have talked to a lot of people who returned a camera saying they were disappointed with it, but if you ask a few questions to get deeper behind it, it’s usually because they’re expectations were high, but their patience level was low.  In short, user error often causes most problems with lackluster images.

So, give the manual a cover to cover read to familiarize yourself with the features of the camera.  Shoot a LOT of pictures.  And experiment.  And read up on techniques like the rule of thirds and prefocusing.  The rule of thirds is where you divide the image with an imaginary tic-tac-toe grid.  Place your subject where two lines intersect and your pictures will look much better than sticking them in the middle.  Also, get in the habit of prefocusing.  This is where you place your subject right in the middle and press your shutter half way.  This locks in the focus.  Then recompose and shoot the shot.  Doing this will  virtually insure your subject will stay in focus.



James DeRuvo