Purchasing a Digital Camera is not a simple task. With a large number of manufacturers battling it out against each other it gets more difficult. Not to mention the technology jargon involved in advertising often puts the non-geeky consumer with no option but to get a camera which the salesperson thrusts in his/her face. In this guide, I will tell you a few important things which are essential for you to know before you go out & get a digital camera. After reading this guide, you will be able to get just the right camera within your budget without succumbing to the salesperson choice.
Type : This is the most important decision you need to make before you even touch a camera in the store. Digital camera comes in a variety of types. Choose whether you need a point & shoot or a full-fledged Digital SLR (Single Lens Reflex) camera. DSLR camera demands a premium & so do its accessories. Consider purchasing DSLR only if you plan to engross into serious photography or else you can settle for a budget point & shoot or a moderate prosumer digital camera. The type of camera you select will depend on your budget & it will also determine the flexibility you get.
Megapixel : Quite often than not most of the people as well as the salesperson give a lot of weight to this 9 letter word. You often hear the statement, “The more the megapixel the better is the camera.” This is not true at all. The more the megapixel doesn’t necessarily mean the camera is better. The term ‘Megapixel’ just gives an indication about the number of pixels the cameras sensor can record. Generally you need more megapixels if you plan to enlarge your images to put in your living room or to print them out on a fairly large sheet of paper. If you need to use the images for web, then even a 3.2 MP camera phone is more than enough. A 5 megapixel camera is good enough to print for an A4 size paper & prints up to 5 by 7 in size. If your requirements exceed these then you should get a camera having 8MP or more. Choose wisely though since there are those cheap companies who advertise their camera’s having 8MP sensor but in reality they are 5MP while the extra pixels are added using software manipulations. If you ever happen to see the term ‘Interpolated’ or ‘Interpolation’ then stay away from the camera.
Zoom : Zoom is measured by manufacturers in two types – Digital & Optical. Every digital camera has both but the thing to watch here is the amount of Optical Zoom. Optical Zoom of the camera changes the focal length of the camera by moving the lens & thereby zooming into the subject. Since this is done by the lens, it does not produce pixelation caused by digital zoom. Digital zoom on the other hand uses software algorithms to crop the image & zoom it giving you a feel of getting closer. This leads to deterioration in the image quality which easily comes to the viewers notice. So my advise here is to get a camera having a good optical zoom (preferably more than 5x) & avoid purchasing camera by its Digital Zoom. Also I recommend you not to use Digital Zoom while shooting with your digital camera. There will be an option to disable it your camera menu so you cannot use it by accident during shooting.
Wide-Angle Lens Coverage : After zoom, you should have a look at the wide angle lens coverage. Now-a-days most compact cameras pretty much offer at-least 28mm wide angle coverage & this will be good for most. There are even some cameras in the market offering 24mm focal length at the wide angle. The lesser the focal length, the more area you’ll be able to accommodate in your frame from a short distance. This helps when you’re shooting indoors in a limited space or when you capture large group portraits or like to do landscape photography. You can check this specification on the camera box or on the lens rim itself.
Image Stabilization (IS) or Vibration Reduction (VR) : Photography is all about producing sharp well exposed images. Lugging around a tripod is inconvenient & sometimes even unpractical. To remedy this situation the manufacturers have come up with a technology which shifts the lens upon sensing movement caused by unsteady hands or caused by slower shutter speeds. This helps you in getting sharp images without tripod. This technology is known as Image Stabilization or Vibration reduction. As with Zoom, this too comes in two flavors – Digital & Optical. As you have guessed it, Digital Image Stabilization is practically useless since it achieves the stabilization by software manipulations whereas Optical Image Stabilization does it via shifting the lens to the opposite direction of the shake. This gives a perfect stabilization while keeping the image quality intact. Thus always choose a camera having Optical Image stabilization.
Articulating LCD Screen : An articulating LCD screen is the one which flips out & rotates in order to make it convenient for the user. Often fixed LCD screens at the back of your digital camera mean doing guess work when you take shots from above your head or from angle close to the ground. The articulating LCD screen helps you to take such photographs without cranking up your neck or for that matter your steady posture. Its a big plus but can only be found on comparatively higher end compact cameras. The articulating LCD screen is also useful when shooting video, the reason why most digital camcorders have one. If you plan to take photos & videos from different angles(& which you should do to make your photos unique) then this feature is a must.
Power Source : Different cameras use different power source. It is always advisable to get a camera which uses a popular type of power source like AA batteries. The plus point here is being popular you can find it anywhere if you need one at the earliest. Also they come cheap than the non-popular ones. Stay away from camera’s having proprietary battery packs since they are hard to get & cost a bomb. I recommend you to always keep a spare of batteries with you so you need not miss that special moment. It will even save you time going hills & mountains. A digital camera providing an external power input through AC adapter is always a plus.
Storage : Most camera have very less or no amount of internal memory to store your digital images. So it becomes indispensable to get memory card to store your images. Memory cards come in myriad types but you will be stuck using only one which your camera supports. Get a camera which supports the most popular type of memory card so you can save money. Again proprietary memory cards cost a bomb & it’s best to stay away from camera which uses them. Also have a look at the memory card capacity your camera supports. You don’t want to buy a camera which holds just a few hundreds of images. Most of the newer digital camera support up-to 32GB memory cards which are huge enough to store thousands of digital images. I recommend you to get the biggest memory card your budget can accommodate.
Weight : The camera you purchase should have just the right amount of weight that it doesn’t feel too skinny nor too rock solid. Camera weight is essential to consider if you are the one who takes camera with you always so as not to miss any photograph opportunity. If the camera is heavy no sooner your hands will start aching & this can mean you not enjoying the photography session. A light camera on the other hand will mean not rock solid to stay still while you depress the shutter button. So you need to get a camera that is neither too heavy nor too light. Thus while purchasing a digital camera use the camera for a while so you can get an idea of its weight. The weight criteria is subjective so it’s best to check the camera on your own than to go by suggestions of your friends or colleagues.
Flash Hotshoe : Almost all digital camera have a small integrated flash which fires when it senses low light conditions. The flash is almost useless since it cannot illuminate objects beyond its specific length. To remedy this get a digital camera which comes with an hotshoe to mount external flash unit. Though be warned since you will need to spend out for this feature since most of the entry or prosumer digital cameras don’t provide the hotshoe.
Record Videos : I bet that you will occasional feel the need to record those special moments that cannot be described in pictures. For this having a good recording ability in your digital camera is a must. Look for digital camera which offers you to record high definition videos(720p or 1980p @ 24/30fps) & also have a look at the format in which it saves. Saving video in RAW format will take oodles of space on your memory cards & so it is advisable to look for a camera which uses some good compression format like MP4 or MOV to save videos. Now-a-days most cameras come with HD video recording at 720p or 1080p so unless you get a very entry level camera(640*480@30fps) you’ll get decent video recording capabilities.
# Purchase a set or two of rechargeable batteries & charger. You can save a lot of money by this instead of using disposable ones.
# Invest in a good camera pouch to protect your camera from dust & also to keep it safe during journey.
# Instead of getting a single memory card of high capacity, purchase two memory cards of smaller capacity. If one card gets lost or goes corrupt you can at least continue shooting with the other. Get at-least Class 6 memory card, if your camera has the ability to record HD videos. If it doesn’t you can go for standard ones which are cheaper.
# Get a Lens hood to protect your camera lens from dust and sun glare. A polarizing filter is another must have if your camera supports filters.
# Make the above purchases at the time you get your digital camera so you can get good discount on the total invoice amount.
Now go out, get your dream camera & start snapping away. Do remember, its not how good the camera is but how creative & competent the person behind the camera is for good photographs. :)
PDF Guide Download:
This guide is also available in PDF format in case you wish to print it out or share with friends.
Download : A Buyers Guide to Compact Digital Camera : 2nd Edition.
Second Edition : August 2011