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What to Look for in a Digital Camera

Choose the device with the right features — and price — for you.

woman taking picture with digital camera

— Corbis

Good news for those in the market for a new digital camera: Not only are prices dropping all the time, but new features are continually being added, offering even more bang for your buck.

You could find it difficult to keep up with all the lingo, though — be it "image stabilization," "facial detection" or "interchangeable lenses." And, more important, you might not be aware which features are worth paying more for and which ones are not.

Here's a look at a few of those.

Point-and-shoot versus dSLR

You will encounter two different types of digital cameras when you visit your local electronics store: point-and-shoot and digital single-lens reflex (dSLR).

Before you buy, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you need a compact camera that can fit in a purse or in a pocket?
  • Do you want something that has few settings and is simple and straightforward to use?
  • Do you consider yourself a casual photographer (in other words, you’re more interest in capturing the event than in composing a perfect picture)?

 

If you answered yes to all three questions, you’re in the market for a point-and-shoot camera. If you answered no to all three, or even one, you may want to consider a dSLR.

Point-and-shoot cameras are simpler, cost less and offer more portability options than a dSLR rig. But dSLRs provide more manual adjustment options than their compact cousins, and use the highest quality of lenses. While dSLRs are larger (resembling the telephoto film cameras you grew up with), they provide plenty of opportunity for amateur photographers to produce professional level photos with time and skill.

Once you’ve decided what type of photographer you are — enthusiast (dSLR) or casual (point-and-shoot) — you’ll be ready to compare the features listed for each device subtype.

Good zoom, interchangeable lenses

When it comes to pocket-sized cameras, there are two kinds of zoom: optical and digital.

An optical zoom is made to bring the user closer to the subject, without needing to physically move. Like older cameras, this is done with a retractable lens. Digital zoom, though, only changes the presentation of existing data by guessing where extra pixels should go to give the illusion the user is closer to the object (often called "interpolation").

The optical zoom, therefore, is a more important number to consider since it is the "true" zoom — remember this when reviewing the camera's specs in a flier or on a website.

Generally, a small point-and-shoot camera offers a minimum of 3x optical zoom, but a 10x zoom or more is helpful if you want to capture distant details, such as the emotion on someone's face in a landscape portrait.

For the photo enthusiast, the dSLR cameras allow you to swap lenses of varying magnitude, and rely on this feature for narrowing the distance between camera and subject. The cost of lenses gets steeper as your desire for more zoom increases.

Megapixels

It’s the first word you see when surveying the specs of a new camera: megapixels.

"Megapixels" — which means a "million pixels" and refers to the tiny squares that up a digital image — are a way to measure the amount of detail in a given photo.

So, by this logic, is a 10-megapixel digital camera twice as good as a 5-megapixel camera? It depends on what you’re going to do with that photo.

A camera with more megapixels has two main advantages:

If you're interested in turning a photo into a poster-sized print, more megapixels in the image will mean the photo will look less grainy or “pixilated.” The human eye cannot discern the difference between a 5-megapixel image and a 10-megapixel image when staring at a 4x6 photo. But at 16x20 or larger, the pixilation is apparent.

The second advantage to more megapixels is when you want to zoom in on a photo on your computer and crop it. For example, you take a photo of seven kids, arm in arm, in a row. If you want to isolate your granddaughter among the crowd — by cropping out everyone else in the photo — that edited photo will be clearer if there are more megapixels.

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