Buy Digital Cameras

How to Buy a Digital Camera
Buy Digital Cameras The Big Picture

Megapixels still matter most to digital camera shoppers, mainly because that specification remains one of the cameras' most important features, but also because manufacturers and retailers hype that specification above all others. If you're having a hard time figuring out which camera to buy, you may be tempted to make a decision based solely on megapixel count; that's why nearly all manufacturers print the number on the front of their cameras.

But a camera needs more than just a high pixel count to take great pictures, so pay attention to other traits as well. For example, a lethargic camera that takes too much time between shots may miss the best action, and a big, heavy camera may spend more time on the shelf than in your carry-on bag. A camera with no manual controls may take fabulous shots in bright sunlight, but lousy ones in more challenging situations.


Key Features

Resolution: If you intend to take pictures only to e-mail them to distant friends or to print at snapshot size, a camera of most any resolution will do. Even so, more pixels give you greater flexibility--you can print sharper pictures at larger sizes, or crop and print small sections of pictures. Rules of thumb: A 2-megapixel camera can usually produce a pretty 5-by-7 print; a 3-megapixel camera, an 8-by-10; and a 4-megapixel (or greater) model, an 11-by-17.

Size, weight, and design: To some users, how much a camera weighs and whether it fits in a pocket may be more important factors than resolution. PC World has tested cameras that weigh as much as 2.6 pounds and as little as 4.1 ounces. Small cameras are convenient, but they frequently have tiny dials and buttons that make changing settings somewhat trying.

Zoom lens: Inexpensive cameras often lack optical zoom lenses. If we had to choose between a camera with an optical zoom and one with higher resolution, we'd take the camera with a zoom--it means you won't have to magnify your subject and then use software to crop the image (and discard some of that resolution as a result). A few cameras now offer zoom ratings of up to 10X. These lenses are great for nature or sports photography, but you may need a steady hand or a tripod to avoid blurry pictures at extreme telephoto lengths.

Be wary of advertised zoom ratings--many vendors combine the optical zoom (which moves the lens to magnify the subject) with digital zoom, which merely captures fewer pixels and magnifies those. Optical zoom gives you all the benefit of the camera's maximum resolution, combined with the ability to get closer to the action.

Manual focus: For close-ups or situations in which the camera can't get a focus lock, switching to manual focusing can help you get the shot. Low-end cameras often omit manual focusing or allow only stepped focusing, which only allows you to choose from a few preset distances.

Storage: At its highest resolution, a typical 2-megapixel camera can store eight to ten images on an 8MB "starter" memory card. The size of the memory card a camera ships with isn't terribly important, because you'll almost always have to buy another one (unless you're willing to transfer your images after every handful of shots). CompactFlash, Secure Digital Cards, and SmartMedia cards cost about $35 for 64MB, or $50 for 128MB. Sony still makes cameras that store images on floppy disks or CD-R discs. Floppy storage is slow, however, and the disks can't hold more than one or two high-resolution images; compact discs store many more images, but the cameras that use them are slow and bulky.

Batteries: Cameras use one or more of several types of batteries: AAs, either nonrechargeable alkaline ($5 for four) or rechargeable nickel metal hydride (NiMH, about $14 for four); high-capacity disposable CRV3s (around $12 apiece, and some cameras take two CRV3s); or proprietary rechargeable batteries that can cost $35 to $75 to replace.

Movies and sound: Many cameras can capture video as well as still shots, though typical-size memory cards don't hold much video footage; the option is useful for short clips when you don't have a camcorder.

Exposure settings: All digital cameras let you shoot in fully automatic mode--just press the shutter release and you get a picture. Better cameras offer aperture- and shutter-priority modes, in which you adjust the size of the lens opening or how long the shutter stays open, and the camera automatically controls the other variable to give you the proper exposure.

Typically, you'd use aperture priority to maintain control over an image's depth of field--for example, to blur the background of a shot while keeping the foreground sharp--and shutter-priority mode, for example, to capture fast-moving subjects. A camera that relies exclusively on full auto would attempt to keep both the foreground and background in focus in the former example, and it would probably blur the moving subject in the latter.

Usually, cameras that offer priority modes (such as digital SLRs) also offer full-manual exposure control, in which you set both variables. These modes make a camera adaptable to almost any situation.

Menus: When evaluating a camera, consider how easily you can reach common settings--resolution, macro mode, flash, and exposure adjustments--and how easily you can play back just-taken images. Too many buttons, and you waste time trying to figure out which button does what; too many menus, and you waste time digging through them.

White balance: Almost all digital cameras allow you to choose a white-balance setting via presets. This setting tells the camera which elements in a shot should look white and, by inference, what should look black and what everything in between should look like. If you're finicky about color accuracy, look for a manual calibrator in which you press a button while aiming at a white object.

LCD: Low-end models often omit an LCD screen, which is necessary for reviewing just-taken images on the camera. A good LCD is essential for knowing whether you got the shot you wanted, and can usually give you an indication of whether it was properly exposed. LCD quality varies widely: Many wash out in sunlight or become grainy in low light, or the image may change if you tilt the camera slightly. If you can, try a camera outside before you buy it.

digital camera's megapixel count remains its most important spec--but it is by no means the only one. Start with pixels, but make sure to check a few other important numbers when considering a purchase.

A camera's megapixel rating is another way of expressing its resolution. The higher the megapixel number, the higher the resolution. In general, higher-resolution cameras let you produce larger, higher-quality prints. A 2-megapixel camera can produce images of about 1600 by 1200 pixels, allowing for high-quality 5-by-7 prints. A 3-megapixel camera can produce images of about 2048 by 1536 pixels, allowing for crisp 8-by-10 prints. The tradeoff is that higher-resolution images take up more space on your camera's memory card, so you may only be able to take a small number of shots before you have to download them to your computer. The solution, of course, is to purchase a larger-capacity memory card.

So if you're interested in producing mostly small snapshots or images to send via e-mail or post on the Web, you probably don't need anything better than a 2-megapixel camera. If you want to create large copies of your masterworks, you'll want a camera that captures 4 megapixels or more.

Feature Low End ($50-$200) Recommended ($200-$500) High End ($500 and up)
Battery life Fewer than 200 shots 200 to 400 shots More than 400 shots
An important consideration. Digital cameras quickly drain batteries--especially alkaline batteries--which can be expensive and annoying. Battery life and cost often aren't related; some cheap cameras have great battery life, and some expensive ones use up a charge quickly. Either way, it's a good idea to buy spares.
Megapixels (resolution) 2 megapixels or less 3 to 4 megapixels 4 to 6 megapixels or more
An important consideration. This figure provides a measure of how much fine detail a camera can capture. With more megapixels, you can print larger photos with better image quality.
Exposure controls None (full-auto only) Some program modes (aka scene modes) Aperture and shutter priority and full manual control
Somewhat important. These controls allow you to customize exposure settings such as lens opening and shutter speed, which serious photographers will value.
Focal range Fixed or digital zoom 2X to 3X optical zoom 4X optical zoom or better
Somewhat important. Cameras with greater focal range can zoom out to fit more into a shot or zoom in to fill the frame with the subject. Optical zoom produces sharper images than digital zoom.
Manual focus override No Stepped focus Yes
Somewhat important. This allows you to focus the camera yourself, which can be more accurate than automatic focus in some situations. Cameras with stepped focus can only be set to focus at a few predetermined distances.
Storage capacity 32MB or less 32MB to 128MB 256MB or more
Somewhat important. Amount of data, in megabytes, the camera can store in on-board memory, removable memory cards, or both. How many photos you can store depends on the resolution at which you shoot them. But with most cameras, you'll almost certainly need to buy an extra card, so don't base your purchasing decision entirely on the starter card supplied with the camera.
 
Digital Camera Shopping Tips
  • Match megapixels to your use. A 2-megapixel camera is fine for snapshots, though models with that resolution are becoming less common. If you want to produce 8-by-10-inch prints, you'll need at least a 3-megapixel camera. Four- or 5-megapixel cameras will yield even larger prints and allow you to blow up a part of an image with less likelihood that the print will be blurry.
  • Look for rechargeable batteries and a charger. The cost of disposable batteries adds up over the long run. Some cameras can use AA batteries of any type--disposable or rechargeable. That capability can be helpful if your rechargeable batteries run out of juice and you don't want to wait while they replenish.
  • Get at least 2X optical zoom. Nearly all cameras offer digital zoom, but it results in photos that aren't nearly as good as those produced with an optical zoom.
  • Look for a low-light focusing aid. Some cameras have auxiliary lights that help them focus in dim settings. That's important for many indoor shots.
  • Make sure you can use removable storage media. While the camera may have on-board memory, a memory card allows you to expand the storage capacity.
  • Avoid cameras that use floppy disks or compact discs. Floppy disks are inexpensive, but they won't hold many images, and the cameras that use them typically take relatively low-resolution photos. Cameras that use compact discs are typically bulky and slow.
  • Try the camera before you buy. Some cameras have commands and menus that are easier to use than others, a comparison you can only make with a hands-on trial. Also evaluate the lag time between when you press the shutter button and when the camera actually takes the picture. Try out the zoom lens--does it operate quickly and smoothly? Find out how long you must wait between taking pictures. And try the LCD viewfinder--in the sun if possible--to determine how easy it is to read.
  • Give extra consideration to a camera with image-editing software. Look for useful packages like Adobe Photoshop Elements and Ulead PhotoImpact.
  • Insist on a camera with an LCD display. It allows you to review your photos on the spot--and delete the ones where your cousin kept blinking when the flash went off.
  • Don't base your decision on video capability. Any still camera's ability to take moving pictures is extremely limited. If you want to shoot video, invest in a camera dedicated to the job.
  • Consider investing in a memory card reader. These readers act like an external hard drive attached to your PC or laptop, allowing you to download pictures directly from the storage media your camera uses. Many newer laptops have one or more memory card slots built right in. That saves time downloading images, and since the camera doesn't have to be on, saves battery life, too.

So now that you're ready to buy a digital camera, how do you get the best deal?

One problem for consumers, note the Duo, is that some camera makers have what are known as minimum advertised prices. In order to get special promotional deals from the manufacturer, the seller has to agree not to advertise prices lower than a certain amount. That means the vendor can't tell you about better deals unless you ask. Some vendors will suggest that you e-mail them or call them for a better price, but these days online sellers often simply tell you to put the item in your shopping cart, then show you the real price when you look at the cart.

What to do? Phone anyway, says Angela. Some sellers will match the prices even of other vendors who are, one might say, less scrupulous about price disclosure.

And who are those secretive sellers anyway? Steve says some are peddling so-called gray-market goods that they've imported directly from another country instead of getting from the U.S. distributor. That's generally not illegal, but vendors should tell you about it, and often they don't. Buy a gray-market camera, and you might run into problems if you need help while the product's under warranty.

There are other angles that unscrupulous types can work as well. Some vendors quote you a low price but only as part of a package deal that sticks you with crappy accessories. Others come up with outrageous shipping and handling charges when you get to the end of your order. And some sleazy vendors will insist that material is in stock when it isn't; they'll take your order and keep stringing you along so you won't buy from somebody else.

Shopping online for a digicam is a start, say the Duo, but it's only a start. The best thing to do is to take the lowest prices you find online and use them to negotiate over the phone with a real human being at a store you trust.

Buy Digital Cameras

How to choose digital cameras

These are two of the most common questions that our Sales people get asked when people buy a digital camera or a digital binoculars.  While salesmen at some other stores will ask you "What is your budget?" or "How much you want to spend?", we at OpticsPlanet.com always start with "What is the intended application for the device you are looking to buy?"   Digital cameras industry is constantly moving forward, and all major Digital Camera Manufactures are forced to come up with new digital camera models every 4 to 6 months.  How can we make people buy new digital cameras more often?  How can we make people spend more on digital cameras or flash memory?  These are the questions that the camera manufacturers ask themselves everyday.  While we as a camera retailer are always happy to sell you the latest and greatest in digital cameras or digital camera binoculars, we want you to get what you really need and make an educated decision in your digital camera selection.    We could write a 500-page book on how to buy a digital camera, but we will try to condense the knowledge to a few pages and give you a few major pointers.  We are here to help if you need any additional help!

Brand, type (Point-n-shoot vs. Digital SLR), usability, optical zoom, and size/weight digital camera parameters are usually clear to most people.  Mega pixels (resolution) and storage capacity usually need more explanation.

  • Digital Camera Brand is often a matter of personal preference and all digital camera reviews reflect that.  All brands that we offer are major optical brands that have been in the business for a long time and stand behind the products.
  • Digital Camera Type.  As much as we absolutely love Digital SLR cameras, there should be a very good reason why you might need one.  We always advise our customers to go for a point-and-shoot digital camera because they are much easier to use and already have 99.99% of the features that most amature photographers will ever need. There are some good reason why you might need a digital SLR camera  Let us try to list these good reasons
    • You are Pro, and you do not need to read the rest of the page
    • You are in astrophotography or microphotography, and you need a digital camera to connect a telescope or microscope.  While there are now dozens of digital camera adapters available for point-n-shoot digital cameras, correct mounts for SLR cameras are more readily available, and using the optics of your telescope or microscope should give better image quality than having to deal with a combination of eyepieces and camera objectives/lenses.
    • You already have a nice set of SLR lenses and accessories from your film SLR camera, and you want to re-use your lenses.
    • You want to have full control over the way you take pictures and your are not afraid to mess with the options.  You need to be a true photography enthusiast and not be afraid to read a camera manual.
    • You want to have the latest, greatest, most advanced and most expensive camera available on the market today, and all you care is the get a great deal from a reputable Authorized US Dealer.  Well, we at OpticsPlanet.com love customers like that, but we still suggest to think and see if there is something else besides the bragging right that you need in your digital camera.
  • Digital Camera Usability or User interface is a matter of preference as well, and to be honest, all of the Point-and-shoot digital cameras that we sell are easy to use and connect to the computer.  All of them come with image editing software, and toll-free technical support from the manufacturer.  If you are in trouble, you are a phone call away from getting help.  Hold time varies, but customers have not had any major issues with any of the manufacturers we carry.  Our digital camera manufactures stand behind the products - they want you to come back for another one in a year or two, and the brand is a major factor for many consumers.
  • Optical zoom is nice, but do not be fooled - More and more camera manufacturers are choosing to label their digital cameras with the total (optical + digital) zoom.  "Digital zoom" does not really do zooming, but it just enlarges a part of the image imitating optical zoom.  It is not bad, but when you are comparing digital cameras, you should always use optical zoom, as you can do "digital zooming" and cropping in any image editing software.
  • Camera Size and weight - in point-n-shoot digital cameras these parameters are very important - after all you plan to take your camera somewhere, and you do not want to carry a brick in your pocket.  Larger camera also harder to hold steady in your hands, and often you need a sturdy photo tripod to take good pictures with an SLR camera.  We have done a lot of field tests and our customers always send us their camera reviews, so we know for sure that smaller and lighter compact digital cameras such as Pentax Optio and Canon Digital Elf always get used more frequently than their more advanced, but larger in size brothers.
  • Digital Megapixels / resolution is the most hyped, and less understood parameter in digital camera selection.  More is better? Not always. Without a doubt, higher-resolution digital cameras from the same manufacture with the same optics will produce sharper, cleaner pictures, but we are not in 1998 - most new brand name consumer digital cameras sold now are high-resolution, and most people are not using their full capabilities as is!  In addition, there are a few drawbacks that you should keep in mind.
    • Higher resolution cameras are more expensive than lower resolution digital cameras. We keep telling our customers - pay for what you will actually use!
    • Higher resolution digital cameras of the same type / brand will work slower than their lower resolution brothers.  It takes more time to process, compress, and save a larger image.  We do know people who take high-res photos, transfer them to their PC's, and then immediately resize them to make them usable for emailing, storage, editing, or web publishing. 
    • Higher Resolution digital cameras do need more storage.  Again, we will be happy to sell you a larger flash memory cards,  in fact we do recommend them as a good upgrade, but get what you need!  Read more on it below. 

What does megapixels mean in digital cameras and how many megapixels do I need buy.

Most digital camerass store digital pictures in JPEG (JPG) format. JPEG image format can easily provide 20:1 compression of full-color data. The second fundamental advantage of JPEG is that it stores full color information: 24 bits/pixel (16 million colors).  However, unlike TIFF or RAW digital image formats, JPEG uses "lossy compression".  For full-color images, the uncompressed data is normally 24 bits/pixel.  The best known lossless compression methods can compress such data about 2:1 on average.  JPEG can typically achieve 10:1 to 20:1 compression without visible loss, bringing the effective storage requirement down to 1 to 2 bits/pixel.  30:1 to 50:1 compression is possible with small to moderate defects, while for very-low-quality purposes such as previews or archive indexes, 100:1 compression is quite feasible.  An image compressed 100:1 with JPEG takes up the same space as a full-color one-tenth-scale thumbnail image, yet it retains much more detail than such a thumbnail.  The only real disadvantage of JPEG's lossy compression is that if you for some reason repeatedly compress and decompress an image, you lose a little more quality each time.
So for all practical purposes, you got nothing to worry about - JPEG is more than capable of storing mind-blowing pictures of high-quality without any visible to a human loss. 

MegaPixel Resolution  - Why did we tell you all that technical stuff about JPEG? Because we want you to understand why most digital cameras list MegaPixels (MP) (resolution or maximum number of dots, in millions, that a digital camera can make up the image in) as their key technical parameter.  Most digital cameras capture images on a CCD (Charge Coupled Device) sensor. The camera's resolution is calculated by multiplying the maximum number of pixels along the length and width of the CCD sensor. Modern digital cameras and digital binoculars typically capture between one million and seven million pixels per image, and also have a setting to lower effective resolution of the camera.

Optical resolution vs. interpolated resolution -  As with optical and digital zoom, many consumers are confused when they see cameras that are listed at more than one resolution. When you review and compare digital cameras, make sure if the camera resolution listed as optical or interpolated (we at OpticsPlanet.com always do!). A camera with two megapixels of optical resolution in CCD will use two megapixels of information to represent an image, while the same camera can be tweaked to have three megapixels of interpolated resolution. This is normally done through interpolation software which through specific image algorithms guesses what a digital image would look like at a higher resolution and then inserts pixels between the ones already representing the photo. Modern image software can increase picture quality, but will reduce the sharpness as up to one third of the pixels can be the pixels that the algorithm has decided to insert. Images with a highly interpolated resolution might often look blurred when enlarged. When buying a digital camera or a digital binocular camera remember that it is the optical resolution, not the interpolated resolution gives you a true measure of a digital camera sharpness and resolution.

Most modern digital cameras also offer different "picture modes" - Best, Better, Good - for the same resolution, and therefore store different number of digital photos on the same card.  When you select Quality Level or Resolution Mode, you select the type of compression or resolution that your digital camera will use to store the images.  Better quality requires less compression and needs more flash memory card storage.  If you plan to print your digital pictures on paper, select the highest resolution possible, but keep in mind that when you increase the quality setting, you create larger files that might be inappropriately large for e-mailing or web publishing.  Please remember - most if not all digital camera come with some image editing software, so you are always able to shrink your digital pictures to a smaller size by discarding extra pixels you don't need, but this process doesn't work in reverse. If you enlarge a lower resolution digital picture, the image will appear blurry and distorted.

Image pixel resolution is important for many reasons. Not only will higher pixel resolution result ingreater detail, but it also dictates what size prints you can get before your digital photos appear jagged. For example, here are suggested MINIMUM image pixel resolutions to ensure high-quality paper prints:

Picture Resolution Maximum Photo print size
less than 640 x 480 only wallet-size prints recommended
640 x 480 or 0.3-megapixel Minimum resolution for 4x6 (results will vary)
1024 x 768 or 1.2-megapixel Minimum recommended resolution for 4x6
1600 x 1200 or 2.1-megapixel Minimum recommended resolution for 8x10 or larger
2,048 x 1,536 or 3.3-megapixel Recommended resolution for 13x19 or larger

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