Buy a Digital Camera
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
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
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
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
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
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.
||Low End ($50-$200)
||High End ($500 and up)
||Fewer than 200 shots
||200 to 400 shots
||More than 400 shots
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.
||2 megapixels or less
||3 to 4 megapixels
||4 to 6 megapixels or more
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.
||None (full-auto only)
||Some program modes (aka scene
||Aperture and shutter priority and
full manual control
These controls allow you to customize exposure settings such as lens
opening and shutter speed, which serious photographers will value.
||Fixed or digital zoom
||2X to 3X optical zoom
||4X optical zoom or better
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.
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.
||32MB or less
||32MB to 128MB
||256MB or more
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
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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
- 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 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
- 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
- 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
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
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: