"We are not interested in the unusual, but in the usual seen unusually." Beaumont Newhall

Buying a Digital Camera
© 2009 Nita Leland

Please see the Glossary for non-technical definitions of terms in bold.

When I bought my first digital camera eons ago (in the 1990s), there weren't many choices. There weren't many features, either. Now there's a great camera for everyone, whether you're looking for good quality at a lower price or maximum features at a higher price.

You can take hundreds of photos on digital cameras, delete the ones you don't like and keep shooting. That was what I grew to love about my first digital camera. If you have fine photographic film equipment, you might use a digital camera as an instant camera, to check the composition or lighting. Or you may want to travel light and take quick photos like an artist makes sketches. Many professional photographers are now totally digital. Forget the shoebox filled with prints and negatives. Organize and store your digital photos on your computer or online or burn them to CDs or DVDs.

Decide what you want to use your camera for and which features you need to accomplish that. To photograph items to sell on eBay or send pictures by email you don't need high resolution. But you can't make good photo prints with low resolution. You can buy a three- to five- megapixel camera at a reasonable price and print good quality 4"x6" snapshots on an inkjet printer. The bigger your print, the more megapixels you need in your camera. Fortunately, high-resolution cameras up to 10- and 12-mexapixels are rapidly becoming more affordable.

high resolution digital photo low resolution digital photo

The picture on the left was compressed and saved at 72 ppi for the Web. The one on the right was compressed, saved, enlarged, saved, compressed and saved again. The file lost resolution with each save. Neither picture would make a good photo print. I use 200-300 ppi for prints.

Buy the best camera you can afford with the features you need in the forseeable future, even if you have to pinch pennies somewhere else to do it. If your camera does what you want at 5-megapixels, then you don't need a costly 10- or 12-megapixel camera. Don't wait for the Next Big Thing to come along a year from now, because it will be obsolete within weeks of its arrival.

You can get fantastic deals on the Internet, but be sure to check out the dealers. Some merchants sell gray-market goods without warranties and often without manuals or accessories. I buy from a local dealer, because he is there to help me when I need it.

With the viewfinder on digital point-and-shoot cameras, the image you capture isn't exactly the same as the one you see in the finder, because the viewfinder is to the side of the lens and causes parallax error. That's why amateur photographers cut off heads and feet in their pictures when they use point-and-shoot cameras. This is typical of all rangefinder cameras, as opposed to SLR or single lens reflex cameras, with which you look through the lens and see exactly what you get. SLR digital cameras are becoming more affordable, but are still at the high end for the average photographer. But a good digital camera also has an LCD (liquid crystal display) that shows exactly what you're photographing. The main drawback to LCDs is that they are difficult to see in bright light. The more expensive cameras have brightness controls for easier viewing. Some cameras have both LCD and viewfinder options, although the viewfinders are disappearing on small pocket cameras. Fortunately, the LCD viewers are much larger now, making it easy to compose your photos. My Canon G-series cameras have a swiveling LCD so you can frame your shot from awkward angles. This is one of my favorite features, but no long available on the newer models (G-7 and up).

trillium digital photo swivel LCD photo

The flower on the right was photographed with my camera on the ground facing upward and the LCD twisted so I could see to frame the photo with my macro setting. The flower was only about 8" tall.

Most digital cameras have zoom lenses. Get at least a 3X (35-105mm in SLR terms) optical zoom. Many reasonably priced cameras now have up to 10x zooms, which are great if you need the distance and don't mind the extra weight. It's okay if the camera also has digital zoom, but if that's all it has, pass it by. Digital zoom is really just on-camera cropping, so the finished picture has only the number of pixels that were selected and cannot be effectively enlarged.

Automatic cameras may have only one type of light metering, but as you go up the scale you find as many as three types: evaluative (multi-pattern), center-weighted averaging and spot metering. Most cameras can be used to point-and-shoot with fantastic results, but some allow you to set aperture and shutter speed or go fully manual. My Nikon CoolPix pocket camera has automatic scene settings for bright light (beach scenes), twilight, backlighting, portrait, and more, making it a handy take-along for vacations.

All digital cameras have a built-in flash. A few, like the G-series, have a hot-shoe receptacle for external flash. The better digital cameras have a red-eye reduction setting that helps to minimize red-eye. (Red-eye usually occurs when you are photographing in low-light situations.) Red-eye can also be removed on your computer with the software that comes with most cameras. Software packages vary widely, but you can use almost any image-editing program to work with your digital photos. My favorite is Photoshop Elements.

Digital cameras usually have a playback feature, so you can shoot and delete quickly, and show your photos immediately after you shoot them.

The camera connects to the computer by USB (recommended) or serial connection for downloading images; or you can use storage media described below with a plug-in card-reader. You can plug your camera or storage media into a laptop for a slideshow on the spot

A diopter adjustment on the viewfinder is a nice feature, especially if you wear glasses. This will adapt the viewfinder to your vision.

A few models have a movie mode with 30 or more seconds of movie with sound. I have a friend who photographed the first 60 seconds of her new granddaughter's life and it was amazing. I used mine to make mini-movies of my baby granddaughter's "firsts" and for eighteen months I made priceless 60-second movies to send to her daddy, who was with the National Guard in Kosovo and Bosnia. With the G-6 my movies can run up to 3 minutes.

Another less common feature is a remote control, invaluable for family reunions and group pictures you want to be included in. A tripod mount is very useful, too. Other extras might be a self-timer, continuous shooting, macro (close-up) setting, ISO settings, exposure compensation, white balance and focus or exposure lock. Newer, high-end digital cameras also have Image Stabilization to eliminate camera-shake when hand-holding your camera.

totem panorama Panorama shooting is often available. The shot of an Alaskan totem pole (right), is six photos stitched together by software. It prints out to 44 inches long. Some newer cameras can be set for special effects, like sepia or black-and-white; many connect to the television to view your pictures or slide shows on the big screen.

Higher-end digital cameras (prosumer models) like my Canon G-6 have the capability of shooting RAW files. Many professional photographers like this feature, but it does require special conversion software (included with the G-series cameras) and skill with photo-editing processes.

Remember--the more features you select, the higher the price of your camera. However, I once found a full-featured pocket-sized Gateway 5MP camera that only cost $150.00 It takes pretty decent pictures, though not as fine as my Canon G6 Powershot camera, which cost a lot more.

Digicams need a lot of power for the LCD, zoom and flash. You may go through a lot of batteries in a short time, depending on the type of batteries recommended for the camera. Look for a camera that uses lithium batteries that can be recharged, either in the camera or an adapter. It may cost more, but it's a good investment, unless you have stock in Energizer. Be sure to have one or more extra batteries on hand when you're shooting away from home and carry your charger along if you can.

Instead of film, you use storage media in your digital camera: CompactFlash (Type I or Type II. Be sure to get the right one for your camera), Smart Media, Secure Digital, Memory Stick, CDRom or floppy disks. (The latter don't hold much storage and may now be obsolete.) I prefer CompactFlash or Secure Digital cards, which are smaller than floppies, hold far more digital information, and are easily downloaded to your computer through a relatively inexpensive card reader or onboard slot in your printer. You can also use a USB flash drive to transfer images from some cameras. Set your camera to a lower resolution to get thousands of images on a single card. You can get a whole vacation on a single card at a lower resolution if you want to email the photos or print them in a smaller size. Fortunately, prices for storage media have fallen dramatically, so you should be able to buy 1GB and higher cards to replace the smaller card that comes with your camera. The more megapixels your camera has, the faster your cards will fill up. Storage media can be formatted and used over and over again.

Conversion lenses for wide-angle or telephoto are available at the top of the line. Some manufacturers make lenses specific to digital cameras and others have made their digital cameras compatible with the lenses of their film cameras, a nice feature if you already have lenses. Most digital SLRs are sold as "body only" cameras, with the costly lenses interchangeable with other camera lenses.

One reason I chose the G-series Powershot was the hot shoe for flash attachments. I like to use a small flash with my digital camera for fill flash or indoor photography.

Your camera will probably come with a lens cap, but if it doesn't, be sure to get one to protect the glass on the lens, or purchase a UV/haze filter for the same purpose. You'll need a neck or wrist strap, too, which will probably be included. Also, buy a padded camera bag, so your digital camera is cushioned from bumps and falls.

One of the great things about digital cameras is the small size of many models. There are full-featured cameras no bigger than a deck of cards, but they're usually pricey and sometimes hard to hold and work the controls. Be sure to handle the camera to get the feel of it before you buy it. Some stores allow you to take test photos and view them on the LCD. Ask to see printouts from different cameras to examine the resolution. Remember that the printer and paper are also factors in good photographs (see below).

In talking with other artists who are digitally inclined I hear these brands mentioned favorably: Sony, Nikon, Olympus, Minolta and Canon. These brands have quality optics, electronics and mechanics and offer a good range of prices between $250 and $1000. Of course, there are others you might like, so see what is available, then decide what features you want at the price you can afford. Check out the reviews in camera magazines, online at dpreview.com and Consumer Reports as well.

My Canon G6, which I bought right after they came out in October of 2004, is my third G-series Canon Powershot camera. It's outdated, but I still love it. It has all these features:

  • quicker image capture--much faster than any digital camera I've had so far. Newer cameras are faster yet--I would like that.
  • quicker image recording--same as above
  • image stabilization--more stable than my previous cameras. Also improved in newer models.
  • longer optical zoom--My G6 has 4X zoom, but this is adequate for my needs. I bought the 1.75 telephoto adapter for special uses. I would love to have a 10X zoom but I don't want a bigger, heavier camera. I saw a 10X recently and it was amazingly smaller (but no swiveling LCD).
  • single lens reflex--The G6 is a better size for me to handle, and most SLRs are bulkier than I prefer.
Many newer cameras have some of these features, so watch for them when you're making your selection.

Finally, if you expect to print a lot of photos, you may need to upgrade your inkjet printer. Good color printers are much less expensive than they used to be. But don't junk the old one until you have tried printing digital images from your new camera. Printing large files at high resolution will slow your printer down and use lots of ink, but you can be selective about which digital images you print or reduce the size and resolution, thus saving on costs. Remember, you don't have to buy film anymore or pay for processing of photos that didn't turn out. For best results, use the finest photo paper available. I used Kodak Ultima with my HP printer and Epson heavyweight photo paper with the Epson for professional-looking prints. In some cases you are better off if you use the photo paper made by the company that made your printer.

Consumer Reports (November, 2001) tested three brands of printers for fading of prints with these results: Hewlett-Packard prints on HP or Kodak papers faded the least. Epson prints on Epson papers showed little fading also. Canon prints faded noticeably even on Canon papers. I imagine these results may be somewhat improved now. The trend is toward pigmented inks that have greater longevity (up to 70-100 years or more) and individual ink tanks instead of color cartridges, a feature I absolutely love in my Epson. I know I'm spending far less on inks now. These printers are more expensive, but prices are coming down. My Epson 2200 printer (now outdated) uses pigmented inks and large format printing. I also get good results from my Epson RX595 all-in-one. I no longer use an HP printer.

I prefer Photoshop Elements for editing and printing my photos and slide shows. You can edit your pictures in PSE's Editor and store them in the program's Organizer to find them quickly for reprints or other creative projects. Newer PSE versions have RAW file converters, so you don't need to buy software for your RAW photos. There are also online photo-sharing sites that provide storage and easy online sharing.

I hope this helps you in your search for the perfect digital camera for you. Once you've bought it, don't look back or even ahead. Enjoy your camera to the fullest and take advantage of every feature. You'll have a wonderful time, when you see all the creative possibilities of your new digital camera.

Recommended books on digital photography:

McClelland, Deke and Katrin Eismann. Real World Digital Photography. Peachpit, 1999. One of my favorite reference books on the subject.

Sadun, Erica. Digital Photography: I Didn't Know You Could Do That. Sybex, 2000. Great resource and projects, plus CD with photo-editing and web software.

Wignal, Jeff. The Joy of Digital Photography. Lark Books, 2005. The most up-to-date and user-friendly book so far.

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