17 July 2007
With so many models on the market - buying a new digital camera is a tricky business if you don't know what you're looking for. If you ask yourself these ten questions before making a decision you won't go far wrong.
First things first - How much should you spend?
Your budget will determine which camera you choose. It's easy to find a decent point-and-shoot camera for around £150 and the price is always coming down. If you want more from your camera than auto-mode you'll need to be more flexible with your purse strings. If you're after manual controls, high-quality lenses and large megapixel counts you should expect to pay anything from £200 up to £500. You'll pay anything over £500 for top-class digital SLR models but you'll need to know a thing or two about photography to get the most out of them.
What are you going to use it for?
What kind of photographer are you? If you are like the majority of people, you'll normally take snapshots of friends, family, special events and holidays. If that sounds about right then you should be concerned with the size and usability rather than getting a camera with extensive exposure controls. Auto mode is great for ease of use as it does all the hard work for you. Most digital cameras now come with a few extra modes to enhance pictures taken in the dark or fast moving objects, for example.
For those who know a bit more about photography, it is important that you choose a camera that can be controlled to produce your desired visual effects. A model with manual exposure controls, extra optical zoom and advanced shooting features will permit far more creativity.
How many megapixels?
As the main selling point when buying a camera you really need to be sure about what you require. In reality, a 3-megapixel camera will provide good enough resolution for an ordinary 4x6 snapshot. If you want to print out larger photos like this you will need more megapixels. The difference you'll see in a 6x4 photo when taken with a 3-megapixel camera to a 7-megapixel camera is minimal so don't automatically go for the highest megapixels available in your price range. Semi-professionals should aim for 8 or 10-meagapixels to capture a high level of picture detail.
Does size matter?
Size, in this case, doesn't affect performance or image quality. Nevertheless, it's always worth comparing the specifications of compact cameras because some manufacturers squeeze a lot more into a small space than others.
What about batteries and memory?
Battery life and memory storage is so important but for some reason is often overlooked by first time buyers. Most cameras have either AA sized Ni-MH batteries or carry their own lithium battery pack. Both of these types are rechargeable but if you choose a camera with Ni-MH batteries you may have to buy a charger.
The most common type of memory card is the SD (secure digital) format. Fujifilm and Olympus both use the smaller xD card, while Sony sticks to its own memory stick. The compact flash card is not as common as it used to be but it is still the card of choice for all digital SLRs. If you are upgrading make sure you choose a camera that uses the same memory card that you already have.
Is the zoom important?
An optical zoom lens is one of the most useful features you can get on a digital camera. You should expect a standard of 3x optical zoom which allows you to get three times magnification on the subject you are shooting. However, the bigger the zoom the better the pictures. Be very aware of cameras that boast digital zoom as an alternative to optical zoom. Digital zoom isn't real zoom - it artificially magnifies an area of the image by expanding and cropping the photo in the LCD screen.
Go manual or not?
In tricky lighting situations the auto mode feature on less expensive non-manual cameras may not do the trick. More sophisticated digital cameras will also offer three digital modes for manual control. These are AP (aperture control), SP (shutter priority) and M (manual) allowing you to get AP and SP at the same time.
How do you view your pictures?
There are many ways to view you pictures. Many digital camera owners end up storing their pictures on a hard drive and viewing them on a PC screen but you should consider other options too. If you want prints you can invest in a photo printer. Alternatively you can take your memory card into a high street processor or send your photos electronically to an online photo processor to have them printed. Research the cheapest option in the long run.
What about shoot video?
Most compact digital cameras have a video option. It is unlikely to find this option on a SLR though. Most cameras use 1 of 3 types of movie format which are AVI, MPEG4 and VGA. These were all originally designed for use with computer graphics so they are not brilliant but they do the job for watching footage on a PC or a TV screen.
What about warranties?
When making your purchase always check the length of the warranty being offered. A problematic digital camera is uncommon but not unheard of so familiarize yourself with the shop's return policy to cover your back just in case.