Before you buy: Digital cameras

As with any major electronics purchase, choosing a digital camera can be confusing. Here’s a starter guide to what to consider, before you get onto the salesperson’s floor.

This will be the first bit of hype you’re liable to encounter. It’s also one of the more important features of a digital camera. It might sound high tech but it’s not that hard: it’s all about the quality of the final picture, the amount of space it takes to store the pictures, and of course, price.

The higher the megapixels, the more you can do with the pictures you take, but the more space they take up in a memory card or on a computer or CD. If you have a computer with limited memory, you probably don’t want to get the highest megapixel camera. 

Both the camera and the memory cards will get more expensive as the megapixel count increases.

Up to about 2 megapixels, the quality of the pictures will be low – fine for emailing to others or storing on your computer, but if you want to print the pictures you may be disappointed.  Closer to 2 megapixels you may be able to get 4 x 6 inch prints of a reasonable quality.

A good compromise f the average photographer is the next range up: 2.1 – 3 megapixels. This will produce very good 4 x 6 inch images, and decent 5 x 7 prints.  3.1 – 4 megapixels will let you print great 5 x 7 images and you may be able to print and 8 x 10, depending on the camera. But if you want to be able to do professional quality images you will probably have to go up above 4 megapixels – and pay the price.

Zoom, zoom, zoom
On a digital camera you can get two kinds of zoom.  One is digital zoom. To skip over all the gory details, the only thing you need to know is this:  digital zoom can produce blurry pictures. It may not be a big deal if you are only emailing pictures, or even printing lower-quality 4 x 6 inch photos – in other words, a little bit is okay.  But otherwise it is fairly useless.

Optical zoom, on the other hand, is quite useful. This uses the lens of the camera to bring the subject closer – a real boon for taking shots of faces or from further away. 

Unfortunately some cameras combine these two for a “total zoom” number. Be sure that when you are comparing cameras, you find out what the optical zoom is. You’ll also want to make sure that if the camera does allow for digital zoom, you can disable it – otherwise you run the risk of blurry pictures.

Some higher-end cameras designed for amateurs – and professional-quality digital cameras – allow for interchangeable lenses. If this is important to you, it’s worth the investment. But you probably won’t get the range that’s available for traditional film cameras.

Memory cards
Except for extremely cheap models, most digital cameras allow pictures to be stored on memory cards. It’s worth the price. You don’t want to be on vacation and have to choose which 20 shots you would like to keep. 

Unfortunately there isn’t a single type of memory card. Which type you use will be dictated by the manufacturer. The bigger the card, the more storage it has – and the more expensive it will be. If you are planning to take a lot of high-resolution shots, it’s probably worth the price to get a bigger card, or to keep several.

If you’re used to traditional cameras, you’re in for a shock – digital cameras take longer to take shots, although they are getting faster. If you’re taking action pictures, be sure to talk to the salesperson about your requirements.

Size and shape
This is a matter of personal preference – but can really make a difference. Some people like a camera that has weight and fills their hand. Others prefer it small.  Even with a digital camera you have to be able to hold it still – and carry it where you want to go – so take your time to try different models to find the one that suits your taste. For arthritic hands, look for larger buttons.

LCD screen
Even if you think you don’t care about a good screen, in the long run you probably will. It helps to frame the shot and make sure you don’t miss special moments.  Test the screen out at different angles and in different lights.

Ease of use
Using a digital camera can be complicated for the novice. If you think you might be easily overwhelmed, look for a camera that doesn’t offer too many modes and manual settings. You may want to look for a camera that has a pocket-sized manual. 

Take your time
And finally, be sure to take some time. We recommend that you do some online research to look for models that have the features that interest you. Be sure to read some reviews – although reviews at are mostly for U.S. models, they can be a great source of information. 

Then go to the store to try those models out. And once you’ve narrowed it down to a few choices, comparison shop for price.

Happy shooting!