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How to buy a digital camera

There is probably nowhere more confusing or intimidating in your local electronics store than the digital camera department. Pick up a camera or make the mistake of looking an assistant in the eye and you are likely to be overwhelmed by mysterious phrases such as image stabilization, white balance, shutter lag, and optical zoom.

Now all these terms may ultimately have some relevance in your search for the right camera, but they should not be the determining factors. More than any other gadget, the search for the right camera starts with the question: “What am I going to use it for?”"

Are you interested in becoming a serious photographer or are you content to capture 4x6 images for the family scrapbook? Do you enjoy playing around with multiple settings to get the right shot or do you want the camera to make all those decisions for you? Are you happy to carry around a large camera case or do you want something that slips easily into a pocket?

Ask yourself these questions before you go to buy a camera and you’ll be in much better shape to make a decision once you see what’s available.

Point-and-shoot vs. DSLR

The majority of cameras still fall into one of two categories: point-and-shoot or digital single-lens reflex (DSLR). If performance is your top priority and you have a large budget, then a DSLR camera is the way to go. The combination of a large sensor, high-quality interchangeable lenses, variable shutter speeds, and multiple scene modes make a DSLR the ideal choice for professional photographers and serious hobbyists.

However, DSLRs need patience and commitment. If you are not the sort of person that is happy to spend time setting up a shot – and carrying around a hefty case with additional lenses – then your expensive DSLR could spend the majority of its time gathering dust at home.

If a DSLR is not for you, then you don’t have to feel that you are settling for second best. Rapid advances in technology and healthy competition among the manufacturers have produced a greatly expanded point-and-shoot selection; so much so, that the quality of some point-and-shoot cameras now rivals that of many DSLRs.

It’s not just about the megapixels

The quality of a camera used to be measured in megapixels: the more the camera had, the better it was. These days, the megapixel count is not so important. Most cameras have at least 5 megapixels and even some smartphones have 8-megapixel cameras.

Again, the importance of the megapixel count comes down to how you are going to use the camera. If you are going to stick with 4x6 prints, then 5 megapixels is more than enough. However, if you are thinking about poster size or wallpaper shots for your computer, then you might want to go to 10 megapixels or higher.

Zoom and image stabilization

For parents, it can be very satisfying to sit in the stands at a soccer or baseball game and take action shots of your kids. To do that, you will need a zoom lens. DSLRs offer a wide range of interchangeable lenses but zoom features can now also be found on fixed-lens cameras.

If you are going with the fixed lens camera, make sure it has good image stabilization (look for a camera with optical image stabilization) or very fast shutter speeds to avoid your long-distance shots from turning out blurry. If you are planning on taking lots of group shots or landscape images, then make sure the lens has wide-angle capability as well. But remember, with high-zoom cameras you pay a price in size and portability.


The majority of today’s point-and-shoot cameras can capture video as well as still shots, and some even record 1080p high-definition video. If you are planning on shooting video with your camera, there a few other things you need to consider:

- Can I use zoom while filming video?
- Do I have video-editing software to support the type of video format I will shoot?
- How easy is it to output video to my PC or the Web?

A growing number of DSLRs can also shoot video, with stunning results.

Other considerations

Once you have narrowed your choice down by use, convenience, and budget, you can start to look at some of the other features that today’s digital cameras have to offer. Many point-and-shoot cameras have an override manual mode for close-ups and other hard-to-capture shots. Other cameras offer a range of exposure settings for fast-moving subjects and variable lighting. There are also expansion slots for additional storage, and even Wi-Fi-enabled cameras for wirelessly transmitting pictures to a PC.

Whatever your requirements, try out various cameras in the store before you make your final decision. If you know someone who consistently takes great pictures, ask for their advice and recommendations. Make sure the store you eventually buy from has a favorable return policy, and don’t be afraid to take the camera back if it’s not what you were expecting.

Remember, the keys to a good photo are a good subject and good lighting. Practice will help you become more selective with both. Choose a camera that fits your style and personality, and great results are sure to follow.

Do you have additional tips on buying a digital camera? Share them with The Online Mom!  

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