Digital Camera Shopping

Shopping for a digital camera is daunting. Aside from the fact that there is such a huge variety to choose from, there is a surprising ~lack~ of knowledge on the part of the sales staff in the typical large electronics chains.

So to make it easy, I’ll break down the important features to look for, offer a couple tips for places to shop to get honest comparisons, and give you my personal recommendation based on my own experience.

The one thing that has not changed in the photography field is the adage “You get what you pay for.” There are many inexpensive cameras available these days, and they look very impressive, but take very poor pictures.

So how do you look past the fancy case and make sense of the seemingly endless stream of technical jargon? It is really not as difficult as it seems. There are a few important features to look for in a camera that will quickly allow you to size up the field.

RESOLUTION Camera resolution is specified in “megapixels,” and refers to the number of dots that make up an image. (A pixel is a single dot of color on a computer screen or printed image, and a “megapixel” literally means an array of 1 million tiny dots.) Obviously, the more pixels you have, the sharper and more detailed your photos will be. A 6 megapixel camera will have a resolution approximately of 2800 X 2200, for example.

If you compare picture resolution to the typical resolution of a computer screen, you might be wondering what the big fuss is. Why buy a camera that takes pictures at 2800 X 2200 if your screen resolution is only 800 X 600? The answer comes down to editing. Let’s say you are at the beach, and you see a toddler at the shoreline tossing crackers into the air to feed the seagulls. If you take that picture from, say 100 feet away, the boy and the birds are a very small part of the whole image.

In the old days, you’d just crop the photo down and make an enlargement of just the boy and the birds. If you shot the photo with a 1 megapixel camera, the cropped area might only be 200 X 160 pixels total (about the size of a typical ad on a website!). If you try to enlarge an image that small to print on an 8″X10″ sheet, the photo would look like it was made up of square blocks of color because you are just enlarging those same 200 X 160 pixels so that each one just takes up more space on the paper.

(If you have ever taken a magnifying glass to look closer at a picture printed in a newspaper, you see the same effect: instead of getting “closer” to the detail, you see a bunch of big colorful dots.)

If the photo was taken with a higher resolution camera, you would be able to crop it and still have enough pixels in the image to comfortably print it without it looking “pixilated.”

QUICK NOTE: Higher megapixels = Sharper photos and better ability to crop and edit.

ZOOM There are two types of zoom advertised in digital cameras: Digital Zoom, and Optical Zoom. Optical Zoom is the same zoom that has been around on 35mm SLRs and video cameras for generations: you zoom in, and the lenses adjust to bring the image in closer.

“Digital Zoom” is useless. Period. If you see this specified, or someone tries to sell it as a feature, ignore it. Cheap cameras use this technique to make it appear that they have true zoom capability. The truth is that you do Digital Zoom every time you look at a picture on the computer in a graphic editor: If you want the picture to “zoom in” you just blow it up so one pixel now takes up more space on the screen.

Optical Zoom is a great feature, and even a low zoom factor of 3x (makes the subject appear as if they are 3 times closer) makes a huge difference when composing a shot.

QUICK NOTE: Optical Zoom = Good. Digital Zoom = Nothing. (You can do the same thing on your PC in a graphics editor.)

LENS & CCD SIZE A larger CCD means a more defined picture, and a better ability to take photos in low light conditions. You will notice there are three predominant types of cameras on the market: Portable cameras with a lens that is perhaps 0.25″ in diameter, mid-range cameras with a lens that is about 1″ in diameter, and large cameras with lenses that are 1.5″ or larger in diameter.

Portable cameras generally have no optical zoom capability, and are fine for outdoor pictures in sunlight. They are great for tossing onto a purse or pocket and snapping some pictures while out at a theme park, but forget about trying to take a decent indoor picture.

Mid-range cameras are great for all-purpose pictures, and generally have an optical zoom and offer features like red-eye reduction and “macro” mode to take close-up photos. (The lens assembly on many of these units will often retract into the camera when it is turned off, offering a body size and profile similar to the portable cameras.) They take outstanding outdoor pictures, and will capture most indoor pictures without problems. They do not do so well at low light situations like school plays or concerts.

Large cameras approach the control and flexibility of 35mm SLR cameras. In automatic mode, they operate just as easily as their point-and-shoot brethren, so anyone can use them. For the seasoned photographer, the ability to manually control parameters like the f-Stop, shutter and film speed are a major plus. These cameras take exceptional photographs in all conditions.

The next step beyond these are true professional cameras costing $1000 and up. What you are getting in this price range is the ability to use standard SLR lenses, and crazy-high image resolution suitable for taking pictures that will be printed on billboards.

For consumer-level cameras, Portability and Quality are two things that are always at odds. A camera with a small lens definitely is easier to cart around, but they rarely take indoor pictures well. A camera that takes great indoor pictures will have to be treated with care, and are more likely to get fingerprints on the larger lens they use.

QUICK NOTE: Small Lenses = Portable and Hardy / Poor image quality and inability to take low light photos Large Lenses = Better Optics & Image Quality / More delicate and less portable

MEMORY Digital cameras use memory cards to hold pictures. Think of this as “digital film.” Memory cards are rated in Megabytes (MB) or Gigabytes (GB), and the larger the memory card, the more pictures you can hold. The number of pictures that can fit on a card depends on the camera resolution, so you will usually see a chart on the package that will tell you approximately how many photos will fit on the media at a given camera resolution.

For the old-school photographer, this is confusing since traditional film is sold in rolls where each roll held a specific number of pictures. When going to shoot pictures, the film photographer has to estimate the number of pictures that were going to be taken and buy enough film for the event.

Digital Film is also different in that it is reusable. Once the media is full the pictures are simply downloaded to a computer, then the media is them cleared out for use again. Another significant difference is that digital film can hold far more photos than any traditional roll of film.

Purchasing memory for a camera is normally a one-time deal: instead of buying film each time you want to take pictures (and making sure you have enough rolls!) you simply buy one media card when you buy the camera.

The first time you see an entire aisle filled with memory cards, it seems that choosing one is a hopeless task. Fortunately, this is usually the easiest decision to make, and also the very last question you ask after you have settled on a camera. The simple approach is to figure out how many pictures you want the camera to be able to hold before your memory is full, then ask the salesperson which card they would recommend that will hold that many images.

This is one thing that even the dullest of sales people always know!

DOCKING AND PRINTING Many cameras are now paired up with printers, so you can simply plug the camera into the printer and get a paper print. This is very convenient, and beats going down to Walgreens or Walmart to have them print your digital photos. Be aware that it can be fairly expensive as the photo paper and ink cost far more than supplies for a standard printer.

I am not a great photographer, and almost 90% of what I shoot is not worth printing, so I prefer to just download all my pictures to the PC, crop and adjust them until I have a couple I really like, and then either print them on my normal printer, or send them to Walgreens for printing.

On a per-print basis it is more expensive to have your photos printed at a lab, but if you consider that your prints arrive on photographic paper, are more durable, and the colors are more vibrant than all but the most expensive home printers, they are worth it. For me, the only time I want to print a photo is if I want to frame it, and I am happy to pay the buck or so for true photographic print.


– Go to a store with working demo cameras, and try to take several pictures inside the store WITH THE FLASH OFF. Look closely at the preview. (I am assuming you are buying a camera that has an LCD viewer.) Now find a darker area (I like to lean over the camera counter and try to take a picture of the floor behind the counter; it’s usually pretty dimly lit) and take a picture without the flash and while MOVING the camera. Are they blurry? If so, you will need a steady hand and slow or motionless subject when trying to take a picture indoors.

– Focus on a feature far away in the store, zoom in as far as the camera will go, and shoot some pictures. This is another great test for the camera’s ability to take indoor pictures. If you are unable to zoom in to the far side of the electronics store and take a decent, sharp picture, you probably won’t be able to it in your home either.

– Snap a quick picture of an unsuspecting customer walking by. Are they sharp and in focus, or just a blur?

– Go to an actual camera shop. This is the BEST place to find sales personnel that really know the cameras, their differences, and can help you compare similar models.

– Buy from whoever has the best price. Oddly, the retail prices on a given digital camera can vary widely from store to store.


Price: < $100 Small body size, fixed focus, small lens, digital zoom (NOT optical), no LCD preview, and low resolution (<1 or 2 megapixels). Will likely take outdoor photos in sunlight fairly well, but does poorly indoors or in lower light.

Price: $100 – $300 Mid-sized body, auto-focus, small optical zoom (<3x), LCD preview, with resolution in the 3-6 megapixel range. Good general purpose camera for average user. Takes great outdoor pictures, and decent indoor photos using the flash. Will offer decent amount of options (fill flash, red-eye flash, macro mode, etc) for the more advanced user.

Price: $300-$600 “Prosumer” level camera. Larger size body with large lens (>1.5″ diameter), auto and manual focusing modes, high optical zoom (6 – 20x), LCD viewer, and high resolution (>6 megapixels). These cameras will offer a full range of controls, all the way down to a full manual mode like an old 35mm, where you can control the f-Stop, film ISO speed, and shutter speed. Takes outstanding photos in all conditions. These cameras also take very good low-light (indoor) pictures WITHOUT requiring the flash.

Price: >$600 Professional digital camera. Ultra high resolution, standard lens mounts and accessories, large camera body. Not for the average user, but photography buffs will get stunning results.


I’ll admit extreme bias here before I continue. Just like in the old days, cameras have “personalities” unique to a particular brand or model. Depending on the type of photography you like, there is going to be a model that is better suited to your style and technical needs than others.