This article was first published on 2008-03-20. Due to the age of this article, it is included here for archive purposes only.
Digital camera companies love to put all sorts of numbers on their boxes, or in product descriptions, to wow consumers. What numbers matter though? What do those numbers mean? What do you do with the numbers? I will lead you through the most common selling points, letting you know what to really look for.
One thing to note right off the bat: Digital cameras are now a mature product. That means that most every manufacturer has a good camera at every price point. You probably won’t go wrong with any mainstream camera you choose. So in addition to reviewing the specs mentioned below, take the time to decide what subjective things you like, such as color, size, and the brightness and size of the rear LCD screen. How easy is it to use the buttons? Those types of things.
Let’s face it: no one we know uses most of the functions that come with the basic digital cameras. They won’t make you a better photographer. Besides, professional photographers use D-SLRs mentioned at the end. So if there is one you love and and one you like, go with the one you love, even if the specs aren’t as "much". On with our guide…
Mega pixels are not as important as most people think they are. Mega-pixels are just how much data the camera takes per picture. The higher the mega-pixel count on the camera, the more the picture can be enlarged before it starts to become distorted. As camera companies make models with more mega-pixels, the old models, which are still perfectly good cameras, drop in price.
Cameras have come to the point with mega-pixels where you can print pictures at much higher sizes then you will likely ever need. Currently 7.1 mega-pixel cameras are the most common, but by no means the highest. About.com has an article that goes through meg-pixel by mega-pixel and tells you what to expect from a camera with that size. 6 mega-pixels is the highest the site lists. The site also links in each range, the top cameras for that range.
Another thing to consider with higher mega-pixel cameras is that that data will take up more room on your hard drive. So if you have a MacBook with a smaller drive, higher mega-pixel counts will fill up your drive faster.
Zoom (Optical and Digital)
Digital Cameras come with numbers for both an optical zoom and a digital zoom. Disregard Digital Zoom. Optical Zoom is all you need to pay attention to.
Shooting modes are a simple way to tell the camera what kind of picture you want. For example, if you want to take a picture of someone, there is portrait mode. Landscapes have, well landscape mode. The names are generally self-explanatory. This is another point that companies love to use in the wowing process. The Canon Powershot A560 for example has 14 shooting modes that include: foliage, snow, beach, firework, and aquarium. For the general user who is not likely to need those modes they just get more options to cycle through. Basic-Digital-Photography.com has an article that breaks down the specific modes that most cameras have.
Most point and shoot cameras now offer a video mode. This mode lets you shoot videos that usually can be imported straight to your Mac. This can be nice for small home videos on vacation. The camera has a small microphone built in to pick up audio also. Just keep in mind that this will suck up your memory a lot faster than still pictures will. iMovie HD, which comes standard with your Mac, should take good care of any video you shoot. Apple.com/support has a video tutorial for a video camera, but the process should be the same for a digital camera.
The LCD display is a screen on the back of the camera that can show settings, but mainly is used to view pictures on the go. The number in this came is measure in diagonal inches. This is to say that the screen is measured from the bottom left corner to the upper right corner. The higher the number, the larger the display. One item to note with this is that if you have a three inch screen, your camera will have to be at least that large. Many people use their display screen to take the picture, rather than the classic viewfinder.
Memory cards are used to store your pictures. There are a few types and sizes, so check when you buy your camera what kind you will need. SD cards are fairly common. There are many sizes of card to choose from, and they are mostly measured in gigabytes now. Amazon has 2GB cards listed for under $10, but other people are selling them. Most cameras have a small amount of memory built into the camera, but this is rarely enough space for many pictures.
Over time, your photo collection will accumulate on your hard drive. External hard drives attach through USB and can be a fairly cheap storage solution to prevent having to delete pictures to make room for new ones. They can also serve as a back-up, with Leopard, in case you delete a picture by accident.
There are also devices for the iPod that let you connect your camera’s card to the iPod. This moves the photos from the card to the iPod, and can free up space to keep taking pictures until you get back to your computer.
Camera and Computer Connection
There are a few fairly common ways to connect your digital camera to your mac. One is a USB cable that connects the camera to the computer, a card reader is another option, and lastly is the “Eye-Fi”. Each option has advantages and disadvantages. There are very few if any differences or problems with a camera being Macintosh or windows specific lately.
USB cables are the simplest and cheapest solution. Most cameras come with them, and they are just a wire. They can come in handy when trying to pack lightly on a vacation. If you have a problem with losing wires, or a mac mini with USB ports that are not easily accessible, A USB cable could become a nuisance. With USB cables the camera needs to be turned on while the pictures transfer, which can drain your batteries faster.
Card readers are a separate device that plugs into your computer’s USB port. To use these you would remove the card from the camera and place it in the card reader. Card readers gain the advantage for not needing unplugged, but at the same time take up desk space all the time.
The Eye-Fi is an SD card that also connects to your computer over a wireless (wi-fi) connection. The Eye-Fi website has a demonstration video that shows how it works. The Eye-Fi can also upload directly to websites. I have never used it, so I cannot vouch for its ease of use.
All Mac’s come with iPhoto, which is pretty good about detecting your pictures and importing them from the camera for you. There is even an auto-import option. Expect any major brand camera to fine with iPhoto.
Brand Names to Look for
Names aren’t everything, but there are some companies who have built reputations in the camera industry. Canon, Nikon, and Fuji for example are dedicated completely to cameras and camera accessories. Other companies that most people have heard of also make digital cameras. Sony is on this list. These companies also make D-SLR (Digital Single-Lens Reflective Cameras), which are more professionally oriented.
Most point and shoot digital cameras take AA batteries, but some don’t. The smaller cameras often have custom shaped rechargeable batteries. Having AAs is more convenient when yours run out of juice because you can pop new ones right in and keep shooting. If your camera has the custom battery, you’ll need to charge it back up before using your camera again or buy a spare.
Rechargeable AA batteries could be a great investment. They are more expensive up front, but they can last years, saving a fortune in regular batteries over that time.
Some cameras offer stabilization which helps with shake. This is particularly noticeable in cameras with a high optical zoom. The camera alters shutter speed to reduce the shake. The longer that the camera’s shutter is open, the more chance for things in the picture, or the camera have to move. The box would probably say on it somewhere “Optical Stabilization,” “Shake-Reduction,” or something along those lines. If you have blur problems, a tri-pod is always another option.
Tri-pods are a three-pole rig to set your camera on. They can come in handy in poor lighting conditions or for family pictures that everyone wants to be included in. There are also monopods, but they have to be pushed into the ground, and are not as stable as tri-pods. Tri-pods can be made of plastic or metal. Plastic ones are cheaper and lighter, but are more easily disturbed.
Everyone has his personal preferences about on-line or off-line shopping. I suggest checking both and looking for the best deal. I trust amazon.com for their user reviews and general in-depth product information. This extends to other products too, but Amazon lets people speak their mind about the product, not just give it a 1-10 or 1-5 rating. Also, on the plus side of web reviews, you don’t have to worry about any pushy salesman. The Internet opens up a vast resource of customer reviews and the people that give bad ratings should also be considered with the ones who give good ratings. There is usually truth to both sides.
The plus side to checking at a store is that you can actually hold the camera, see how it feels, and make sure there is nothing off-putting about it. If you check on-line before the store, you might find other customers report things they did not like, and can use those suggestions to look for specific problems.
Popular Photography and Imaging Magazine released a list of top selling point and shoot cameras in January. Digital Camera Roundup has a roundup of cameras that cost less then $300. Among the things they rate are how easy the camera is for beginners to use.
Where to Buy
Most chain stores sell digital cameras. Ritz Camera is store to look into. Logically, their employees should know a great deal about cameras since it is a specialty store. They would also be most likely to have a particular camera.
When new models, with more mega-pixels and more shooting modes, are released the store still has to do something with the last year’s model. They know that people aren’t likely to buy a camera with lesser specifications for the same price, so the prices are often reduced.
Price point is something to consider with anything, not just your camera. You may not need 8 mega-pixels but if there is only a $20 price gap between the 5 mega-pixel and the 8, the 8 might be the better investment. The same hold true with memory cards. A 1 gigabyte card is half the price of a 2 gigabyte card. On Amazon at least, that half-price difference amounts to only $5 at the most.
A Note About Digital Single Lens Reflex Cameras (D-SLR)
There are a few differences between “Point and Shoot” cameras and “D-SLR” cameras. D-SLR cameras offer an increased amount of options and flexibility, but at a higher price tag and a larger body. The average person, who just wants pictures of their children do not need a D-SLR for any reason, and should try to avoid spending the amounts of extra cash. For the person who expects to take a lot of pictures, and wants to do photography as a hobby, D-SLR is the way to go.
Have you learned any lessons from buying a digital camera you’d like to share? Have questions of your own before buying? Let us know in the Comments section below!