Walt Mossberg

Our Annual Guide to Buying A Digital Camera

Though lots of people own digital cameras, far too many don’t know how to choose one. It’s no wonder, since geeky terms like “megapixels” and “digital zoom” have made cameras as mysterious as PCs.

So, here’s my annual guide to buying a digital camera. My assistant Katie Boehret and I have compiled a list of basics to look for when shopping for your first digital camera, as well as some tips for current owners looking to upgrade. As always, this guide is meant for mainstream, casual shooters, not professionals or the most serious photo hobbyists, who care more about things like optics and elaborate control over the parameters of each shot.

Categorizing Cameras. Digital cameras can be broadly sifted into three main categories: pocket-size, point-and-shoot and high-end. Thanks to technology, pocket size cameras do a splendid job of marrying high-quality features with tiny size — the perfect solution for casual photographers like me who don’t want to lug a big camera everywhere to get good shots.

These pocket-size cameras are so stylishly slim and eye-catching that they’re starting to appear in various colors and with extra features, such as unique sound effects. Be careful not to pay more for a stylish-looking camera that lacks good features.

Point-and-shoot cameras are better for folks who don’t mind carrying a camera case or who would rather have a sturdier feel and a lower price. These cameras come loaded with features, some of which might not be as commonly found on space-constrained pocket cameras.

High-end digicams are larger, costlier and most commonly used by avid hobbyists, who value their numerous manual settings and options. But camera companies are doing a better job of marketing them as less intimidating to average photographers who may want to take their photography to the next level.

Megapixel Confusion. The digital-camera makers, and their retailers, try to boil down the measure of a camera’s quality to one factor: its “megapixel” rating. But, like processor speeds in computers, this megapixel number can be deceptive. More megapixels don’t always mean better pictures.

Megapixels are a measure of the maximum resolution that a camera can capture. But they have to be seen in tandem with the size of a camera’s image sensor. That sensor must be large enough to capture the ever-climbing megapixel numbers advertised with many new digital cameras — or else each pixel won’t carry as much color information. In many low or moderately priced cameras, manufacturers add more megapixels without increasing the sensor size, which would be costly. They simply shrink each pixel, and that approach yields little or no gain in picture quality over a camera with the same-size sensor, but fewer, larger pixels. When comparing similar cameras with lower and higher megapixel ratings, ask if the higher-megapixel model actually has a larger sensor than the lower-megapixel one.

Don’t be hoodwinked into buying a camera with a strangely high megapixel count and a too-good-to-be-true price. It isn’t difficult to find digital cameras with five to seven megapixels that sell for about $300 or so, such as the five-megapixel $329 Canon PowerShot A95 and 6.3-megapixel $350 Fujifilm FinePix E550. Most users don’t need more than about three or four megapixels anyway, as higher counts are mostly useful for doing detailed editing and making really large prints, two things that most average users seldom do with their photographs. The good news for buyers is that prices of three- to four-megapixel cameras have dropped significantly in the past year.

Zooming In on Zoom. The only real zoom that you need to pay attention to on a digital camera is the optical zoom, or how much the lens physically moves to capture a photograph. Most digital cameras average about 3x optical zoom, which will suit average users just fine. “Digital zoom” describes a computerized blow-up of part of an image that your optical zoom has already captured, and it usually degrades image quality.

To trick consumers, camera companies often advertise the camera’s “overall zoom” — a number reached by multiplying the digital zoom (often greater than the optical) with the optical zoom. For example, a camera with a 3x optical zoom and a 4x digital zoom might be advertised as having a 12x overall zoom, which is misleading. Read closely and ignore digital zoom completely when shopping for a camera.

Screens, Optical Viewfinders. One of the hottest selling points for new digital cameras right now is their larger LCD viewing screens, most of which average about 2 inches diagonally. These allow users to review photos without squinting or holding the camera close to see captured pictures. You can find larger screens; the $350 Olympus Stylus 500 has a 2.5 inch LCD.

Keep in mind that these screens often must be jammed into a small camera size. In order to fit them onto some pocket-size cameras, companies do away with optical viewfinders completely. This makes it harder for users with unsteady hands.

And on some cameras, having to depend on the LCD might make it impossible to take pictures in bright sunlight, which washes out the image on many screens. Be sure your camera has both an optical viewfinder and an LCD viewing screen. The $349 Konica Minolta Dimage X50 is a good example of a pocket-size camera that boasts a 2-inch LCD and an optical viewfinder, yet still measures about the size of a deck of cards.

Shutter Lag Time, Start-Up Time. When digital cameras started gaining popularity, a feature that frustrated most users was the slow shutter speed — the time measured between when the shutter button was pressed and when the photograph was actually captured. Many newer cameras have improved this feature to around one-tenth of a second or less, and it makes a difference when you must capture an image instantly.

Shutter speeds aren’t easy to find when researching cameras, but it’s worth taking some time to discover them. If possible, test your camera in the store, taking note of any noticeable lag time.

The time it takes for your camera to start up, which is measured by the time between pressing “power” and being ready to shoot, is also important for capturing photos instantly. Any camera worth its salt will take no longer than a second to start up; some even do so in a half-second. Again, this specification will be buried in the camera data, but is worth finding and testing in a store to get a real feel for how quickly your camera will respond when you need it.

Another speed issue is shot-to-shot time — the period between taking one shot and being ready to take the next. The biggest factor here can be the time it takes to recharge the flash. If quick shooting of multiple pictures is important to you, look for a camera with a fast shot-to-shot speed. Some cameras have a special “burst mode,” which allows rapid shooting of a limited number of pictures. But, in this mode, auto-focus may not function fully.

Saving, Transferring Photos. Your camera’s digital images will usually be saved onto memory cards, and these come in many types and sizes. The most common types are SecureDigital (SD) and Compact Flash. Sony uses Memory Stick, which is mostly proprietary to Sony products and most convenient if you own a Sony PC or laptop. Olympus and Fuji use their own proprietary card type, called xD. An older type of card, called Smart Media, is in decline.

I recommend at least a 256-megabyte card to relieve the stress of constantly unloading your photos from the camera. If you really need the storage space for a special trip or event, a 1-gigabyte card sells for about $90.

One of the easiest ways to transfer photos from your camera is by using special card-reading slots that now are being built directly into more and more computers and printers. This saves you the trouble of connecting your camera to the device with a USB cord; instead, just remove the camera’s memory card and insert it into the built-in card reader.

If your computer or printer doesn’t have a built-in card reader, you can buy one for very little money. Alternatively, you might like using a digital camera that comes with a cradle. These cradles provide a home base for the camera so that once inserted, its contents will upload to the computer. Some cradles also charge your camera, eliminating an extra step.

Wireless. Kodak will soon introduce a wireless camera that can transmit its photos via e-mail using Wi-Fi wireless networks. Some other cameras, especially those built into cellphones, can transmit pictures to the Web or to e-mail accounts over cellphone networks, or directly to a printer using wireless technology called Bluetooth.

Be sure to buy a camera that fits your needs and budget. If you pay attention to these tips, you’ll be less likely to get railroaded by a sales clerk into buying more, or less, camera than you need.

camera guide

With reporting by Katherine Boehret

Write to Walter S. Mossberg at mossberg@wsj.com

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