Walter S. Mossberg and Katherine Boehret

Buying a Digital Camera: Our Annual Guide

With the myriad of different features and options available on digital cameras, the camera section of your local electronics store is now almost as confusing as the TV aisle. It’s easy to understand how a potential buyer might feel intimidated.

It’s an exciting time for digital cameras, as many of them are adding more bells and whistles by the minute. You’ll have to grasp some new features this spring, like the wide adoption of image stabilization technologies to fight blurry pictures, in-camera editing, and new ways of playing back your photos right on the camera, for sharing with friends.

But try not to be wooed by superficial features. A digicam that can make a revving engine sound every time its shutter closes might gain cool points for a little while, but that feature will be quickly forgotten if your graduation pictures are washed out and blurry.

To help choose, here’s our annual digital camera buyer’s guide. We aren’t reviewing specific models here, but instead we’re explaining the important features that mainstream buyers — not serious hobbyists or professional photographers — should be familiar with when shopping. We’ll touch on both the basics, and the newest features.

  • Pick a Size, Any Size. Thanks to improvements in technology, the newest digital cameras are thin and light enough to slip into a pocket or small purse. These hipsters are called pocket cameras, and are usually less than an inch thick and less than four inches long. They earn points for style and are often available in colors, making them fashion accessories. But, unlike the smallest cameras of the film era, these digital compacts are packed with features and take pictures that can be as good as those from larger models.
Email photos from the camera. The $400 Kodak EasyShare-One (top right) uses Wi-Fi to email images right from the camera. Larger LCD screens. The LCD screen on this $500 Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T30 (bottom left, available in May) is three inches.

If small isn’t your bag, and you’d rather have a camera that’s easier to hold without worrying about covering a tiny lens or flash with your thumb, point-and-shoot cameras will suit your needs. These cameras are generally bigger and heavier than pocket cameras, and they often are carried in a case or hung around your neck. They don’t necessarily have more features than the pocket models, or take better pictures, but they often cost less.

Considerably larger are those cameras most popular with hobbyists and professionals — often referred to as digital SLRs (single-lens reflex). The price tags for these models can reach the thousands of dollars, and they include many manual controls and add-on lenses. Though camera companies continue to market these types of cameras to average users, they are far more complex than the average pocket or point-and-shoot camera.

  • Megapixels.The number of megapixels, a measure of the maximum resolution that a camera can capture, tends to grab a lot of attention in the store. But it’s important that you be wary of any camera that advertises a super high megapixel count — more than eight megapixels — with a low price tag, say, in the $200 to $300 range.

Companies reach these lower prices by combining high megapixels with smaller image sensors, resulting in pixels that are smaller and thus contain less image information. Like a big house without any charm or character, the images produced by these cameras can be severely lacking.

Look for cameras with about six megapixels, which camera companies say is about the entry level now for a good digicam. This is more than enough for any mainstream user, as higher megapixel counts usually only come in handy if you’re blowing up a photo to a huge size or doing extensive editing, neither of which are things that average users usually do.

  • Zoom — Optical Matters. When looking at a camera’s zoom, ignore the digital zoom and overall zoom; focus instead on optical zoom. Digital refers only to computer-generated magnification, a work-around which makes pictures grainier. Optical refers to zoom as it relates to the physical movement of the camera lens. Overall zoom is a sneaky industry trick — companies multiply digital and optical zoom to get a more impressive-sounding number (2x digital multiplied by 3x optical equals 6x overall zoom). Ignore this and concentrate only on optical zoom.
  • Speed. Early digital cameras were notoriously slow. They were slow to start up, slow to actually capture a shot, slow to record it in memory, and slow to be ready for the next shot. That meant you might miss action shots like the baby’s first steps and the Little Leaguer’s home run.

Today, luckily, most consumer cameras have gotten much faster. But we advise you to pick up the camera in the store and try to fire off several shots as quickly as you can. Bring along a friend who can move around while you try to photograph him. If action shots are important to you, this should help you choose the right model, even if it costs more.

  • Bigger and Better Screens. Since last year, many things about the digital camera have changed. Most notably — and most regrettably, in our opinion — is the loss of the optical viewfinder in most digital cameras. Instead of including a peep-hole and LCD screen for viewing the photo subject, most of these cameras now offer only LCD screens.

Without the optical viewfinder taking up space, these viewing screens have grown in size to measure about 2.5 inches diagonally — some are as large as three inches. But with only an LCD screen for viewing, you’ll have to frame pictures in glaring sun with a washed-out screen, and you’ll have to hold the camera at a shaky arm’s length, which could result in sloppier pictures.

Companies have made two improvements to balance out these problems: brighter, more glare-proof LCD screens and image stabilization technology, or anti-shake. Casio Inc.’s $300 EX-Z600, for example, offers an LCD screen that it claims is three times brighter than previous models. Sony Electronics Inc.’s $500 DSC-T9 includes built-in Super Steady-Shot optical image stabilization.

  • Stable Images — Digital or Optical? If you have the option, choose optical rather than digital image stabilization in your camera. This means that the camera physically corrects shaking, while digital stabilization — like digital zoom — changes the image with a computer, not with a physical feature in the camera. Many companies are using the blanket term “image stabilization” to describe their camera’s anti-shake technology; be sure to get the full story.

Optical image stabilization usually costs more money, but if your camera lacks a viewfinder and you have a shaky hand, this might be a feature that’s worth the investment. Some people will find that holding their breath while snapping the shutter button is all it takes, but it’s good to have the option.

  • New Ways of Viewing. Many digital camera companies have started to acknowledge that we share our pictures with friends or family by passing around the camera, often right after snapping hundreds of pictures. This instant gratification is one of the most satisfying features of digital, especially with larger viewing screens, yet it’s not uncommon for the camera owner to have to show each person how to skip ahead and back through photos.

To solve this problem, many cameras now offer slideshow or movie modes — some even include music — to make sharing easier. Without going near a computer, you can set your camera so that others can simply hold the camera and watch. This also prevents anyone from pressing buttons and accidentally deleting your images.

Casio’s $300 EX-Z600 (top) has an LCD screen that is three times as bright as screens on previous models (bottom).
  • In-Camera Editing. Now that screens are larger, some cameras come with in-camera editing features, allowing you to edit out red eye, for instance, or stitch together multiple shots into a panorama. This avoids the need to edit on a computer, but it also can be cumbersome. If you think you might like in-camera editing, try it out in the store first.
  • Storing and Transferring Images. Many types of memory cards are available for use with your digital camera. These are now available in very high capacities; one gigabyte of memory will only cost you about $60, providing more memory for photos and digital videos, which most cameras are now capable of capturing.

Transferring images from your camera to your computer has always been somewhat of a hassle, including finding the camera’s USB cord and attaching it to the computer and camera before transferring. Some cameras come with a dock, making the transfer process a little easier, but it’s still a little cumbersome.

Cameras are starting to take advantage of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth (short-range wireless) technology to eliminate the extra step of wires or docks. The $400 Kodak EasyShare-One camera uses Wi-Fi to email images directly from the camera, using EasyShare Gallery, Kodak’s online photo sharing software. More products like this will continue to hit the market throughout this year.

  • Battery Life. Be sure the camera can handle a typical day’s worth of shooting on a single charge. For some consumers, that might involve only 20-50 shots. For others, that might be 100-200 pictures, on vacation. Read the manufacturer’s claims for this, and reduce it by 20%, then compare it with your typical shooting volumes. If you do mostly indoor shots with flash, the battery capacity will be much less.

Whatever your situation, it’s a good idea to buy a spare battery. Most cameras use costly proprietary batteries, but some models allow you to substitute common drugstore batteries in a pinch.

So be sure to do your homework, be skeptical of extra features with extra cheap price tags, and look into some of the new technology that is being offered in digital cameras. As features grow and prices come down, the consumer will keep winning.

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