Katherine Boehret

How to Buy Your Next Digital Camera

Digital cameras have evolved much in the past few years to include more capabilities, sharper, larger viewing screens and slimmer builds. So while some people may still be shopping for their first digicam, many others are looking to buy a second, improved version of their current camera.

It’s a good time to be in the market for such a camera. According to research from Olympus, unit sales for these gizmos has grown about 30% in the past two years, while dollar sales grew at about half that rate, indicating declining prices and improved technology. In fact, digital-camera prices have dropped an average of $30 over the past 12 months.

This guide offers an overview of the basics that you’ll need to know when buying a digital camera. It also explains many of the fancy features that are popping up on these devices, such as facial recognition — a camera’s ability to detect when faces are being captured in photos, thus appropriately adjusting exposure, focus and flash. This guide isn’t geared toward hobbyists, but rather toward average users who want good quality photos but don’t want to struggle with confusing product specs and promotions.

Point and Shoot, or Flaunt and Pocket

As you begin looking for a camera, selecting a preferred size and shape will help narrow your choices. Like iPods and cellphones, stylish pocket cameras are fashionable accessories; some come in shades like Precious Rose or Noble Blue. These pocket models, designed with emphasis on small size, are as easy to carry as they are to use for taking good photos: most offer seven or eight megapixels each, a 3x or better optical zoom lens and a stunning viewing screen. Good examples include Sony Corp.’s $400 Cyber-shot DSC-T100 or Nikon Inc.’s $300 Coolpix S50.

If you don’t mind sacrificing style for a camera that’s sturdier in your hand but bulkier in your purse, point-and-shoot models will be more your speed. On average, these cost less than their showy cousins. They’re more likely to have protruding zoom lenses that don’t collapse entirely into the camera body and often feature larger buttons. More point-and-shoots offer optical viewfinders, which have become practically extinct on pocket digicams where real estate is scarce. Examples of point-and-shoots with optical viewfinders include Eastman Kodak Co.’s EasyShare C653 and Canon Inc.’s PowerShot A460-both cost $130.

A third category of digital cameras, the single-lens reflex or SLR, continues to be marketed to regular consumers rather than to the photography enthusiasts for whom they were originally intended. SLR prices have dropped a couple of hundred dollars in the past year, but many models still start around $800 and come with detachable lenses and flashes. Average users can steer clear of SLR cameras.

Megapixels

Most cameras today offer anywhere between six and 10 megapixels; cameras with four megapixels or fewer are rather rare. But while higher megapixel counts are easy to find for less money, such as Hewlett-Packard Co.’s $300 PhotoSmart R967 with 10 megapixels, such intense resolution is really only necessary if you plan to heavily edit or blow up your photographs for jumbo prints, which most people won’t be doing.

Zoom Confusion

While most camera makers offer clearer marketing strategies now than a year or so ago, some still try to dupe consumers by listing only a camera’s total zoom — the optical and digital zoom multiplied together to create a larger, more impressive number. The truth lies in optical zoom, an enhancement made by a physically moving lens, not digital zoom, which instead magnifies a photo using the camera’s digital circuitry.

This year, companies also created a new category for cameras with 10x or 12x optical-zoom lenses — these are often referred to as high zoom digital cameras. In reality, a camera with about a 4x optical zoom is sufficient for most people.

Facial Recognition

This category is likely to become more popular. Facial recognition makes the camera smart enough to recognize that the subject contains a face and must be captured with the correct balance of color and lighting. Sony’s Cyber-shot G1 can detect up to eight faces in one image; Canon’s technology can detect up to nine per shot.

Image Stabilization

Image stabilization, or IS, was once only available in high-end SLR cameras. Now, almost all of the top-name consumer digicams offer this because without optical viewfinders, users must shakily hold cameras out to look through viewing screens. Referred to as antishake or vibration reduction by some manufacturers, there are three kinds of IS: optical and mechanical image stabilization, which physically steady a camera even when your hand is shaking, or digital image stabilization, which can improve a shot when the photographed subject is moving.

Some cameras, like the $250 Olympus Stylus 760, offer dual IS. This means the camera is equipped with both digital and mechanical or optical image stabilization, the best of both worlds. If you’ll be using a camera specifically for shots of moving objects, digital IS will work.

Storage — on Your Camera or on a Web Site

The cost of memory cards has dropped by half compared with last year: one-gigabyte memory cards now only cost about $30, and $50 two-gigabyte cards are even more popular thanks to people who want to record videos for uploading and sharing on Web sites. Data can be transferred from these cards by plugging them into a computer using an adapter or a card slot, or cameras can be connected to PCs with USB cords.

Now, Kodak, Nikon and Sony offer cameras with wireless Internet connection capabilities, or Wi-Fi. This allows you to take pictures and, when connected to a Wi-Fi hotspot, upload them directly to a Web site for sharing or storing, saving you the step of transferring the images to a computer first. These cameras are the $200 EasyShare One from Kodak, Nikon’s $350 Coolpix S50c and Sony’s $600 Cyber-shot DSC-G1.

Although using Wi-Fi in a digital camera is a smart idea, it could be a real drain on your camera’s battery. Wi-Fi is by no means a necessary feature, but some people will find it a useful add-on.

Battery Tips

Camera battery life can be affected by new features like extra-large screens — especially those that can play slide shows of your photographs — built-in Wi-Fi and even in-camera editing, which requires your camera and LCD screen to be on for longer periods. If you rarely take shots indoors, your flash will likely be used less, which might help your camera’s battery life. A spare battery is useful, and some cameras will work with drugstore batteries for the sake of convenience.

In-Camera Editing

The large, bright LCD viewing screens on cameras — some of which measure up to three inches or even three and a half inches diagonally — encourage everyday photogs to share their shots. To make even these images look better, camera manufacturers are incorporating in-camera editing for fixing mistakes on the spot, without a computer.

Cameras from all of the major manufacturers now enable red-eye fixes either as the photo is captured or after the fact. Companies such as Kodak offer zooming, cropping and panoramic shot stitching, while H-P cameras offer touch-ups like blemish-removing and ways to make a subject look slimmer.

* * *

The digital camera category is exciting right now, as these portable devices become more like computers thanks to in-camera editing, greater memory and built-in Wi-Fi. But remember that your photos come first, no matter how many bells and whistles are added to a camera.

Edited by Walter S. Mossberg


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