Digital Camera Buying Guide

Buying your first digital camera? Don’t be confused by the jargon—it’s easy to choose once you know the basics. Read on for answers to the most frequently asked questions on buying digital cameras.

From megapixels to memory cards, digital and optical zooms, point-and-shoots to SLRs: the options can be daunting when you’re buying your first digital camera. But you really don’t need more than a basic understanding of digital cameras to make a good choice. Just like any purchase, it all boils down to what you need and which one best serves that need. This guide answers seven of the most common questions about choosing, buying, and using digital cameras.

1. What’s the difference between a point-and-shoot and an SLR?

A point-and-shoot camera is roughly the digital equivalent of a film automatic. It basically does all the image work for you, so that you just literally point and shoot. If you need a camera for everyday picture-taking, a point-and-shoot should be enough for you.

SLR is short for single-lens reflex, the optical system used in most professional cameras. It took a while for SLR technology to go digital, but many are now available at the consumer level. You’ll easily notice a digital SLR by its large changeable lens and usually thick, bulky body. An SLR may be suitable if you’re a serious hobbyist or want to get more creative in your shots.

2. What are megapixels? Are they important?

Megapixels are usually the first thing you consider when buying a digital camera. It simply refers to the resolution, or total number of pixels, in the pictures you take. A 5-megapixel camera can capture up to 5 million pixels.

So do they matter? Yes, but only to a certain extent. Some 6-megapixel SLRs far outperform 10-megapixel compacts. If you only want to publish your pictures on the web, 2 to 4 megapixels should be enough; for prints up to 5x7, you’ll be fine with 6 megapixels. Anything higher than 8 is usually just for show, at least in compact cameras. Because compacts have smaller image sensors, packing in too many megapixels can make your images grainy.

3. Does size matter?

Cameras range from the slim, credit card-sized models to bulky ones that barely fit in your hands. Compact cameras are more attractive, but style often comes at the expense of features. So the question here is: how much function are you willing to sacrifice for style? A pocket-sized model may offer decent resolution but weak flash, or easy handling but poor or limited zoom. The flaws are bearable in some cases, but it all depends on what functions you need. If you’re not planning on any professional photography, then you can probably do away with some of the features.

4. What’s the difference between optical and digital zoom?

Optical zoom works the same way it does in traditional cameras: it brings your subject closer by adjusting the movable glass elements inside the lens. Digital zoom simply expands the pixels in the center of the frame to make it appear “closer.” Because of the physical limits of the glass lens, optical zoom is usually limited while digital zoom can be stretched past 100x. Some models don’t even have optical.

However, it’s only optical zoom that matters when it comes to image quality. Digitally zoomed pictures are usually blurry and pixilated. It’s best to ignore the digital zoom no matter how high it is, as you won’t be using it much if you want decent pictures.

5. How much should I spend on a camera?

It depends on what you want to do with your camera. If you just want to share pictures online or make regular-sized prints, you can find a decent camera for under $100. In the $200-$400 range, you can get enough resolution for prints up to 5x7, or even 8x10 if you’re lucky. “Prosumer” cameras—point-and-shoots with advanced manual controls—can cost up to $500, and should be good enough for serious amateurs who aren’t ready for a digital SLR just yet. If you’re really into creative photography, you may want to invest in a DSLR, which can range from $600 to over $5,000.

6. What accessories do I need?

Most digital cameras come with a free memory card, but it’s always a good idea for buy extra storage. The 32-MB card included in most packages can only hold around seven 5-megapixel pictures, so you’ll be running to transfer your pictures every five minutes. A 1GB card should be enough for pictures up to 8 megapixels.

You may also want to invest in rechargeable batteries, unless your camera has a built-in one. Digital cameras eat up power pretty fast—the cheapest battery brands can die out after a couple of shots. Get at least two sets of rechargeables, so you can simply pop them in when you run out in the middle of a shoot. Other add-ons you might need are a carrying case (look for a padded one), wrist or neck strap, and a lens cleaning kit.

7. Is digital better than film?

Each medium has its strengths and weaknesses. In terms of quality for price, film is still much better than digital. Few digital cameras can generate pixels so fine that they appear as smooth as a film print. However, some of the newer models can match or even exceed film quality, especially in the hands of a skilled photographer. The added convenience of digital makes it a far better choice for all applications: no film costs, easy printing, unlimited additional prints, and the ability to share and publish your pictures online.