Digital Camera Buying GuideOur digital camera buying guide will help you choose the best digital camera to meet your needs and fit your budget
Digital camera technology, like other electronic products, continually advances at a high rate of speed. Several times a year new models are being introduced that offer new features, better resolution, and improved image quality. This presents a unique problem to the person looking to purchase their first digital camera or upgrade their existing one. With all the new models and features, how do you choose the best camera for you?
Our digital camera buying guide will begin by covering some key factors to consider when buying a camera. After that we will highlight some important features to keep in mind when shopping for the perfect camera. Then we will provide you with information on where to find in-depth reviews of the latest cameras as well as links to where to find some of the best digital camera deals.
Digital Camera Buying Guide...What Type of Camera?The first thing to decide is what type of camera you are looking for. With the introduction in recent years of the "Four-Thirds" image format as well as the new "Mirror-less Interchangeable Lens" cameras, today's camera buyer has many types of digital cameras to choose from.
If you are not familiar with the different types of digital cameras available today you might want to check out our digital camera comparison page which introduces you to several different types of digital cameras on the market today.
Here are a few important things to keep in mind when deciding what type of camera you will look for:
- Price...if you are on a budget, as most of us are, you need to determine how much you can afford to spend. That will help you narrow down whether you will be able to afford a DSLR or one of the other interchangeable lens cameras. If those are out of your budget or you prefer a smaller camera then you should consider either a point-and-shoot or high-zoom camera. As prices of entry level DSLR's continue to drop they are quickly becoming a more affordable option for those who want the best overall photo quality. However, remember that when buying a camera that uses interchangeable lenses you are investing in a camera system, because you will likely want to add additional lenses in the future which represents an added cost.
- Size...do you want a smaller point and shoot camera that is easier to carry, or are you OK with a larger camera or DSLR with some extra lenses? The best camera will not do any good if it is left at home because you do not want to take along a camera bag full of equipment.
- Overall Image Quality...will you be making enlargements of your photos? Or, will you be taking pictures in low light settings? If so then you should consider a DSLR, Four-Thirds, or other interchangeable lens camera. These types of cameras have larger image sensors therefore they will produce better quality photos and do a better job in low-light situations.
Digital Camera Buying Guide...How Many Megapixels?With all the hype about how many megapixels this or that camera has, one would think that the number of megapixels is the single most important thing to consider when purchasing a digital camera. But in reality it is not. For the average person who will normally not print photos larger than an 8x10, the standard 10 to 12 megapixel sensors found in entry level point-and-shoot cameras have enough image resolution to make prints that size.
Let's face it, most photographers don't need latest, super-advanced 24.6 megapixel, DSLR. If you can afford that type of camera and the lenses to go with it, great! If not...no worries...you can still find a good digital camera even on a considerably smaller budget.
The fact is that if you learn to get the most from your digital camera you will be able to capture some great photos no matter what camera you can afford to buy.
Today's point-and-shoot and super-zoom cameras typically come with image sensors between 9 and 14 megapixels. One area to look it when shopping for a digital camera is the digital noise levels produced by the image sensor. Many in depth reviews will have sample pictures taken at different ISO speeds. Watch out for cameras that have higher amounts of noticeable digital noise at higher ISO's than other similar cameras.
Remember the more megapixels you cram into an image sensor, the smaller each pixel is. This means less light falls on the pixel and often results in increased digital noise in the image. Fortunately along with improvements in image sensor technology, digital signal processing has also improved resulting in more acceptable noise levels even on higher megapixel sensors. DSLR's, Four Thirds, and other Interchangeable Lens Cameras also come in a variety of megapixel sizes, with 14 to 16 megapixel APS-C image sensors commonly found even in some of the entry to mid-level cameras. Those image resolutions provide excellent image resolution and quality.
The bottom line on megapixels is that with a few exceptions...the really cheap cameras... the digital cameras you find on the market today have more than adequate image resolution to meet the average photographers needs. So don't get caught up in the whole "buy the highest megapixel camera mindset."
Instead keep the whole issue of megapixels in perspective and look closely at the other important features so you can get the best value for your money. For example, a slightly lower megapixel camera might actually be faster and less susceptible to digital noise in the image. Both are very important features.
Digital Camera Buying Guide...What Brand Should I Buy?Not surprisingly the answer you will get to this question will vary quite a bit depending on who you ask. DSLR users, especially advanced amateurs and professional photographers tend to be pretty brand loyal...after all they have usually invested a fair amount of money in their camera and lenses. If you spend even a little time reading camera forums online it is easy to see that there are fanatics for most major camera brands and if you listen to some of them their brand of camera is the only one to buy. But the truth is that all of the major camera manufacturers make high quality cameras. Don't get caught up into the mindset that "only brand XXXX is any good because that is what the pros use." The fact is there are professional photographers who make their living using a number of different camera brands.
Digital Camera ManufacturersCanon and Nikon currently account for around 80% of the DSLR market share. As the two most popular digital camera brands there are a vast number of accessories and lenses available for these brands. This provides a broad user base and a wider variety of used lenses available for purchase on websites such as EBay and Craigslist.
Sony, Olympus, and Pentax have a much smaller market share but all make very competitive and top rated digital cameras. Because Sony DSLR's use the Minolta "A Mount" lens mount, they have the advantage of being compatible with the majority of the older Minolta auto-focus lenses which means that there are more used lenses available for them than some other companies. Other digital camera companies include: Panasonic, Fuji, Sigma, Samsung, Kodak, and Leica. All of these companies make high quality digital cameras and often have some of the highest rated cameras in their classes.
When considering which brand of camera to buy I recommend you compare the different models in your price range from several different companies and find the one you like the best and that offers you the best value for your money. As long as you stick with a digital camera from one of the major camera makers you should be OK. The best thing to do is compare feature for feature and make the best choice for you and your budget.
Digital Camera Buying Guide...What Features Should I Look For?Here are some key features to look for when buying a fixed lens camera, such as a point-and-shoot or super-zoom model.
- I would recommend a camera with at least an 8 megapixel image sensor. That resolution will adequately allow you to print an 8x10 photo without using any digital enlargement software. 12-14 megapixel cameras are very popular in these types of cameras but don't be afraid of dropping down to a 8 or 9 megapixel sensor if camera has additional features or offers a better value for the money.
- An optical zoom of at least 3X. Stay away from cameras that only have digital zoom. While many cameras have digital zoom built in I recommend avoiding digital zoom if at all possible as it can quickly affect the image quality. Look for the largest possible zoom range that you can get in your camera style and price range. Having a larger optical zoom range makes the camera more versatile. This is one of the reasons that I am a big fan of the "super zoom" models that feature optical zooms of up to 30X.
- High Quality Optics. The quality of the camera lens is very important. Having a high quality lens will help you get sharper pictures. Some manufacturers use different types of lenses on their cameras and often include a name brand, "higher quality" lens on some of their models. When comparing different models look closely at who made the lens. Name brands include Carl Zeiss, Schneider-Kreuznach and Leica. Manufacturers also often have their own designation for their line of professional lenses. For example Sony uses the "G" designation on its professional lenses, while Canon professional lenses are designated by an "L". Sony also commonly uses Carl Zeiss lenses on some of its cameras so a Sony camera with a Carl Zeiss or "G" series lens is a model that features a premium lens. The quality of the lens can make a big difference in the image quality so look for those models that feature top of the line optics.
- A large high resolution LCD display. Since many fixed lens cameras do not have any viewfinder, or a very small one at best, having a high resolution LCD display is important. Since the LCD display might be the only way of composing or viewing your photo try to make sure the LCD screen is visible in bright light. Without a viewfinder the LCD screen is your only option and needs to be viewable in a variety of lighting conditions.
- A variety of automatic and semi-automatic modes as well as features such as smile or face detection, etc. are good to have. Many of the newer cameras feature intelligent automatic modes where the camera selects the best "scene" mode for you. I find that this feature generally works well but I also like the ability to move to a semi-automatic mode such as aperture or shutter priority when needed. Other modes such as a panoramic mode are also desirable.
Here are some features to consider when shopping for a DSLR, Four Thirds or other interchangeable lens camera.
- Live View. Many new DSLR models feature live-view displays, which allow you to focus and compose your picture using the LCD display instead of the viewfinder. Some interchangeable lens cameras don't even have an electronic viewfinder, so having a high-quality LCD display is very important.
- Articulating LCD Display. Another feature that is becoming increasingly popular on DSLR's is an articulating LCD display that will allow you to rotate the LCD display. This makes for easier viewing when taking a picture on a camera with live view where you cannot look through the viewfinder.
- Image Stabilization. There are two basic types of image stabilization available: in-the-body and in-the-lens. Canon and Nikon both use image stabilized lenses while Sony, Olympus and Pentax use in-body stabilization. While both systems work very well, the advantage of the in-body stabilization is that it works will all lenses. That means that if you attach an older Minolta lens to a Sony DSLR you get the benefits of image stabilization. When the image stabilization is built into the lens you only get the benefit when using an image stabilized lens and image stabilized lenses tend to be higher priced than non-stabilized lenses. This also means that older Canon or Nikon lenses would not benefit from image stabilization even when used on a newer camera body.
- Your Lens or Lenses. Many DSLR's come with some type of "kit" lens such as an 18-55mm or some other similar focal length. While these are good everyday lenses and cover from a "wide angle" to a "normal" field of view, many people will want to add a second lens with a longer focal length to be able to zoom in on distant subjects. Lenses that have a 200mm to 300mm focal length are good second lenses to complement the normal "kit" lens. For example a 75-300mm or maybe a 55-200mm lens would be a good additional purchase with your new DSLR. Often you can find a good price on a DSLR Bundle that includes two lenses so you can cover a wider focal range and have more versatility.
- Other Accessories to consider. As the number of megapixels increase so does the need for more storage space to store your digital pictures. You will likely want to purchase additional memory cards so you have several when traveling. With several different types of memory cards being used by different camera companies you might even need to switch to a different type altogether when upgrading to a new camera. Likewise, newer faster cameras require faster memory cards to maximize their performance. These are additional expenses to keep in mind when shopping for a new DSLR. Also having a extra battery or two is a good idea if you take a lot of photos. Nothing is more frustrating than missing a great photo because of a dead battery or you have filled up your memory card. Having extra memory cards and batteries is a must.
- Plan for the future. If you can afford to, try and buy a DSLR you can grow into. While the entry level models are great from an affordability standpoint, if you are going to get serious about photography you might want to consider a more advanced model if possible. That allows you to "grow into" the camera so you don't quickly find yourself wanting a more advanced camera with additional features and faster performance. As mentioned earlier buying a DSLR is really like investing in a camera system, as most users will add additional lenses over time. Once you have invested in several lenses it makes switching DSLR brands even harder, so keep in mind that the brand you buy will likely be the one you are committed to for some time.
- ISO Range and Digital Noise. Entry level cameras might only go up to 3200 ISO, while more advanced models are able to shoot at ISO speeds of 12,800 and higher. Comparing the ISO range and even more importantly the digital noise at higher ISO's is important, especially when you will be taking pictures in low light conditions. Many of the tests and reviews on digital cameras will show examples of high ISO images. This allows you to compare what the real usable ISO range of the different cameras are before digital noise becomes an issue with image quality.
Digital Camera Buying Guide....Where Should I Buy My Camera?
Starting with local electronics or discount stores like Best Buy or Walmart, to local specialized photography stores, you have many options where you have the ability to do some "hands-on" shopping for your next camera. That allows you to actually check out different cameras in person rather than relying on reviews alone. However shopping online will often allow you to find the best price and the broadest selection.
When shopping online you need to be careful and only buy from a reputable dealer. Common online scams to avoid are those online dealers that sell "Grey Market" goods at discount prices, without indicating such. A "Grey Market" camera is often an overseas model that was not intended to be sold in the U.S. These products normally do not come with a manufacturers warranty so you need to make sure they are warrantied by a reputable seller or third party company. Other things to avoid are companies that try to charge you for digital accessories that should come standard with the camera, or that use high pressure sales tactics to try and sell you the camera with a bundle of low quality, over priced accessories. Remember if the price is too good to be true it probably is.
It is recommended that you carefully check out the reviews of the online dealer as well as checking the internet for complaints from unsatisfied customers. Another reason for buying from an authorized, reputable dealer is that many manufacturers only warranty products sold by their authorized dealer network. If you purchase from a non-authorized dealer you run the risk of not having warranty coverage if something would happen to your camera during the warranty period.
Therefore we recommend that you purchase your digital camera from any one of the many authorized dealers, either online or locally. If you have questions about a specific dealer you can usually check with the manufacturer to make sure it is an authorized dealer. Also be sure to check online review sites to see how that dealer is rated.
Here are links to some authorized camera dealers that we recommend. They have been in business for a number of years and are well known for their customer service, wide selection of products, and competitive pricing. Most of them feature reviews from customers as well as in depth product specifications. We have affiliate relationships with companies which means if you purchase from them they pay us a small commission. You get the same low price and help keep this website online.
Some other good camera review sites include dpreview and cnet.
Back to Practical Photography Tips From Digital Camera Buying Guide