How To Buy The Perfect Gear (Part 2) - Cameras buying guide

12/11/2012 9:21:56 AM

The Big Picture

With the rise of smartphones as everyday photography devices, cameras have had to evolve quickly to compete, and you now have many more types of cameras to choose from.

Cameras these days include ruggedized point and shoots, high-zoom pocket cameras, premium compacts, mirror-less interchangeable-lens models, and full-fledged DSLRs. The best fit for you depends on your budget, your size requirements, and your shooting style.

This digital camera buying guide will help you make a purchasing decision based on the specs that you need to examine closely before you buy.

Which camera to buy?

Which camera to buy?

The Specs Explained

Megapixel count: For everyday photos, a camera of most any resolution will do. And in the current market, few cameras have a resolution of less than 10 megapixels.

Image quality: Cameras with larger sensors and lenses normally take better shots, regardless of megapixel count. You'll pay more for a larger sensor.

If you can’t get hands-on time with a camera before making a purchase, check the specs for the sensor's size.

Shutter lag and startup time: Shutter lag may prevent you from capturing the perfect photo, in several ways: a slow shot-to-shot time, a sluggish startup-to-first-shot time, and a laggy autofocus.

To get a sense of a camera's shot-to-shot time, confirm the camera’s "burst mode" or "continuous shooting” count in shots per second. For sports or action photos, look for a continuous shooting mode of at least three shots per second.

Also check to see how long the camera takes to power on and snap a first shot. Determine how long the camera's autofocus takes to lock in on a shot after you press the shutter button halfway down.

Size, weight, and design: To some users, a camera’s weight and pocket-ability may be more important than its resolution. But slim cameras might have tiny dials and few buttons, or simply lack manual controls, depending instead on automated in-camera settings.

Zoom lens and image stabilization: Among the new breed of $200 range cameras are a few pocket megazooms that offer up to 10X optical zoom. This means you won't have to magnify your subject and then use software to crop.

A few DSLRs and interchangeable lens compacts have in body image stabilization, meaning that in camera mechanics will stabilize your photos.

Fixed lens cameras now offer zoom ratings beyond 40X. But unless the camera has good image stabilization or a very fast shutter, you may need a steady hand or a tripod to avoid blurry pictures.

Also, pay attention to the wide-angle end (lowest number) of the camera's optical zoom range. The lower the number, the wider angle the lens.

Look for optical zoom, which gives you all the benefit of the camera's maximum resolution, combined with the ability to focus in tight on faraway action.

Raw mode: Many DSLRs, mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras, and premium compact cameras allow you to shoot in raw mode, preserving all the data in your images without compression. But file sizes will be much higher.

Manual focus: For close-ups where autofocus doesn't quite cut it, switching to manual focusing can help.

Storage: If you have a storage card you want to use with your new camera, make sure it's compatible. Most cameras today use SD (Secure Digital) or SDHC (Secure Digital High Capacity). The latter cards, with storage up to 32GB, are pricier and aren't compatible with standard SD slots.

Nikon’s D600 24.3-megapixel DSLR

Nikon’s D600 24.3-megapixel DSLR is a relative bargain at $2100 for the body only.

Battery life: Typically, brand-new cameras use proprietary rechargeable batteries that can cost from $25 to $65 to replace. Lower-priced and older cameras use standard AAs or high-capacity disposable CRV3s (which are around $10 apiece; some cameras take two).

Battery life and camera cost often aren’t related: Some inexpensive cameras have great battery life, while some pricey ones use up a charge quickly.

Movies and sound: Most of today’s cameras can capture 1080p high-def video. For shooting video, consider whether you can use manual exposure, optical zoom, and manual focus or continuous autofocus while shooting.

Exposure settings: All digital cameras let you shoot in Auto mode just press the shutter release for a picture. Some cameras also offer aperture and shutter-priority modes, in which you adjust the size of the lens opening or how long the shutter stays open, and the camera automatically controls the other variable to give you the proper exposure.

Cameras that offer priority modes also provide full-manual exposure control, in which you set both variables. These modes make a camera adaptable to almost any situation.

Menus: Consider how easily you can reach common settings such as exposure controls, ISO adjustments, continuous-shooting options, and manual focus controls, and how easily you can play back just-taken images.

LCD and viewfinder: All digital cameras have an LCD screen, varying in size from 1.8 to 3.5 inches. A smaller size limits your ability to review just-taken images.

LCD quality varies widely (many wash out in sunlight). If possible, try using a camera outdoors before you buy it.

Wireless features: More and more models have built-in Wi-Fi features to help you share photos more quickly, directly from the camera. Sony, for example, continues to introduce Wi-Fi cameras that tie into the company's PlayMemories online service.

Olympus’s OM-D E-M5

Olympus’s OM-D E-M5 is a compact DSLR, but a top model ($1000, body only).

Buying Tips

Look for low-light excellence: The larger the sensor, the better your low light shots are likely to look.

Pay attention to the battery: Some newer cameras require charging the battery by plugging the entire camera into a USB port or wall socket.

Match megapixels to your use: If you intend to make only 4 by 6-inch prints, you don’t have to shoot at the camera’s highest resolution and you'll be able to fit more shots onto your memory card.

Disregard digital zoom: Most cameras offer at least 5X optical zoom. But digital zoom produces photos that are inferior to those produced with an optical zoom.

Try before you buy: Some cameras have commands and menus that are easier to use than others, which you can ascertain only via a hands-on trial.

Buy a second memory card: Having a spare allows you to keep shooting while the images download, rather than needing to keep the camera hooked up to your PC. Also, you won't have to worry about running out of space (and missing your perfect shot) quite so quickly.

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