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How to choose a digital camera

Summary: If you are looking for a simple point-n-shoot digital camera, we recommend that you find a black wide-angle zoom camera with image stabilization that is quick to set up and easy to use.

Are you looking for a digital camera that takes great pictures? We all know that Air Jordans don't make us slam dunking champions. Similarly, fancy cameras don't make us thought provoking artists. Beautiful pictures are the results of the photographer's talent, time and effort. How beautiful your pictures turn out depends much more on you than your camera. Most digital cameras over $150 can be used to take gorgeous pictures.

First let's get past some marketing hype. You may demand the highest image quality from your camera: most megapixels and best colors. Here are 3 facts.

  1. You don't need more than 4 megapixels. A typical computer monitor is configured to display at most 2 megapixels. Unless you are going to make very large prints, more megapixels are of no use to you.
  2. A 4-megapixel camera may actually produce better pictures than higher-megapixel cameras when lighting is dark, e.g. indoors without flash.
  3. Every camera produces a different set of colors. Every computer monitor, printer and type of printing paper too produces a different set of colors. You may prefer one camera's display, but another camera's images when displayed on your computer. The good news is, with a little adjustment, you can make most cameras produce roughly equivalent colors, on camera and on computer.
These facts are based on some assumptions; but for practical purposes, they are correct for point-n-shoot cameras between $150 and $400. So, what qualities should you look for if not image quality?

Important quality #1: speed speed speed. As a photographer, your greatest frustration occurs when your camera is not ready to take a picture. Your baby is about to take his first steps. But your camera takes too long to turn on. It could not focus in low light. Or when you click the button, the baby blinks faster than the camera could take the picture. Bottom line: you don't get a beautiful picture if your miss the shot.

Which cameras are fast and responsive? You can find and compare technical measurements at several websites. Or you can just go to the local stores to try different cameras. Some cameras take less than one-half second to turn on and get ready to take a picture. Some cameras take the time to open and move the lens when you turn it on. Next, try to take a picture of something in a dark corner. For example, place your feet under a table and try to take a picture of your shoes. Use the store's furniture, your body or jacket to block bright light if necessary. You will find that some cameras simply fail, some take a long time to focus but eventually take the picture, and some actually work to a certain degree of darkness. In most cases, you cannot actually take a picture in the store because the cameras are not loaded with memory cards. But you can still get an idea of each camera's responsiveness when you try. If you cannot test the camera in the stores, then buy one from a store with a good return policy, so that you can test it at home. Pick a store that does not charge a restocking fee. If you do return a camera, make sure to pack it neatly and return everything in its original condition. Other speed issues show up less often, but they are still worth considering. For example, how easy or difficult is it for you to replace the battery or the memory card? Can you replace the battery or the memory card when the camera is on a tripod? How easy is it for you to turn the flash on and off? How easy is it for you to switch from playback mode to picture-taking mode? How fast can the lens zoom? How fast can the camera take 3 shots in a row?

Important quality #2: Wide angle. You should always choose wide angle zoom over telephoto zoom. Why? You cannot avoid taking pictures of people indoors. The wide-angle camera can capture more faces in tight spaces. If you give up fine art photography one day, you will still have an useful camera for family portraits. Of course, it is easier to frame your dog in the yard, the pink rose in the garden, or the fighter jet in the sky with a telephoto lens. But keep these two points in mind. First, a telephoto lens requires you to be a little far away from your subject, usually too far for your on-camera flash to be useful. Second, remember that you have way more megapixels than you need. If Snoopy looks small in a wider angle shot, he will still fill up your computer screen after you crop off a large portion of the picture.

Important quality #3: image stabilizer. Small cameras are convenient to carry in your pocket or purse, but difficult to grip when you use it. The image stabilizer helps greatly. It is almost a necessity when you want to take a picture indoors without flash. For example, in museums that do not allow flash photography, you can either set up a tripod or use the image stabilizer. An indoor wedding is another occasion. Photo-blogging a 5-course meal in the restaurant is yet another situation that calls for the image stabilizer.

A small advice: choose the black camera over the silver one. Silver cameras may be shiny and sleek-looking, but it will inevitably reflect a very annoying shiny hot spot in your favorite picture. If you are trying photograph the shy little squirrel, the shiny silver lens barrel is not going to be a very good camouflage.

Finally, weight, size and look-n-feel are important and personal. You should buy the camera that you like, and if it happens to have the above qualities, it will also be the camera that you actually use. Unfortunately, every quality has its price. Fast and responsive cameras cost more than sluggish ones. Wide angle zooms tend to be more expensive than telephoto zooms. The cost of the image stabilizer, too, is at a premium. Most stores charge more for the black version of the same camera. Do not dispair, however. There is always a special sale every month or two.