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Buying the right digital camera for you

The selection is seemingly endless.


Camera manufacturers like Nikon make several models in all three categories of digital camera, each with differing features, offering the buyer a wide choice.
Camera manufacturers like Nikon make several models in all three categories of digital camera, each with differing features, offering the buyer a wide choice.

THERE ARE THREE GENERAL CATEGORIES OF DIGITAL CAMERA

Digital cameras fall into three broad types:

  • Point and Shoot,
  • Prosumer, and
  • dSLR (Digital single lens reflex).

There are also what could be considered fourth and fifth categories:

  • medium and large format cameras that can be fitted with a digital camera back that contains a digital sensor instead of a film back, and
  • rangefinder digital cameras.

POINT AND SHOOT DIGITAL CAMERAS

Point and shoot cameras are generally intended for amateur photographers who take pictures by doing as the name suggests, simply aiming the camera at a subject and pressing the shutter release button. No thought is given to focusing or camera settings, which are all automatically taken care of by the camera. These are the most popular digital cameras, and can produce decent-looking photographs. However, they are severely limited, having few, if any, features that permit the photographer to control exposure settings, selective focusing and so on.

Cameras in this category are typically quite compact, and are smaller than Prosumer and dSLR types, which explains why they are also known as Compact Cameras. They can usually fit in a pocket or purse. Another term for them is "Consumer Camera" since they appeal to the ordinary consumer as opposed to an advanced amateur or professional photographer. Many have a zoom lens that automatically extends from the camera body when the camera is turned on.

Camera phones fall into the category of point and shoot cameras.

PROSUMER (OR PRO-AM) DIGITAL CAMERAS

Prosumer cameras derive their label from a combination of the words "Professional" and "Consumer". They are intended for advanced amateur photographers, and are also sometimes known as "Pro-Am" cameras (from Professional and Amateur).

The prosumer camera has many similar features to a dSLR camera, with one significant exception. It has a fixed zoom lens as opposed to the dSLR camera's ability to interchange lenses. Lens quality is typically very good and the photographer has much more control than the user of a simple consumer camera. A scene can typically be viewed through an optical viewfinder or on an electronic viewfinder screen, in both cases you are looking through the lens itself. Although its features are quite advanced and more sophisticated than those of a point and shoot camera, it lacks the superiority of a dSLR.

Prosumer cameras are larger and more expensive than point and shoot cameras and smaller and less costly than digital single lens reflex cameras.


DIGITAL SINGLE LENS REFLEX (dSLR) CAMERAS

Note: The "d" in dSLR (sometimes written as "DSLR") identifies a camera as being a digital single lens reflex camera, whereas an SLR refers to a traditional film single lens reflex camera.

The dSLR camera is the type used by professional photographers. It provides the most versatility, the most features and controls, and generally produces the highest quality pictures. The dSLR is also the camera of choice for serious advanced amateurs who want to have the utmost control over their picture-taking experience.

They are also the most expensive camera type, but with good reason. They are reliable, sturdy, well-built and provide the photographer with the most shooting options.

Some relatively inexpensive dSLR camera models are available, targeted less towards the professional and more towards the consumer - the advanced amateur who is budget conscious, but still wants lens interchangeability. They are often sold as a kit, which combines a camera body and a single lens, typically a zoom lens, and can be purchased for under $800.

The most visible differences between dSLRs and other digital camera types are their larger size and the ability they have to remove their lenses so they can be replaced with another type of lens. The manufacturers of these cameras generally also make a wide variety of wide angle, telephoto and specialty lenses for their cameras, as well as a range of other accessories, such as dedicated electronic flash units.

RANGEFINDER DIGITAL CAMERAS

The undisputed champion in this category is the Leica M9, a superb, incredibly sharp digital camera that has a full frame image sensor. Rengefinders are not dSLR cameras, since they don't have TTL (through the lens) viewing, but instead have a separate "window," a viewfinder, through which the photographer frames and focuses the image.

WHICH TYPE IS RIGHT FOR YOU?

You probably have a good idea what general type of camera you want after reading the descriptions above. Knowing what kinds of photographs you plan to take will usually direct you to a particular type. Refer to our section entitled Determine your photography objectives beforehand for guidelines. Even then, you may not be sure whether you should have a Point and shoot or a Prosumer camera, or maybe you want to check out prices and features to help you decide between a Prosumer and a dSLR. It's time for you to have a look at them and check out their prices.

The top choice in digital cameras is the dSLR - the camera professionals and advanced amateurs use.
The top choice in digital cameras is the dSLR - the camera professionals and advanced amateurs use.

You need to hold a number of digital cameras in your hands before making a choice to buy one.
You need to hold a number of digital cameras in your hands before making a choice to buy one.

HAVE A HANDS-ON LOOK AT THE DIGITAL CAMERA MODELS THAT SUIT YOUR NEEDS

With the knowledge in mind of what kinds of photographs you plan to take and an idea of how much you want to spend, you are equipped to start checking into camera models that will best suit your needs. The easiest way to begin doing that is to visit a reputable camera store with your list of objectives. Salesmen will be pleased to show you the models they carry that meet your requirements.

  • Bring a notepad with you so you can record the names and prices of the models you are shown.
  • Ask the salesperson to let you handle the cameras. This is important.
  • Is it the right size for your needs? Do you need the camera to fit in your pocket or purse?
  • Is is too heavy?
  • How does it feel in your hands? If it doesn't feel comfortable, or if the controls are too small or large for your fingers, strike it off your list.
  • Do the controls work easily, or are they too complicated?
  • Turn the camera on and look through the viewfinder. Is the viewfinder too small? Can you see objects and colors in a scene clearly?
  • The brightness and quality of viewfinders can be different from camera to camera. So, be sure to check it in bright light, sunlight when possible, and not just at the sales counter.
  • Is there too much reflection from the LCD monitor?
  • If you don't understand how a control works or what it is for, ask the salesperson to demonstrate it for you.
  • Look at the camera manual. Is it easily understood and comprehensive, with an explanation for every feature and a troubleshooting section?
  • Don't forget to ask about the manufacturer's warranty. The warranty may make all the difference between deciding on one camera over another.
  • The salesman will usually allow you to take a picture or will take one for you so you can see what it looks like on the monitor. Be sure to see how quickly the camera recovers and is ready to take another picture.
  • Finally, ask about the store's return policy if you find the camera is just not right for you after you've purchased it. If the store charges a hefty restocking charge, you may wish to visit other camera stores.

Once you have examined several and perhaps found three or four models that seem to meet your criteria, you don't have to do too much more in the camera store at this stage. But, don't buy one yet. You're not finished. You want to be sure that the one you choose is the best value and the best camera for you. It may seem silly to you to walk out of the camera store when you may think you've found the perfect model for you, but have a little patience. You will find that it pays off by either confirming that your feeling is right or that you can do a lot better with a little more research. Knowledge is power, so let's get some.


FIND OUT ALL ABOUT THE CAMERAS YOU LIKE

Now that you have a good idea of what digital cameras are available to match your photography ambitions and what they look like up close, you should check into those models in more detail, and find out what similar digital cameras are available. The easiest way to do that is to research them on the internet. There are some amazingly good digital camera review websites out there that will tell you more than you need to know about the models that appeal to you, and will usually suggest alternative choices, giving you the pros and cons of each, permitting you to make intelligent comparisons.

It's easy to do. Just enter the camera name and model number in a search engine and click Search. Then look for websites that specialize in camera reviews. You will quickly be able to sort out the better, more comprehensive websites. They will not only contain detailed specifications and technical details for the camera model, but will describe all the features and will also usually rate the models in terms of quality, value and reliability.

Make sure to look for problems or glitches that some cameras may have. You may find that the camera you had your eye on is not as trouble-free as you would like.

You may not always have access to the internet, in which case you can still do some meaningful research by visiting your local library, magazine or book store and finding photography and consumer reports publications that have addressed the latest digital cameras and that provide reviews. But, we figure you wouldn't be reading this if you didn't have the internet.

Don't overlook the value of visiting camera manufacturers' websites too. They may have several models that fall within your price range but that you didn't see in the camera store. You could find that you can upgrade from the model you were thinking about buying at very little additional cost.

You are likely to end up buying the perfect digital camera for your needs when you check out the models you like on reputable camera review websites.
You are likely to end up buying the perfect digital camera for your needs when you check out the models you like on reputable camera review websites.

You want to be sure your new digital camera will give you high quality images. It should have a fast, sharp lens and should be capable of taking fairly high resolution pictures, at least 6 MP.
You want to be sure your new digital camera will give you high quality images. It should have a fast, sharp lens and should be capable of taking fairly high resolution pictures, at least 6 MP.

WHAT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING YOU SHOULD LOOK FOR?

You want to be sure that your new camera will take pictures that will please you and that suit your purposes. There is one minimum requirement for any good digital camera, regardless of the type. That is image quality.

Image quality is in large part a function of the quality of the camera's lens and the camera's resolution - that is, the number of pixels it has. (To learn what a pixel is, visit Image resolution.) Because so many pixels are needed to make a photograph, a camera's resolution is measured in megapixels. A megapixel ("MP") is a million pixels. Generally, the greater the number of megapixels a camera has, the higher the quality of the photographs the camera will make. You will come across specifications for cameras that have resolution ratings beginning around 4 MP for point and shoot cameras to 24 MP for dSLR's.

How many pixels do you need?

Well, for most amateur photographers, 6 MP is adequate, providing you with enough resolution to produce sharp, detailed prints from your pictures in most common sizes, from 4" X 6" to 8" X 10" enlargements. But, if you are planning to super-enlarge your images or feature them in glossy magazines, you may want to choose a camera with a higher resolution. Keep in mind, though, that people don't normally get up really close to an enlargement to view it, so a big enlargement from a 6 MP camera with a sharp lens will still probably look good when viewed from the proper distance to take it all in. Bottom line? Choose a camera with a minimum capability of 6 megapixels (and a quality lens).


OTHER FEATURES TO CONSIDER

There are of course other considerations, such as Optical zoom, assuming the digital cameras you're considering have zoom lenses. Click here to find out what you need to know about the two different kinds of zoom.

Check out Features of a digital camera for descriptions of many popular options.

CONSIDER BUYING A LARGE-CAPACITY MEMORY CARD WITH YOUR NEW CAMERA

Most digital cameras are sold with a memory card, but it is usually one that has the minimum capacity. Sure, it will get you started taking pictures, but you will find it very quickly fills up, and you will be wishing that you had purchased a larger capacity memory card. We suggest that you do just that, buy a large capacity memory card when you buy your camera. You will be thankful that you did.

WARRANTY

You should also find out what kind of warranty is provided by the manufacturer. A one-year limited warranty to fix manufacturer defects is normal. You may be offered a separate extended warranty by the retailer for repairs after the manufacturer's warranty has expired. We don't recommend purchasing an extended warranty, since the odds are very good that if your camera makes it through the first year without any problems, it is unlikely to need a further warranty. Keep in mind that an extended warranty (and even the original warranty) typically doesn't cover breakage or damage unrelated to the camera's workmanship or materials used in making it.

DON'T PAY MORE THAN YOU HAVE TO

If you follow every step above, you should be in a good position to know what digital camera is the right one for you to buy. We recommend you shop around for the model of your choice since retailers don't all sell the same camera at the same price.

Preapre to amaze yourself with your photography when you have purchased the digital camera that does what you want it to do.
Preapre to amaze yourself with your photography when you have purchased the digital camera that does what you want it to do.
Further information...

Lens selection
Related topics...

Features of a digital camera

Choice in digital cameras