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Dave's Definitive Guide to Buying a Digicam

Or "How to Size Up a Digital Camera in 10 Minutes or Less"

Related article: Top Ten List

Choosing a digital camera can be intimidating. Study the sales literature, read the reviews, talk to the camera salespeople, and you'll come away with a head full of technical jargon, but probably not much idea of what camera to buy. Even if you're able to pick up on some of the more important features, and wade through the quagmire of megabytes, megapixels, and mega-headaches, you'll quickly learn that different camera manufacturers use different terms for the same thing -- pretty much leaving you right back where you started!

Recognizing this conundrum, we asked Dave Etchells, proprietor of The Imaging Resource website (www.imaging-resource.com), to boil away all the marketing hype and tell you exactly what you need to know to waltz confidently up to the counter (or mousepad) and buy your first digicam. Read this, and you'll be able to size up any digital camera in 10 minutes or less, saving yourself hours of shopping time at the camera stores and online retailers (and who has time to waste these days?).

Resolution: How big can I print it?
One of the first buzzwords you'll come across when shopping for a digicam is "megapixel." This is a measure of how many "pixels," or tiny bits of information, the camera's image sensor uses to split-up and then reassemble the picture. In a perfect world, the megapixel rating would give you a good indication of the quality of the camera (the higher the megapixel number, the smaller the pixels, and the better the resolution). Alas, this isn't always the case, as there are many factors that affect camera quality and resolution. Some manufacturers have confused the issue even more by packing more pixels into the final image than were originally created.

Despite these inconsistencies, we can still make some useful generalizations from the camera's pixel resolution, or megapixel rating. For example, we know that the number of megapixels produced by a camera helps determine the maximum size prints you can make from its images. A 1-megapixel camera makes prints as large as 4 x 6 inches, a 1.3- to 1.5-megapixel camera makes 5 x 7-inch prints, and so on. Even if your intent is to only e-mail your images or post them on a website, we recommend that you buy a camera with at least enough pixel resolution to obtain a good-looking 4 x 6-inch print. (It's been our experience that most people end up wanting to make prints of their favorite photos at some time or another.) By the same token, be realistic about what you're likely to need. If 99% of your film camera photos are 4 x 6-inch prints, don't spend $1,000 for the latest and greatest 3-megapixel model, when a 1-megapixel camera will do just fine.

The chart below gives you a rough idea of how many megapixels you'll need for a given print size. These aren't hard-and-fast rules, as you can always print larger images than the sizes shown here; but if you make prints larger than the recommended sizes in the chart, they will most likely be soft or have "jaggies" (visible pixels) along the edges of your subjects. In fact, you'll probably find some experts who feel that our guidelines are too liberal, that you need more resolution than we've suggested to obtain good quality prints, but we've always found that "acceptable" print quality is very subjective, so we subscribe to the YMMV rule (your mileage may vary). Use these numbers only as a general guideline to help you decide the approximate number of megapixels you should be looking for in a digital camera.

 

Digicam Resolution vs. Photographic Print Size
 Megapixel Rating
 Typical Image Size (in pixels)
 Maximum Print Size (in inches)
 Less than 1.0
640 x 480
800 x 600
Web/e-mail only.
Maybe 3 x 5 inches.
 1 megapixel
1,154 x 852
4 x 6
 1.3-1.5 megapixels
1,280 x 960, 1,280 x 1,024
5 x 7
 2.0 megapixels
1,600 x 1,200
8 x 10, sharper 5 x 7
 3+ megapixels
2,048 x 1,536
(or larger)
Sharper 8 x 10, 8 x 10 with cropping

 

 

The Camera Lens: Fixed, Zoom, or Digital Zoom?
After resolution, the next most important consideration when choosing a camera is the lens. To take good pictures, a camera has to have quality optics (glass, no plastic), and it has to offer the flexibility you need to creatively photograph your subject. The most common error beginning photographers make when taking pictures is to stand too far away from their subjects. This can (and usually does) result in small subjects that are difficult to identify, centered in the middle of a lot of dead space. It's not always the photographer's fault, a lot depends on the flexibility of the camera's lens system.

Like inexpensive film cameras, many low-priced digicams use fixed-focal-length lenses, that is, the lens remains stationary and always covers the same angle of view. The only way you can change the framing of your picture with a fixed-focal-length lens is to back away or move closer. While this may seem like a reasonable method of composition, there are some distinct disadvantages. For example, you can't always get as close as you want to your subject; and when you can get up close, most fixed-focal-length lenses are wide-angle, which at very close range, will distort a subject's features -- noses grow larger, eyes move farther apart, and faces appear to bow in toward the camera (not the best results for intimate close-ups of your friends and family).

A zoom lens allows you to get really close to people, without invading their personal space, and it will eliminate wide-angle distortion. You can change the framing of your picture (i.e. adjust the distance between you and your subject) by "zooming" in and out from a wide-angle to a telephoto view, or anywhere in between. Also, zoom lenses tend to shorten the distance (at least optically) between faraway objects, so you can photograph a horse grazing in a nearby field, compose the image to include a faraway tree, and the two subjects will appear much closer to each other than they really are. It does wonders for pulling your picture together.

Zoom lenses are commonly referred to by their zoom ratio, which is the difference between their focal length at the widest angle setting and maximum telephoto. For example, a zoom ratio of 1:3, or 3x, means that the maximum zoom range is three times further than the closest wide-angle setting. The most common zoom ratio for digicams is 3x, but some compact cameras have only a 2x zoom, and some larger models have zoom ratios as high as 10x. A good zoom lens typically adds about $100 to the cost of a camera. That's a fair chunk of money, but I'd happily trade a megapixel worth of resolution to get a good zoom lens.

Don't be fooled by the terms "digital zoom" or "digital telephoto"! A digital zoom is not a true zoom lens, it merely crops into your image, throwing away the information around the edges, and thereby increasing the apparent magnification of the lens. The end result is decreased resolution, soft-looking images, and an anomaly called stair-stepping, or jaggies, which are basically pixels that have been magnified so much, that they appear as stairsteps along the edges of your subject. So be sure that your camera specifications include an "optical" zoom lens, which increases image magnification through the lens itself, not "digital" zoom, which uses the camera's software to make the enlargement.

Note: That doesn't necessarily mean you should avoid digital zooms altogether, just don't be misled into thinking that a camera has a zoom lens unless it says zoom lens on the package. The magic buzzwords are "Optical Zoom" or "Zoom Lens." If you don't see one of those terms, and you want a zoom lens, don't buy the camera!

Size/Feel Factor - Do I care if it fits in my pocket?
Digital cameras vary greatly in size, from large units that require a neck strap to carry, to the ultra-compact models that slip invisibly into your shirt pocket. Imaging Resource always addresses the issue of camera "size and feel" because we believe they are both important factors in the search for practicality. If your camera is so large that it's a hassle to lug along on family outings, then you probably won't take it; and a camera that sits at home in the drawer doesn't take many pictures.

So, do you immediately search for the smallest, most portable model, so you'll always have it on hand? Not necessarily. Like anything else, you have to make compromises. Ultra-compact digicams typically have a limited zoom range (or no zoom at all), image quality may suffer, and/or the price may be higher for the same feature set. Likewise, there are some camera features that simply demand a larger camera body, such as long-ratio zoom lenses. (Rest assured that a camera with a 10x zoom lens is not going to fit in your shirt pocket!) Most high-end digicams tend to fall in the "large" body category. To some extent, you'll have to evaluate your own level of photo-fanaticism and decide how large a camera you'll need to accommodate your selected feature set, and how willing you'll be to keep it as a constant companion.

Fortunately, digicam manufacturers are very aware of the "too-big-to-carry-is-too-big-to-use" problem, so you'll find lots of feature-laden models that fall into the "compact" category. They may be a tight fit in a shirt pocket, but they'll do fine in your pants or overcoat pocket. Most folks find these cameras strike a comfortable balance between size, cost, and features.

(A word of warning, to those who choose to carry the pocket-size digicams: My wife pointed out that when a camera slips easily into a pocket, it can also slip easily out of one, so be careful to keep track of it once you have it!)

Image/Color Quality: Who do I believe?
Today's digital cameras have improved so much over the past few years, that even the most middle-of-the-road, 2-megapixel models can deliver color quality that is acceptable to the casual snapshooter. However, there are still critical differences between various cameras - significant enough that it behooves you do a side-by-side comparison of sample images from each of the models you're considering.

Of course, looking at sample images is really only useful if you have some idea of what the original subject looked like, and/or how other cameras performed with the same subject. Another critical factor is the subject matter. You can take pretty pictures with just about any camera, but what matters most is how well the camera performs with the kind of photos you want to take.

This is the purpose behind Imaging Resource's Comparometer (tm). Once you've narrowed down your search to a few competing models, you can visit our website (http://www.imaging-resource.com/IMCOMP/COMPS01.HTM) and see how they each performed in controlled tests. For example, many cameras do very well in daylight, but fail miserably when shooting indoors under incandescent lighting. Two digital cameras may have very similar resolution, but one might have markedly better color rendition.

Teach yourself to look for the most subtle visual cues. If the highlights (bright white image areas) are overexposed, or the shadows and dark portions of the image are underexposed, you lose all image detail in those areas, no matter what adjustments you perform later in an image-editing program. The way a camera handles strong highlights and deep shadows is important to maintain detail in your images. Take a look at our "outdoor portrait" test shot, and see how well the camera holds detail in the strong highlights of the model's shirt, while still maintaining an acceptable exposure level in the shadows of her face.

The best test of how a camera's photos will ultimately turn out is to download sample files and output them on the printer of your choice. Imaging Resource offers the use of its copyrighted files as a service to readers, as long as such downloading is for their personal, noncommercial use.

Image Storage: What are my options?
Most digicams store captured images on removable memory cards of one sort or another. A few use computer mini discs and some even use standard 3.5-inch floppy disks, the kind that were once popular for sharing word documents between computers over "sneakernet" lines (i.e.: walking the disk from one machine to another). While these 1.4MB disks make the transfer of images from camera to computer very easy, they are severely limited in storage capacity, leading to unfavorable tradeoffs in image quality (primarily because of the extreme image compression necessary to store even a few files).

The majority of removable digital media is not so limiting. In fact, most memory cards are available in capacities ranging from 8MB to 64MB (and higher), so an upgrade for your digital camera is as easy as plugging in a larger memory card! You can even use multiple cards. Just swap out a new one when the first one fills up, much like a reusable roll of film. Although removable memory cards are not yet as computer-compatible as floppy disks, you can buy an external card reader (see "Computer Connection" below) that will transfer photos from your card to your computer in less time than it takes to transmit them over a computer cable. (Much faster if you're using a serial connection and a little faster if it's a USB cable.) So while you don't have to buy a card reader to use with your digital camera, you'll probably save yourself a lot of time if you do.

Some inexpensive digicams have only internal memory. That is, the image storage is permanently built into the camera, rather than on a removable card. We strongly advise against purchasing such models, as there's no provision for upgrading their image capacity, and the small amount of memory they provide really isn't enough for serious picture-taking.

So what kind of memory card should you buy? For years, manufacturers have vied for domination in the portable memory market, but as yet, there are no clear winners. The top three contenders are SmartMedia, CompactFlash, and Memory Sticks. Each format has its advantages, and any one of them is available in large enough capacities to allow fairly extensive picture-taking. Cost is a continually changing factor, with the price per megabyte falling day-by-day. Since there are no clear winners in this category, my advice is to not agonize over which memory card to use. It's far more important that you find a camera that you're comfortable with, and let the camera be the deciding factor in your choice of storage media.

(For the record, if you really need a lot of in-camera memory space, CompactFlash media can store more than 100 high-resolution images on a single 128MB card. Both SmartMedia and Memory Stick cards currently top-out at 64MB, although they are both slated to go to 128MB this year. That's enough room for 60-120 of the highest-quality images from a 3-megapixel digicam, more than most users will ever need. Casual photographers will find a 64MB card plenty roomy.)

Computer Connection: USB or Serial?
An often overlooked feature in digital camera shopping is data transfer: How do you get images from your camera to your computer without using a card reader? The answer is the same as with any other computer peripheral (printers, scanners, or storage drives), you have to find a camera with a cable connector that is compatible with your computer. This is not as hard as you may think. Most of the newer digicams provide enough of a selection so that you can use at least one of the provided cables with any current computer on the market (you might have to order adapters for some computers, but they are relatively inexpensive).

The real question is: Which connector works best? That's easy! By far, the fastest computer connector is Firewire (also known as IEEE 1394), but it's so expensive, it's rarely found on consumer or prosumer digital cameras, you'll only see it on the professional models. Next in line, in terms of speed, is USB (Universal Serial Bus). This is the computer industry's most successful attempt to date of standardizing computer-to-peripheral connectors. That's because the cable plugs and computer ports are the same from computer-to-computer and from platform-to-platform. They are about half as fast as Firewire (12MB/sec. compared to 25MB/sec.), but still pretty speedy when compared to other options.

Standard RS-232 serial port connectors (for PC-compatible computers) are by far the slowest method of transferring image data from camera to computer (an agonizing 1 data bit at a time), but they are still common on many digicams, because most older computers are not equipped to accept USB. Serial ports are easily identified by their two-row (nine-prong) plug design. (Most camera manufacturers also provide a serial port adapter to plug into a Macintosh computer's printer port.)

Serial-connected cameras are so slow, however, (about 50 to 100 times slower than USB) that we strongly recommend buying an external "card reader" that plugs into your computer's parallel or USB ports. These readers accept one or more memory card types and can transfer data to the computer much faster than the camera itself. They typically cost $30 to $50, but are well worth the money in time saved.

Batteries, Batteries? Do I need batteries?
The camera's power source is pretty important. About all your camera is good for without a power supply is an expensive paperweight. Many digicams use standard AA-sized batteries for power, but it's very important to note that they really don't do well on standard alkaline cells. Digital cameras draw large amounts of current, far more than alkaline batteries are designed to provide. The result can be very short battery life, sometimes measured in minutes.

To avoid the frustration of massive battery drain, it's essential that you buy a couple of sets of rechargeable NiMH (Nickel-Metal Hydride) batteries and a good charger. The total cost will probably be about $30, but you'll save that amount many times over by not having to buy fresh alkaline cells every few dozen shots. Check out Thomas Distributing for both. The MAHA C-204 charger is a good product, and most any brand of NiMH batteries they carry will work just fine.

To save on battery size and weight, many cameras are starting to use custom battery packs, either NiMH or the higher-capacity Li-Ion (Lithium Ion) cells. Such cameras are generally more compact, but have the disadvantage of needing a custom (read: expensive) battery. These cameras ship with one battery, but we always recommend buying a second battery as backup, and these are usually quite expensive ($50 or more). It's certainly no reason to avoid such cameras, but something you should keep in mind when evaluating the total cost.

Bells & Whistles - Do I really need them?
In our view, many novice camera users are inordinately intimidated by the rich feature sets of higher-end digital cameras. It's not uncommon for a first-time digicam buyer to avoid a model that offers all the features he or she wants, simply because it's "too complex" to operate. This should never be an issue!

It's important to realize that even the most sophisticated digicams offer a "full auto" mode, in which the camera makes all of the exposure decisions, and the photographer just pushes the shutter button. If you leave the camera in its auto capture mode, you'll never have to deal with the complex list of features, modes, and functions that many cameras offer as shooting options. All you really need to be do is snap the shutter in auto mode, view the pictures in playback mode, and somehow get the pictures into your computer. All the rest can wait for a rainy day (or two or three) when you have time to sit down with the camera manual and some hot chocolate.

So if you don't intend to use all these advanced features, why buy a camera that has them? Imaging Resource is a big advocate of buying a camera that you can "grow into." It's also frequently the case that higher-end cameras, with rich feature sets, have better image quality than bare-bones, entry-level models. Our advice is to set your budget, choose the feature set you want, and then look at all the models that fit within your budget and specifications. Don't worry if some of them seem to offer more than you're looking for. It's easy enough to ignore that extra stuff until you're ready to use it (and it's our guess that some day you'll be ready and itching to get at them).

Buying a "Starter" Camera - What about a used model?
Being bona fide cheapskates here at Imaging Resource, we're big believers in the value of staying one step behind leading-edge technology. If you're buying a "starter" camera and want to economize a bit, you may find that buying one of last year's models will give you everything you need, at a price that's hundreds of dollars less than comparable new models. Don't go back too far, or you'll be handicapping yourself, but if you choose a camera that was hot a year ago, you'll probably find that it's a good bet.

Some caution is always advisable when buying anything used, and digital cameras are no exception. Make sure there's some provision for returning it if you discover the unit's not working properly. (And be sure to check it out thoroughly soon after you buy it, so you can take advantage of whatever return rights you've negotiated.) Check that you're getting all of the software, cables, and manuals it shipped with originally. If possible, check out the seller's record at the auction site (assuming you're buying it at an online auction, to make sure that they're a reputable company.

Assuming that you approach the transaction with due vigilance, your chances of getting a real bargain on a used digicam are quite high. The ongoing flood of new models with upgraded specifications means that there's a constant flux of digicam enthusiasts upgrading their cameras, and the rapid pace of new-product development means that prices of older models decrease rapidly. Chances are you can pick up last year's $800 model for $300 today, an excellent bargain.

Should I wait? (Probably not...)
Taking into account the rapid pace at which new digital cameras are entering the consumer market, it's no surprise that potential buyers keep holding off their purchases, waiting for better models, more features, and lower price tags. Sure, you can safely assume that there will be better deals a few months down the road, but that's always going to be the case! At some point, you just have to jump in and do it. As with any technology purchase, you know the equipment you buy today is going to do the same thing in a year, two years, or five years from now. You'll probably see lots of new cameras come out with added features or up-dated gadgets, but you know that your gadget will always do whatever you bought it to do.

Digicams absolutely follow this rule, and the current crop of digicams are pretty doggone good to boot. The current (as of March 2001) "high end" consumer market is made up of 3 plus-megapixel cameras, but for most casual shooters, 2 megapixels is all they really need. This fits our "last year's technology" guideline above, which says that you can buy a full-featured 2-megapixel digicams brand new for less than $500, rather than pay $800 or more for the leading-edge 3-megapixel models. (These are the same 2-megapixel models sold for $800 to $1,000 a year ago.)

So Many Choices! Where should I buy?
There are lots of options available for the savvy technology shopper to search out that one, perfect, digital camera. You can order online, browse the computer superstores, or visit your local camera dealer. As you shop, consider these three important factors: Customer service, return policy, and price. (Note that I listed price last, because more than likely, if you go for the lowest price, you'll have to give up a little in the other two categories.)

"Brick and mortar" retail is a great way to get your hands on a digital camera and decide whether or not it "feels right" to you, and if you're new to the game, a knowledgeable store clerk can be a lifesaver. But knowledge and customer service don't come cheaply, so you should be willing to pay a few dollars extra for employee training and expertise. (Unfortunately, the rapid pace of camera advancements, and the wide range of products they have to cover, makes it hard for even the most vigilant salesperson to keep up.) The camera retailer is also where you're most likely to find generous return policies. A digital camera is a complex gadget -- a lot can go wrong between the manufacturer's warehouse and your living room. The ability to return a defective product for a no-hassles exchange can be worth a lot!

Electronics or computer superstores usually have better prices, but their salespeople are less likely to have the training and knowledge of their camera store counterparts. (Never assume ignorance though. Many superstores have well-stocked and well-staffed digital camera departments, and you can frequently find some genuine experts behind the counter.) It's also likely that you'll have to give up some customer service to get a better deal; but we've found that if you have a legitimate problem, and you return a camera within the specified time frame, superstores can be very accommodating in the interest of keeping you as a satisfied customer.

The mail order/Internet world also has room for knowledgeable, service-oriented personnel, although you may have to go through a few telephone transfers to reach someone who can address all of your questions and concerns. (Obviously you won't be able to get your hands on the camera to see how it feels, which can be somewhat of a disadvantage.) If you're ordering off the 'net, you won't even have contact with a salesperson, but that's where you're most likely to find the best prices. (We try to avoid kicking tires at our local camera dealers, and then ordering off the Web. It's the fastest way we know to drive those service-oriented companies out of business!)

If you're shopping online, beware of fly-by-night operators and make sure you are dealing with a reputable company. Watch out for dealers who have "required" accessory packages, or grossly inflated shipping costs. A good resource for checking out a reseller before you buy online is http://www.resellerratings.com/.

Now You're Ready to Buy!

As you've learned from reading this article, buying a digital camera is no small undertaking; but if you arm yourself with a basic knowledge of what to look for, and learn to see through all the marketing hype, your chances of finding the best model for your money are excellent. Make Imaging Resource you're first stop online for hands-on evaluation, side-by-side comparisons, and in-depth reviews of new products. Then take along a copy of this article and impress all those camera jockeys with your knowledge of the digital camera scene. (Do them a favor and leave a copy behind; it'll make their job a lot easier!)

The Imaging Resource editors have put together the following "Top Ten list For Sizing Up a Digicam" to help you in your search.

 

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