How to Pick the Perfect Digital Camera

By TopTenReviews Contributor
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You already know the advantages digital cameras have over the regular variety: no pricy film, no wasted shots and no messy negatives. With larger camera memory options, you can take hundreds of photos before stopping to download, and you can make prints of photos whenever you want.

But choosing the right digital cameras is a balancing act. You want a camera that will take quality pictures that will develop well once you have them printed through a digital photo printing service, have your favorite features, yet is still convenient. What, exactly, should you look for when camera shopping?

Photo Quality

Resolution is often the first thing you'll hear about digital cameras; it's a hot selling point. Camera resolution is expressed in pixels—these are the individual color dots that make up one photo. At a minimum, you should consider cameras with two megapixels (two million dots per picture) or more.

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Higher resolution means better-quality photos, so if you want your photos to rival the quality of top 35 mm cameras, consider digital cameras with a resolution of six megapixels or more. Photos taken at this resolution are practically impossible to distinguish from analog photos without major magnification.

Zoom Quality

There are two types of zoom: digital zoom and optical zoom. Digital zoom simply enlarges each pixel electronically, while optical zoom involves a physical lens magnification of the image you are photographing. Where 35 mm cameras only use optical zoom, digital cameras usually offer both.

Digital zoom is frequently over-hyped—manufacturers often combine the digital camera's optical zoom with its digital zoom capability to wow buyers with impressive zoom numbers. For example, I once purchased a camera with 4x optical zoom and 5x digital zoom—for an impressive (but deceptive) total of 20x zoom.

Digital zoom is redundant since you can enlarge photos digitally on a computer with photo software. And photos taken with digital zoom often appear fuzzy, particularly when printed. Shop for optical zoom power instead. 2x to 4x optical zoom is a fair start. If you need more zoom, consider purchasing a zoom lens attachment. These lenses are bulky and expensive, but improve your zoom power the clearly better way—optically.

Convenience vs. Power

Generally, lightweight digital cameras have less zoom power, lower resolution and fewer features. Of course, these cameras are less expensive. If portability and low price are top priorities, you'll have to sacrifice some camera power. These cameras are the "point-and-shoot" variety, with few perks available.

On the other hand, larger digital cameras have more zoom power, more resolution, and a larger variety of features. Such digital cameras cost hundreds of dollars more than their leaner counterparts, and packing a bulky, feature-rich camera around is less convenient. But, for top-quality photos and all the bells and whistles, many are happy to pay the price for such a camera.

Choosing your ideal camera is a matter of knowing your priorities. Decide what yours are, then pick the camera that is the closest match.

No matter what your priorities though, you'll want to go to the store to try some digital cameras on for size—don't just buy one online without seeing it first. Check out the main camera controls: shutter release and zoom. Are they easy to use without looking? You'll want a camera that's simple to master by touch, since you don't want to search for controls while photographing.

Point-and-Shoot Camera vs. Professional Camera

Point-and-shoot cameras are just that: you point and shoot. Focus is automatic, and you can't set up shots with specific shutter speeds or aperture. Children and photo beginners are good matches for point-and-shoot digital cameras.

But if you want to experiment, consider digital cameras that offer both automatic settings and manual settings so you can switch back and forth at will. Popular manual settings include focus, aperture and shutter speed.

Focus, for example—some digital cameras allow you to choose a specific, limited focal point—handy when you want one specific part of the photo in focus and the rest of the image blurred.

Aperture is the width of the camera opening. Some digital cameras allow you to adjust this size to control how much light is admitted during the shot. This can help you change the mood of a shot—dimming a light scene, for example.

Digital cameras with manual settings allow you to select the shutter speed, or the length of time the aperture remains open; a six-hour-long photo of the starry night sky makes an impressive photo reminiscent of Van Gogh.

Yet still, many digital cameras offer not only automatic and manual settings, but a hybrid of the two: one-button settings for taking action shots, night shots and close-ups. Just press the button or set the dial and the camera automatically resets the camera's exposure and focus to suit each setting.

Decide if you want an automatic camera or a digital camera with manual options that you can use to experiment.

LCD Screen

A big, color LCD screen is a must-have on  digital cameras. This screen serves purposes beyond previewing shots; you can also view the photo after the fact to see if you captured the shot you wanted, you can scroll through photos and delete duplicate or imperfect shots and even set up a mini-slideshow. (This keeps kids busy on car trips.)

An added perk that some high-end digital cameras offer an LCD screen that rotates then flips out the side; such LCD screens can be viewed from the front of the camera so the subject can preview the shot (while the photographer views the subject through the normal view lens). This is a handy tool for photographing children. Kids are mesmerized when the see their own image on screen; such a tool makes catching smiles much simpler.

A photo LCD screen is standard on digital cameras that offer a mini-movie feature, so you can watch (and re-watch) the movie in motion. Such digital cameras also record sound. Many digital cameras only record only a few minutes of movie and sound. Although movie quality isn't nearly as good as that offered by digital movie cameras alone, the ability to shoot a mini-movie on your still camera is a convenient extra. On the other hand, video camcorders that also take high-resolution still photos are a reality, but are quite expensive.

Memory Options

Some digital cameras store digital photos directly onto a CD, but the majority use flash card memory or some other form of memory stick that transfers to a computer through a USB connection. The disadvantage of CD cameras is bulk—these big, circular cameras are anything but petite. And even though writing to CD saves a step, you also lose the option of deleting unwanted photos before writing to CD.

Battery Options

Most all digital cameras have a built-in flash, and many have LCD screens and sound recording. These features are all energy hogs, so you'll need good batteries to power them.

You'll want digital cameras that use rechargeable batteries too, not disposable—the cost adds up fast. A wall plug is a bonus; you can take photos near an outlet when you've forgotten to charge your batteries. But you can avoid this by purchasing an extra battery pack, since one can charge while the other is in use.

Your camera will probably come with one battery pack, so buy the largest compatible battery you can afford for interruption-free photo shoots. And if you're going to be in the great outdoors for extended periods, you can purchase a compatible solar charging unit to keep that shutter clicking.

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