Digigraphica

Picking the Right Digital Camera

Finally, Picking a Digicam

Dan Knight - July 2002, updated

Wow, we've covered most of what you need to know to make an informed digital camera decision. About the only thing that remains to be covered is batteries, and then it's time to pick a digicam.

Batteries

Just like computers and so much else of modern life, a digicam isn't any good at all without electricity. Digital cameras can be real battery hogs, and when they run out of juice, you're out of luck unless you have a spare.

Rule 1: Always have a spare, whether that's a set of alkalines, the lithium battery your camera uses, or an extra rechargeable cell. Murphy's Law says your battery will die when you can least afford it. With a spare, you trump Murphy's Law. (Of course, you do need to keep a spare rechargeable battery charged....)

Rule 2: Consider rechargeables unless your digicam sees very little use. Some of those alkaline batteries cost $15, so a $50-75 rechargeable can cover its cost in a few weeks or months. There are some awesome deals on third-party rechargeables on eBay.

Rule 3: Think about alkaline backups. When I first got my Canon PowerShot A50, I bought a rechargeable and a charger, but I kept an alkaline as my backup battery until mid-2002 - then I finally bought a spare rechargeable. Kudos to Olympus and others who make cameras that can use both rechargeables and regular "you can buy 'em anywhere" AA alkaline batteries.

Picking Your Digicam

There are a lot of brands and models out there.

Some parts of picking the right camera are objective. You need a enough megapixels to get the quality you need. And you have a certain number of dollars to spend.

Other parts are subjective. You know whether a reflex-style camera or a viewfinder model will better meet your needs. You have some idea how much zoom range you want to match your style of photography.

Some parts don't matter. Compact Flash vs. Memory Stick vs. Secure Digital vs. xD-Picture shouldn't even enter the picture unless you now you need a very high capacity or extremely high speed memory card.

Some parts are hard to judge. My bias, as someone involved with photography for the last 30 years, is toward camera manufacturers, not consumer electronics or computer companies. I know what kind of cameras Pentax, Nikon, Canon, Minolta, and so many other camera companies make. I don't know how Sony, Panasonic, Toshiba, Epson, HP, and others think about cameras. But that's my bias, and fact is that Sony has taken over Konica-Minolta's digital camera business, Pentax makes cameras for other companies, and there are no hard and fast rules. Read the online reviews.

Most stores will be biased toward the lines they carry, mostly because they know them and don't know the competition. That's where the Web comes in. Now that you know what you're after, look at the camera profiles on several sites. See which models seem most likely to meet your needs.

Then go to the digicam review sites, such as Steve's Digicams and Digital Photography Reviews. See what the digital photography experts have to say about handling, quirks, and the outstanding features of the models that fit your needs. But don't make up your mind yet.

Finally, go to Walmart or Sears or Best Buy or whatever big national retailer in your area stocks digital cameras. Look at the models you're interested in. See how well they are constructed. See if the layout makes sense or seems confusing. Handle the camera and see if it's comfortable. Don't expect much expertise behind the counter, and don't plan to buy there. And never buy a floor model from a big box retailer, as you have no idea how mishandled it's been.

Find a real camera store with a decent digital section. Odds are they'll have some models the national retailers don't, and you can count on them knowing a lot more about photography in general than anyone in the electronics department at the big box stores. Find someone who knows digital and chat about the models that interest you.

Remember that this person will have different biases than you do. That shouldn't prevent them from addressing your needs; if it does, find another salesperson. Get a photographer's perspective on the cameras you're considering. Invest some time, and consider buying from the camera experts instead of the consumer electronics chain. Their advice and expertise is with the extra money.

Don't rush in. Learn. Study. Handle. Then choose the one that seems to best meet your needs. By taking the time to make a better decision up front, you're less likely to be disappointed six months from now.

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