Digital Camera Buying Guide

There are thousands of digital cameras available on the market - making the decision of which one to purchase very difficult if you are not familiar with camera types and capabilities. Although you might immediately assume that price is equal to quality, this is not always the case. If you just want a simple digital camera to remember your upcoming vacation, there is little need to spend several thousand dollars on one. However, if you have your sights set on a professional photography career, be prepared to spend a great deal of money on a feature rich camera.

For example, one of the best professional cameras on the market right now - the Canon 5D Mark II - starts at around $2,400 without including any extra lenses or accessories that you might need like an extra battery like the Canon LP-E6 (starting at around $99.00) or memory card like the Lexar Professional 16 GB 300X UDMA (about $108.00). Whatever your reason for wanting a new digital camera, the following is a guide for purchasing the perfect camera for your needs - even if you know nothing about these often deceptive electronics.

Digital Camera Specifications To Consider

Ten years ago, it was often difficult to consider specifications in cameras and purchasing a professional digital camera required that you essentially look for the most expensive camera you could find. Spending a mere $150.00 was often a serious mistake as you certainly got what you paid for. However, today's digital camera market is much more secure and competitive - making it possible to find a professional quality digital camera for less than $1,000.00 (like the Nikon D90) and spending only $100.00 - still allowing you to pick from a very good selection of high quality cameras (the Casio Exilim EX-Z75 is a perfect example at only about $99.00).

Whatever your budget, the following are the absolutely crucial specifications that you need to look for when searching for a digital camera. Many other specifications relate to features that you may never use or sound expensive when they really make little difference to the overall camera quality. Add these terms to your digital camera vocabulary:

Resolution (Expressed in Megapixels):

This is the quality of the pictures that you will take with the digital camera - one of the most important specifications. The resolution quality will determine how good your pictures will look when blown up to specific sizes. For example, professional photographers will need a camera with at least 10 Megapixels to achieve photo quality at 20"x30" but casual photographers that need only 8"x10" prints will be satisfied with 4 Megapixels.

At larger resolutions than 10 MP, images larger than 20"x30" will be high quality. However, anything under this size will have already been high enough quality for the human eye to be incapable of detecting the difference. Most professional photographers will find that the Canon EOS 7D (18 Megapixels) is high enough quality to perform any function. Don't be fooled into thinking that you need any more Megapixels than 20. In fact, the photo quality of most billboards that you see along the freeway is typically produced with a camera of no more than 10 Megapixels. After that point, look for other features rather than loading up on Megapixels. You likely won't need that many.

File Format (Expressed in a File Type):

Most digital cameras on the market will save your photos in JPEG files - adequate for even professional photography. Higher end cameras (such as the Nikon D3000, priced around $500.00) will also allow you to save your photos as RAW files. There is a great deal of unnecessary debate concerning which format is better. Casual photographers will be just fine with JPEG files. Some professional photographers find that RAW is better. However, the major difference is that you will have to work on the photograph on your computer after saving it as RAW. Post-shoot photo editing with RAW is much easier and affords a great deal of freedom (making it perfect for serious digital photographers).

Interesting to note is that, because they cannot be altered without changing the file extension, RAW photos are typically the only evidence photographs admissible in court. If you plan to photograph professionally, choose a camera with both file format options and test each to find out which you prefer. You will find that, while RAW photos lack sharpness and contrast when compared to JPEG, they have a much greater dynamic range with shadow and highlight effects.

Exposure Control
(Manual Exposure Expressed As Two Fractions):

Exposure in all cameras relates to two general categories - aperture and shutter speed. Aperture is the size the lens opening when the photograph is taken (the amount of light let in) and is expressed as an f stop fraction. This is usually between f/2 (a large amount of light) and f/11 (a very small amount of light). The shutter speed is essentially how long the lens remains open. This is also expressed as a fraction and paired with aperture to take creative photographs. The fraction (1/250) relates to the fraction of a second that the lens remains open. So, if you are photographing a running cheetah and want a little blur, you might try f/8 and 1/60. This will add some blur to the subject because of the low shutter speed.

All of this information is important to any digital camera shopper because it is crucial to be allowed to manually adjust the exposure. Any amateur photographer will be satisfied with a lower end digital camera's automatic exposure. Even the highest end digital cameras still allow you to use automatic exposure. However, serious photographers will want to find a digital camera that includes preset metering modes. The most common metering mode, for example, is center weighted where the main subject is the only exposure consideration in the photograph (fine for general photography). Matrix mode is very complicated and analyzes a scene to choose the right focus for each section of the photograph area. Two other major modes include spot (close ups) and partial (great for back lit portraits) modes.

Focus (Expressed as Variations of Automatic and Manual):

There are three focus controls with which any digital camera buyer will be concerned - automatic, automatic point and manual. All digital cameras are equipped with automatic focus that will focus your photographs regardless of your subject. Manual focus gives you the control to choose your subject and alter the focus (allowing techniques such as background focus and deep focus). Finally, automatic point focus will automatically adjust your focus as your subject moves. Automatic focus is fine for casual photographs; automatic point functions well for action photography where the subject might be too quick for manual focus; manual focus is essential for professional photography.

This is one specification where you should almost always shoot for the most options. Even with casual photography, all three modes allow you to gain a great deal of control over subjects and photograph nearly every situation. Any good digital camera will indeed come with all of these options. One of the most reasonably priced yet professional quality cameras is the Nikon D3000, priced at around $450.00. This camera features multiple focus modes - perfect for any situation - that can be switched either on the attached lens or through the menu screen.

If you are looking for faster switching between focus modes, you will likely need to upgrade to the Nikon D300 - packed with additional features for professional photographers but with an equally hefty price tag of around $1,800.00. However, the Nikon D300 has external focus controls that can be switched in a matter of a second - directly on the camera.

Flash Modes Available
(Generally Expressed as Automatic or External):

Few digital camera buyers realize how complicated fully automatic flash functions can be on high end digital cameras like the Canon 5D Mark II or Nikon D300. Without overcomplicating the process, automatic flash takes your selected aperture and speed into effect before evaluating your subject distance and focus. It then determines how much additional light you will need in the photograph for the subject to be properly exposed to your settings. For most casual or even semi professional photographs, automatic flash will be suitable. For example, the Casio Exilim EX-G1 (starting around $299.00) includes automatic flash features that will work in conjunction with exposure settings and manual flash on/off functions for special situations.

Professional photographers should choose cameras with multiple automatic flash settings such as fill, hot shoe external capabilities and slow sync. Fill flash is one of the most useful as it illuminates only the areas of a photograph that your other camera settings and any natural light source would not show clearly. Slow sync flash can produce some fantastic photographs by instructing the camera to increase the shutter speed and fire the flash. This not only sharpens your subject but captures ambient light behind. Two other slow sync modes exist that fire the flash either at the beginning or end of your shot - altering the appearance of your photograph. Many professional sports photographers will use the end flash firing mode for a brilliant panning effect - called rear curtain sync.

Digital Camera Buying Guide for Categories

Professional and Serious Buyers - Professional photographers must realize that the major control they will have with their digital camera will come from the interchangeable lenses that they use. A professional digital camera should support any 35mm lens as well as allow for full optical zoom to the highest possible range. Ignore digital zoom as it is essentially worthless. Image stabilization is also necessary as it will keep the subject in focus even if you accidentally move the camera slightly during a shoot (shaking hands, for example). High end cameras like the Canon 5D Mark II or Nikon D300 go as far as to allow you to save your custom settings for later use - a very good feature if you find a combination that you really enjoy. In essence, any features that increase the amount of control you have over your photographs will add to the value of your camera.

Budget Concerned - If you're looking for a cheap camera that is still feature rich, trust the Casio Exilim series. Some common features that you can snatch up are web cam functionality where your digital camera can double as a good quality web cam and continuous shooting capabilities where multiple photographs are taken depending on how long you hold down the shot button. If you want to cut down on editing time, a built in red-eye reducer is essential. Make sure that you at least have zoom capabilities from 38mm to 76mm for any photograph situation.

Traveler/Easy to Use - If you would like to buy a cheap camera for your family that is easy to use and applicable to almost any situation, you likely don't want to spend more than $400.00. In this case, the Nikon D3000 (without an external lens) is perfect at around $369.95. Of course, you can, once again, trust in the Casio Exilim series for cameras starting under $100.00 that still include plenty of outstanding extra features. Look for a camera that includes the ability to record high definition movies (at least 720p) for when a picture isn't enough. Other essential features for the whole family to use include face detection capabilities and auto expose features. Depending on who will be using the camera, image stabilizing features and a neck or wrist strap accessory are more important than you might think.

Unsure - If you are interested in photography and know you will use your new camera - even if you don't end up in professional photography, look for a middle of the line camera that can function professionally but is priced for the reasonable budget. It should still be compact enough for casual photography, however. The Canon EOS 450D is perfect. Not only does it include all of the features that you need to produce professional quality work, it is one of the few budget cameras that allows for switching from a broad variety of Canon compatible lenses. So, if you do decide to take some professional photographs, enhancing your camera can be as simple as buying a new lens. The Canon EOS 450D (also known as the Rebel Xsi) is priced starting at around $450.00.