How to Buy A Digital Camera

If you’re out buying a digital camera, you can get easily overwhelmed by the choices available. These days, camera manufacturers are coming up with point-and-shoots, mirrorless and full-scale digital SLR cameras. For the newbie, it’s really hard to figure out what camera you need.

It also doesn’t help that the traditional camera or electronics store salesperson is usually not very helpful. I’ve stepped into stores asking about camera pros and cons and I guarantee you the sales person was giving me the wrong information!

In this article, I want to give you the low-down on how to buy a digital camera – and help you sort out all the technical jargon. I’ve done the research for you, so you don’t have to. By the end of this article, you’ll have more than enough knowledge of digital cameras to find one that meets your needs.

Various digital camera models exist in the market – how do you choose between them?
1. Different Types of Cameras
The first thing we need to sort out is to understand the different categories of cameras in the market. As of the time of this writing, there are three broad categories:

Point-and-Shoot Cameras. Point-and-shoot cameras are compact and affordable. They’re great for your teenager who tends to go out with friends and snap some fun pictures at the theme park. Or great for vacations and family outings to capture some precious memories.
Mirrorless Compact System Cameras. These cameras are quite new on the market. They are seriously giving traditional digital SLRs (see below) a run for their money. These cameras as omit their mirror and viewfinder systems, but can still can snap close to digital SLR quality photos. The great thing is that they also accept interchangeable lenses – which is great for the “prosumer”, i.e. those photographers who are not professional but yet want to experiment quite a bit with their exposure settings.
Digital Single Lens Reflex (SLR) Cameras. These are your traditional, bulky and expensive digital SLR models which allow you to have full creative control over your photo shooting. You can typically get all sorts of accessories and kits to accompany these cameras, e.g. lens systems, tripods, filters, flashes or even remote shutter release mechanisms. They are clearly aimed at the professional digital photographer market.

2. How Much Do I Pay?
These days, for $200 to $300 you can get a very decent point-and-shoot camera. I’d say that most camera users should fall into this category. If you just want to take simple pictures and upload them to Facebook, please don’t spend money on a digital SLR – it’s not worth it.

On the other hand, if you find that your needs are more advanced, e.g. you want to take magazine quality photos or you want to consider photography as career, then yes, I’d suggest you buy more advanced cameras. However, even in these cases, I’d suggest you “step up” slowly – start with a “prosumer” model, then as you get more comfortable, upgrade you camera to a full-blown SLR model.

3. Camera Speed
One aspect of cameras that I think is very important is camera speed. If you’re taking a photo, one of the most irritating things is for your camera to “slowly process” an image before you can take the next photo.

This delay is due to shutter lag – the delay between the time you press the shutter button to the time the photo is taken. If you have a slow processor in the camera, it also adds to a further delay.

Most cameras these days should not have noticeable delays in camera speed. Modern day electronics has helped to advanced digital camera technology and even point-and-shoots these days have a lot of raw processing power.

As a guideline, point-and-shoots usually can take 1 to 2 frames per second (fps), while digital SLRs can go up to 12 to 14 fps (making them ideal for fast action shots).

4. Ergonomics
Another critical factor to consider in buying a digital camera is ergonomics. Remember that what you see in advertisement photos may not do justice to the actual camera. Texture of the camera is something you can only feel if you try it out.

I tend to like to try out my cameras at the local electronics store, just to get a feel of what it is like in my hands. Some mirrorless and digital SLR cameras have rubberized bodies which make them very comfortable to hold. Others can be hard to get a handle on, and may jeopardize the stability of your shots.

5. Megapixels
Here’s a common question I get – how many megapixels does your camera need to have? These days, even point-and-shoot cameras can tout 18-megapixel counts. But you do need to understand what that really means.

High megapixel counts in digital cameras are more important if you want to print large-format or crop certain parts of the photo out in post-processing. If you’re shooting normal photos, there’s totally no need for such high megapixel counts – something around 8 megapixels will do fine for the casual photographer.

To me, what’s much more important than megapixels is the sensor size and image quality. Point-and-shoots typically have smaller sensors, whereas mirrorless and SLRs have larger sensors and better image quality (but also greater bulk and price).

6. Camera Lenses
I find that camera lenses are getting more mainstream these days. More folks are comfortable with buying lenses to experiment with their photos compared to say, a decade ago.

If you buy some mirrorless compact system cameras or digital SLRs, they can come with a “kit” lens which is 18-55mm. This is a basic lens for you to take photos and get comfortable with the camera.

Later, as you get more advanced in your requirements, you can go with telephoto, wide-angle, macro, or any other kind of specialist lenses to do more creative work.

My opinion on lenses is this – if you foresee yourself doing serious, creative photography work, then get your base camera body plus a kit lens. But if you’re a casual user – skip the lens system altogether. It’s not worth going down that route if you’re not intending to go professional with your photography (lenses really cost a LOT of money).

7. Optical and Digital Zoom
Here’s a big misconception I need to put away – when a camera manufacturer says their camera has an amazing zoom – check whether they mean “optical” or “digital” zoom.

Optical zoom rely son a long zoom lens and is a “physical” solution. Your camera hardware does the zooming and you get no loss in photo quality in the zoom process. Digital zoom, however, is a “software” solution which is usually processed by the camera’s image processor. This kind of zoom WILL result in a loss photo quality.

So don’t get fooled by digital zoom – always give preference to optical zoom when buying your cameras.

8. Video Capture
These days, digital cameras can take very high quality videos, compared to older models. In fact, some high-end digital SLRs have been used to shoot feature films!

If you’re buying a digital camera, try to find a model that can shoot HD video. Most manufacturers do tout that their camera models support HD video, buy watch out for the video size. If the video size is very small, it may still end up grainy when you play it back on a large computer desktop screen.

9. Other Considerations
Here are some other factors to consider when buying a digital camera.

Shooting modes. I also tend to look for “shooting modes” when buying a digital camera. You see, most cameras will have some soft of “night”, “landscape”, “macro”, “sepia” mode that lets you toggle into specific exposure setting quickly. These can be useful at times, so do check out if the modes are sufficient for your requirements.
Battery life. Battery life is hugely important. If you’re out on a vacation or shooting a wedding – the last thing you need is a flat battery in your camera. Try to find a camera model that lasts at least a full day of heavy shooting without a recharge. Most models these days should be able to manage this – given the advances in battery technology. And in fact, my suggestion is to buy two batteries if you’re doing serious photography work
Wi-Fi connectivity. Some cameras these days can allow you to upload photos to other devices or to social media sites using in-built Wi-Fi. I think this is quite cool a feature as it eliminates the “insert memory card into PC and import images” step which I find quite cumbersome.
I hope the above has given you some good insight into buying a digital camera. In summary, if you’re a casual user – out to shoot some fun photos, buy a point-and-shoot. If you’re more of an intermediate level user, and want to try more creativity in your photos, then you may want to go with a mirrorless camera. From there, you can upgrade to a digital SLR and accessories (advanced lenses, filters, remote controls, etc.) if you’re sure you want to pursue photography professionally.

That’s all I have for now. Until next time, have fun researching and buying a camera that meets your needs!