What to Look For In A Digital Camera (1 of 3)

Quick, it’s the week before Christmas, and your son or daughter says they want a digital camera for Christmas! How do you know which one to buy?

First question: What kind of photography will they be doing?
(Sound familiar? If not, read my last article)

For the purposes of this article, let’s assume that young Joe or Jane is just looking for something to take pictures of friends, occasionally a party or group event. They aren’t into serious, artistic photography, at least not yet.

There are a couple of features that I recommend looking at in cameras, which help to judge whether it is suitable for basic photography:

  • Lens quality
  • Optical zoom
  • Ease of use
  • Image resolution (aka, the megapixels)
  • The manufacturer

Now, go dig out that Sunday newspaper and find the ads for the electronics store, or the discount store ad with a page full of cameras. What do they feature about the cameras, aside from the prices?

The megapixels. That’s the key feature they market, and the higher numbers are meant to impress you. The sad truth is, for average users, the number of megapixels doesn’t matter all that much. The cheapest (price and quality) camera available today has enough megapixels for a decent quality 4″x6″ print. A 4 megapixel camera takes pictures that can be enlarged to 5″x7″ and look very good, and a 5 megapixel image makes a good 8″x10″ print. But that’s how marketing works.

So, how do you find out about lens quality? Internet research is one way, and another way is to ask a photographer – most experienced photographers are familiar with the lens quality of a wide range of camera companies. Then, there are a couple rules of thumb you can consider.

First rule of thumb: Is the camera made by a camera company that move onto the fringe of the computer business, or is it an electronics/computer company that is dabbling in cameras? Canon, Olympus, Nikon, Fuji, and Kodak are all established camera companies. In general, a camera company will have better lenses – it’s a critical part of their business to do so. From the other side, Hewlett Packard, Dell, and Casio are electronics companies. They may get their lenses from a camera company, or from another source. Sony, another electronics company, has gotten around this by partnering with a premier lens company for their lenses. Hewlett Packard also uses Pentax lenses in most of their cameras, which are good, if not great.

Second rule of thumb: What is the lens made of? Plastic lenses, most often used in the cheaper Kodak cameras, are more likely to have defects and to bend light that passes through them. Pentax lenses are glass, but they use a coating to protect the glass that can leave a rainbow or prism affect on images when shooting in very bright light, like in snow or at a beach.

Next time, we’ll look at the Optical Zoom question, and that whole “Ease of Use” business.