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Selecting a digital camera, Part 1 (11/16/2003)
By Tom Hirsch
by Tom Hirsch

Deciding on which digital camera to buy (or whether to buy one at all) can be a daunting decision, even for an experienced photographer. Knowing your needs and wants in a digital camera will help, but there are so many out there, with more cameras and features being added all the time, that making a final decision can be pretty intimidating. The past few articles were designed to give you some ideas of what options are available, and what factors to keep in mind when thinking in terms of digital photography. Without giving any recommendations, well, maybe a few, we'll cover the main classes of digital cameras.

Basic Point-And-Shoot. Resolution is generally between 1 and 2 megapixels. Not bad for moderate enlargements, and great for sharing pictures via e-mail. These cameras usually come with a 4 or 8 megabyte memory card. The camera might have a moderate digital zoom, but no optical zoom. There could be two or three JPEG settings, but no TIFF or RAW option. Some cameras in this range (as well as a few more expensive models) are without an optical viewfinder - only an LCD monitor. This can be a big disadvantage in bright sunlight.

Some entry level digital cameras come with no option for a memory card, just internal memory that will hold from 15 to 45 images before they have to be downloaded. These cameras are usually smaller, lighter and less expensive than those requiring a memory card. The downside is that in order to use a camera of this type, you would need to be close to home, or have some type of external storage device, if you wanted to take more than the maximum number of pictures these cameras will hold.

Intermediate Models. These cameras come with an 8 or 16 megapixel memory card. More advanced lenses for sharper images are also provided. Resolution comes in the 2 to 4 megapixel range, or greater. More options are available than those found in the first group, such as a greater zoom range, the TIFF or RAW mode, both optical and digital viewing, and less shutter lag time. Many of these cameras come with image-enhancing software. After downloading the information from this CD disk, you can use your computer to modify possibly unacceptable features of your images such as contrast, density or color cast, and you can combine images, delete unwanted objects, and correct for red-eye, among many other fun things. If your camera doesn't come with this software, some very good programs are available from under $50 to just under $100. Of course, more expensive programs can be found.

Advanced Digital Cameras. These cameras come with 3 to 7 or more megapixels. Here you'll find advanced zoom ranges, superior quality lenses, more creative options, and interchangeable lens capability on some models. They also come with a higher sticker price. But if you're looking for a state-of-the-art camera that can provide near professional-quality images of 11 X 14 inches or larger that rival pictures taken with film cameras, you'll be able to find one in this category.

Beyond this last range of digital cameras are the professional SLRs that can produce film-quality images. Many of them come with 6 to 16 or more megapixels. Most of these cameras are in the 2 to 8 thousand dollar range. A high price tag, but also extremely high quality cameras. And remember that you wouldn't be spending money on film and processing.

This is only the beginning. The number of megapixels provided by a camera is just one criteria that should be considered when selecting a digital camera. In the next few articles, we'll look into some other factors that might sway you in one direction or the other. But these articles aren't all-inclusive by any means, and what you read today could become outdated overnight. There's an unlimited amount of information about digital photography out there. Every issue of Popular Photography, PHOTOGraphic and (my favorite) PCPhoto magazines have articles on various aspects of the subject. The Internet is an almost inexhaustible source of links. With an Internet provider like AOL or any search engine such as YAHOO or GOOGLE, just type Digital Photography in the little box to get things going. You'll come up with enough sites to keep you busy for days. 

 

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