When you look through the camera ads online or in the Sunday papers, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the number of models of digital cameras available. So which one should you buy for your classroom, or your personal use for that matter?
While the models to choose from change frequently (probably next week), there are several questions you need to ask yourself (and answer), regardless of the brand you are considering, before spending your money.
What do you plan to do with the pictures you take?
Repeat after me: more megapixels do not make better pictures.
Megapixels are a measure of the maximum amount information that your camera can capture – quantity, not quality. The megapixal rating is one feature to consider when choosing a camera but not the most important (or even second or third).
The megapixel rating is only really important if you plan to blow your pictures up to poster size (20″ by 30″, for example) or if you want to crop a small part of your pictures and still have enough information to print them at a useful size.
If most of your images are going to be viewed on a screen – in web pages or PowerPoint presentations – then an inexpensive five- or six-megapixel camera could be just what you need.
If on the other hand, if you are taking pictures for the school newspaper or yearbook or if you want to print the pictures in a size greater than 4×6 inches, you might need a higher resolution camera.
Where do you plan to take most of your pictures?
Just about any camera can take staged pictures in good light. However, if your targets are in low light or moving (such as the basketball team), you will need to look for features like high speed lenses and fast recycling. For low light situations (school plays, for example) you’ll need a camera with special circuitry to give it greater sensitivity to light.
Another feature showing up in even lower priced cameras is image stabilization. This technology helps you to get clear sharp pictures even if the photographer is not completely steady. It won’t fully compensate for an excited 2nd grader, but often does a pretty good job in low light, when you’re in a moving vehicle or when your subject is moving.
The type of battery can also be important if you plan to use the camera for field trips or in other situation where you can’t easily plug in and charge up. Some cameras require a special format of rechargeable battery, which means you will not be able to buy inexpensive replacements if the charge runs out and an outlet is not close by. Generally, look for a camera that uses AA or AAA batteries and then buy a set of rechargeable with a charging unit. Take two sets of fully charged batteries with you everywhere you go.
What kind of storage does the camera have?
Most digital cameras sold today store images to Secure Digital (SD) cards (or variations of the format such as SD HC, which stands for high capacity and easily connect to a computer using a USB cable to download your pictures. A better way to transfer images is to buy an inexpensive card reader that also connects to the USB port.
Other memory card formats you may find are Compact Flash (CF), most often used in more expensive digital SLR cameras is Compact Flash (CF), xD, used by many Olympus and Fuji models, and Memory Stick, used exclusively by Sony. All of these formats are more expensive per megabyte than SD and may restrict your ability to use the cards in other devices, such as digital picture frames and cell phones.
A few models now on the market store their images to mini CD-R disks. Keep in mind that if you want to reuse the disks as you can with memory cards, you must buy CD-RWs, which are more expensive than CD-R (one time write). Another factor to consider with cameras that use mini disks is that they are generally slower than those that use memory cards due to the time needed to write to the disk.
How much of an optical zoom and digital zoom do you need?
When you look at the zoom data in camera advertising, compare the optical zoom and ignore the digital zoom. Optical zoom achieves a closer image by physically moving the lenses, just like a 35mm film camera.
Digital zoom uses software that tries to interpret what a closer image should look like. Usually the computer does a very poor job compared to an optical zoom, especially in inexpensive cameras. Many people keep the digital zoom on their camera turned off.
Lower priced cameras a 2x or 3x optical zoom which approximates the range found in lower priced point and shoot film cameras (35mm to 70 or 105mm). A moderately priced camera might have an optical zoom range of up to 8x. Generally, you will pay more for a greater optical zoom range.
Do you want to take videos?
If that’s the case, it’s probably not a good idea to get a digital still camera. Most inexpensive point-and-shoot models will take short videos but the result will never equal the quality of even an inexpensive digital camcorder.
If you want to take occasional video with your still camera then you’ll need to get a larger memory card. Decent quality video takes up much more space than still images.
Look at the specifications for the cameras you’re considering for the details on the quality of the video you’ll get. It should tell you the physical size of the video (640×480 should show well on a television screen) and the number of frames per second (30 fps is considered “television quality”).
Finally, if you want to edit that video, compare the format in which the camera will store the file with the files that can be used by your editing software. Free video editing programs like MovieMaker are very fussy about the format they can import.
How many special features do you need?
The more dials, buttons and menu items a camera has, the more adjustments you can make to get just the right image. But it also means you’ll need to spend time learning the features in order to get everything you paid out of it.
Before buying, go to the store and play with several models in your price range. Take some pictures with different settings to see how the images change. If possible, borrow a similar model from a friend and use it for a couple of days.
All of this will give you a good idea which features you might want and how easy they are to access.
What camera do I recommend?
Again, that depends on the answers to all the above.
However, based on your need and price range, I suggest choosing a model from Canon or Nikon. While they share similar features with cameras from other companies, these two are long-time leaders in photography equipment and design their own lenses. I’ve never met an amateur photographer who is disappointed by the pictures they take with Canon or Nikon cameras.
If you’d like to do more research on buying a digital still camera, take a look at the Digital Camera Resource Page. The author of this site writes excellent and very in depth reviews of digital cameras right down to posting sample pictures.