How to Buy a Digital Camera

It's amazing how far digital cameras have advanced in recent years, all while the prices have continued to drop. The best advice for buying a digital camera is to not go overboard. I'd be willing to bet that most people only use 10 to 20 percent of the features in their digital camera, so aim for quality and ease-of-use and your digital camera decision should develop nicely.

Megapixels and Resolution

Tiny dots or pixels are measured by their density in an image. A megapixel is 1 million pixels. The more you have, the more digital information is contained within the photo and the better it can look. That said, you don't want to choose a digital camera with less than 3 megapixels. In fact, you might want to go for 4 megapixels or higher. At that quality, pictures look great online and can be printed bigger than an 8X10 size without any noticeable loss in detail.

The good news is that digital cameras have come way down in price, and 4 to 5 megapixel cameras are relatively inexpensive these days—it isn't hard to find one under $300. For even higher resolution, you can venture into the 6 to 8 megapixel category.

Optical Zoom

A high megapixel rating isn't the only thing to consider—megapixels mean nothing without a great piece of glass to absorb the light. Along those lines, many "point-and-shoot" cameras start at about 3X (three times) optical zoom, though I'm a fan of getting a bit more than that—even as much as a 10X optical zoom, if you can find it for a decent price. Otherwise, you tend to turn into the "human zoom," dodging and weaving to get closer to your subjects. And I'm not all that enamored with "digital zooms" since the resolution drops fast when they're used. The key is matching a decent lens with good usability.

Image Stabilization

Small and compact is nice for a digital camera, but remember—it can be hard to keep it steady. Some do come with an image stabilization feature that can reduce blurry shots.

Avoiding 'Shutter Lag'

In order to avoid "shutter lag"—when the shutter speed is so slow that the photo opportunity is missed—test a camera in the store or go outside and snap a few shots. Some manufacturers have improved this annoying tendency, but one tip is to hold the shutter button down halfway to have it focus, then snap the picture.

Battery Life

Battery life varies by manufacturer, so be sure to read user reviews online. Also, it can be a good idea to only use battery-hogging features like the LCD screen when you need to. Most digital cameras still come with a standard optical viewfinder, even though we've become a generation of LCD-screen photographers.

Memory Storage Cards

Memory storage cards for digital cameras can vary from Secure Digital to CompactFlash or others. All of them can likely be read by your computer, even if you need to buy a memory card reader. But you'll likely want to buy an additional card since the ones that are bundled with the camera are generally pretty small and will only fit a handful of photos.

Other Considerations

Think about what you will use the digital camera for. Do you really plan to print photos? Will you bring it mainly to social occasions or sports? How easy is it to transfer the photos onto your computer? Do you really need to record video, too?