Here's some advice to make buying one a bit easier
You won't go wrong with tried-and-true names in cameras.
By MIKE LANGBERG
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
Digital cameras will be the top item on many of this year's holiday shopping lists. Here's very condensed buying advice.
Most digital cameras fall into three broad categories, aimed at types of customers:
*Snapshooters. People who want simple and inexpensive cameras that nonetheless deliver quality pictures. Today's entry-level point-and-shoot digital cameras at $150 to $300 will do the job. These cameras offer 3 or 4 megapixels of resolution, sufficient for film-like quality in 4x6 and 5x7 prints, and even 8x10 if the image isn't cropped.
*Enthusiasts. This is a tech-centric crowd willing to spend a little bit more for special features. Cameras in the enthusiast price range, $300 to $600, can be ultracompact designs for slipping in a pocket or extra-large models with long zoom lenses. Resolution jumps up to 5, 6 or 7 megapixels.
*Prosumers. These are the serious photo hobbyists who want the best of everything. The hottest prosumer category is digital single-lens reflex, or SLR, cameras that support interchangeable lenses. Prices range from $600 to $1,500, with 6 to 8 megapixels, although prosumers will typically spend much more for extra lenses, lighting, high-capacity memory cards and other paraphernalia.
If you're just starting out in digital photography, don't be nervous about limiting your search to cameras under $300. You'll more than likely get everything you need in both features and image quality.
Some further tips for choosing and using a digital camera:
*Brands of the hand. If you don't want to do extensive research, you'll be safe sticking to the major brands you can count on one hand: Canon, Kodak, Nikon, Olympus and Sony. These five companies have solid reputations and consistently put out quality cameras. That doesn't mean other manufacturers don't have worthy offerings, but you're more likely to hit a lemon if you venture beyond these five.
*Don't play with toys. There are some very low-cost digital cameras on the market, often from companies whose names are unfamiliar, for less than $150. In many cases, you won't get what you don't pay for -- image quality can be much lower with these so-called "toy" digital cameras. Also, don't count on camera-equipped mobile phones. Image quality from cam phones is too low for anything more than sharing thumbnail-size pictures.
*Thanks for more memory. Digital cameras always come with tiny memory cards that hold only one or two dozen pictures. Fortunately, memory card prices are at record lows. You can get 512-megabyte cards in any of the popular formats -- such as Compact Flash, Secure Digital and Memory Stick -- for about $50 to $75. That's enough to store 250 or more full-resolution pictures from a 4-megapixel camera.
*Lag doesn't have to be a drag. One big adjustment in moving from film to digital is the "boot," or start-up time of digital cameras and their "shutter lag," the time from when you push the shutter button until the picture is snapped. Boot time is now under five seconds in most digital cameras, and shutter lag is well under a second. To minimize the impact of shutter lag, learn how to set the focus lock -- usually by holding the shutter button halfway down -- before shooting.
*Shoot for the moon, save regrets for later. Digital cameras offer multiple settings for image resolution; lower resolution makes room for more pictures on the memory card. I strongly urge setting your camera to its highest resolution at all times, because you never know when you'll capture that once-in-a-lifetime shot worthy of printing as an 8x10. You can always erase the images you don't want.
*What you see is not what you get. I'm disturbed at how much effort camera and printer companies put into selling consumers on the idea of printing pictures directly from the camera. Editing pictures on a computer, even simple adjustments such as removing red-eye and cropping, can turn mediocre images into treasured memories. Invest some time in mastering a photo-editing program; my favorite is the $99 Adobe Photoshop Elements 3.0 (www.adobe.com).
*Don't just listen to me. There's a wealth of information online for digital camera shoppers. My favorite sites include Cnet (www.cnet.com), Consumer Reports (www.consumerreports.org), Digital Photography Review (www.dpreview.com), The Imaging Resource (www.imaging-resource.com), PC Magazine (www.pcmag.com), PC World (www.pcworld.com) and Steve's DigiCams (www.steves-digicams.com).