May 21, 2006

Things You Should Know Before Buying Discount Cameras

by Nicky Pilkington

Taking photographs has always been considered an enjoyable pastime. Photography is one of the best ways to capture a moment in time. It seems now the world has become obsessed with taking pictures. Everywhere you look there are advertisements for cameras. Probably one of the most significant innovations in the Digital Age has been the digital camera. At one time these cameras had one thing in common with their non-digital counterparts--an expensive price tag. In recent years the cost of digital cameras has dropped considerably; so much so that you can easily purchase a digital camera for less than $200. To find the best deal you will need to do some comparison-shopping. By arming yourself with some information about digital cameras, you will better prepare yourself for buying discount cameras.

As most of the innovations in digital technology, digital cameras are considered more complex than they really are. When you shop for discount cameras, price should not be your only guide. It is a good idea to understand some of the basic features of digital cameras so that you can effectively compare the various models available on the market.

If you're interested in buying discount cameras, you undoubtedly are familiar with at least one buzzword associated with digital cameras: megapixel. Megapixel, which refers to the number of pixels per one million or how fine an image's resolution is, is important to consider when buying discount cameras because megapixel directly relates to the image quality you are able to obtain. When you shop for discount cameras you will notice that there are a wide range of megapixels. At one time, a digital camera with 1.3 megapixel was standard and a camera with 5.0 megapixels was considered top-shelf. With the recent introduction of digital cameras with 9.0 megapixels, the standard in megapixels is changing.

Buying a digital camera with the highest number of megapixels is not necessarily the best method of selecting a digital camera. Since megapixels relate to an image's resolution, you should first determine your plans for the digital camera. If you want simply to take images for personal use, a median number of megapixels such as 3.5 may be sufficient. If on the other hand you intend to enlarge and crop images, you may want to shop for digital cameras with a higher number of megapixels.

The number of megapixels that a camera uses is the primary selling point for digital cameras. However, it is the additional features that will have the greatest effect on price. Optional features that you may want to consider include video recording capabilities, an optical zoom lens, and a histogram. Most cameras include a zoom lens, but it is usually a digital zoom lens. This type of lens only appears to enlarge the image. An optical zoom lens is an ideal option if you will use your digital camera to shoot distant objects. Creating a digital movie is another popular option. If you want a digital camera with this feature, be sure to note the maximum recording time. A handy feature that is not used often, but is very handy if you are serious about digital photography is histogram. Once you snap an image you can use the histogram option to analyze the exposure. If an image is too bright or too dark you can reshoot the image.

You should be aware of the five distinct types of digital cameras available:

* Compacts. Simple to use and inexpensive (around $150 to $300), these are best for everyday shooting situations. As a consequence of their simplicity, however, they may have limited manual controls for exposure and composition. Models from our tests whose combination of low price and high performance qualify them as CR Best Buys are the top-rated Canon PowerShot A510 (3 megapixels; $180), the Kodak EasyShare CX7430 (4 megapixels; $180), and the Olympus D-580 Zoom (4 megapixels; $160). The Canon has manual controls and a 4x zoom lens. The Kodak and Olympus have 3x zooms and longer battery life.

* Subcompacts. Their small size and light weight let you carry these anywhere, although that smallness may make them awkward to operate. Expect to pay from $200 to $350. We like the Canon PowerShot SD300 (4 megapixels; $310), the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-L1 (4 megapixels; $240), and the Nikon Coolpix 7900 (7 megapixels; $350). All have a 3x zoom and all lack manual controls.

* Advanced compacts. These have versatile controls, long zoom ranges, and can store a shot as a "RAW" image -- preserving the original data the sensor captured, eliminating any undesirable effects of the camera's built-in processing. Cost: $300 to $600. The Fujifilm FinePix E550 (6 megapixels; $300) and the bulky Olympus C-7070 Wide Zoom (7 pixels; $390) have 4x zoom lenses. The Canon Powershot S60 (5 megapixels; $360) has a 3.6x lens.

* Super zooms. Larger, bulkier, heavier, and -- at $250 to $450 -- costlier than most compact models, these have a very long zoom range with powerful telephoto settings. They're a good choice for travel, nature and sports photography. Our choices are the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ5 (5 megapixels; $420), the Olympus C-765 Ultra Zoom (4 megapixels; $270), and the Canon PowerShot S1IS (3 megapixels; $270). The Olympus and Canon have 10x zooms; the Panasonic, 12x.

* SLRs. Serious photographers who want more control over their images than most point-and-shoots provide have that option in single-lens-reflex (SLR) digital cameras. These accept interchangeable lenses, and lack or minimize some of the shortcomings of point-and-shoots. (For example: Shutter lag, the delay between the time you trip the shutter and when the camera takes the picture, is almost nonexistent in SLRs. In other digital cameras, the lag is about 1 second.) Expect to pay $900 to $1,500 for these big, heavy models. We like the Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT (8 megapixels; $1,000) for its near-professional power and controls. It comes with an 18mm-55mm zoom lens, and at 27 ounces is the lightest of the SLRs we tested.