Much like the unicorns of ancient folklore, affordable but high-quality digital cameras remain something of a mystery to most of us. There are certainly plenty of options to choose from; surely there’s a perfect little camera out there for not very much money. Right? Right??
My husband took my camera to Iraq with him and I need a back up camera until he gets back.
I’m interested in purchasing a digital camera. What brand would you recommend?
(Tanyetta forgot the obligatory ego-stroking portion of her question, but we will pardon her for this because her husband is off serving the country. Best wishes for his safe and speedy return, by the way.)
Here’s the thing about cameras: You pretty much get what you pay for. Oh, sure—you might find a killer deal here or there, but in general, good quality is going to cost you. Period.
Now, let’s assume you’re not a photographer. We’re not talking about SLRs, we’re talking about tuck-it-in-your-purse, point-and-click models. You don’t need all the bells and whistles, right? But you do need something that will take a decent picture of your kid with minimal fuss. And you don’t want to pay a fortune. Fair enough. Let’s cover the basics.
Brand. I can no more tell you “buy this particular brand” than I could tell you which model makes the most sense for you. There is no one penultimate brand when it comes to digital cameras. I can tell you that I had a brief discussion with Otto (an actual photographer) to confirm my suspicions, and we agreed that there are three “top” brands: Nikon, Canon and Olympus. Could you potentially get a serviceable camera made by someone else? Sure. Might you get one of these brands and have it turn out to be a lemon? Yes. But if you want to talk likelihoods, buying one of these three brands gives you the best chance of getting a quality piece of equipment backed by good customer service.
Megapixels. Every digital camera lists megapixels amongst its stats, and many people assume that Bigger Is Better. If you are primarily going to be viewing your pictures digitally, or printing out in 4″ x 6″ size—which is what 90% of us need a small digital camera for—3 to 4 megapixels is sufficient. Yes, really. Might you want to make larger prints? Then you need something higher. And the newer cameras tend to be more in the 5 to 7 megapixel range (again, because people are operating on the Bigger Is Better principle), so you may not even have to consider this too much. My point is only that chances are you can start your consideration at 3 mpx; don’t rule out a camera with a lower mpx capacity if it meets your needs in other areas.
Zoom. Cameras are also rated on zoom capability, and here you need to pay close attention. Greater zoom = greater flexibility. However, many cameras will boast something like “14x zoom!” and if you read the fine print, you’ll discover that’s a combination of both optical and digital zoom. Optical zoom means there’s an actual, mechanical telescoping lens, whereas digital zoom basically just means the camera will automatically crop pictures for you. Digital zoom isn’t zoom at all. You want nice pictures? Pay attention to the optical zoom number. I would suggest nothing less than 3x optical zoom, and higher is obviously better. I can tell you that my little back-up camera has 4x optical zoom and I spent a lot of time muttering obscenities at it during my son’s last soccer game; it simply wasn’t sufficient to get a good shot from the sidelines, and they frown upon parents running onto the field just to snap photos, you know?
Shutter delay. With a regular camera, you press the button and the shutter clicks. Which, you know, I think is a pretty good policy. I like the picture to happen when I press the button. With a digital, non-SLR camera, there’s going to be a delay between the button press and the shutter response. On a good camera, it’s going to be fairly short. On a not-so-good camera, you’re going to be taking a lot of pictures of what happened a second or two after that Kodak moment. Pay close attention in any reviews you read for mention of responsivity. In tandem with this, you’ll need to pay attention to the lag time between photos; the camera will need time to write the data to memory, the flash may need to recharge—these things will affect how soon you can snap a second picture. But if your first picture was a second too late and now you have to wait five seconds to try again… this is not the camera for you.
I can see people’s eyes glazing over, so I’ll stop there with the camera features talk. There are other things to consider, obviously, but those are (to my mind) the biggies. Think about those four things before you start shopping.
Now you’re ready to shop. Start by determining your price point. What’s the most you can spend? Have that number in mind before you start, as well.
Start browsing around your favorite stores and getting an idea of what model you might be interested in and what things cost. Then, do your homework. See a camera that looks like a good deal with acceptable features? Go read the reviews on it. Lots of people like Epinions. For gadgetry I always check CNET. There’s also Digital Photography Review. And of course, customer reviews on any site you might be shopping online.
How do you get the best deal? Two ways: The first is by determining which model you can probably afford, and then scouring the ‘net for the best price. The second is by deciding to buy a certified refurbished model from a dealer you trust, which will enable you to get more features than you’d be able to afford, otherwise. Otto recommends three sources for refurb cameras: KEH, B&H, or cameras.com (and although cameras.com is Otto’s last choice of those three, they are running a 20% off special for the entire month of September).
So. Given all of that? I hesitate to recommend an actual model, because I don’t know your price point or intended usage, really. (Otto’s recommendation for bang-for-your-buck is a used Canon G2, and he suggests taking a look at the options at KEH for one of those. I see a few over there, but the coding at KEH makes it impossible to directly link a product.) Hopefully this gives you enough to go on to start shopping, though.
Readers, feel free to chime in with specific recommendations if you think you’ve gotten a great deal. You know how I love to hear about your bargains!