A great, cheap little digital camera

By Mir
September 13, 2006

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??

Well, maybe.

Tanyetta writes:

Hi Mir,

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!


  1. For kids, I’ve found I get better shots if I have the camera in ‘active’ mode or whatever it it – the icon of the little dude running.

    Also, my camera has the focus-lock thing where you depress the photo-taking button down halfway to focus and then press the rest of the way to take the picture. The camera has very little lag, but slowing down and taking the time to make sure it’s focused on what I want before shooting almost eliminates the lag completely.

  2. Don’t forget resale shops. I asked (on a whim!) at my resale shop if they had any digital cameras and they showed me two, $25 and $35. The $35 also was a camcorder.

  3. Chakalate: I would strongly caution against using a general resale shop for something as intricate as a digital camera. You will have no warranty and no tech support. Too big of a gamble, to my mind. I would recommend against eBay for an item like this, for the same reason.

  4. You can double check this with Otto for accuracy, but something I have learned from reading Photo Books and Magazines is that once you get above about 5 Megapixels, the advantages of the greater resolution start degrading rapidly.

    So, in that case, it is often wiser to get the most OPTICAL (as you have already explained) Zoom as Possible. There are two reasons for this. One is the obvious benefit of having the increased zoom. The second isn’t as obvious however. The camera makers will (generally) use better “glass” (lenses to us lay person types) for the 10X cameras (and above) compared to the 3X models. So in effect, you are (usually) better off trading off Megapixels for the increased Optics. (i.e. get a 5MP camera with a 10X optical zoom rather than a 7 MP with a 3X optical (assuming they are roughly the same price).

  5. More optical zoom on a point-and-shoot type camera (not a digital SLR) usually means a SLOW camera. It will take it longer to get the lens extended when you power it on, and will, in most cases, take longer to get a shot taken once you press the shutter. Nothing’s worse than taking a picture of your kid sliding into home, only to find out that the image is of the coach giving him a “love pat” afterward.

    The longer zoom will make your camera prone to shake (blurry pictures) at those longer zooms, too, as your shaking hands are magnified just like the picture.

    I think a rather minimal amount of zoom is desirable, meaning that you’ll actually need to get off your can to take a good photo.

    One advantage of newer cameras is that even the point and shoots are faster than they were a year ago. The low-end SLRs (e.g., the Canon Digital Rebel XT or the Nikon D50) become attractive for their speed alone — they get off four shots while a digital point and shoot is powering up.

  6. I used both of the sites that Mir listed. Here are two more camera review sites that I like:

    Digital Camera Resource Page
    This was one of my favorite reviewers when I was in the market for a camera. If you click on their “reviews & info” tab, you get a nice option of filtering camera reviews by criteria like optical zoom, megapixels, etc.

    Steve’s Digicams

    Watch what you purchase online. Some less reputable places will not include some items (ie – batteries, straps) that might normally be included. Don’t get me wrong, I buy lots of stuff online; you just have to be mindful of what you’re getting. Also, talk to your local camera shop if you have one. They may not be able to match the lowest internet price, but they may be able to throw in some incentives (discounted media cards, free prints, etc.) to make a competitive package.

    I agree 100% with MirOtto (OttoMir?) on megapixels (3-4 is plenty for snapshots), zoom and shutter delay. Keep in mind that the bigger the zoom, the bigger the camera. Some people want the tiniest pocket camera possible and have to settle for little zoom to accomplish this; in this case you might consider going for higher megapixels because you’ll probably be blowing up your shots on the computer. And shutter delay? It is the biggest complaint about digital cameras. Everybody looks at megapixels first and zoom second, but shutter lag (all versions of it) is a huge issue and is the main reason many non-professional photographers end up looking at digital SLRs or going back to film. It is possible to find digital cameras without much shutter delay, you just have to do your homework.

    You really need to read some reviews to know if the camera has a good quality lens. There are a lot of cheap cameras on the market that look good statistically, but take a crappy picture.

    Finally, it is a good idea to go try a camera in the store to see if you like the feel of it. Plus, it is a chance to check out that shutter delay thing. Seriously! Hello? Anybody still there?

  7. See what Otto thinks about re-fabricated (is that the word?) “stuff” (that’s the technical word). I’ve had good luck with re-fabricated stuff myself, but I don’t know if it’s normally advised. I bought my 4 MP Kodak digital on overstock.com for about $120 a year ago. It’s worked beautifully for me; it’s basically a point-and-shoot deal.

  8. Oh. Refurbished. My bad. Need to read through the whole post. Sorry.

    *slinks shamefully away*

  9. I JUST bought myself a Casio Exilim camera. They have lots of models, and these are the “ultra slim” cameras that you can fit in a pocket or a small purse with no problem. I love this thing – it has the anti-blur feature that eliminates the fuzziness from hands shaking, and they have a whole range of models that start at “wow, that’s not bad at all” prices and go up to “hm, this better be a decent camera for this kinda cash” prices.

    Also – and this is why I went with a Casio – there’s almost no shutter lag. You press the button and the picture is there.

  10. I’ve had a couple digital cameras and they’re OK, but nothing special. Next time, I’ll be armed with your info about the difference between optical/digital zoom; and the shutter delay issues (and shaking issues from your loyal readers). Thanks!

  11. I also have the Casio Exilim. I was looking for a Canon since they’re the “better” camera company and I’ve had good luck with them in the past, but the Casio was around $100 cheaper – over 25% off. It’s not professional quality, but I’m not a professional photographer either and my pictures come out quite nice.

  12. I have a Canon A610 with 5 megapixels. You can get this little beauty for just over $200 on Amazon. I have taken hundreds, maybe thousands of pictures on it since I got it 6 months ago. I LOVE it. You can seen the types of pictures it takes on my blog (though of course on my blog I uploaded lower quality versions, so don’t think this camera takes fuzzy pictures– it doesn’t). It is an awesome camera for the money.

    Mary, mom to many

  13. Ohhhh Mir,

    I do apologize. I had NO idea it would be printed in that case, please allow me to rephrase my question:

    Dear Most beautiful, knower and doer of all good deeds,

    Have I told you how pretty you are? Well you are! You have cute ankles too (over a little over the top) but, you see where I’m going with this right 🙂

    Thank you so much for this post, I’ll be sure to keep checking out the deals and suggestions that your readers have taken the time to post as well. MOst importantly your blog is the best around. I get all warm and fuzzy inside when bloglines tells me there’s a new post, I drop everything I’m doing to click and see what beautiful deals you have in store for us.

    Thank you for dropping everything you do to bring us all these great deals.


    Tanyetta who is hugging a tree and singing all great songs that begin with Have I told you lately, Mir is a sweet lady!?


  14. VERY helpful post, Mir. Lots of good info here, and helpful comments, too.

    My camera is five years old. It has 2 1/2 megapixels and takes 15 photos (no memory card) before I have to empty it. And ya know what? I like it! The prints I get are crisp, and having to empty it so often forces me to actually organize what I take and not wait until I have 500 photos that need printing. That said, I am in tne market for a new one, and you and your readers have pointed me in some great directions. Thanks!

  15. WOW!!!! There’s some really great info on this post. Thank you so much everyone who commented.

    I have yet to figure out the shutter delay part of taking pictures myself either! So, I felt good to know I wasn’t alone. I’ve found when I hold the button halfway down, I can take a photo quicker.

    But, I have a 2.0MP FinePix Fuji and I really want to take it on a LONG walk on a SHORT pier! Thanks everyone 🙂

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