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Shopping for a digital camera once seemed simple: get the most pixels for the money. But megapixel mania is over. Consumer models appear to be topping out at about 12 megapixels, which is plenty for making large prints or for cropping in closely for smaller ones.
Most of us, meanwhile, already own at least one digital camera that takes pretty good pictures. So camera makers find themselves scrambling for new reasons to sell us cameras. The result is a flood of new features like built-in projectors, HD video, and "auto scene selection." A saturated market is forcing camera makers to find ever smaller niches where they might sell a new model, says Steve Hoffenberg, a market analyst with
A few ground rules can help. If there is a choice, pay for a longer zoom lens rather than more megapixels, says Julie Adair King, author of Digital Photography for Dummies. People often want more pixels because they can crop a photo to delete unwanted material around a subject, such as a small kid on a big soccer field. "A longer optical zoom lets you fill the frame with the subject in the first place," she says. But ignore "digital zoom," in which camera software simply crops the photo. That's better done later on a PC.
Also, find a model that has hardware that fights blurring caused by camera shake, often called optical image stabilization or antishake control. Some cameras try to do the same thing with software in what's called "digital image stabilization," but it doesn't work as well.
Finally, don't worry much about camera quality or reliability. Having been around for more than a decade, digital photography is a pretty mature technology. "Virtually all the cameras out there from major brands do a good job," Hoffenberg says.
Define the shooter.
How will the camera be used? Photographers might be shooting quick, informal snapshots or carefully composed portraits with custom-crafted lighting. While cameras now cover a wide spectrum, they still group in four broad categories:
Ultra compact models are mostly about quick snapshots anywhere, anytime. They easily slip into a pocket and don't have a lot of controls for fiddling.
Compact cameras usually come with a bigger zoom lens and a few more features, such as automatic and "intelligent" scene selection that chooses the right settings based on what the camera sees. Or some shoot HD-quality video. They'll still fit in a jacket pocket, small purse, or even a loose hip pocket.
Super zoom models won't fit in any pocket with their SLR-like lenses that can magnify 20x or more. But their built-in lenses can swing from a wide angle of 28mm to the equivalent of a 500-mm zoom or more without requiring the photographer to carry multiple lenses. They also offer many of the sophisticated features of an SLR, such as control over white balance, shutter speed, and aperture size.
SLR models swap out lenses for more control over an image, even if a few models aren't technically "single-lens reflex" cameras. They also come with the most sophisticated electronics and sensors that produce the best-quality photos and virtually eliminate shutter lag, the infuriating delay between pushing the button and hearing the click of the shutter.
Since just about everyone has a camera already, talking to friends and relatives is a good start. Then head to the Web for more advice. CNet.com specializes in easy-to-understand articles, testfreaks.com scours the Web for reviews, steves-digicams.com has handy lists of best cameras, and dpreview.com has a database of specs that makes comparisons easy. They all have active forums where owners swap insight.
Buyers who do online research can usually narrow their choice to two or three models, says Hoffenberg at Lyra. "Then you've gotten to a manageable number for close comparison."
Don't let all the bells and buttons distract from the primary goal, which is to get the best photo quality for the money. Buyers should give more value to basics such as optical zoom lenses and image stabilization. Then they can consider features that might help get a good photo under varying conditions, such as automated shooting modes or the ability to detect if a subject is blinking or smiling before taking a picture.
Value shoppers should shy away from extraneous features, such as cameras with built-in pico projectors or GPS chips. While they have undeniable "wow" factor, many, like the projectors, are more useful to niche markets such as real estate agents. Others, like the GPS chips that allow "geotagging" of photos, will eventually have broad appeal but are too expensive for now.
The Internet offers the best prices, but uncertain buyers are wise to visit the local camera shop. "You need to hold that camera and see if it fits in your hands," says King. Also, most local shops allow a trial period that's crucial for testing a camera; they'll take returns for several weeks without penalty. Most online and big-box stores charge a restocking fee that could be 15 percent of the original price.
While the prices might be a little higher at a camera store, experienced salespersons can still save a shopper money. They can help a buyer think through how a camera will be used, ruling out costly features that aren't needed, says Chuck Pace, who has 22 years behind the counter at Robert's Imaging in Indianapolis. And when given a chance, the local shop might match online prices or come close, Pace says: "It pays to ask, especially in this economy."