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Digital camera buying guide
Getting started

Buying a digital camera can be disorienting. There are hundreds of cameras available at many different types of retail outlets (online and in traditional stores), with prices ranging from $75 to several thousand dollars. Some cameras are small enough to fit in a shirt pocket. Others are large and can weigh up to two pounds. Some are easy to use. Others look like you need an engineering degree to operate them. And almost all are advertised with abbreviations that can be cryptic and confusing for the novice. In this digital camera guide, we aim to help you overcome some of this confusion.

What is a digital camera?

The first step is to understand what a digital camera is. With a film camera, an image is formed by collecting light from a particular scene or subject and focusing on film, which reacts chemically when struck by light and is said to "capture" the image. What makes a camera "digital" is that, instead of film, it has an image sensor that reacts to light by sending out electrical signals.

The camera takes the information from the image sensor and processes and stores it as a collection of pixels in a digital file, usually on a memory card inside the camera. Although the actual process is more complex than that, in essence it is how a digital photo image is made. It's essentially made up of thousands and thousands of tiny dots, or pixels.

What are megapixels?

When you collect a million pixels, you have a megapixel. The number of megapixels tells you how many pixels the image file has. A camera that captures 8 million pixels, for example, is called an 8-megapixel camera. The number of megapixels a camera features can also help to determine the size photos you can print or the amount of cropping you can do. For example, a 6-megapixel camera may be enough for snapshots, but if you want to print poster-size images or crop heavily, 8 megapixels (or greater) is more suitable.

A 6-megapixel camera might be all you'll need because higher resolution doesn't necessarily produce better prints. Lenses and other factors affect quality too. But most cameras today have at least 10-megapixel sensors. The size of the sensor, and the size of each individual image sensor element, which corresponds to pixels, can affect photo quality. But remember, the number of megapixels alone doesn't determine the quality of a digital camera's images.

Types of digital cameras

Our Ratings are divided into two main categories: Basic cameras, are simple point-and-shoots with just the features needed for routine shots, and advanced cameras, which are feature-laden cameras that include sophisticated point-and-shoot and models that let you change lenses. Note that all point-and-shoots, whether basic or advanced, include cameras with lenses built into the camera (that is, non-removable).

Our basic camera category is divided into three subcategories: subcompacts, compacts and superzooms.

Subcompacts fit in a pocket, are lightweight but generally have few manual controls. A few include nontelescoping zoom lenses, and others have zooms as high as 14x. Compacts are a bit larger, and often have more manual controls than subcompacts. They can also be among the most inexpensive cameras available.

Superzooms offer 15x or greater zoom, with some recent models including optical zooms as great as 35x. Like compacts, superzooms often, though not always, include manual controls. They're also among the more expensive basic cameras.

Our advanced camera category is also divided into three subcategories: advanced point-and-shoots, SLR-like and SLRs.

Advanced point-and-shoots have a nondetachable lens but differ from basic models because they have lots of manual controls, a hot shoe for an external flash, and support for RAW files. It's the lightest advanced type. SLR-like models have interchangeable lenses, but they lack a through-the-lens viewfinder. They're smaller and lighter than an SLR but usually larger than a point-and-shoot. SLRs have the most features, with interchangeable lenses and the largest sensors for the best image quality in low light, and a through-the lens viewfinder. Controls are extensive. They're also the heaviest, most expensive cameras.

Next steps

After you consider the type of camera you want and the number of megapixels you need, but before you dive into specific models, be sure to check out our brand profiles, which outline many of the most popular camera product lines and their respective character traits.

Next, look to our Ratings and Recommendations (available to subscribers) for the models that have the best performance and image quality, including scores for how models capture regular, low-light and flash photos. If you're interested in how well a camera captures video, consider the video quality score. And to see which models respond the quickest, consider the response time score, which is an overall speed judgment, including start-up time and the shutter delay for the first and later shots. In most cases, our Ratings found that point-and-shoot cameras take decent snapshots. So, look through our Ratings for specific features that are important to you. For example, if you want a point-and-shoot that has a better LCD than others, look for a model with a Very Good LCD quality score. Or, if you want a model that includes a touch-screen LCD, look for that in our Ratings. There are also scores for how well a camera handles shake, which can cause blurry photos, its controls, and versatility.

What you'll spend

For many, price is a major factor when buying a camera. In general, look to pay the following for the type of camera you're looking to buy:
•For basic point-and-shoots (subcompacts, compacts, and superzooms), expect to spend $80 to $500.
•For advanced point-and-shoots, expect to spend $350 to $600.
•For SLR-likes, expect to spend $450 to $1,200.
•For SLRs, expect to spend $500 to $2,000.

When you're ready to buy, consider where you will make your purchase. Although some walk-in stores, such as photo-specialty camera shops, might have knowledgeable salespeople, you can't rely entirely on the staff of walk-in stores to assist you in your purchase. Use the Internet and our Ratings for information before buying. Also, if you decide to purchase at a traditional retail store, forgo the extended warranty because digital cameras have been among the most reliable products in our surveys.

Many respondents in our surveys found online shopping to be a more satisfying shopping experience than walk-in-store shopping. Most walk-in retailers offer either low prices or wide selection. But some online retailers offer both. But be cautious of very low prices and verify that the camera isn't refurbished or gray market (diverted from other retailers or not meant for sale in the U.S.).
 Jun 25 2012

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