Digital Santa: How To Buy A Camera

Woman uses a Yahoo Shopping comparison site to buy a digital camera, San Francisco, California, 11-3-05
All this week, tech guru Larry Magid looks at the latest in high-tech gifts for the holiday season.

A digital camera makes a great holiday gift. Not only do you get the joy of giving and receiving, but if it's opened right away, the person who gets it can get some great holiday pictures. And, of course, there's no need to run out and buy film.

Selecting a digital camera is getting both easier and harder. It's easier because there are so many good choices but the multitude of options can also make shopping a bit confusing.

The first two questions you should consider are how much you're willing to spend and how the person might use the camera. If you have less than $500 to spend, you're pretty much confined to a "point and shoot" type camera.

Don't let that discourage you. Today's easy to use basic digital cameras can take very good pictures. Besides, many people prefer these compact and easy to use cameras over the larger and more complex models because they value simplicity and size over the level of control you get with the more sophisticated models.

If you are willing to spend the money and are buying a camera for someone who's a serious photographer or someone who either knows or wants to learn the ins and outs of a manually controlled camera, you can now get a digital camera that rivals yesteryear's single lens reflex cameras in picture quality, user control and quality of lenses.

Of course, most cameras bought as gifts fit into the first category. You can now find digital cameras for as little as $29 but if you're buying one for someone who plans to actually use it on a regular basis, expect to pay at least $99 for a camera with 3 megapixels or higher.

Click here to check out Larry Magid's audio report
on how to buy a digital camera.

Chances are, however, you'll spend $150 to $300 for a good full-featured digital camera. Megapixels represents the number of pixels, or dots, that the camera's sensor is capable of recording. The more megapixels, the higher the resolution, which in theory translates to better-looking pictures.

But don't get too hung up on the number. Unless you plan to print images larger than 8 by 10 (which is rare considering the size of most PC printers), then 4 megapixels is more than adequate. Even three megapixels is fine unless you plan to do a fair amount of cropping.

Many of today's digital cameras record five or more megapixels, which does give you a bit more room to crop, or the option of a larger print. But anything more than that, for most users, is overkill.

The quality and type of lens is also important. If you stick with a well-known brand like Canon, Kodak, Hewlett Packard, Olympus, Fuji or Sony, the lens should be fine. Photo buffs will, of course, prefer one over the other but as a general rule, cameras from these makers have adequate to excellent lenses.

Zoom is also an issue but pay no attention to digital zoom. Some of the lower cost cameras (typically $149 or lower) have only a digital zoom which means the camera has internal software that blows up an image, giving the illusion that it has zoomed in. The only zoom worth considering is an optical zoom where the lens actually does zoom in on the subject.

In most cases, an optical zoom lens protrudes out from the camera body – similar to the design in film cameras, but Konica Minolta pioneered a type of optical zoom lens (which is now used by some other camera makers) using a prism to "fold" the optical path of the light so that the lens never extends from the camera. Most point and shoot cameras have a 3X optical zoom.

Memory may or may not be an issue. Most digital cameras have some internal memory for storing pictures but most also have a slot for a memory card, typically a tiny card, called Secure Digital (SD) that slips into the camera.

If you have an SD card, than the internal memory isn't that important because you can buy cards that store anywhere from 16 megabytes to two gigabytes. The actual number of photos stored depends on your camera and the way it compresses photos, but on average, a gigabyte of memory will store more than 400 compressed four megapixel photos or about 275 five megapixel photos.

You should put some thought into the camera's viewfinder. Just about all digital cameras have an LCD screen that can show you pictures before and after they're taken. Some also have an old-fashioned optical viewfinder that you hold up to your eye but many of today's digital cameras only have an LCD.

Many people, who use digital cameras, prefer using the LCD to frame their pictures. You can see them holding the camera out in front of them, looking at the screen before they snap the shutter. Some people – especially older folks who grew up with film cameras – prefer holding the camera up to their eye and using an old-fashioned optical viewfinder.