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Digital Santa: How To Buy A Camera

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.

In bright sunlight, an optical viewfinder can save the day if the sun washes out the image in the LCD display. Some camera makers make a big deal of the size of the LCD display. I'm not sure that matters much if you're just using the LCD to frame or review pictures, but a lot of people use their cameras to show photos to others, so the larger display can add to the enjoyment of the camera.

Another important issue is the type of battery used. Most cameras today come with one proprietary lithium ion rechargeable battery that you either charge inside the camera or by taking it out of the camera and connecting it to a charging unit. Some cameras use AA batteries.

The advantage of the rechargeable lithium ion batteries is that you get more pictures per ounce of battery weight because of the efficiency of the design. This is particularly important with some of the ultra-small cameras where there simply isn't enough room for AA batteries.

Some companies, including Kodak, offer cameras that use both AA batteries and lithium digital camera batteries. The big advantage to AA is that they are easily replaceable and you're not dependent on the manufacturer for your batteries.

My personal preference is a camera that takes AA batteries but I never use disposable alkaline. I instead use Rayovac rechargeable nickel metal hydride batteries that can be recharged in 15 minutes. One set (2) batteries can usually get me through a day or two but if I plan to do a lot of shooting, I just carry an extra couple of batteries with me.

For many people, size does matter. Most point and shoot cameras are quite compact but some are smaller and thinner than others. Casio, Canon, Kodak and others make very small and thin pocket-sized cameras that are capable of taking just as good a picture as their larger brethren.

When choosing a camera as a gift, consider how it will be used. For most people, any compact camera is small enough but if it's for someone who wants to walk around with the camera in his or her pocket, then you might want to get one of the ultra-small models that most manufacturers offer.

The camera's controls can make a big difference. For example, some cameras require that you use a menu to turn the flash on or off or control the camera's self-timer while other cameras allow you to control these functions by pressing buttons on the camera's body. While too many buttons would obviously cause too much clutter, having to go to a menu and select your controls from a screen can add to the time it takes to get your camera in the right mode.

Many of today's digital cameras can also take video clips. In the past, this was more gimmick than useful but companies are now offering 24 or even 30 frames per second video, which means that your video clips will show the full range of motion without the choppiness associated with lower frame rates.

Also, video takes up a considerable amount of memory but thanks to cheaper and higher capacity SD and other memory cards, that's less of a problem than it used to be.

Still, don't expect a digital camera to fully replace a camcorder. Digital cameras are great for short clips but you wouldn't use one to record an entire wedding or graduation ceremony. You might, however, use it to record the singing of "Happy Birthday" at a party, or the moment your favorite graduate gets his or her diploma.

Most people with camcorders take too much video anyway and there's something to be said about the forced discipline of having to take short clips. Once you take a video on a digital camera, you can usually play it back on the camera. If you're going to do that, make sure your camera plays the sound as well as the video. Ultimately, you'll copy the videos to a PC or Mac where you can show them, edit them or even burn them to a CD or DVD.

Do your research. Although I've reviewed some digital cameras (I recently gave high marks to Kodak's C360), there are far too many models on the market to cover in this overview.

I recommend that you shop around by looking at manufacturer's websites as well as sites like Cnet.com, PCMag.com and PCWorld.com. If you find some models that interest you, you can get detailed reviews and specifications at Steve's Digicams.



A syndicated technology columnist for more than two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."
By Larry Magid