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So many digital cameras: finding the one that’s right for you

Today’s digital cameras have come a long way from even a few years ago. They offer more features and power than ever before—at prices that make upgrading to a new model an attractive option. Here’s everything you need to know before you buy.

How much do I have to pay?

First on most people’s minds is cost. Digital sounds expensive, but it’s not anymore. There are cameras with terrific features available for as little as 0—perfect starter cameras, or great for kids.

Of course, you can spend more than that—as much as several thousand for the most advanced digital single lens reflex (DSLR) cameras. However, unless you are a professional who needs interchangeable lenses and manual everything, you can get a great camera for between 0 and 0. It all depends on what you want to do with your camera and your photos.

What is a megapixel and how many do I need?

Digital photos are made up of pixels, which is computer-speak for “picture element.” Get a thousand of these little squares together and you have a megapixel—MP for short. Every digital camera you consider will have a number of megapixels associated with it, but higher isn’t necessarily better.

Megapixels affect the resolution of your digital photos—that is, the potential clarity of the photos. If you choose a camera with a high number, for instance, 10 MP, you’ll get rich, detailed photos, perfect for making large prints. Or you could crop your picture and enlarge a section into its own photo without losing clarity.

That sounds good, right? The downside is that the larger the photo resolution, the more space it will take on a memory card, so you won’t be able to take as many photos unless you carry extra storage.

TIP: If you don’t need to make large prints, but do want to print standard sizes like 4" x 6" or 5" x 7", or e-mail or post your photos online, a camera with 5-6 megapixels will work well for you.

How much control will I have over camera settings?

The short answer is, as much or as little as you want—often on the same camera. Many digital cameras let you choose the level of control, from fully automatic, where the camera makes all decisions, to the completely manual, where you run the show.

In between those options are helpful pre-set shooting modes. These make it easy to take clear, well exposed pictures under a variety of settings—in bright sun, at night, during a sporting event, at the theater. Another fun feature is the ability to change pictures to black and white or sepia, adding versatility. Beyond that, some cameras help you prevent red-eye and other common problems.

TIP: Compare shooting modes and design features when you shop. Look for common ones, like Landscape, Portrait, and Action. Then see if there are others—Night or Snow mode, for example.

If you want more control of your digital camera’s variables, you can have that too. In addition to the pre-sets, many cameras, especially in the middle and upper end of the price range, let you go manual, and set aperture, shutter speed and ISO yourself—or set one manually and have the camera choose the best settings for the other elements.

It’s fun to play with these different options and see how your pictures change. And one great thing about digital photos is that, if your experiment isn’t successful, you can delete the photo and take another.

What is the difference between optical and digital zoom?

Optical zoom is how far your camera's lens can physically extend from the camera body (its focal length). It lets you get closer to your subject without actually moving, and without your photo becoming blocky or pixelated.

Digital zoom stretches your camera's pixels to make a photo look bigger—similar to cropping a photo and enlarging it, but it happens right in the camera.

Digital cameras will often show you a combined optical and digital zoom. They get this by multiplying the two numbers together. For example, a camera with 3x optical zoom and 8x digital zoom will have a total zoom of 24x.

TIP: Pay most attention to the optical zoom, as it will result in clearer close up photos.

What about the camera size—is heavier better?

Digital cameras are built to endure plenty, so choose the style that suits your needs. A slim, small model is handy because it fits easily into a purse or pocket, making it a no-brainer to take along on family excursions or trips.

Slightly larger models offer some helpful features, too, like a bigger LCD screen for taking and viewing photos, and often more manual control.

Go a little bigger still, and your digital camera may also have a more powerful zoom lens, helpful for getting shots at the soccer match, or architectural details of the castle you saw on your trip to Italy.

What other equipment will I need?

Batteries: Some digital cameras use AA batteries that you replace more or less frequently depending on how many photos you take and the resolution of each picture. However, digital camera features like the LCD screen and auto-focus draw lots of power, meaning batteries get depleted quickly. Rechargeable batteries are an alternative option.

Rechargeable batteries use one of two different technologies: Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH) or Lithium ion (Li-ion). NiMH batteries come in standard sizes and can be recharged multiple times before they need replacing. Many newer cameras are equipped with Li-ion battery packs. These have the advantage that they both hold more energy and be used and recharged more often than other batteries. Check your camera’s manual to determine which type is compatible.

Memory cards: Your digital camera stores images on memory cards, and there are many options for these. It’s a good idea to have several available—especially on vacation or at a special event like a wedding where you’ll be taking lots of photos. Get a larger card—think 1 GB or more—to make sure you’ll have lots of memory.

Dock: If your camera has rechargeable batteries, consider buying a docking station. It gives you a safe, secure way to charge your camera, and an easy way to connect it to your computer when you want to upload photos.

Carrying case: In addition to protecting your camera, a carrying case also lets you keep extra batteries and memory cards in one convenient place.

Now you’re ready to make the buy, and start using your digital camera to help capture and share cherished memories.

About the Author: Jean Fleming writes frequently about digital photography.

Please visit our digital camera buying guide and find everything you need to make the right decision when buying a new digital camera.

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