Buying a Digital Camera

Holiday Digital Camera Buying Guide

SUMMARY: Tips and advice on purchasing a digital camera as a gift over the holidays.

December 6, 2004

Welcome to the MalekTips Holiday Digital Camera Buying Guide! With this guide, we hope you can better navigate the myriad of digital cameras and accessories available on the market to better pick the digital camera best suited as a gift for a family member, friend, or yourself.

Remember that we offer plenty more tips on purchasing a digital camera as well as tips for using your digital camera elsewhere on MalekTips.Com.

Set a budget before buying a digital camera.

It's easy to get caught up in the "bigger is better" mentality when shopping around for digital cameras. However, don't "break the bank" in buying a gift for yourself, a family member, or friend. You can almost always find a more expensive digital camera than the one you plan on buying, with more and/or different features.

Buy a camera that matches your needs and one that will last a little while, but don't jump to the high-end prosumer or professional levels unless you truly need a many features and have plenty of practice photographing. A lot of power will go to waste and you'll spend money for features you don't need.

Be sure to factor accessories into your digital camera budget.

To make your digital photography experiences more enjoyable, you should save money for some of the following accessories:

* Extra batteries. If you only have one set of batteries or one proprietary battery, if it stops working or is out of power, you're out of luck.

* Extra memory. If you want to take more than just a few photos, especially at high resolutions (high quality of detail) with your digital camera, you'll need extra memory. Most digital cameras nowadays only come with enough media to take a few photos before you have to dump the contents to your computer and clear the card for new photos.

* A cleaning kit. Dust, dirt, and other harmful elements can smudge your lens if not cleaned off quickly. Don't just use your shirt or any old cloth to clean the lens; a blower brush and swabs can help protect your investment.

* A memory card reader. While most digital cameras come with cords and special software that let you hook up to a computer to store photos (so you can clear the memory and take more pictures without losing what you've taken), a memory card reader makes this process much easier.

You can hook up the reader to a USB port (modern computers have these), pop a memory card into the reader, and the computer can then access your photos just as if they were on a hard drive! Note that some desktops and laptops already come with such a reader; if so, you probably don't need to purchase an extra unit.

* A color printer, possibly a photo printer. Share your images with others! You can print your digital photos at various department or camera stores, or consider buying a photo printer to make hard copies as you want them.

* Possibly a camera bag unless you buy a compact camera, and even then a protective cover for the digital camera is not a bad idea to have. A camera bag can hold all of your accessories in one place, plus help keep your digital camera away from moisture or other harmful elements.

I've just scratched the surface on what you can buy. There are filters that can help protect your lens and enhance certain colors in your digital photos, tripods to steady your digital camera when taking photographs, add-on flash units to enhance the lighting, and much more. However, these are some of the more essential accessories. For those who want more information, MalekTips has additional advice on these and other digital camera accessories.

Ignore Digital Zoom

Although many salespeople would disagree, completely ignore advertised digital zoom specifications. Digital zooming performs an interpolation, or computer-based 'guesswork', of an image to try to increase the perceived zoom distance. These can result in "fuzzy" images, especially if you blow them up into 8x10 or larger photos. However, optical zoom provides for a true zoom-in or zoom-out on your subject.

For example, the following photos were taken at normal, or less than optimal, lighting conditions. For purposes of this website, they were cropped to the same resolution and compressed using the same JPG settings.

This picture was taken using a digital camera's optical zoom feature. Note that you can read part of the spice container's label.

Now, take a look at this photo. Taken of the same subject, this one uses digital zoom. Note that the letters are not very clear. If blown up to 4x6 or larger, this photo would clearly look much worse than the one taken with optical zoom.

For most people, a 3X or 4X zoom is just fine. 7X zoom can help in some circumstances if you can't get close to your subject. For most people, larger zooms, such as 10X, are just overkill. Note that this multiplier only means that a camera can zoom in 3 times greater than its normal position; two different digital cameras with 3X zoom may have slightly different focal ranges.

Don't get caught up in megapixels

Megapixels are not everything when it comes to buying a digital camera. A greater number of megapixels won't always mean better photos. If a 5 megapixel digital camera has a superior lens to one with 8 megapixels, that 5-megapixel digital camera may create sharper, clearer pictures.

Also, there are many other factors to consider (as exemplified by this buyer's guide). How fast can you take photos (needed for sports photography where the action is moving)? Can you alter the white-balance to take more natural-looking photos in museums? Does the camera have pre-programmed modes to help in night photography, portraits, fireworks, landscapes, and more?

Be Careful of Getting Locked-In

When comparing digital cameras, determine the memory type used by each digital camera, such as CompactFlash, Memory Stick, Secure Digital, Smartmedia, and others. If at all possible, try not to get locked into one of the lesser-used or proprietary types, and buy a camera supporting CompactFlash or Secure Digital. There are two reasons:

* CompactFlash and Secure Digital memory may be easier to find, especially if you are in a crunch and need extra memory on a trip.

* CompactFlash and Secure Digital may be cheaper than more proprietary media. For example, at the time this guide was written (12/7/04), I found a 1 GB CompactFlash card for around ~$80-$100 on the low end. Memory Stick prices for 1 GB tended to range around $250 and up, and were normally near $400.00. That is quite a difference for the same amount of memory! Granted, prices may change, but the more mass-market memory type should stay cheaper.

Many digital cameras take rechargeable AA batteries, though some take proprietary rechargeable batteries specifically made for the digital camera. While these batteries may have some advantages over AA batteries in that each battery may hold more power than a set of AA's, consider these disadvantages:

* You can get rechargeable AA batteries at most department or computer stores. Good luck finding a proprietary battery there. Thus, if you must get a digital camera with a specialized rechargeable battery, buy a backup as even rechargeable proprietary batteries will eventually stop taking charges.

* Proprietary batteries will usually cost much more than a set (or two, or more!) of rechargeable AA batteries. With AA's you can more easily afford keeping one set of batteries charged while you use another one to take photos.

Many compact digital cameras now require proprietary batteries, and they do have some pluses over AA's, so factor all of this into your eventual purchasing decision.

Use Comparitive Shopping Engines, but..

Planning on purchasing your digital camera online? Save time shopping around for the lowest deal. With comparative shopping search engines you can search a variety of online vendors simultaneously for the best price. Plus, many of these search engines will list vendor shipping costs, satisfaction ratings, whether or not a particular item is in stock (meaning it should presumably ship faster), and other information.

Be Careful of Cheap Prices and Package Deals

Do not always go for the absolute lowest price, especially if it's from a dealer you've never heard of or bought from before. If one price is much lower (by several hundred dollars) than the others, there *may* be a reason.

Some companies will bait you in with a low-priced camera, only to tantalize you with 'bargain' package deals that may contain substandard or closeout memory, batteries, camera cases, or the like. If you don't buy the bargain deal, then suddenly the digital camera may be on backorder or there may be a "shipping problem".

Granted, low prices do not always mean unscrupulous dealings are afoot, and many package deals are useful and can save you money, especially if you are purchasing a digital camera for the first time and need accessories to start out. Just realize this selling technique exists. Only buy what you need, and if you have problems with one dealer, you can always try somewhere else.

If you do have problems with a particular dealer that cannot be solved with polite methods, consider contacting a consumer help organization or the Better Business Bureau.

Beware of Phishing Emails

If you purchase items online, beware of an e-mail problem called phishing.

What happens is that you receive an official-looking email, possibly from Amazon, PayPal, eBay, or another e-commerce website stating that due to some problem (hardware crash, problem with your account, attempted access) you need to re-login and provide personal information such as your account password, Social Security #, credit card number, etc. To make it "easier", a link is provided for you.

If you ever get these emails, do not click the link! No matter how legitimate the e-mail may look - the graphics may look legitimate, the URL may look legitimate, the 'from' address may look legitimate (all of which can be forged) - clicking the link may take you to another site whereby entering your private information could put you at risk for identity theft!

The e-mail link may look like, clicking it may go to a website where you see in your web browser, but you may actually be unknowingly visiting another website.

If you ever receive e-mail asking for important information, you should either ignore it if the e-mail comes from a company with which you have never done business, or contact the site in question. DO NOT use the URL provided in the e-mail! Type in the company's web address into your web browser's address bar, contact customer service, and ask if they wanted the information in question. More than likely, the answer is no.

Buying a New Camera? Don't Throw Away the Old One

If you're buying a digital camera as a personal gift - to yourself :) don't throw away your old digital camera! There are many uses for obsolete digital cameras, including:

* Giving as a gift to a friend or family member. Surely you can think of someone who'd like to start taking photos.

* Donate your old digital camera to charity.

* Selling your old digital camera - even if it's old you should still be able to get a few bucks if the camera is in good condition.

Read Digital Camera Reviews

Even after reading the above advice, you may still want to read others' reviews of specific digital cameras, possibly with sample photos taken from each camera to see which one looks best (remember, it's not just about the megapixels!) If so, view a list of several websites offering digital camera reviews.

Thanks, and Happy Holidays!

A digital camera can be a sizeable investment, and it may be a little scary purchasing one with so many makes and models available. We hope you've learned a lot about what you should look for, and stay away from, when purchasing a digital camera as a gift.

Digital photography can be a fun and rewarding experience that can easily turn into a life-long hobby. To give someone a digital camera as a gift is to provide them with countless hours of enjoyment taking and sharing photos, as well as an opportunity to further explore the world around them.

'Tis better to give than receive, so please share this gift with someone you love during the holiday season.

Here's to you and yours,

Andrew Malek

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The MalekTips website was created in 1998 by of Envision Programming. The page's goal is to freely disperse computer-related tips, hints, and informative articles. Tips are organized to be easy to find, and are presented clearly, in easy-to-understand language.