Mega Pixels Don’t Matter – A Quick Guide to Buying a Digital Camera

Around this time of year I start getting asked more and more about what type of Digital Camera people should be buying. While the price of the camera’s has dropped dramatically over the years, the selection has increased making it difficult to choose the right one. So where do you start and what do you look for?

First figure out is this going to be your primary camera or a secondary, do you want it to be small to throw in a pocket or does size matter? What features do you really need? What are you going to do with your pictures, print them all commercially, on your own, burn them to DVD slideshows or a combination of all three?

You can start by visiting Steve’s Digicam site ( to start getting some ideas and read some independent reviews on a variety of cameras. They have a listing of what he feels are the best cameras in each class and comprehensive reviews and consistent sample photos.

If you have picked a few models out here, you can go to Here you will find reviews from people that actually used the camera or the equipment you are looking at and get real world feedback from people that have bought and used them. I use this site often to research my purchases of accessories and lenses and have not been sorry about my decisions yet.

If you already have a film SLR camera look at Digital SLRs from the same manufacturer. The price on the entry level versions of these cameras rival the higher end digitals, but they offer far more flexibility in the long run. For example with the Canon Digital Rebel XT or XTi models, they will take virtually any of the EF lenses that Canon and third party vendors have made since the early 90’s, so if you have some Canon lenses look at their cameras. I personally use a Canon Digital Rebel XT and couldn’t be happier. I started with the original Digital Rebel, upgraded and have now started expanding my lens and accessories collection. I recently purchased a used mid ranged zoom for walk around use and got it at quite a savings over buying new.

Next go to a reputable dealer that stocks the cameras. Don’t be afraid to visit a camera store either instead of ust the big box electronics stores. Often I have found there is better selection, much more knowledgable staff and most of the time better prices and more accessories etc than the big stores. Also find out if they will allow you to shoot some pictures in the store (on your own memory card) with the cameras you are interested in then have them printed (remember to take detailed notes). Once they are printed you can see the differences in the lenses. Also note if there is a shutter lag and how the camera feels in your hand. If they don’t let you shoot test pictures, don’t buy the camera there!

As I said Digital SLRs (DSLRs) give you unparalleled flexibility because you can change lenses easily. Now a days they can be used as fully automatic point and shoot cameras or with fully manual settings so that you can be as creative as you wish. Currently the Canon Digital Rebel and the Digital Rebel XTis are the most popular cameras being used for amateur astrophotography, where they are connecting their cameras to telescopes.

Something to note however is that the lcd screen on the back of all dslrs cannot be used for framing the picture and you have to use the viewfinder. Why? Because these work exactly like their film camera cousins, where nothing is exposed to the sensor (CMOS or CCD) until the shutter is pressed, the mirror flips up and the curtains open and expose the chip. Also these cameras tend to be larger and heavier than the point and shoots although most are much smaller than their film cousins were.

A couple of little things to note when buying a camera that often get overlooked. If you are going to use the camera while travelling, does it have a proprietary battery pack with a seperate charger or does it use off the shelf batteries? Not a big deal? Tell me that when your on a cruise ship and realized you forgot your charger at home when the first battery needed charging (I did it)! Does it need a special dock to download or take pictures off the camera? Is this a small device? Is it an optional accessory? Does the camera have any special features that are desirable? Here is an example, when I lost my wife’s digital camera on our cruise (that was a good week) and went to replace it, I went with the Canon A540. Why? Because 1) I like Canons 2) This camera had an underwater setting and 3) there is an underwater housing available. Why the big deal as we are not divers? The camera can be put in the housing and taken to the swimming pool with the kids. Or it can be put in the housing and taken to the beach without worrying about sand getting in it (a big enemy) or we can use the camera safely in inclement weather. Plus if we go snorkleing again in the future, we can use the camera there and blow away the underwater disposable camera images. I bought a cheap (27.00 CDN) underwater digital camera for the cruise (no I didn’t lose that one) and it took some pretty good pictures at stingray city.

There are a couple of things that you should also look for when buying and trying your camera that may drive you batty.

Shutter Lag, Point and shoot digital cameras often suffer from shutter lag when you are trying to take the picture , the camera will focus and finally opens the shutter, but it can take up to .5 a second on some cameras at which point your subject has moved and you have missed the shot (especially kids). DSLRs don’t have this problem, and it is often related to my other pet peeve, low light performance.

Make sure the camera you are looking at has an auto focus assist beam or at least fires the flash to accomplish this. If the camera is not sensitive enough to focus under poor light it will cause shutter lag or hunting in the camera to try and find a focus point. One the best image quality digital cameras I had (a Fuji) suffered from this and shutter lag and drove me crazy although it took great pictures.

If you are planning on post processing your photos (on the PC in Photoshop or another program) check to see if the camera offers a Raw or Raw + jpg mode. Raw mode is basically a straight dump from the sensor data to your memory card, unprocessed and uncompressed. JPEGs usually taken under automatic settings are usually processed in camera circuitry based on what the manufacture thinks should happen under those specific conditions then it compresses it into a jpg file which loses some of the camera data. I have taken pictures in Raw mode that I have been able to bring into Photoshop CS2 and turned a medicre shot nto a much better shot. RAW mode does use a lot more storage space (the same as the mega pixel rating on your camera) so account for this when buying your memory card.

Also make sure you like the feel of the camer in your hand. If the camera is too small for your hand you will be surprised to see how many times you will get pictures with a finger or thumb in the edge of the frame.

When buying a memory card make sure that you are getting the biggest one you can for the camera. I recommend at least a 1 GB for almost all cameras now or bigger if you plan and can shoot in raw mode. With a digtal camera  you can shoot all the pictures you want and not worry about processing, if a picture doesn’t work you can delete it. Having said that it doesn’t hurt to have a couple of cards. My camera currently has a 2GB in it (244 raw images) and I carry a 1 GB and a 512 MB card in my bag. Also the faster the memory card the sooner your camera is ready for the next shot or burst too. In addition if you go on holidays you will have room for all of your shots. I usually take my laptop as well as a card reader and download my pictures everyday (didn’t do that with the camera I lost and that’s what really upsets me). If you don’t own a laptop there are inexpensive devices available today that can take pictures off your laptop and transfer them over to small hard drives. You can even do this with Ipods and some MP3 players.

Something else to watch for but I don’t think it is that common any more is manufactures that use plastic lenses. Until a couple of years ago Kodak was still using plastic lenses in their digital cameras and the cheaper manufactures still do.

The last thing you shoudl worry about is the number of mega pixels the camera has. Unless you are printing pictures that are the size of an entire wall, almost everything out there will be fine. a 3 MP camera will do a good job of 4 x 6 and 5 x 7 prints as well as not bad 8x10s. A 4 MP is fine for 8X10 etc. In fact there are very few people that would be able to spot the difference between a 3 MP image at 8 x 10 and a 10 MP image at 8 x 10. 

Any of the major name brand camera manufacturers put out good products, so if you stick with one of them you will not be sorry.

A little tip. Once you have your camera, get in the habit of downloading the pictures to your PC often and then burn them to a CD or DVD right away. This way you have a backup in case something happens to either your camera or your computer. If you can store the Disks off site (Office or a relatives) in case of break in or fire.

Another idea is a cheap digital camera for kids. Both of my kids have had digital cameras since they were 5 years old. It is a great way to get them into photography and cheaper than buying disposables or film cameras. Who wants to pay to develope pictures of ceilings and feet! Here any camera will do and you can often find some in discount stores for 50 to 100.00 dollars.

I hope this little article helps you, if you have questions please contact us or if you are looking for a particualr camera let us know and we’ll see if we can get it for you.


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