More Than Megapixels; 10 Tips For Choosing Your Digital Camera

All Photos © 2004, Steve Bedell, All Rights Reserved

As a professional, I'm asked all the time, What's the best camera? Of course, we all know that there is no "best camera" out there, at least not yet, but there is one out there that's best for you. After reading the info below, you'll be perfectly capable of making that decision.

The first question has not changed. It doesn't matter if you shoot film or digital, for as long as I can remember the first question has always been, "What kind of photos do you take?" Think about it. Would a person whose main interest is taking pictures of their kids on holidays use the same camera as a guy who wants to photograph NASCAR races? Probably not. And what about the photographer who wants to take macro photos of flowers versus a scuba enthusiast? Once again, these photographers with widely divergent tastes will probably not be looking at the same camera. So once you've decided the primary and possibly secondary use of your new camera, here's the areas and specs that will help you make a good buying decision.

A wide angle really gives you an idea of the scope of things. This image was taken from a boat we took to ferry us from downtown Nassau back to Paradise Island. Minor adjustments made to levels in Photoshop. Who did we meet on this boat with about 20 people? A photographer friend from Connecticut! Travel is amazing!

1. Megapixels
Even though we're going to look beyond the obvious, this is a good place to start. You've got to decide how much megapixel power you want. If you strictly want to make slide shows, make small prints, and e-mail photos, a two- or-three megapixel camera will be just fine for you. If you want higher quality files for larger images, you'll need four- or-five megapixel horsepower. And for really professional results, you may want more. As in anything in life there is a price to pay in terms of cash, size, and weight. But once you've decided upon the chip size, you are then free to look at other factors in your search for the perfect camera.

2. Lens
The next thing I look at is the lens. The two critical aspects of lens choice are zoom range and lens speed. Once again, expect to pay more for a fast lens with a wide range. If you dislike using flash and prefer making pictures with "available light," you'll want the fastest lens possible, especially in digital where noise is most significant at ISOs over 200. If you're just going to be using it on the beach in San Juan or the slopes of St. Moritz or flashing pics at your two-year-old's party, speed's not an issue. But if you want to take images as early and as late in the day as possible and prefer a natural, window light look rather than flash, a high speed lens is best.

Be careful when reading about the zoom range of lenses. Many cameras now sport 10x zoom lenses. You might think, "Great, I'll never need another lens again!" And you may not--if you don't need a wide angle. You see, many of those lenses start at 38mm and go to 380mm. (All focal lengths mentioned in this article are 35mm equivalents.) That's a great range to be sure, but it's not giving you a much wider field of view than a "normal" lens. Great for long telephotos, not so hot for wide vistas or those family shots during the holidays.

Don't forget to include the locals, although it will probably cost you a couple of bucks in areas where they get their photos taken all the time. This was taken at the long end of the tele range, also.

3. Storage Media
If all storage media acts the same, why does it matter which one you use? If you're buying your first digital camera, it probably doesn't. If you've been shooting digital for some time though, you may already have a small investment in digital cards. In this age of miniaturization, you may also prefer one of the larger media cards, or might want to get a camera that uses the same cards as those you already own.

4. Camera Size
I also don't like my cameras too little, since I feel they're sometimes more difficult to hold steady, than something a little bigger. Maybe it's because I cut my teeth on medium format film cameras, but you'll find you have your own preferences, too. When choosing your camera, find the balance of size and weight that you feel comfortable with. Look at how you carry the camera, also. I don't like a neck strap on a point-and-shoot but I find the wrist straps very convenient.

What a great place for panoramic photos. This lagoon is salt water and has a beach on each side. A word of advice. When shooting panoramas, lock in the exposure so all match. I took these four exposures on auto and the variation in exposure caused a line right in the middle, which I repaired in Photoshop. I can tell I'll be taking many more of these, they're great fun and very dramatic!

5. Battery Size And Life
Ideally, all cameras would take the same batteries. For example, when I went shopping for my point-and-shoot, I looked for a camera that took rechargeable AA batteries. Why? Because I have about 10 sets of them that I already use in my bigger cameras and flash units. No proprietary battery makes life easier. You also want to look at battery life, or how many shots you may take before the battery needs recharging. You can find approximate numbers from the camera manufacturer's website but reading test reviews both in print and on line will give you a more accurate idea of battery life in real world shooting conditions.