How to buy a digital camera - A 9 step guide

My notes: I just met a photographer, Laurie Doney, who has this article on her blog. It seemed like such a natural topic for the Camera Buyer Hotline, that I asked her if I could reprint it. Thanks to Laurie for allowing me to share her thoughts. LM



How to buy a digital camera - A 9 step guide

by Laurie Doney

Today I want to turn our attention to how to buy a digital camera.

I’m not going to talk you through all the different features on a digital camera or tell you which models are best (something that is really quite individual and which changes regularly over time) however there are a few questions and factors to keep in mind when making the decision of which camera is best for you.

When searching for a digital camera there are a few factors that I encourage people to keep in mind when they buy a digital camera (while there are 9 steps they are not necessarily a sequence you follow)

So let’s get onto some tips for buying digital cameras:

1. Determine what you need
A mistake I see some digital camera buyers making is that they get sucked into buying cameras that are beyond what they really need. Some questions to ask yourself before you go shopping:

•What do you need the camera for?
•What type of photography will you be doing? (portraits, landscapes, macro, sports)
•What conditions will you be largely photographing in? (indoors, outdoors, low light, bright light)
•Will you largely stay in auto mode or do you want to learn the art of photography?
•What experience level do you have with cameras?
•What type of features are you looking for? (long zoom, image stabilization, large LCD display etc)
•How important is size and portability to you?
•What is your budget?

Ask yourself these questions before you go shopping for a digital camera, then you’ll be in a better position to make a decision when you see what they have to offer. A salesperson will probably ask you above questions anyway – so to have thought about it before hand will help them help you get the right digital camera for you.

2. Megapixels are NOT everything
One of the features that you’ll see used to sell digital cameras is how many megapixels a digital camera has.

When I first got into digital photography, the megapixel rating of cameras was actually quite important as most cameras were at the lower end of today’s modern day range and even a 1 megapixel increase was significant.

These days, with most new cameras coming out with at least 5 megapixels, it isn’t so crucial. In fact at the upper end of the range it can actually be a disadvantage to have images that are so large that they take up enormous amounts of space on memory cards and computers.

One of the main questions to ask when it comes to megapixels is, “Will you be printing shots?” If so – how large will you be going with them? If you’re only printing images at a normal size then anything over 4 or so megapixels will be fine. If you’re going to start blowing your images up you might want to pay the extra money for something at the upper end.

3. Keep in mind the ‘EXTRAS’ 

Keep in mind as you look at cameras that the price quoted may not be the final outlay that you need to make as there are a variety of other extras that you might want (or need) to fork out for including:

• Camera Case
• Memory Cards
• Spare Batteries/Recharger
• Lenses (if you are getting a DSLR)
• Filters (and other lens attachments)
• Tripods/Monopods
• External Flashes
• Reflectors

Some retailers will bundle such extras with cameras or will at least give a discount when buying more than one item at once. Keep in mind though that what they offer in bundles might not meet your needs. For example it’s common to get a 16 or 32 megabyte memory card with cameras – however these days you’ll probably want something at least of 500 megabytes (if not a gigabyte or two).

4. Do you already own any potentially compatible gear?
Talking of extra gear – one way to save yourself some cash is if you have accessories from previous digital cameras that are compatible with your new one.

For example memory cards, batteries, lenses (remember that many film camera lenses are actually compatible with digital SLRs from the same manufacturers), flashes, filters etc.

5. DSLR or Point and Shoot?
While digital SLRs are getting more affordable they are not for everyone. Keep in mind that they are usually bigger, heavier, harder to keep clean (if you’re changing lenses) and can be more complicated to operate than point and shoot. Of course there are some upsides also.

6. Optical Zooms are King
Not all ‘zooms’ are created equal. When you’re looking at different models of digital cameras you’ll often hear their zooms talked about in two ways. Firstly there’s the optical zoom and then there’s the digital zoom.

I would highly recommend that you only take into consideration the optical zoom when making a decision about which camera to buy. Digital zooms simply enlarge the pixels in your shot which does make your subject look bigger, but it also makes it look more pixilated and your picture noisier (like when you go up close to your TV).

If you’re looking for a zoom lens make sure it’s an optical zoom (most modern cameras have them of at least 3x in length – ie they’ll make your subject three times as big – with an increasing array of ’super zooms’ coming onto the market at up to 12x Optical Zoom).

7. Read reviews
Before buying a digital camera take the time to do a little research. Don’t JUST rely upon the advice of the helpful sales person (who may or may not know anything about cameras and who may or may not have sales incentives for the camera they are recommending).

Read some reviews in digital camera magazines or online to help you narrow down the field. There are some great websites around that give expert and user reviews on virtually every camera on the market – use this wonderful and free resource.

8. Hands On Experience
Once you’ve narrowed down your search to a handful of cameras head into your local digital camera shop and ask to see and play with them. There’s nothing like having the camera in your hands to work out whether it suits your needs.

When I shop for a camera I generally use the web to find reviews, then I head into a street in my city with 4 camera shops side by side and I go from shop to shop asking for recommendations and seeing the cameras live. In doing this, I generally find the same camera or two are recommended in most shops and I get to see them demonstrated by different people (this gives a more well rounded demo). I also get to play with it and get a feel for which one I could see myself using.

9. Negotiate
After you’ve selected the right digital camera for you; it’s time to find the best price.

Once again, I generally start online and do some searches to find the most competitive prices on the models I’m interested in. With these in hand I’m in a good position to be able to negotiate in person with local stores and/or with online stores. I generally find that retail stores will negotiate on price and will often throw in freebies. Online stores are more difficult – most bigger ones don’t give you the ability to negotiate but smaller ones often will if you email them.

Don’t forget to ask for free or discounted bonuses including camera cases, memory cards, extra batteries, filters, free prints, cases etc. I even know of a couple of stores that offer camera lessons that you can ask to be included. Some stores will also consider giving you a trade in on older gear.

I generally do negotiating from home on the phone and only go into a store to pick up the camera after a price is agreed upon.

10. Your Tips
The above is my advice on buying a digital camera and comes from my own experience of buying numerous cameras, but I’m sure others will have useful tips to add. Feel free to add your suggestions on how to buy a digital camera in comments below!

Reprinted with permission.