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This article was written by the New York Institute of Photography, America’s oldest and largest photography school. NYI provides professional-level training via home study for photographers who want to give their images a professional look, and perhaps earn extra income with their camera.

Digital Camera Buying Guide: What Features Do You Need?

At NYI, we've been tracking digital cameras since they first arrived on the scene in the mid 1990s. A lot has changed in the past ten years. The most important change is that digital cameras used to be complicated, expensive tools of limited value. Today, they're easy to use, much less costly, and for many purposes, the right tool for the job.

We don't conduct detailed reviews of individual cameras. Given the endless number of manufacturers and models, that's a job for specialists such as DP Review and other digital camera review sites. However, advertisers tend to flood potential consumers with all kinds of specs. Whether you're about to buy your first digital camera, or you're looking to upgrade your current holdings, here's our opinion of the specs and features that matter.

At this point, we recommend purchasing a camera that is capable of capturing images of three million pixels (that's three megapixels) or more. There are lots of situations when you'll want to capture smaller files, but if you want to print a good "8x10" image you'll need a minimum of three megapixels. Four megapixels might be even better if you find a camera that's in your price range.

An optical zoom is a great feature. We see no benefit to digital zoom ("DZ") whatsoever. DZ is just stretching a portion of an image captured by the camera's glass (or optical) lens. So, if you're looking at one camera that has a 3x optical zoom and another that only has a 2x optical zoom but boasts a 20x digital zoom, we prefer the 3x optical zoom model.

Digital cameras use lots of power. Many models are still powered by 2 to 4 AA batteries, but we like the newer models that have a rechargeable lithium ion battery built in. You just pop the camera in its charger overnight and you're set to go in a few hours. It's like charging your cell phone. If you shoot a lot, look for a model that allows you to charge a second battery in the charger while you're using your camera.

If you do buy a camera that takes AA batteries, we think rechargeable batteries and a charger are an excellent investment. Those AA batteries are expensive. Either way, bear in mind that you'll save a lot of money if you don't use the LCD viewfinder all the time-it draws a lot of power from your batteries.

Consider an AC Adapter: We think it's an outrage that so many digital cameras are sold without an AC Adapter. This is a very handy item, and particularly if you're doing studio stuff-say taking pictures of items for an online auction-you'll find using an AC Adapter gets you out of the battery game altogether and allows you to use your LCD viewfinder to your heart's content. Unfortunately, name brand AC Adapters made by the camera's manufacturer tend to be very expensive. You'll be OK purchasing an adapter made to fit your camera's make and model from an aftermarket supplier such as Digipower.

LCD Viewfinder:
We expect to start to see a new generation of LCD viewfinders that will be made using what are known as OLEDs, that is Organic Light Emitting Diodes. Kodak announced they would bring a model to market last March, but we haven't seen it turn up yet. The working prototypes that we observed were great. The OLED image is much brighter, which means it will be better to use in daylight/sunlight, and you could see the image from a wider angle than with traditional LED screens. Once OLEDs hit the market, we expect they will be a big hit with consumers.

Digital SLR/ZLR Viewfinders:
SLR stands for Single Lens Reflex, which simply means that you view the scene through the lens that takes the picture rather than a separate viewfinder window, which can often show a composition that differs from what the camera actually sees, particularly when you're working at close distances. Another benefit of most SLR cameras-either film or digital models- is that you can mount a variety of different lenses on the camera body. The term "ZLR" was coined to describe Zoom Lens Reflexes, where you see the image viewed by the camera's lens, but there is a zoom lens permanently affixed to the camera and you can't change to a different lens.

In order to cut costs, some digital ZLRs show you the scene in front of you not through a true optical reflex viewing system but instead place a tiny LCD viewfinder in the eyepiece. We find some of these systems difficult to focus. If you're in the market for a ZLR digital camera, try testing a model at the store with an LCD viewer before you purchase one. Some people like them, others don't. You be the judge.

Memory Cards:
In the last century there were two formats that split the market-Compact Flash and SmartMedia. Now they have been joined by Secure Digital, Memory Stick, xD Picture Card and others. Most cameras accept just one format and are not compatible with the others. Image quality that is recorded is acceptable with all formats-the key issues are speed of recording and memory capacity size.

Speed: Some of the key manufacturers in the field are offering new models of cards with higher speeds. Naturally, these cost more. Depending on what type of subject matter you like to photograph, these faster cards may be worth your while.

Card Size: Here we favor large size cards, say 64MB and 128MB size, but we don't recommend you buy a giant card-say 1 Gigabyte. There are two reasons for this suggestion. First, the giant cards are expensive, and second, since all cards are tiny, somewhat fragile, and most don't like water, they're delicate. As the saying goes, don't put all your eggs in one basket. We know one photographer who recorded all the photos from a 10-day trip to Costa Rica on one card and then dropped it into a glass of water by accident. Play it safe-use a few different cards.

Remember that once you buy a camera and purchase a few cards, if you switch to a different camera make and model your existing memory cards may not work with your new camera..

Card Reader:
Many photographers use a memory card reader that allows you to take a card full of images, pop it into the reader and then rapidly download the images into your computer through a USB or USB 2 connection. This is often an easier and faster way to get images into the computer than downloading from your camera.

Zip Drive or CD-ROM Burner:
The biggest mistake beginners make in digital photography is thinking that once they've downloaded their images into their computer they can erase the memory card and enjoy their photos for ever after. We wish this were the case but it's not. Hard drives crash, homes get flooded, all kinds of other awful things can happen too. Your photos aren't safe until they're backed up onto some kind of safe media that you can store in a separate location. While it takes a little longer to burn a CD-ROM as opposed to a Zip Disk, CDs are cheaper and more durable. But how you back up is less important than backing up. Don't do it and you'll come to regret it. We promise.

Computer Operating Systems:
We know you're not shopping for a computer right now-you're thinking of buying a digital camera. But you should be aware of the fact that the most recent computer operating systems-Windows XP and Macintosh OSX-are extremely photo friendly. XP, for example, recognizes most new models of digital cameras and can download photos using its own software, which saves you the time and effort of downloading the software that comes with your camera. If you're not adept at installing software and making your computer do what you want, this kind of photo-friendliness can be a real plus. In addition, if you're still grinding along with Windows 95 or 98, you're going to run into trouble down the road and it's probably time to think about an upgrade.

Digital vs. Film:
As any serious photographer will tell you, film is still a great way to make photographs. Digital photography may be cheaper for you, depending what you want to do, but the effective “speed” of digital cameras is slow. If you like low tech, and if you like taking photos in dim illumination, film could still be the better choice for you. Not long ago, a major company spent a lot of money to study households that owned both a film and a digital camera to find out when consumers chose to use the film model. The overwhelming answer was that they turned to film when the subject was more important. They actually trusted film more. Recently we've heard a new term-digital honeymoon-that connotes people who switch to a digital camera but then come back to film. But it's really just a matter of getting used to the pros and cons of digital over film.

Professionals know that a digital camera is just a different type of tool than a film camera. The trick is to select the right tool for the job. If speed is an issue, digital wins. If privacy is an issue, score one for digital-who wants the guy at the one-hour lab looking at intimate pictures of a loved one? If you only need one picture to post on a Web site, why waste a roll of film and wait for processing? Digital cameras are great tools, and the new ones are easier than ever to use.

In conclusion: Many amateur photographers buy a digital camera because they think that anything digital will automatically mean that their pictures will be better and that photography will be easier. This is not the case. We see lots of people making the same basic photography mistakes with digital cameras that used to be made using film. There's still no substitute for learning how to take great pictures.

© 2003 |New York Institute of Photography | 211 East 43rd Street, Dept. WWW | New York, NY 10017 U.S.A. |

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