When it comes to buying a digital camera, it's easy to get confused as there are so many options. Fear not. We're here to help. This guide will help you make a purchasing decision based on the specifications you'll need to examine closely (and the specs you can basically ignore) before you fork out your hard-earned cash.
The specs explained
Different specs are important to different people, but there are a few generalizations we can make when it comes to cameras.
If you intend to take pictures only to email them to distant friends or to print at snapshot size, a camera of most any resolution will do – your mobile phone is probably enough.
Even so, having more pixels gives you greater flexibility – you can print sharper pictures at larger sizes, or crop and print small sections of pictures. These days most cameras offer a resolution of at least 10 megapixels, which is overkill for most shooters.
5 megapixels is enough to make a sharp 8-by-10 print.
8 megapixels is enough to make a sharp 11-by-14 print.
A 10-megapixel camera can produce acceptable prints of up to 13 by 19 inches, though they may lose some detail.
Images from a 13-megapixel camera look good at 13 by 19 inches and can be pushed to 16 by 24 inches.
Many digital single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras today exceed 13 megapixels - all the better to creatively crop your images.
All megapixels aren't created equally; cameras with larger sensors and lenses normally take better shots, regardless of the megapixel count.
Bigger sensors normally create better images, as do higher-quality lenses; this is why DSLRs take such stunning photos.
If you can't get any hands-on time with a camera before deciding whether to buy it, check the specs to see how big its sensor is, and look at the physical size of the glass on the front of the camera. If both are big, it most likely offers good image quality.
Shutter lag and startup time
Even if the camera you've decided to buy has some drool-inducing specs, shutter lag may keep you from capturing the perfect shot. When it comes to shutter lag, a camera can let you down in a handful of ways: a slow shot-to-shot time, a slow startup-to-first-shot time, and a laggy autofocus that has trouble locking in on a crisp shot.
You can check for only one of these problems by scanning a camera's spec sheet: To get a grasp on a camera's shot-to-shot time, look for the camera's "burst mode" or "continuous shooting" count in shots per second.
This is the number of shots a camera will take in rapid-fire succession as you hold the shutter button down.
If you're interested in shooting a lot of sports or action photography, look for a camera with a continuous shooting mode of at least 3 shots per second; keep in mind that the continuous shooting speeds usually refer to situations with the flash turned off, as the time needed to recharge the flash will usually be longer than the shot-to-shot time.
Some cameras are built for high-speed shooting with shot rates much higher than that, but usually they significantly reduce the resolution of each photo in order to speed up image processing and write speeds.
The other forms of shutter lag are important reasons to get some hands-on time with any camera before you buy it, if possible.
Check to see how long the camera takes to power on and snap a first shot; generally, anything close to a second is considered fast.
Another good hands-on, in-store test is to see how long the camera's autofocus system takes to lock in on a shot after you press the shutter button halfway.
If the camera searches in and out for more than a second, you'd be better off with another camera for sports or spur-of-the-moment casual shots.
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