WITH an estimated 300 digital camera models on the market, picking the right one can be a daunting job. But you can narrow the field by deciding how you want to use your camera and picking one that matches your needs.
Last week, we discussed two major features that set digital cameras apart. The most important is resolution - the number of dots (pixels) that a camera captures when it translates an image into a digital format. A camera that captures more pixels can record more detail and produce larger prints without graininess. For the average photographer who wants a camera for family gatherings and vacations, a 3- to 4-megapixel model will do the job.
The second critical feature is the lens. If you want a zoom lens, make sure it's an optical zoom, which actually moves the lens elements to produce an enlarged image. Digital zoom, although heavily advertised, is basically a cheap software trick that produces grainy, simulated close-ups by enlarging pixels. Many cameras combine the two, but the important number is the optical zoom.
Most optical zooms are in the 3-to-1 range, the equivalent of a 38 mm to 105 mm zoom lens on a 35 mm film camera. That produces a view ranging from slight wide-angle to moderate telephoto. At full extension, a 3-to-1 zoom can produce pleasing portraits, but it won't grab a close-up of your daughter on the far side of a soccer field.
A few consumer-oriented cameras have more powerful zooms, with ratios as high as 8-to-1. You'll pay considerably more for these. Just remember that image quality degrades at extended zoom ratios. Also, the further you zoom, the less light the lens collects. In many cases, the camera compensates by decreasing the shutter speed, which in turn makes the image subject to blurring from camera shake. So if you're zooming, even on a bright day, a tripod will keep the camera steady for the sharpest image.
Also, while a zoom lens can pull your subject closer indoors, the range of camera's flash doesn't increase. If you're too far away, an indoor subject in a dimly lit room may be underexposed, no matter how good the lens is or how good the image appears in your viewfinder.
Size can be critical to your enjoyment of the camera. In the under-$1,000 range, you'll find everything from sleek little shooters that fit in a shirt pocket to monsters like the Canon's Digital Rebel, a full-featured single-lens reflex model that weighs more than a pound and requires two hands to hold it steady.
Serious shutterbugs may be willing to put up with bulk in exchange for higher-resolution images, a longer zoom and extra features. But if you're mainly interested in snapping decent pictures while strolling the streets of Paris or hiking on a mountain trail, you'll be happier with a camera that fits in a pocket, purse or fanny pack.
Space being an issue in design and manufacturing, the smallest cameras are likely to have less-powerful telephoto lenses, or none at all, and fewer advanced exposure features. Although it seems counterintuitive, very small cameras are also harder to hold steady than somewhat larger models. So there's no right or wrong answer to the "best size" question - it's just something to think about when you're shopping.
Getting to more technical matters, consider the camera's light sensitivity, usually measured as an ISO rating. This is the standard the industry uses to measure the light sensitivity of film - the higher the number, the less light you need for an image. Low-end digital cameras may be limited to an ISO of 100 or 200, which is fine for bright daylight and close-up flash shots, but not for low-light situations. Better cameras have a maximum ISO of 400, which extends their range considerably, although there's some cost in image quality.
The camera's lag time is also important. Press the shutter button on many digital cameras, and you'll wait as long as a second before it actually takes the picture. That makes the camera a bad choice for any kind of action photography - or even for posed snapshots of squirming kids. Better cameras have a shorter lag time.
Likewise, try to find out how long it takes the camera to store a photo once the shutter snaps. Some let you shoot another picture in a few seconds, others may take 20 seconds.
If you do a lot of shooting, the battery is key. Most cameras use some sort of rechargeable battery. Some require an external charger (an advantage if you want to buy and charge extra batteries), while others can recharge directly from an AC power source, which means less bulk if you're traveling. My advice: Look for cameras with rechargeable batteries that are also available in disposable form (such as AA cells). Solely using disposables would be expensive because digital cameras eat up their power quickly, but if you carry a set with you, you'll always have power for the camera in a pinch.