Tech Q&A: digital cameras

Question: What should I consider when buying my first digital camera?

Answer: If you’re a serious or professional photographer, your needs are obviously greater. But for an amateur, casual shooter, many of today’s digital cameras will give you what you need for a few hundred dollars.

The first thing you’ll likely hear about a camera is its megapixel capability. That term refers to a photo’s resolution – the higher, the better for printing photographs – but in reality, nearly any digital camera today can shoot at enough megapixels for decent prints.

“The market is pretty mature in that respect,” said Aimee Baldridge, senior editor for cameras and camcorders at CNET Networks Inc. “In other words, the megapixel race is sort of over (as far as) consumers are concerned.”

Most new cameras can support at least 3 megapixels, good for 4 x 6 or even 5 x 7 prints, said Brett Larson, a gadget expert at

However, if you anticipate making larger prints, then do consider megapixels. Go for at least 4 megapixels for 8 x 10 prints, more for larger.

More megapixels also give you more options for cropping photos – eliminating excess sky to zero in on the subject, for instance.

Keep in mind that more megapixels require more storage space.

In fact, Larson suggests you buy as much storage as your camera and wallet can support; the memory cards that come free with cameras generally hold no more than 12 photos – less than a roll of film. A 512-megabyte card that can hold more than 200 photos runs about $50.

And while you’re at it, consider battery needs. It’s great if your camera uses standard types like AA – you can use rechargeables to save money but buy fresh ones in an emergency. Many cameras use proprietary batteries, so expect to pay $25 or $50 for a spare.

The next thing you’ll want to consider is the zoom. Ignore “digital zoom,” which means a computer and not the lens is doing the magnification, and make sure the zoom advertised for your camera refers to “optical zoom.”

Larson says most consumer-grade cameras will come with 2x or 3x zoom, which is plenty for basic needs. Going to 10x could cost you a few hundred dollars, he says, and that’s overkill unless you’re shooting lots of sports or other events from afar.

As with megapixels, Baldridge says, zoom is largely a non-issue today for consumer needs.

But what still matters, she says, will be difficult to determine from the camera specs alone: how a camera feels to you, and how long it takes to snap photos.

“There’s still a fair amount of variation in speed and responsiveness,” Baldridge says.

With a slow shutter lag, the time from the press of the button to the picture being taken, you might constantly get the tail end of an action shot – the football is already gone from the field by the time the camera records it.

Try going to a store and taking a picture of someone – and see if the camera captured the expression or gestures you wanted.

You’ll also want to consider how long it takes for the camera to refresh itself for the next picture. Some cameras have a burst, or continuous shooting, mode that will store images in a buffer rather than wait until they are processed to a memory card.

The built-in flash is also something that will range in quality and speed – slower ones may mean greater delays between shots.

If you can’t get to a store, at least read reviews.

A few more things to consider:

Most cameras now store photos in JPEG format, but higher-end ones also support RAW – something important if you’d want to do a lot of editing, such as adjusting light balance, Baldridge says. Most consumers won’t need to bother.

Cameras vary in the control they give you over exposure, focus and other parameters. If you like to tinker, be sure the camera lets you override any auto settings.

Whatever camera you buy, just remember to make backup copies of your photos – by burning them to a CD or storing them with a photo-sharing service that lets you access the original, high-resolution image.

Otherwise, all your precious memories will go when – not if – your hard drive crashes.

Associated Press

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