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How to buy a digital camera Part 1: No such thing as best

Part 1: No such thing as best

As Christmas and its shopping deadline rushes towards us, many are considering a digital camera as the ideal gift. But when time is short, many are equally likely to be panicked into a rushed decision. As it is, for the uninitiated, selecting a digital camera is like entering a minefield of advertising hype, bells and whistles. BRIAN KOPING sorts out fact from fiction.

Which is the best camera?

The short answer is there is no best camera. It is a question of which camera meets your realistic requirements. It is pointless buying a Formula 1 racer if you really require a dune buggy.

As long as you buy an established brand name, it is unlikely you will really land up with a lemon.

How many megapixels?

Megapixels is the buzzword. The intimation is the more megapixels, the better your images. This is not really true. The assumption is that digital pictures are often poorly composed and small sections of the images are enlarged on computer later. Image quality is a function of the lens and no amount of megapixels will save an iffy image taken with a substandard lens.

In practical terms, I have had many excellent 20 x 30cm enlargements made from 3.2 megapixel images. The first affordable digital camera to match 35mm quality was the Fujifilm Finepix 6900 with a maximum of 6 megapixels. So, if you have a choice of two cameras, identical but for the megapixel count and the count is 6 megapixels and up, I would choose the 6 and pocket the often considerable difference. The trick is to fill the image area with your subject for maximum quality.

What should one look out for?

The one property seldom mentioned is lag. This is the time elapsed between pressing the shutter release and the picture being taken. In the past, even some top brands suffered from excessive lag. It is most disappointing pressing the shutter release when a dolphin is at the peak of its jump and having the shutter click only when the animal is below the surface again. Avoid cameras with excessive lag. For the rest, the majority of cameras available are pretty competent.

How do you check for lag?

Take a ready-to-use camera, aim and press the shutter release. If the shutter is instantly audible, the lag is minimal. If there is a lag between pressing the button and the shutter clicking, you have lag. Alternatively, shoot something moving and see how far the subject has moved as opposed to where you wanted the subject to be.

Lag is evident even in the lower echelons of some top brands. I was at a party some time ago when the hostess pressed a little Nikon, a gift from her husband, into my hand and requested me to take some photos. The lag was so bad that, in some cases, the subjects had wandered off before the click!

What type of camera is best for you?

The US is the main destination for cameras from the East. As competition is fierce new models are launched roughly every six months and to retain or improve market share the manufacturers need to introduce new gimmicks with every new model. The result is a veritable minefield of metaphorical bells and whistles to be assessed by the prospective buyer.

One thing that doesn’t change, however, is that the type of camera you should buy must be determined by your own requirements.

There are seven basic camera groups from which to choose. These are:

Video cameras

Dual cameras

Pocket cameras

Super zoom pocket cameras

3D cameras

Prosumer or bridge cameras

Single lens reflex (SLR) cameras

In the next part of this series, we will examine the first five of these camera options.

Read the rest of the series by clicking on the links below:

How to buy a digital cameral Part 2: The right type

How to buy a digital camera Part3: Bridge the digital camera divide

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