Digital Camera Shopping Guide

Digital Camera Shopping Guide Checklist

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No matter how much research you do ahead of time, it’s easy to get distracted when you’re in the camera store surrounded by dozens of options. To stay focused, download and print out the PDF version of this checklist before you go and mark the features that are most important to you. For a full explanation of these features, see “Picture Your Perfect Camera” from the January 2005 issue of Macworld .

Type of Camera

Consider how you’ll use your camera. Do you want something small that you can carry everywhere? Or do you want total control over your shots? Keep in mind that more advanced cameras will cost more.

  • Compact: Inexpensive, lightweight, and pocketable. Ideal for snapshots. They often lack manual controls.
  • Advanced Amateur: Portable but not pocketable, with advanced controls and powerful zoom lenses.
  • Digital SLR: Relatively large. Offers advanced controls, interchangeable lenses, and professional features.
  • Megapixels

    With more megapixels you can print larger photos, and crop out unwanted parts of the image while maintaining image quality. But the extra pixels will also take up more hard drive space.

  • 3 - 4: Great for snapshots, Web galleries, and top quality prints as large as 5 inches by 7 inches.
  • 5 - 8: Top quality prints as large as 8 by 10 inches. Flexibility to crop images.
  • 6 - 13: Top quality prints as large as 11 by 14 inches. Flexibility to crop images.
  • Batteries

  • Rechargeable Lithium: Designed specifically for the camera by the manufacturer, so they tend to be more compact. Typically carry a longer charge.
  • Rechargeable NiMH: Bulkier than Lithium batteries. Accepts regular AA batteries in a pinch.
  • Tip: Your camera’s battery charger shouldn&38217;t be larger than the camera itself. Give extra consideration to compact chargers that plug directly into the wall without using a cord.

    LCD Screen

  • Fixed: Mounted to the back of the camera. Typically larger than vari-angle LCDs.
  • Vari-Angle: Screen swivels and/or rotates to enable shooting from a variety of angles.
  • Data View: Give you the option of displaying camera settings while reviewing photos.
  • Tip: To share your photos with others, look for a screen that is 2 inches or larger.


  • Basic Zoom: Typically 3X (35-105mm equivalent). Commonly found on compact cameras. Usually sufficient for general photography.
  • Extended Zoom: Up to 10X (28mm to 300mm or more). Ideal for nature or sports photography.
  • Interchangeable Lenses: Found only on digital SLRs. Lets you use a wide variety of lenses.
  • Maximum Aperture: For low-light photography look for a maximum aperture of f-1.8 to f-2.8
  • Tip: When comparing cameras, ignore the Digital Zoom specification. This feature magnifies the scene, but also compromises print quality. I recommend turning this feature off.

    Shooting & Exposure Modes

  • Burst Mode: Lets you capture the decisive moment in action photography. Look for 2 frames per second or faster in JPEG mode. Check whether the camera has a slower frame rate in RAW mode (if applicable).
  • Self-Timer: For steady low-light shots and group shots. For greatest control, look for 2-second and 10-second settings.
  • Remote Control: Lets you forgo setting a timer.
  • Macro Mode: For extreme close-up shots. Smaller Focus Range numbers are better.
  • Manual Exposure Modes: For complete control over depth of field and shutter speed. Typically found on advanced amateur and digital SLR cameras.
  • Advanced Options

  • Manual White Balance: Measures the available light to create a custom white balance setting. Useful in low-light situations.
  • Raw Files: Stores raw camera data that can be manipulated later on the computer. Offers the greatest flexibility in exposure and white balance settings.
  • Hot-Shoe: A bracket at the top of the camera for mounting an external flash.
  • Spot Metering: Lets you meter a small area in the center of your viewfinder for correct exposure. Helpful in tricky lighting situations.
  • Special Features

  • Movies: The best cameras record full-frame QuickTime video (640x480 pixels) at 15 fps or faster. But half frame video (320x240 pixels) is acceptable for some people.
  • Panoramas It should provide visual guides on the LCD for aligning overlapping frames when taking panorama images.
  • Audio Annotations: Lets you add short voice recordings to images.
  • Weather Resistant: Is the camera sturdy? Is there an underwater housing available for your model?
  • Software

  • Photo Organizer: You’ll need a way to store and view images once they are on your computer. Our favorite is iPhoto ($49, as part of the iLife ’04 suite).
  • Image Editor: Software for cropping, sharpening, and fine-tuning your images. For beginners and hobbyists, I recommend Adobe Photoshop Elements ($90), which is included with some cameras. A less expensive option is GraphicConverter.
  • RAW Image Editor: For manipulating RAW image files. Most RAW-compatible cameras include appropriate software. Adobe Photoshop CS and Photoshop Elements 3 also include RAW file support.
  • Tip: Not all camera makers are Mac-conscious. Make sure any software bundled with your camera includes full support for the Mac.

    Recommended Extras

  • High Capacity Media: You should invest in a memory card with at least 256MB or storage. Make sure the memory card is fast enough to match your camera’s maximum read/write speed. This is particularly important for cameras that have robust burst modes and high quality video capture.
  • Extra Battery: With a spare on hand, you’ll always be ready to shoot.
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