Picture Your Perfect Camera

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When you bought your digital camera a couple of years ago, it was a marvel of engineering. Then the next generation came out. And the next. Now your revolutionary camera feels more like an antique. But with so many choices on the shelves, how do you choose the right replacement?

You might be tempted to base your buying decision on looks alone. Boy, would that be a mistake! Beneath those sleek exteriors are features and capabilities that will make the difference between having a camera that you love and having one that collects dust on a shelf.

The trick to finding your perfect match is knowing which features are most important to you before you step foot in the store. I’ll show you what to look for when comparing cameras, and I’ll explain which features are truly essential—and which are just hype.

Which Type of Camera Do You Need?

The first step in narrowing the field of camera contenders is to decide which type of camera best suits you. Most digital cameras offer a tradeoff between size and flexibility. By deciding early on what your priorities are, you can quickly eliminate a large number of the models on the market. I typically divide digital cameras into three categories:

Compact Cameras

If you need a good camera while on-the-go, I recommend looking at compact models. These lightweight cameras fit nicely into a pocket or a purse—so they’re likelier to be on hand for unexpected photo opportunities. They’re also relatively easy on the wallet; prices range from $150 to $500.

A compact camera typically has a resolution of 2 to 5 megapixels—enough for online photo galleries and most standard print sizes. However, they don’t usually offer the array of features and controls that larger models do. For example, you’re often limited to using programmed exposure modes, so you may have trouble with tricky lighting or in situations with lots of action. Most compact cameras also have relatively limited zoom lenses—typically in the neighborhood of 3x.

Advanced Amateur Cameras

Compact cameras are great for point-and-shoot photographers who want to immortalize life’s surprises. But they don’t offer a lot of flexibility. If you’d like more control over your photos, or if you want to explore some of the creative possibilities of digital photography, then advanced amateur cameras might be the ticket. Although one of these cameras probably won’t fit in your shirt pocket, it won’t put too much of a strain on your shoulder, either. And these cameras often include an impressive array of features that rival those of professional models, such as hot-shoes for external flashes, manual aperture and shutter-speed controls, and faster response times. Some even offer a 10x optical zoom. All of this can make a huge difference in photographing special events (such as weddings and birthdays), wildlife, and sports. Even if you’re not ready to use all of these advanced features right now, they may come in handy as your skills improve—which means that you won’t quickly outgrow your camera.

One downside to advanced amateur cameras (and compact cameras) is that they don’t offer interchangeable lenses, so your optical options are somewhat limited. Although you may be able to add a few accessory lenses over the camera’s existing optics, these add-ons can’t really compete with the range of lenses available for professional cameras—for example, telephoto or fish-eye lenses.

Advanced amateur cameras typically offer resolutions of between 3 and 8 megapixels—plenty for most printing endeavors. Prices range from $400 to $900.

Professional Cameras

For the greatest flexibility and creative control, most professional photographers rely on single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras. These cameras use the same lens for viewing and capturing a picture, giving you a greater sense of visual control. And the interchangeable lenses on SLRs let you quickly switch from a telephoto shot of a faraway bird to a wide-angle shot of a meadow. Resolutions on digital SLRs can range from 6 megapixels to 13 megapixels or more. And their internal electronics are often optimized to produce less image noise and faster response times. In the right hands, digital SLRs can capture stunning photos that would be all but impossible with other digital cameras.

Of course, all of this flexibility comes at a significant cost. Digital SLRs start at $900 and can cost thousands of dollars. They’re also considerably heavier than other digital cameras—especially if you’re carrying around multiple lenses.

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