5 Questions To Ask Before You Buy A Digital Camera

Our man on the inside spends his days guiding customers toward a new digital camera. He lays out five questions that digital camera shoppers should ask themselves to focus their search. By TJ Donegan.
By , Last updated on: 5/18/2014

As a salesperson, most customers I deal with try to buy a new digital camera the way I usually get stuck buying groceries: they're acting on impulse, and they haven't thought the decision through. They just want something, anything, and they want it fast. This isn't such a big deal at the supermarket—you'll be back in a week—but a camera is a much bigger investment than cereal or bread, so it's worth some forethought.

If you're reading this, it's because you're willing to do your homework and to look at camera specifications, reviews, and sample images. But there are dozens of cameras out there, and the search can be overwhelming. Start by asking yourself these five basic questions before you go on a wild goose chase through every available camera. It will save you time, confusion, and ensure that you don't end up with too much or too little camera.

What Would I Like To Use It For?

Think about what you will actually use your digital camera for. What do you shoot now? Is there anything you'd like to take pictures of that you currently can't, like concerts in dark clubs? Are you printing and framing them? Putting them up on Facebook? Is this camera just for snapshots with friends? Are you trying to get into photography, or do you just want to take pictures? A bit of reflection here will narrow down your search tremendously.

What Do I Hate About My Current Camera?

Digital cameras have been around for about 15 years, and for most of us, our next digital camera won't be our first. If you are replacing a digital camera think about what frustrates you the most about your current camera. Does it take forever to shoot? Is its focus incredibly slow? Do the images come out flat and noisy? Is it too bulky to fit in your pocket?

Almost every camera you buy will, in some way, be a compromise. You'll be trading size for quality, price for speed, simplicity for specialization. Know what you are absolutely unwilling to deal with in your new camera so when it comes time to make that compromise, you'll know what you can't live with anymore so you're not spending more money just to live with the same problems.

What Do I Want Most: Portability, Picture Quality, Or A Mix?

This is an important question to ask because it will quickly narrow down your options to a certain range of cameras and can turn a choice between 50 cameras into a choice between five. First, a primer: With cameras, the size of the camera's image sensor has a great deal to do with the quality of the images.

A dSLR is large because it sports a very large image sensor, which produces amazing-quality photos but requires larger, interchangeable lenses to produce clean, sharp images over such a big area.

A point-and-shoot, alternatively, is amazingly portable and can even pack a great zoom into a tiny package because of its small sensor. But compare the images that come from a typical point-and-shoot to a dSLR, especially in low-light settings, and the difference is obvious.

There are, of course, compromises between the two, like fixed-lens super-zoomers and interchangeable-lens mirrorless formats. It's up to you to decide if splitting the difference is a worthy move.

Which Camera Would The Salesperson Buy?

The usefulness of this question depends on the sales associate's experience, but they tend to be knowledgable about the cameras in stock, and develop opinions about certain brands and models.

So once you've established what your needs are, ask the associate for their opinion. Make them think about which camera they would spend money on, and why. Maybe they have a serious anti-Canon bias, or they see Nikons returned constantly, or they have customers who can't stop raving about their Samsung. At best, they'll give you that extra nugget of wisdom that will seal your decision. At worst, they'll give you just a little more information to eventually make a decision. (If you don't have a good camera shop nearby, ask for advice from a photographer friend or from a website like ours.)

How Much Am I Willing To Invest?

The more you spend, the more you'll get (for the most part). dSLRs are phenomenal cameras, but you'll have to buy the camera body, lenses, and accessories, so the cost can quickly cross four figures. Consider whether you'll use it enough to justify that expense.

It's likely that more of you reading this right now are figuring out whether to spend $250 or $350 (rather than $599 versus $899). At this price range, it's important to take the time to understand the true quality difference between the cameras in that price range. Is it something that actually affects image quality like a larger sensor or optical stabilization? Or is it superficial, like a touchscreen LCD versus physical buttons?

Really, put some thought into this decision. Time is the best investment you can make.

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