Digital Cameras: The Top 12 Things You Need to Know

This piece was first published way back in 2005. Over half of it is still relevant (and not very well known) over eight years later. We've updated the rest--and added a few points--to give you a crash course in exactly what you need to know before buying a new digital camera. By Rich Knapp and Hillary Grigonis
By , Last updated on: 5/18/2014

1) Resolution is less important than you think

There is a popular misconception that more megapixels lead to better pictures. This is not the case.

Sure, higher resolution gives you the ability to crop more aggressively or print large pictures, but only a fraction of digital photographers will benefit from this ability. If you're a casual shooter who won't be printing pictures larger than 8x10" or doing extensive computer editing, then a camera with a 10 to 12 megapixel resolution will be sufficient.

More advanced photographers will likely appreciate the flexibility of higher resolution, but a 20+ megapixel camera is by no means necessary to create stunning pictures. Choose a camera you can understand and afford, and don't be fooled by glitzy high-resolution specs.

2) Sensor size is more important than you think.

Don't fall into the megapixel trap. Just because a camera has 20 megapixels doesn't mean the images will be better. In fact, there is such a thing as too many megapixels. If you put twice as many megapixels on the same size sensor, all of those pixels will be smaller. Larger pixels can gather more light, so a camera with a lot of megapixels on a tiny sensor will not do well in low light. Sensor size is a better indicator of the image quality, though not the only factor. Larger sensors gather more data (and more light) so the images will have a higher resolution and do much better in low light than a smaller sensor. Size isn't the only consideration though, sensors can also be backlit—which is just a fancy way of saying that all the hardware is behind the sensor, so it's easier for light to get through, again, making the camera perform better in low light.

3) You can never have too much zoom

Whether you're shooting distant wildlife or close-up portraits, you can never have too much zoom. The majority of digital cameras have 3-, or 4x optical zoom, but you will never regret choosing a model with more telephoto power.

Fortunately the extended zoom camera category is growing rapidly, and there is a great selection of models with 10, 20 or even 30x optical zoom. For the ultimate in zoom control and quality, look for an extended-zoom camera with image stabilization, which will ensure that shots taken at full telephoto will be tack-sharp, even without a tripod.

4) Never underestimate the benefit of having a viewfinder

The beauty of shooting digital is seeing the image right away on that LCD screen. And since you can shoot using an LCD screen, who needs a viewfinder anyways? Well, if you've ever tried to use your phone or a tablet on a bright sunny day at the beach, you can see why a viewfinder might come in handy. Viewfinders are easier to use in bright light and tend to make shooting more comfortable—not to mention the fact that turning off the LCD can do wonders for the battery life.

5) Small cameras get shots that big cameras don't

Sure, that big, black SLR with the long lens may look fancy, but it won't do you any good if you're not carrying it. Never underestimate the importance of having a camera that is small enough to fit into your pocket—you'll be amazed at the spontaneous pictures you'll have the opportunity to take. While the photo quality produced by an ultra-compact does not equal that of a large DSLR, the ability to whip it out and snap a shot while others are fumbling for their bulky cameras often outweighs this drawback.

6) You don't have to buy a Canon or Nikon to get a great camera

Sure, Canon and Nikon make some excellent products, but you don't have to go with the big guys to get a great camera. Pentax makes excellent weather-sealed DSLRs, Olympus has an excellent mirrorless line and Sony has some excellent compact cameras. Don't limit your search to just one brand, unless of course you are looking for a camera body that's compatible with the lenses you already own.

7) Some “upgrades” aren't really upgrades.

We see it all the time—a manufacturer announces an “upgrade” and consumers get all excited that their favorite camera now includes wi-fi. But if you look at the tech specs carefully (like we do), you'd see that the newer model doesn't have the same nice lens. Sometimes, cameras get added features like a touchscreen or wi-fi, but the hardware that actually makes the picture is downgraded—and so is the picture quality. We're not big fans of enhancing unnecessary features while degrading the image quality, because, after all, that's the point of having a dedicated camera anyways.

8) Your favorite camera may be another’s most hated camera

Not every camera is suited for everyone. For example, we love the Sony RX100—but try to take it to a game or concert and you may be quickly frustrated by the small zoom range. One of the most important steps to buying a digital camera is determining what type of photography you will use it for the most. If you want something to take pictures of your kids, look for something fast with a good zoom, because, well, kids don't stay still for very long. You can get a camera that's good for almost any kind of use—but you'll pay a lot more for it, and if you just want some shots of family and friends, you don't need to spend $1,200 on a DSLR.

9) Digital cameras can and will break

Whether it's due to accidental damage or simple wear and tear, digital cameras are not usually all that durable. Many photographers have film cameras that are ten or twenty years old—don't expect this kind of longevity from your new digital toy. Some cameras suffer from design flaws (like black lines on the LCD screen of the Canon A70), while others fall victim to the kind of mechanical breakdowns that effect every kind of electronic gear.

Does this mean that you shouldn't buy a digital camera? Absolutely not. A digital camera will so fundamentally change the way you think about photography that you will wonder how you ever got along without one. You must, however, be comfortable with the fact that one day your camera will cease to work.

For some, this knowledge may keep them from spending top dollar on a fancy camera; others simply accept it as the sole downside of working with digital. The most important thing is to do your homework before you buy—any fundamental design flaws will be quickly apparent in user reviews.

10) Don't put all your pictures on one card

After returning from a trip to Asia, I eagerly inserted one of my memory cards into a card reader to download my new pictures. For still unexplained reasons (likely a static electricity discharge), a card that should have held over 200 pictures was suddenly rendered blank. Two weeks and $250 later (thanks to www.drivesavers.com), I had recovered about 90% of my pictures, but the rest were lost permanently.

The moral of the story? Like any other technology, flash memory is not flawless. It is very rare to lose images, but it does happen, and the fact that I had spread my pictures between 5 memory cards protected me from the possibility of losing two weeks' worth of irreplaceable vacation memories. Given the choice between choosing a single 1GB memory card, or four 256MB cards, I will always choose multiple cards.

11) Find & use a simple photo editing program

Most digital photographers will never take the time to master expensive and powerful photo editing programs like Adobe Photoshop or Jasc Paint Shop Pro—these programs are too complex and time-consuming for all but the most dedicated photographers. Fortunately there are a variety of easy-to-use editing programs that even novice photographers can use to edit, improve, and organize their digital photos. My favorite program is Picasa, and it is absolutely free at www.picasa.com. With Picasa you can perform all the basic editing tasks like sharpening, contrast correction, cropping, and straightening—most with just the touch of a button. Spend a few minutes on your best photographs and you will be amazed at the results. Picasa also make it incredibly easy to organize your best shots so you don't have to sift through hundreds of unwanted pictures to find your prizewinners.

12) Print and display your pictures

Far too many people take great digital images, only to have them languish in obscurity on their hard drive, never to be enjoyed by others. Don't let this happen to you.

Online image hosting and printing companies like Snapfish can turn your digital images into high-quality prints of any size. You can simply upload your pictures onto the website. From there you can order prints of every size as well as photo mouse pads, calendars, t-shirts and other gifts. You can also send a link to friends so that they can view your pictures online and order their own copies.

If you can't decide which images to display, pick up a digital picture frame. Add any photos you want displayed onto an SD card, plug the card into the frame and abracadabra, you have hundreds of pictures on display (Okay, so it's not magic, but it is pretty cool).

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