1. Define your needs. Decide what you want to do with the camera; the kinds of pictures you take …


1. Define your needs.
Decide what you want to do with the camera; the kinds of pictures you take and how you view them. Both factors will dictate what kind of camera you need. If you want to make prints, resolution is an important issue (see below); if you’re capturing images for emails or websites, it is less important.
The camera’s lens specifications are also important: long focal lengths (7x zoom or more) are essential for action shots, while wide angles (28mm equivalent or less) are vital for interiors and group shots. If you take lots of indoor shots, adjustable white balance (or a good auto white balance system) is an advantage as you can match the lighting conditions to the camera’s colour balance settings.

Decide whether you wish to shoot still pictures and video clips with the same camera. If you do, be clear about whether you’re happy with standard-definition video or would prefer high-definition (which is also widescreen).

If the latter, you need to decide whether 720p (1280 x 720-pixel resolution) or the higher-quality Full HD 1080p (1920 x 1080-pixel resolution). Clips that will be displayed on a large, high-quality, widescreen HDTV set will look slightly better if they’re captured with 1080p resolution.

Consider the camera’s sound recording capabilities if you’re planning to show video clips without editing them. A few cameras can record stereo soundtracks but most only offer monaural audio. Check the size and location of the microphone holes and make sure they won;’t be covered when you hold the camera. Check whether a wind-cut filter is included I nthe video menu.

Decide whether you want an all-in-one digicam or an interchangeable-lens model. The former have the advantages of small size, light weight and lower price tags. Interchangeable-lens cameras usually have much larger sensors and provide better picture quality. They are also more versatile (thanks to the choice of lenses) and provide a wider range of user-adjustable controls.
2. Make a list of the features you’d like.
Today’s digital cameras can do lots of neat things, like capturing short video clips or action sequences, stitching pictures together to make panoramas, shooting extreme close-ups and recording sound clips. A few models even come with built-in GPS data loggers or interfaces that allow them to be connected to the Internet. Check out what functions are available and prioritise them in order of their usefulness. This will help you to explain your preferences when you visit a store.
Decide how much manual control you want. If you want a digital camera to take snapshots, full-auto operation is fine, but if you like to control the camera’s focus, lens aperture and shutter speeds, manual overrides are essential. Many high-resolution digicams also offer aperture priority and shutter priority auto exposure – just like most 35mm SLR cameras.

Family photographers should think carefully about how long the zoom lens should be when buying a fixed-lens digicam. While 18x and 20x zooms are available at competitive prices, they are often quite slow when fully zoomed in and the risk of blurred shots becomes very high. Effective optical stabilisation is a must for these cameras.

Special effects have become highly promoted in recent years. If you like this kind of thing – and prefer to avoid editing your pictures – they could be a point in favour of a particular camera. They’re most likely to be useful if they can be applied to video clips because most effects can be replicated with simply image editors, which will also provide many more adjustments for you to try. Bear in mind the fact that all in-camera effects are locked into the image and can’t be removed. Post-capture editing is easily ø¢â‚¬Ëœundone’ if you work on a copy of your original picture.
3. Decide on your budget.
This should cover not only the cost of the camera itself but also one or more spare memory cards so you have plenty of shooting capacity and a spare set of batteries – or two (particularly if you’re travelling). A carry pouch or bag could also be a worthwhile investment. Be a bit flexible (allow up to $200 above what you’d like to pay – just in case the perfect camera is there at a higher-than-budgeted-for price). Don’t be tempted to penny-pinch; digital cameras are one product where you truly get what you pay for. At the same time, don’t expect the $1000 digital camera you bought today to have the same feature set as the models on offer this time next year; this market is very volatile, with typical product life cycles of 6-9 months and new innovations appearing even more frequently.
4. Look for bundled ‘goodies’.
These include software, cables, battery chargers, carry pouches and docking stations; in short, anything that will make your experience as a user more enjoyable. Most cameras come with the bare essentials to enable you to start taking pictures straight away. Remember you’ll have to budget for all necessary add-ons.

5. Check the camera’s resolution.
Digital images are made up of discrete picture elements or ‘pixels’. These correspond to the photo-sensitive elements (photosites) on the camera’s image sensor that capture the colour and intensity of the light coming from the subject. The more photosites a sensor has, the more colour and intensity information it can capture and the higher the resolution of the images it produces.
The resolution of a digital camera is normally expressed in megapixels (millions of pixels). A one megapixel sensor typically consists of an array of 1280 x 960 pixels. A two megapixel sensor has a maximum resolution of 1600 x 1200 pixels, while a three megapixel sensor offers 2048 x 1536 pixels. (These resolutions are typical of cameraphones and webcams; modern digital cameras have much higher resolutions.)

The lowest resolution for most digicams these days is around ten megapixels, although 14-megapixel cameras are becoming common in the point-and-shoot category. Camera buyers need to decide just how much resolution they need because such high megapixel counts can have advantages and disadvantages.
When you cram 14 million photosites onto a sensor chip the size of your little fingernail, each photosite struggles to pick up enough light to record an image, particularly in dim lighting. Camera manufacturers solve this problem by boosting the image signal from the sensor electronically. However, this also boosts the background noise associated with all electronics. The result is grainy-looking pictures at ISO settings above 400 and almost unusable pictures at ISO 1600. If you want high resolution, a camera with a large sensor (at least 18 x 13.5 mm in size) is mandatory.

Resolution is important if you plan to make prints: the higher the sensor’s resolution, the larger the prints you can make before the image starts to break into pixels and lose its detail. It can also come in handy when you can’t get close enough to a subject and need to crop the image at the printing or display stage. The more pixels you have to work with, the more you can crop the image while retaining a ø¢â‚¬Ëœusable’ photo. (But there’s a limit beyond which individual pixels will be visible and picture quality will break down. Don’t be tempted to push cropping to far!)
6. Know the difference between digital and optical zoom.
The need to understand the difference between optical and digital zooming is only relevant for buyers of compact digicams, since the other types of cameras don’t support digital zoom. Optical zooming involves changing the lens focal length to zoom in on part of the subject. There is no loss of resolution or picture quality with optical zoom because the lens does all the work.

Digital zooming involves recording the pixels from the central section of the subject area and enlarging them to fill the field of view. This can mean 20-40 per cent of the pixels are discarded. Because fewer pixels are used to produce the image, some resolution and quality is lost. Some cameras interpolate the image file, adding in extra pixels to bring the file up to the resolution set by the camera user. These new pixels are created on the basis of existing pixels so the image can lose sharpness, contrast and colour accuracy.

Other cameras simply reduce the resolution of the image, providing a cropped picture with a lower resolution than the pre-set level. This solution can be fine for shots that will only be shared online but is risky for shots that will be printed. On the whole, it’s better to leave the digital zoom set at Off and only use it when shots would otherwise be missed.
7. Check the lens angle of view.
The latest digicams offer much better wide-angle coverage than previous models and lenses with an equivalent angle of view to a 28mm lens on a 35mm camera are common. Some cameras even go as wide as 25mm (equivalent).

However, most wide-angle lenses produce noticeable distortion. Extra care is required when composing wide-angle shots, particularly portraits, to prevent the inherent distortion in the lens from compromising the picture. Avoid pointing the camera upwards for wide-angle shots unless you want the strong perspective effect.

Also check the field of view of zoom lenses at different focal length settings to ensure the fields of view will meet your needs. If you start with the appropriate zoom range, you shouldn’t be overly dependent on the digital zoom function.

8. Look at the options for image data storage and compression.
Don’t rely on cameras’ internal memories for storing your images and video clips. Even 40MB is inadequate for a day’s shooting with a 14-megapixel camera – unless you’re a really conservative photographer who avoids shooting video. Memory cards are relatively cheap so it pays to buy at least one high-capacity card when you purchase your camera. We recommend starting with at least 2GB if you only shoot stills or at least 4GB if you shoot stills and video.

Check prices to see which capacity provides more ø¢â‚¬Ëœbangs for your buck’. Memory cards are worth investing in; the more memory you have the more fun you can have taking pictures!

The camera manufacturer generally dictates which type of flash media card is used. All types of flash media perform equally well but some offer more capacity than others. Check your local store for the latest products.
Always shoot with the highest resolution and quality settings the camera offers – even though this will mean dealing with large files. All cameras will reduce the size of these large files using JPEG compression (developed by the Joint Photographic Experts Group) and many cameras offer several selectable levels of compression (low to high).

High levels of compression can introduce artefacts, which are defects in the image that are normally only visible at high magnifications. Check this out by enlarging an image at maximum compression until you start to see its pixel structure (on-screen viewing should reveal any artefacts; there’s no need to make a print).

9. Research independent camera reviews.
Several Australian photography magazines and websites (including Photo Review) offer independent camera reviews that can assist your choice. Be wary of reviews from overseas publications because the same products are not always available locally, and sometimes the specifications will differ from country to country. In addition, the conditions under which the equipment is tested are different from Australian conditions.

Our skies are usually clearer and the light is harsher. Dynamic ranges in photographs taken here can be very wide. Most small-sensor digicams struggle to capture details in highlights without also recording shadows as black. Dynamic range expansion functions (such as Nikon’s D-Lighting) can be helpful but may not provide a complete solution. You need to be able to adjust exposure levels to compensate for these problems and large-sensor cameras will always provide much more flexibility for adjustment than digicams.

10. Shop where you can receive well-informed advice.
It’s worth paying a few extra dollars to know you’ve bought a camera that will truly meet your needs and that you’re comfortable using. If you’re sure you know which camera you want, by all means shop online. But buy from a local reseller so you can be sure the purchase is covered by Australian consumer protection legislation and local warranty support.

If you’re not sure which camera you want, look for a store with staff who are prepared to spend time with you and show you several alternatives. Don’t buy a camera that feels uncomfortable to hold; it’ll end up on the shelf. Finalise your decision by taking a couple of shots and asking the salesperson to display them on a computer screen and make a print so you’re sure the camera’s performance matches your expectations.