Digital Cameras - What should you know before you buy?

Don't let the "tech" terms intimidate you. Behind every complex feature is a very simple explanation -- usually one you already understand from using a floppy disk or a point-and-shoot camera. You don't have to know a lot about computers to use a digital camera. Most digital cameras are designed for the everyday photographer. And you don't have to spend a lot to get the camera you need.

Digital cameras are basically small computers with memory, microchips, microprocessors and an image sensor chip (CCD). Before you buy, you should become familiar with a few of the basic terms, options, and requirements. Remember: The most important factor is how you personally plan to use your digital camera.

Computer Requirements
You must have access to a computer with enough memory and processing power to handle large image files from your camera. Each digital camera and its accompanying software may have very unique requirements. Usually the software included with your digital camera will tell you about the minimum system requirements. Make sure this software is compatible with your computer. Some cameras connect to your computer via a serial cable, while others use a USB connection. Check to be sure.

Picture Quality & Resolution
Resolution (the sharpness of the pictures) is usually referred to in megapixels; one million pixels equals one megapixel (tip: if the resolution is not in megapixels but two numbers, simply multiply them to get the number of pixels). Resolution should be a major consideration based on how you will use the camera. For high quality images, consider a camera with at least 5 megapixels. More pixels means better resolution, which is critical if you will be printing your images.

Most digital cameras feature optical zoom lenses and some have a digital zoom function. Keep this in mind when you compare the strengths of different camera zooms. Digital zooms essentially just make the pixels bigger which will reduce the quality of the image. Optical zoom allows you to zoom in on your subject while maintaining maximum image quality.

Storage Space
The types and capacities of available memory vary widely. CompactFlash memory is the most common and one of the most affordable. In most cases, between 256MB and 1GB of memory will serve your purposes initially. As you begin to use your digital camera you should get a better feel for the memory capacity you may need.

For small, electronic devices battery life is often a problem, as anyone with an MP3 player or portable CD player knows. Check to see that a rechargeable battery and charger are included, or that they are at least available. Constantly purchasing new batteries will drain your wallet and your enjoyment of your new camera.

The small LCD screen on the digital camera allows you to immediately review the pictures you have taken. Keep in mind that the LCD screen consumes a great deal of power, so make sure that you can turn it off. Also, be sure you can comfortably use the viewfinder to get more life from your battery.

Camera Size
Size is an issue of preference. Consider how you will use the camera and whether or not the size will help or interfere with your ability to take your best shots. Smaller, lighter models may be more convenient and portable, but also more awkward to manage for a steady shot. Larger models may be easier to use, but the cumbersome size may limit your use of the camera.

You don't have to spend a lot to own a great digital camera. Think in terms of your specific needs; an entry-level camera in the $300 - $700 range will probably provide you with all of the versatility, control and resolution you need for years of enjoyment. You may be surprised by the quality available whether your preferred price range is under $300, $300 to $500, or over $500.

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