How to Buy a Beginner Digital Camera

Are you ready for your close up? Looking to shoot the perfect family photo or photograph some artfully designed masterpiece?

Before shooting for the stars and spending big bucks on camera gear, focus your lens on some simple tips for buying the perfect beginner digital camera on your budget. Take aim, shoot, and say “cheese” to learning the technical lingo and focusing on the important (not flashy) features. It’s a snap.

canon_elph.jpg

1. Set your budget.

Got big bucks? Looking to pinch some pennies? Before stepping foot in a camera shop you must first decide how much money to spend. For the beginner, a quality digital camera can be had for as low as $100. Spending more money will get you a camera with more features, but will not necessarily help you take better pictures. So set your budget and stick with it.

2. Who is this digital camera for?

Digital cameras come with a multitude of features for various uses. It can be mind boggling looking at all those little buttons and photography options. Deciding on a camera can be a lot easier if you can answer these simple questions:

  1. Are you buying a digital camera for a vacation?
  2. Do you want to quickly shoot family snapshots without any fussing around?
  3. Are you looking for a beginner camera for your kids to use?
  4. Do you plan on getting serious by learning photography skills and shooting more artistic photos?

Knowing how the camera is going to be used will help you decide what camera will work best for your intended situation. Here are three types of uses for beginner digital cameras.

  • Basic Budget Camera: Priced around $100, basic digital cameras may not have all the bells and whistles, but can still take awesome photos. If in need of a camera for your kids or are a beginner on a tight budget, this one may be for you: the Canon A1200 ($89.00) is a great basic camera for the budget conscious.
  • Intermediate Beginner Camera: At a higher price-point, intermediate beginner cameras have more features and often come in smaller, sleeker models. Cameras in this class are great for everyday use, and should provide you with years of photos. Everyone is familiar with Fox’s food photography, and her stunning shots are taken with a camera of this quality. The Canon ELPH 300 HS ($189) is one of the newer cameras in this class.
  • Luxury Beginner Camera: These cameras have all the newest technology to help you take your pictures. These features come with a trade off of price and size. If you’re looking for a camera that can handle both family snapshots and provide you with a launch-pad for more serious photography, you might want to consider a digital single-lens reflex camera (DSLR). One highly rated camera in this class is the Canon EOS Rebel T3, with 18-55mm Lens ($499).

3. Decide on the camera size and type.

Just like people, digital cameras come in all shapes and sizes. For a beginner, a smaller camera is usually better since it’s easier on the pocketbook, simpler to use with streamlined features, and more fun to carry around. Larger cameras with interchangeable lenses, like digital SLRs (single lens reflex), and bigger point-and-shoot cameras won’t help a beginner take better pictures. Because of their heavier weight and larger size, they usually end up being left at home taking NO pictures. Look for the smallest camera you are comfortable using. If you have big hands you may want to try slightly larger, but still pocketable cameras. The best way to make a decision is to pick up a few different cameras and try one on for size.

4. Look at the lens.

Virtually every digital camera sold has a zoom lens. This means you can use a small lever on the camera to zoom in on far-away subjects, or zoom out to allow a sweeping landscape to fill the picture. The “zoominess” of a lens is usually expressed in one of two ways: either as a “35mm equivalent”, or as a multiplication factor like “3x” which one often sees on video cameras. A reasonable beginner camera will have a zoom in the range of 3x – 4x, or a 35mm equivalent of 35-140mm. Higher priced cameras may have lenses with even wider wide angles and closer zooms. These allow you to take pictures that make small rooms look huge, or zoom right in on distant wildlife. For everyday use, these may be overkill.

5. Count your megapixels.

For people not familiar with digital cameras, the language can seem like it was invented by a nerdy insider’s club. Megapixel what? Simply, megapixels are a measure of the number of dots the camera uses to create images. In general, the more megapixels you have, the better, but this is only true to a point. Higher megapixel cameras do take pictures that let you make larger and larger enlargements. A 15 megapixel camera will make prints the size of your coffee table, but will you actually ever do this? If all you want to do is email, blog, and make 5×7 prints, then an older 5 megapixel camera is more than enough. Unless you need them, more megapixels in a camera will do nothing for you other than hit your pocketbook. A beginner camera should boast anywhere from 5 to 10 megapixels.

6. Image Stabilization: Not all new technology is bad!

In the last few years, many camera manufacturers have added something called “image stabilization” to their digital cameras. Unlike most features added to sell product and entice photographers to upgrade, image stabilization is a feature that works, here’s how: If you happen to wiggle the camera a bit while taking a photo, the camera’s computer will wobble a sensor chip or lens in the opposite direction. This little stabilization wobble will help you take a clearer picture that would otherwise be blurry due to camera shake. Image stabilizing cameras do come at a bit of a price premium, but if it’s in your budget, it is worth looking at.

7. About batteries.

Like any electronic gizmo or gadget, digital cameras run on batteries. Some cameras take the simply classic AA batteries, while most other cameras sell with s specially engineered rechargeable specific to that camera model. Either battery system will work. The important power consideration is how long that battery will last. What is the actual life of the camera battery? You don’t want your camera to cut out just when you need it, like at a birthday party as the cake comes in. Camera review sites like DPReview test almost every camera made, looking at such things as battery life. A good beginner camera should come with a minimum battery rating of about 250 pictures.

8. Read the reviews, or not.

Camera review websites can be both a great source of information, and an overwhelming distraction. Each reviewer seems to have their own sets of tests when deciding what cameras are best. Some reviewers may even be paid for a review, so take these camera reviews with a grain (or three) of salt. What they don’t tell you is the “huge differences” in quality they report are often smaller differences only visible in a controlled studio or lab. For a beginner taking real photos, these differences often won’t be apparent. The best way to deal with reviews is to skip the technical parts, and just look at the pros and cons they mention in their concluding remarks.

Some bigger camera review sites include:

Other sites, such as those by Ken Rockwell and Bob Atkins can provide both entertaining reads and good camera information.

9. Skip the extras.

Whether shopping online or in a real camera store, when you’re ready to check out your purchase, you suddenly find yourself flooded with the dreaded “extras”. Camera cases, lens wipes, flash adapters, extra batteries. Do you really need all that extra gear? In short, no, most of it you don’t. The only accessory you really need is a decent sized memory card. A 2 gig card should be able to hold hundreds of photos and cost around $20. Bigger, faster cards can be bought for more money, but won’t make any difference for a beginner’s camera.

10. Beware of sharks.

When shopping for your camera, you will eventually find a store selling the one you want at a price that seems too good to be true. That’s because it is. While most camera retailers are honest, hardworking people running a business, there are scam artists lurking out there looking to make a quick buck, especially online. Some of these will sell you the camera at a really good price, but to get the manual, battery, and charger you have to pay extra. Others might just take your money and ship you a brick in a box, vanishing before you can cancel your credit card. If you have any doubts about a merchant, just look them up on ResellerRatings.com. This site lists user opinions of their experiences at pretty much any store around.

Using these tips, it’s a snap to get the right beginner digital camera for your dollar.

Got a camera story? Every feel flashed by the digital sales guy? Got a favorite camera? Do tell the digital details!

Your two cents:

  1. Paolo September 23rd, 2008

    One thing to note about the batteries is the cost. Cameras like the Canon Elph come with their own special battery. If you want a back up battery, it could cost you $50-$100. The advantage of these cameras over the AA cameras is they are much slimmer.

    With AA cameras, you will want to invest in some NiMh batteries. These will last much longer than your standard alkaline batteries, and will cost less in the long run. You can usually pick up a decent set for around $20-$30 which includes 4 AAs and the charger. This provides you with a set of back ups. You can also buy additional NiMhs for the charger for longer trips. If going overseas, make sure the charger can handle the voltage of the country, otherwise it will blow.

  2. Jules September 23rd, 2008

    I should also add that it doesn’t matter how fancy-shmancy your camera is–if you want to shoot like Albert Schweitzer or Ansel Adams, a $5000 camera isn’t going to help unless you practice. If you’re a true novice, a photography course, even a short one, will help much more than than the fanciest camera.

    FWIW, I think a camera case really is a necessity–I’m pretty sure my digital camera would be a dead duck if I didn’t have a case for it, but then again, I photograph a wide variety of subjects and some of them are hardly in pristine environments.

    When it comes to cameras (indeed, all techno-gadgets), I tend to think that you should only pay for the buttons you know. That is, if you can’t figure out what half of the buttons on your camera are for, then you’ve paid way too much for it.

  3. Mr. Better Half September 23rd, 2008

    Paolo: You’re absolutely right that AA batteries can be a more frugal choice for some, the tradeoff being that they do add a bit of bulk to a camera. My biggest gripe with AAs is that being round, they can roll a long ways and vanish if you drop one!

    Jules: Agreed. A high end camera won’t make you a better photographer. I’ve seen stunning pictures taken by people using disposable film cameras (do they even make those anymore??) and terrible pictures made with “pro” equipment costing thousands of dollars.

    I do have a case for my camera, but only take it along in really rough conditions like hiking. For everyday use, a cheap screen protector on the LCD keeps it from getting scratched up.

  4. Peter September 24th, 2008

    I recently had my old Canon camera stolen and got a brand new Canon camera for our europe trip for around $100 on ebay.

    When that camera was first put out 2 years ago it was closer to $400. So if you buy an older model – you can still get a brand new camera for a really cheap price!

    The key to nice pictures is most often the photographer, it takes practice. It doesn’t hurt to have a nice camera too though :)

  5. hank September 25th, 2008

    Nice work “better half” :) – I’m a big fan of photography myself and I find that I get this question all the time and the most important question to ask back is “what is it for?” You hit on that first thing. If they don’t know what they need and just go to the store to buy one, they’re likely to get upsold something more than they could ever use. Specify the scope first. Good call…

  6. Bryan Villarin September 29th, 2008

    Great tips! I’d like to add something – it’s not entirely about the number of megapixels. It’s the size of the sensor.

    The Megapixel Myth – You’re getting ripped off (Don MacAskill, SmugMug)

    It pays to think big with digital camera sensors (Jack Schofield, The Guardian)

  7. Emily October 2nd, 2008

    This is a great list. I would definitely advise against going too cheap — while it’s always great to save money, you do get what you pay for. I’ve had some friends buy some really cheapo digital cameras because they didn’t feel like spending much, and this came back to haunt them shortly after the cameras started malfunctioning and breaking. I’ve had various Sony digital cameras and even had problems with those. I graduated to a digital SLR (Nikon D50) about two years ago and am never turning back! Though I do bring the little Sony Cybershot with me for parties and other things where I want something small and not too valuable.

  8. Zhu October 10th, 2012

    Great tips!

    As an amateur photographer, one of my mottos is “It’s NOT the camera!” (http://correresmidestino.com/its-not-the-camera/).

    I got into photography when I bought a $150 Kodak Easyshare on Boxing Day, back in 2006. This little camera taught me a lot and sparked a passion. I took it around the world and got great shots out of it. Its limitation (for instance, a very slow shutter) forced me to be creative.

    A few years later, I bought a Nikon D60 and I now have several lenses, but I never regretted starting my hobby with an affordable camera. Too many people buy the “best” first, such as fancy DSLR, and don’t know how to use them anyway.

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