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Gadget Guidance 2008: Digital Cameras

The proof that digital cameras have arrived as a mass-market product? You can now ignore the number that was once supposed to drive any such purchase, resolution. Seven million pixels (megapixels) has become the minimum on new models, a figure way more than sufficient to allow for sharp 8-by-10 printouts.

But that passing of this number's relevance in the mass market doesn't mean that cameras have become a commodity with no room for improvement.

Consider the two other figures you'll see touted in most camera ads: optical zoom and screen size.

The former, expressed as a multiple like "3x," "4x," or "10x," indicates the telephoto reach of the lens. (Ignore "digital zoom," in which the camera crops a shot and magnifies what's left of the image.) A 3x zoom has become a nearly universal minimum, which equates to about a 115 or 118 mmm telephoto on a 35 mm camera, but you can easily get 5x lenses on pocket-sized point-and-shoot models.

If, however, you want an optical zoom above 7x or so, you'll probably need a non-pocketable "ultrazoom" or an even bulkier digital single-lens-reflex camera that, like film SLRs, accepts interchangeable lenses. What about wide-angle shooting? Many cameras still neglect that option.

As for screen size, the increasingly large LCDs on the back of cameras have made it easier to inspect and show off the pictures you just took -- but many cameras sacrifice traditional optical viewfinders to make room for these displays. That can be a problem when bright sunlight washes out the LCD's picture or you can't shut off the LCD to save battery life.

In their favor, some large-screen cameras allow you to operate their controls by touching icons on their displays, which can make things significantly easier than the usual control models: pressing poorly labeled buttons and spinning dials on the back or top of the camera.

Other useful features on a camera may not be advertised so prominently:

* Do not get a camera without image stabilization, an almost-magical technology that lets you take steady shots at slow shutter speeds without a tripod. Optical stabilization, in which the camera moves its image sensor or lens to compensate for any shakes, works better than digital stabilization, where the camera's software tries to iron out jitters.

* The same goes for face-detection focusing, where the camera's software picks out human faces to ensure that it stays focused on them and not, say, the building 15 feet behind. (Some manufacturers have followed up this feature with similar mistake-proofing options that, for example, try to ensure people's eyes are open in a shot.)

* Buying the smallest cameras available often requires using proprietary, expensive batteries. Slightly thicker cameras often take rechargeable AAs, which don't require a special charger and can be replaced in an emergency with regular AAs.

* Try to get a camera that takes cheap, industry-standard SD Cards (used in models by Canon, Kodak, Nikon and most other vendors) instead of xD-PictureCards (found on Fuji and Olympus cameras) or Memory Sticks (employed by Sony). The latter two cost more, can be harder to find and can't be popped into the memory-card reader slots on some smaller laptops, HDTVs and other gadgets. While I'm on this subject, try not to buy a memory card in a regular store. You can get much better prices online.

* If you enjoy tweaking picture-taking options like aperture settings and shutter speeds, realize that most pocket-sized models don't allow that level of control.

For assessments of individual cameras from an enthusiast consumer's perspective, I like the writeups at the Digital Camera Resource Page; for a more detailed, pro-oriented perspective, see the evaluations at The Imaging Resource and Digital Photography Review.

What other suggestions do you have for camera shopping? Post yours in the comments below...

By Rob Pegoraro  |  November 26, 2008; 11:25 AM ET
Categories:  Gadgets , Pictures , Tips  
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I got a Canon EOS Rebel DSLR in May of 05 and still use it today. The newer models have image stabilization, and other features it doesn't, but I shot film (with a Pentax K1000) for 20 years prior, so I don't really miss it. I would like to have the sensor shaker, which knocks dust off of the sensor.

If you get a DSLR, get a Real Flash. The kind that plugs into the hot shoe. I have the 420EX flash, which cost about $200. But worth it. I can do bounce flash (that is, bounce it off of the ceiling) without having to do any calculations. The camera and flash do it all. Bounce flash lets me take pictures without blinding my subjects.

Posted by: wiredog | November 26, 2008 2:56 PM | Report abuse

If you are a keen photographer but want a camera that will fit in a pocket, albeit not a shirt pocket, take a look at Canon's new G10. With 5X optical zoom, 28mm wide angle, image stabilisation, 15 megapixel and RAW it covers all the bases.

Posted by: iansmccarthy | November 30, 2008 6:48 PM | Report abuse

Do all digital cameras have such a huge delay between pressing the shutter-release button and when the picture is actually snapped? Or have I set up my Nikon Coolpix L6 incorrectly? If I haven't, then this is a very un-friendly feature.

Posted by: gingerdoe | December 1, 2008 11:48 AM | Report abuse

Any info on which models have remote (wireless) shutter controls available?

Posted by: mcelrah1 | December 1, 2008 1:47 PM | Report abuse

Don't miss the Canon Powershot A590 IS! It's a great camera, excellent price, uses 2-AA's and takes fantastic photos. It is one of the few on the market with a viewfinder (helpful on extremely sunny days) and it also takes the SD memory card (cheaper than XD). I am super impressed with the 8x10's that I have made from pictures and the image stabilization is a huge help, as Rob points out. Easy to use, lots of manual controls on the camera, too.

Posted by: rjrjj | December 1, 2008 5:15 PM | Report abuse

The Canon A590IS, and other A series Canons, often have problems with the "E10 error," where the camera's telescoping mechanism grinds or becomes completely jammed. Canon has this problem with its cameras for years, but they keep using the same body and telescoping design. I've had two go bad on me while my other two cameras have held up for years. Don't buy Canon until they finally address this problem!

Posted by: bwwww | December 1, 2008 10:57 PM | Report abuse

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