Like any other category of tech, digital cameras are electronics that are riddled with acronyms and technical terms that may be confusing for first time buyers. Even more difficult is figuring out which of these should be taken into consideration most when choosing a camera, or which can be ignored. Before we break down the different classes of cameras and pick some of the best cameras in each category, here is a quick rundown of what to look for when making your pick.
Megapixels is a short hand way of showing the image quality produced by the camera by counting how many millions of pixels are in each photo. The number comes from multiplying the horizontal resolution by the vertical resolution and abbreviating the result to have an easy to read and understand number. For example, a camera with resolution of 1200x1600 would produce a total of 1,920,000 pixels or 1.9MP. This number gives shoppers an idea of the picture quality they can expect when viewing the photos and is especially important for those who want to produce large prints from their digital camera, or do some creative cropping and manipulation on their home computer. If you're just shooting to upload photos to Facebook or email to friends and family, it could be better to spend the money on other features rather than buying the highest megapixel camera you can afford.
Optical Zoom vs Digital Zoom
One of the most confusing specifications commonly found on product listings is the camera's zoom feature. Most of this confusion stems from the fact that manufacturers list two different zoom ratings, optical and digital, and sometimes combine them both and list them as "total zoom." Optical zoom is what most of us traditionally think of when we imagine a camera zoom. You press a button and the lens extends out of the camera, magically bringing you closer to the action without sacrificing fidelity. Digital zoom is a feature best ignored altogether, as it simply takes the image on the screen and enlarges it. The result is a blurry, pixelated photo that degrades more and more as you increase the digital zoom level. If zoom is important to you, the optical zoom listing is the only listing to take into consideration.
Image Stabilization (IS)
Image stabilization is a feature in the camera that helps those of us lacking a steady hand to take a crisp, sharp photo. While this sounds simple enough, just like with zoom lenses, there are both digital and optical varieties of IS, with optical being the ideal choice. Optical image stabilization means the camera has gyroscopic sensors that actually move the lens to counter shaking or movement, helping to eliminate blurry, unfocused photos. Digital image stabilization attempts to do the same using software correction, although the results are spotty when compared to Optical IS.
LCD Size vs Hardware Buttons
One of the best aspects of digital photography is the ability to instantly view a photo you've taken without shaking a Polaroid for 30 seconds. LCD screens, which have replaced traditional viewfinders in most digital cameras, allow us to scroll through photos and make sure we've got the perfect shot before missing the moment entirely. This makes the size and type of LCD on your new digital camera an important consideration. Many cameras feature 3.5" or larger LCD screens, leaving less room for physical buttons. Some models eliminate buttons almost entirely in favor of a large touch screen. While having a big, beautiful LCD screen may sound ideal, remember that this means navigating menus to do simple tasks such as turning off a flash or switching to video recording mode. In a pinch, this can be frustrating and may cause you to miss some quick shots if you are unfamiliar with the menus. More tech savvy shooters might be comfortable with touch-only, but if you're shopping for a tech-challenged individual, it might be easier for them to operate their new camera with dedicated hardware buttons.
HD Video Recording
This seems like a no-brainer. Obviously, if you want a camera that records video, there are many options out there and it's probably more difficult to find a digital camera that doesn't offer video recording of some sort than to find one that does. With that said, when choosing a camera that has HD video recording, try not to fall into the pitfall of automatically choosing a camera with 1080p recording over 720p. Firstly, remember that when you're out and about, recording at 1080p is going to eat up the storage on your memory card much faster than 720p shooting, and just a few short 1080p videos can fill up smaller cards completely. Secondly, many cameras that offer 720p shooting also can shoot at 60 frames per second, giving your video more fluid and lifelike motion, while still maintaining a crisp, HD picture.