The digital camera has become a common accessory and is the default camera for most photographers. They are convenient, less expensive, aren't limited by the number of shots on a roll of film and loaded with features that help you take good photographs. The ultimate goal is to take good photos with your camera, and there are a number of features to consider the merits of when shopping for a camera.
Important considerations for your camera are how often you'll use it and under what circumstances. Digital cameras boil down to "point-and-click" cameras (which are now integrated into smartphones) and larger Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) cameras that have more options and, most importantly, the ability to swap out lenses for specific shots and photo compositions. Casual photographers can get by with most point-and-click cameras with 4 megapixels or more (which, as of November 2012, is more than 90 percent of the cameras on the market). If you want to shoot landscape photography, or portraits under controlled lighting, a DSLR starts to make sense -- but there's no need to go to a 16.7 megapixel camera unless you're a professional photographer.
A common belief among camera purchasers is that more megapixels is better. The number of megapixels is only one factor in choosing a camera, and not even the most important factor. According to David Pogue of the New York Times technology section, the primary benefit of megapixels on a camera's sensors is the ability to crop out unwanted parts of the image and zoom in. The camera's optics and shutter speed and a few more esoteric factors are more important. When in doubt, choose a higher level of optical zoom over more megapixels. His recommendation is that after about 6 megapixels on a camera, you won't notice the difference unless you want to print very large images.
Optics and Zooming
Every digital camera offers a "digital zoom." Some cameras have optics that let them do an "optical zoom." Digital zoom is identical to cropping down an image in an image editing program and enlarging it. If you have a lot of megapixels on the camera, its effects will be minor or unnoticeable. Optical zoom actually changes the focal length and apparent angle of the image and gives much sharper images of the photographic subject. The major advantage of SLR cameras, and DSLRs in particular, is the ability to do true optical zoom with full-sized lenses. While some point-and-click cameras have surprisingly good optics for their price, when it comes to lenses and camera equipment, the higher quality gear gets significantly more expensive, and photographers accumulate lenses over the course of a career.
Your camera will store images on a Compact Flash or SD card; the exact type will depend on the manufacturer. It is always worth your while to buy an extra card or two; the ones that come with most digital cameras are usually the minimum usable capacity for the camera. Some cameras come with built in Wi-Fi connections and can be used to save the images they take to another computer on the network, bypassing the removable storage completely. Other cameras may be able to connect to a computer by Bluetooth or Wi-Fi to transfer photos, but not when the photos are being taken. If your camera doesn't have either of these connection features, you'll be forced to move images via a USB cable.
The Camera You Already Have
When shopping for a camera, there's a good chance you have an adequate point-and-shoot camera in your pocket. The general rule of thumb is that cameras in smartphones are about equal to a good point-and-shoot camera from two model years ago. Learning to use that camera well may save you some money on a point-and-click camera, but it's no match for even a low-end DSLR for portrait-taking or landscape shots.
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