How to Shop for a Digital Camera

by Dr. Robert Berdan
October 21, 2010

What camera should I buy?  I am sure camera sales people hear this question all the time, but before anyone can make a recommendation they should ask you some questions.

Some questions I would ask are: 

  1. What do you plan to photograph?
  2. Do you have a budget in mind for purchasing a camera, lens and accessories?
  3. Do you plan on processing your digital images with image editing software?
  4. Do you want to have control over the picture taking process or do you want a camera that does everything automatically?
  5. Are you looking for a camera that also shoots HD video?
  6. Is the size and weight of the camera gear important to you?
  7. Are there any specific cameras or models that you are currently thinking about?
  8. Do you want to be able to surf the web, call other folks and send text messages with your camera?

Answers to these questions would provide a starting point for discussion. Also you need to  realize that what some folks might want and can afford are often two different animals.

When buying a camera if you plan to invest more then $500 I recommend that you visit several camera stores and ask a sales person to show you some camera models and have them answer your specific questions. You should ask yourself, "how does the camera feel"? Does the camera have the features you want or does it have too many features? Does the camera manufacturer offer a variety of additional lenses or accessories like a flash? If possible, take some pictures in the store and ask if you can view them on a monitor. If the store won't put in a battery and let you try the camera with a lens attached in the store, then frankly I would go elsewhere. If you plan on spending a significant amount of money, then forming a good relationship with the store you bought the camera from will be important in the future when you want to upgrade or purchase more equipment. Trust me, if you get hooked on photography like me, you will want to spend a significant amount of your spare money on purchasing more equipment .

Do not purchase a camera on your first visit to a camera store unless you have already done all your research beforehand. Take time to read magazines and web sites like ( and learn all you can about the cameras you are interested in. Talk to other photographers, most photographers love to share their knowledge and preferences with you, but beware that most photographers are biased towards the equipment they own since they have invested a significant amount of money.  Mac computers are not better then PCs though those owning them may believe so ( I own both) - it's the person operating the computer or camera that determines what the tool can do. That being said if all your friends own Macs or Nikons it wouldn't hurt to buy a similar brand as everyone could use some help from time to time.

Film basecd cameras can be purchased cheaply but film may not be readily available in the near future

 The more money you plan to spend, the more time you should spend researching your equipment before you make the commitment. This process will also make you feel more comfortable once you do make a decision. When I started photography the issue was not what I wanted, but what I could afford to purchase. I wanted a Nikon but could only afford an Olympus which in retrospect was about half the price and about 90% as good.  The good news is that even if you buy a camera that you outgrow in a year or so the experience will be valuable and almost any camera will help you to see more then you ever imagined.  Always keep in mind that the photographer is the most important part of the equation - the camera is just a tool.  A good photographer will almost always take better pictures with an inferior camera then a newcomer with expensive gear. Having good gear helps for sure, but few photographers realize the potential of the gear they own.

Don't overlook the opportunity to use your camera to shoot in Black and White

If you said to me your budget is $400 or less, I would say then you are probably going to be looking at buying a compact digital camera with a fixed lens. Alternatively you may want to consider buying a used digital camera. Buying used gear can result in a good buy, but usually its best left to more experienced photographers that know what they want and can test the camera before hand to be sure everything is working. If you purchase a used camera from a store they should offer a 30 day money back guarantee. Most good camera stores offer this kind of warranty as they want you come back and buy more gear from them.

If you said to me you wanted a compact camera to shoot birthdays, special occasions, vacations etc. then the number of choices is bewildering and changing constantly.  My next question would be do you want the camera to be waterproof or shockproof - if so I would direct you to look at some compact cameras by Pentax and Olympus. If you are unlikely to get your camera wet then you have a whole host of cameras to look at from many manufacturers - avoid the cheapest ones and stay with the major camera brands. The top name brands like Nikon, Canon, Olympus, Lumix, Sony and Pentax have been around for a long while and will likely be around in the future. Not all compact cameras are cheap, the more you pay the better the lenses are and usually the more features you will have. A compact Leica can cost you more then $5,000 and some of the higher quality compact cameras are over $1,000 and these high quality cameras are certainly not required to photograph your kids birthdays unless money isn't an issue for you. More expensive compact cameras usually offer the ability to shoot RAW files and come with better quality lenses.  In general you get what you pay for, but shopping around can still save you lots of money.

Some Features to look for in a compact Digital Camera

  1. Wide angle zoom lens
  2. HD video
  3. Good grip so it does not slip out of your hands
  4. At least 7 Megapixels
  5. The best cameras offer RAW files for those that plan on manipulating their images in a computer
  6. Lens protector - the lens should retract or come with a lens cap to protect the lens
  7. Ability to focus closely - i.e. Macro mode
  8. Bulb mode where the shutter stays open for as long as you hold the shutter open - good for night photography
  9. Tripod socket on the bottom in case you want to use a tripod for low light photography
  10. Both a viewfinder and large LCD, the viewfinder is useful on bright sunny days when the LCD is hard to see
  11. Weather resistance or waterproof - I use my Pentax Optio camera to photograph inside tide pools
  12. Self timer so you can take pictures with you in them
  13. Large easy to use buttons
  14. Flash with red eye reduction mode
  15. When you push the shutter button there should be no discernable delay before the camera shoots
  16. A panorama mode is nice if you ever want super wide angle photos created by stitching them together
  17. Any new camera you purchase should come with at least a one year warranty
  18. Cameras with image stabilization usually result in sharper pictures in low light
  19. All good cameras should come with an instructional handbook of features, some can be quite large - read them!

Pentax Optio camera

The Pentax Optio series of cameras are fully waterproof and allow you to focus very closely. What I don't like is that the cameras are very smooth and slippery and they only offer JPG files - I want RAW files for better quality and flexibility in processing. I take my camera with me kayaking and use it for photographing in tide pools. It's small size also allows me to carry it with me in a pocket or pouch attached to my belt - so I can have a camera with me almost all the time. The digital files will make fine prints up to about 8 x 12 inches.

Anemone by Robert Berdan ©

Anemone taken by dipping my camera over the side of a dock on the West Coast, taken with the Pentax Optio Compact Camera

If you are starting out and not really sure how serious you might become about photography, but you want to be able to control Raccoon by Robert Berdan the depth of field, angle of view and other features of the picture taking process then an entry level DSLR (digital single lens reflex) camera is a good option. If you think your interest might grow then I would consider looking at the Canon and Nikon cameras, both of these camera manufacturers are at the leading edge of digital technology, both have been around a long time, and both companies offer the widest range of lenses. Also because they are so popular other lens manufacturers like Tamron, Sigma and Tokina make lenses for these camera usually at significantly lower prices. Pentax also has the reputation of making cameras and lenses of good quality at some of the lowest prices around. If you want to get into photography in a serious way  I would steer you towards Canon or Nikon equipment. I have photographed with Pentax, Sony, Minolta and Olympus gear and while they do make good equipment, their gear in my opinion does not offer the features, lenses or  flexibility I found with Canon and Nikon equipment. 

I currently shoot with both Canon and Nikon gear and I buy all my gear with money I make. Both companies offer features I like and dislike, though I have been favouring Canon gear recently because I have find their rear LCD screens to look better and don't require plastic covers and I like the fact they offer better quality HD video. I like the Nikon ergonomics better, larger buttons and the more widely distributed autofocus points in the viewfinder. Canon seems to have a wider range of lenses than Nikon and Nikon needs to add VR to some of its lenses that are currently available on Canon lenses (e.g. 300 mm F4). However Canon telephoto lenses require calibration to focus accurately something I have not had to do with my Nikon camera bodies. At the moment I use the Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 7D and the Nikon D300 and D700 bodies. The Canon 5D and Nikon D700 are full frame, while the other cameras have a crop factor that magnifies the focal length of the lenses that are attached. I like having both full frame and crop camera bodies as each lens in my bag now has two focal length ranges. If some new company comes along and offers better gear for a competitive price I will not hesitate to switch or use gear from several manufacturers.



On left is back of the Nikon D300 with extra battery pack and on the right is the back of the Canon 5D Mark II camera

Based on my workshop participants about 45% bring Nikon Gear, 45% bring Canon gear and the other 10% bring gear from other Camera companies. I believe Nikon and Canon are popular for good reason - they produce results.  I used to shoot with Olympus gear for more then 15 years, but then the company appeared to focus more on consumer compact cameras and I switched to Nikon to get interchangeable auto-focus lenses. When I was younger I wanted to buy Nikon gear, but simply could not afford to pay double the cost. All photographers should realize that it is better to have a camera and use it regularly then not have one. Every day you don't have a camera you miss opportunities. Improving your photography comes with spending time with the camera and shooting regularly. Learning how to use the camera controls can be achieved in a few months, learning to see and take strong images usually takes years to achieve.  Find what your are passionate about and shoot often.

When I started the cost of film and processing was so expensive  that  I shot mostly in black and white and developed the film myself. Today you can shoot as much as you want, get instant results on your LCD screen and learn more quickly. The downside of digital cameras  is that there is more to learn, the camera models become obsolete in only a few years and you need some computer skills to enhance and manipulate the images.  The good news is if you get into photography now no matter how old you become, you can continue to enjoy and improve your seeing and photography throughout your lifetime. You will archive memories and events in your life that will bring you pleasure in the future and you can share them with your friends, family and the next generation. How many other activities allow you to do that.

18-200 mm All purpose Zoom lens ideal for Travel or if you can only buy one lens about $700

If you asked me what lens should you buy for your DSLR camera, if you could only buy one  I would recommend an 18-200 mm lens. This will let you shoot wide - landscapes, wildlife, portraits and even some close-ups. In short it is in my opinion the best all round lens for those that don't want to carry several lenses or can not afford several lenses. The lens will cost you about $700. If that is too much then start with the kit lens that comes with the camera a 17-70 mm or 24-120 mm lens are all good starting points. (Do not buy a normal 50 mm lens they don't offer much flexibility, I started out with one, but would recommend a zoom lens today).

What about accessories?  Well if you have any money left I would recommend 1) Camera bag, get one a little larger then you need as you will most likely buy more accessories in the future  2) If you have a wide angle zoom lens, get a circular polarizer. Your lens should also have a lens cap and lens hood. A UV or skylight filter is not essential in spite of what sales people might tell you. Use your lens cap to protect your lens.  A spare battery and or spare memory card would also make a good investment as would some cleaning tissue or lens cloth. If you get even more serious about the quality and sharpness of your images or want to shoot in low light - buy a tripod!

The bad news about photography is that if you get hooked you may never have any spare money again, but I suppose you could blow your money on worse things like the CASINO. Finally, if all your after is snapshots you might want to look at some of the IPHONES which take photographs, make movies, send text messages, and surf the web if you don't mind the monthly connect fees. I am just waiting for a few more megapixels and a water proof version. If you want to see what's possible with an I-phone camera visit Dan Burkholders web site - he has taken some amazing images that he processes in Adobe Photoshop. Samsung's Galaxy phones also come with 8 Megapixel cameras and include HD video - sometimes the best camera is the one that have with you.

Ultimately what ever brand or type of camera you buy it should be a decision you make based on your research,  needs, preferences, budget, and how you plan to take photographs and what you plan to do with your images. It's your money and only you can decide what is best for you.

Links to other Resources about Cameras

If you purchased a camera and want to know how to use all or most of its features you can sign up for one-on- one training or join one of Science & Art's Beginner Photo workshops - see the workshops section for more information..

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