How do I Decide What Digital Camera to Buy?

Last updated: 04-08-09

So you want to buy a digital camera but don’t know where do you start? This post is for you. Being a photographer, a lot of friends ask me, “what camera should I buy?” Usually there is a list of things that they want in a camera and a target price. So here you go, the comprehensive list!

First of all, you have to ask yourself what you want out of a camera and what kind of budget you have. You will find that you pay a premium for small camera size, image quality, and features – so decide which is your main requirement.

I have found that most digital cameras fall into one of the following categories:

1. A cheap but good medium sized camera to take snapshots. you can get a good one for about $150.
2. A small and stylish camera with the same picture quality as #1 that you can show off to friends and fits easily in a pocket or purse. You can get one for approximately $199.
3. A compact camera with manual controls (being able to control shutter and aperture) and features (like a big zoom, image stabilization, better pictures in low light environments) that will enable the user to learn about photography on a deeper level. These tend to be relatively larger cameras. Expect to pay between $250 and $400 on these.
4. An SLR with really nice image quality, interchangeable lenses, full manual control, and lots of accessories. An SLR is going to be much larger and more expensive than a compact camera. You will probably have to spend at least $599 on a base model plus the cost of additional lenses if none are included with the camera body. These lenses can range in price from $75 all the way up to $2000.
5. The best image quality money can buy. Professional digital cameras with all the bells and whistles – they are usually huge, heavy, and extremely expensive – for pros only! These cameras start at around $2500 and go up to about $8000.

So, what are some cameras in each class that you would recommend? (as of April
#1 – Canon A series
#2 – Canon SD series (SD1100), Panasonic Lumix FS series
#3 – Canon SX (SX10) series (big zoom), Canon G series (G10), Panasonic LX series (LX3)
#4 – Nikon and Canon digital DSLRs
#5 – Nikon and Canon Pro DSLRs

Info on Canon Point and Shoot Cameras:

Info on Panasonic Point and Shoot Cameras:

I would say that 75% of people are going to fall into either categories #1 or #2 because they want to take pictures without the fuss that comes with the more expensive cameras. For those who want to pursue photography as a hobby on a deeper level will probably want a camera from categories #3 or #4. Most people who find that they really enjoy photography eventually graduate to #4 after first having a point and shoot or an advanced compact camera first. #5 is for professionals and the cost is usually prohibitive. A camera in category #4 can probably do 85% of what a camera in category #5 can do.

I’ve found that for image quality in a small package, Canon is the way to go. I’m really impressed with the quality for the price of the Canon. Recently Panasonic cameras have gotten really high marks as well for the quality of their lenses and low light photo abilities. I’ve owned other brands as well, but none really stack up to these brands.

I’m not too sure about the cameras in the #3 category because they are in between an SLR and a compact so they have the advantages of both, but sometimes you’ll feel that it’s too big and sometimes if you want to just carry a camera around in a pants pocket. Also, with a camera in category #3, you’ll feel that it can’t do everything an SLR could do – so while in a way it is the best of both worlds, in a way it shares the disadvantages of both as well.

If money isn’t a problem, I would opt for having 2 cameras – a DSLR and a compact. You can take the compact with you for casual occasions and use the DSLR when you want to get serious about taking good photos.

WARNING: SLRs are money pits. you’ll constantly want to upgrade your equipment because everything is interchangeable. The best lenses can cost twice as much as the camera. If you are a casual user you can probably get by with the cheap lenses. If you want the best lenses, you pay a huge premium.

Also, more megapixels don’t necessarily mean better quality! anything over 5-6mp is enough for the casual photographer!

Here are the best review sites that I read:
steves-digicams.com – reviews written in plain english
dpreview.com – in depth technical and user reviews
pbase.com/cameras – go here for sample photos sorted by camera and lens
amazon.com – good for user reviews and some sample photos
photographyreview.com – user reviews on higher end photo stuff

Final word of advice. Don’t just buy from the website with the cheapest price. There are a lot of bait-and-switch retailers on the internet that will advertise one price, then try to sell you rediculously overpriced warranties and accessories. Many will cancel your order unless you buy these “upgrades”. If you really want to get the cheapest price, first check www.resellerratings.com before you buy. If you don’t want to deal with that, here’s a list of resellers I trust:


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