Gadgets and Games

Holiday Shopping Guide: Digital Camera 101

All the surveys agree; one of the top consumer electronic gift categories is digital cameras. Surprised? Me neither.

It seems no event is complete unless it's been documented by at least a half dozen cameras, capturing candid snapshots and posed tableaus. The results then whirl through the ether, posted to Facebook or photo sharing sites by the zillions every day.

But who wants to take photos with a cell phone? (And how the heck do you get photos off your phone to print or send to others?) If you haven’t looked at digital cameras lately, you’ll find they do more and cost less than you expect.

SLIDESHOW: Our favorite digital cameras

Cameras are split into three categories, though these distinctions are less meaningful than they used to be. There are video cameras for moving pictures, SLR (single-lens reflex) cameras with exchangeable lenses, and fixed lens models often called "point and shoot" cameras. I’m going to focus just on this last category; they're the most affordable and can do most of what you'll want to do.

For under $80, you can find entry level choices from major brands that take a fine snapshot. The majority of cameras cost between $100 and $500, with a variety of features available across the price range. In general, you’ll do well to stick with a major brand, such as Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic, Pentax, and Sony. You may be able to find a good bargain elsewhere, if you’re willing to research the other choices.

Perplexed by Pixels: How many pixels do you need? A pixel is a dot used to make up a digital photo. A "megapixel" (MP) is a million dots. If you take an 8 MP photo, you can make an 11 by 17 inch print, a far bigger picture than most people need. For a snapshot, a couple of megapixels will do. And if you want to put a photo in an email or on a Web page, one-third of a megapixel is plenty. Any camera you consider in this category will have plenty of pixels, so you can safely ignore that specification.

Note that a camera with more megapixels will fill up its storage much faster, so unless you need the extra detail, you’ll want to figure out how to take lower resolution photos — it's just a setting in the menus. In any case, most cameras come with a small memory card to get you started; you’ll want to buy at least one larger capacity card so you can store more photos. A 2GB card costs about $10, so this isn't an expensive extra.

More on Memory: Different cameras use different memory cards. In general, the SD card is the most widely used. Confusingly, the SDHC card is the same size and shape, but it's a new high-capacity format that supports up to 32GB on a single card. That's enough for thousands of photos even at high resolution.

You can take an SD card out of your camera (be careful, they're easy to lose) and plug it right into many computers and printers. If the camera you’re considering uses a different format memory card, make sure your computer or printer can accept that card, or get a reader for it that can plug into the USB port on your PC.

Power to the Camera: Rechargeable batteries will save you money, but plan on getting an extra set as a backup for when the first set runs down. It’s a good idea to pick a camera that accepts standard battery sizes, so you can use a set of disposable alkaline batteries if your rechargeable ones have run down.

Ready for Your Close-Up: Optical zoom is an important feature, as it lets you get a close up picture from a distance. Digital zoom isn't very useful, so you can safely ignore it; all it does is crop your photo for you. Most cameras have 3x to 5x optical zooms, sufficient for most uses. To take candids or on-the-field sports shots, you’ll want a camera with more zoom power, such as the Canon PowerShot SX200. It has a 12x zoom and costs about $400.

Viewfinder Optional: Not all cameras have a viewfinder, which is the little window that you peer through to frame your shot. Many models have only an LCD panel that you use to view the scene, and some people find it difficult to line up their shots that way.

LCDs really drain the battery, so you’ll want to use them sparingly to get the most shots from each charge. If you're really worried about battery life, the $400 Nikon Coolpix S70 has an advanced OLED panel that should draw less power than an equivalent LCD.

Making Movies: Nearly all digital cameras also take movies, many in high definition. They typically shoot 720p, but some — like the $160 Kodak EasyShare M1093 IS — can take 1080p videos. The result may not be quite as good as movies from a dedicated video camera, but it’s a very convenient feature that you'll use more often than you expect.

Cool Features: A wealth of neat extras help you personalize your gift. Some cameras use wireless connections to transfer images to a computer or printer. Some have a touch panel for controls, like the $300 Sony Cybershot DSC-T90. And some Canon PowerShot models include gesture controls: Just shake the entire camera slightly to advance to the next picture.

Many cameras now offer digital face detection, which will automatically focus and adjust the exposure for a face in the picture, even if it’s not in the center of the frame. Some cameras can even alert you if someone in a group photo blinked.

For outdoor use (even snorkeling), cameras like the $300 Pentax Optio W80 are waterproof. The Nikon COOLPIZ S1000pj actually has a tiny projector built right in, so you can share your photos without your friends having to crowd around a tiny screen. And the $350 Sony CyberShot WX1 let’s you sweep across a panoramic view to automatically stitch the images together to make a single picture.

Whew! with features like these its easy to get overwhelmed. When shopping, make sure a model meets your basic needs first before turning to all those extras, and you won't go wrong.