You’re flipping through the weekly flyers from your local electronics store and marvel at the new digital cameras on the market. Not only are prices dropping all the time – for both the compact point-and-shoot cameras as well as the bulkier yet more powerful DSLR models – but new features are continually added, offering even more bang for your buck.
Oh sure, you already know about megapixels, a quality lens and fast processor being key considerations, but there are many other convenient bells and whistles. It can be difficult to keep up with all the lingo – be it image stabilization, facial detection or interchangeable lenses – plus you might not be aware which features are worth noting, and which ones are not.
Here’s a look at a few of those, for both point-and-shoot cameras and DSLRs.
Image stabilization technologies
Digital cameras are quite easy to use these days, even among novice picture takers. But sometimes photos still turn out blurry – either because of a moving subject or somewhat shaky hand (or a bit of both). This is especially true at slow shutter speeds, or when zooming in from afar using a telephoto lens.
While different manufacturers handle this differently, a camera with integrated image stabilization works to sharpen your photos using a hardware solution (optical image stabilization, which is implemented in the lens itself) or software solution (digital image stabilization, which isn’t as effective as the former).
Another way to stabilize the shot, of course, is to use a tripod.
Face detection and other assists
On a related note, many new digital cameras offer handy face-detection technology. As the name suggests, these cameras have a built-in algorithm to detect faces in a scene (by looking for a typical facial composition, such as two eyes, nose and mouth, etc.) and automatically adjust the focus and lighting to these faces as the priority.
After all, while you might want the scenery in the background, such as the rolling hills of a park or the colorful signs of Times Square, it’s the faces that should be in focus, and well lit. (Unless you’re getting creative and want the opposite, which you can temporarily disable it for.) Some cameras can detect up to eight or ten different faces in one scene.
A handful of new cameras also have a smile shutter option that won’t take the picture until the subject smiles. This is convenient, sure, but you should turn it off when not needed – some of the best photos are candid shots, after all, rather than posed. The latest cameras also offer an auto-scene option that will automatically detect the kind of shot you’re taking – perhaps it’s at night or a close-up ("macro") shot – and the camera will choose the right mode for you.
Good zoom, interchangeable lenses
When it comes to pocket-sized digicams, there are two kinds of zoom: optical and digital.
Optical zoom is made to bring the camera user closer to the subject, without needing to physically move. Like older cameras, this is accomplished with a retractable lens. Digital zoom, though, only changes the presentation of existing data by guessing where extra pixels should go, in order to give the illusion the user is closer to the object. Therefore, the optical zoom is a more important number as it’s the "true" zoom. Remember this when reviewing the camera’s specs in a flyer or on a website.
Generally speaking, a small point-and-shoot camera offers a minimum of 3x optical zoom, but soccer moms or hockey dads might opt for one with 10x or more to capture the emotion on the youngster’s face from afar.
Better yet, digital SLR cameras allow you to swap lenses so you can pick up a telephoto lens for extra long zoom.
On a related note, look for a DSLR with a dust reduction system that uses ultrasonic technology that vibrates to remove dust and other particles from the front of the image sensor.
HD video recording
Why can’t you have your cake and eat it, too?
Most new digital cameras also let you shoot video along with taking photos. After all, capturing an infant’s first steps or a child’s laughter is a lot more powerful as a moving picture than a still one.
And thankfully the prices of digital memory – the postage stamp-sized cards that snap into the camera – are getting cheaper all the time, while capacity is on the rise.
The latest DSLR models not only shoot video, but in some cases, do it in 1080p quality (such as the Canon EOS T1i) which will look outstanding when played back on a compatible high-definition television. And with the "Live View" LCD screen on many new DSLRs today, you can see the video you’re shooting in real-time on the back of the camera (and in many cases, tilt it to get the perfect view) instead of having to peer through the viewfinder.
But wait, there’s more!
Other good digital camera considerations include: good battery life (and try to find one with a rechargeable battery so you don’t need to spend money on disposables), in-camera editing tools (such as red-eye removal), built-in art filters (to get creative with your shots), and burst mode (to take multiple shots per second so you can choose the best one).