Choosing a digital camera

I recently posted an article on the At Home Web site called Go Ahead, Break Your Camera! Your reader feedback was interesting. Some of you, even a few of the small group who missed the joke and told me how stupid I was, asked some great questions and pointed out ways I could have made the article better. Think of this article as the rest of the story...

Reader feedback on the article boils down to four questions:

1: Why did you bother writing this article?
I wrote the article to try to wring some value out of the experience by sharing a couple thoughts I'd had as a result of my mistake. (I sincerely apologize to those of you who felt I wasted your time discussing the camera incident.)

2: What criteria did you use when choosing a new camera?
I use my camera for travel snapshots, making the following criteria most important to me:

  • Price: I didn't want to spend more than $200
  • Size/weight: I wanted the camera to fit in my jacket pocket.
  • Battery type: I want to be able to get batteries anywhere, so prefer a camera that uses AA batteries.
  • Image quality: I want to be able to print standard size photos that, to an average person like me, look as good as a 35MM print. (To learn more about image quality, see How Many Mega Pixels do you Need?
  • Zoom: I want to be able to shoot pictures of wildlife as "close" as possible. (For tips about outdoor photography, read "Take better pictures of the great outdoors."
  • Shutter speed: I want to be able to shoot pictures of wildlife before the creature in question vanishes from view. One reader pointed out that checking a camera's shutter speed specification can help offset the time delay problem I was experiencing. But like many amateur photographers, I use a point-and-shoot camera. One of the downsides of having the camera do all the work of getting the best picture possible means there's a delay between when I press the button and when the camera takes the picture. If you want a detailed description of the problem I was having with my older camera, this Camera World article Testing Your Camera's Time Delay will help.

3: How did you find the camera?
My husband found the camera and got it for me as a surprise. Using the criteria I outlined above, he shopped online to find the camera that best met my criteria, except he ended up paying a bit less than $200.

There are a number of great online resources that can help you narrow down the choices of cameras based on the features that matter most to you. Camera World is a great place to learn more about cameras and digital photography. To get in-depth (and I mean DEPTH) reviews, check out DCViews, Steve's Digicams, and Popular Photography.

Once you've narrowed down the type of camera you want, you can use sites such as WindowsMarketplace or PriceGrabbers, to compare manufacturers, models, and prices. My husband used PriceGrabber, which, by the way, is a handy place to find rebates and special offers.

4: What did you buy?
I didn't share this information for the same reason I didn't share the name of the camera I broke: it didn't seem fair to endorse or disparage any particular manufacturer, as I'm (clearly!) not a professional reviewer. But in hindsight, it was even less fair not to tell you! The camera I broke was an Olympus (sorry, I don't have the specific model number, but it was a popular point-and-shoot model from 3 or so years ago.) The camera my husband bought is another point-and-shoot model, the Canon A520.

Thanks for the comments, leave more if you like!
At the end of every At Home and At Work is a place where you can leave feedback. To those of you who gave feedback on the "Go Ahead, Break Your Camera" article, thank you so much for your comments. While some of your remarks stung a little, they let me know how I can do a better job next time.

Though it's great to get your feedback on our At Home and At Work articles, what's missing is the ability to share your comments with other readers. On TipTalk, we can do that.

For example, one of the topics I'd hoped to explore in more depth here was digital zoom. But I can't find a good description of the difference between optical zoom (where the camera's lens magnifies the picture) versus digital zoom (where the camera's software manipulates the image to make it look larger). If any of you know of such an explanation, I'd love to share it with other readers. For that, or other information you'd like to share about digital photography, just use the "comments" link below.

—Robbin Young

Comments (13)

  1. Rebecca Hellams says:

    As far as I can tell, digital zoom is essentially worthless if you plan to edit your photographs on a computer. Using digital zoom is like blowing up a photo. Eventually it will get grainy. Optical zoom does not do this. You don’t lose pixels or "picture quality" by the act of zooming using the lenses needed for optical zooming. I really see little point in having digital zoom on a camera as I download all my pics to a computer. If I want, I can zoom them there digitally and it is easier to see when I am going beyond the point where my pictures will print properly.

  2. karen smith says:

    I enjoyed your first article very much. It was very informative. I went looking for a camera after I read the article. I never owned a digital camera. I thank you for listing the model you purchased in today’s article. But, one thing I didn’t quite understand. The time delay. I understand from your article that you experienced this with your old camera, but do you also have the time delay with the new Canon? I know all about the time delay thingy, because I have it with my standard camera, which was over $400, when I purchased it. I also like that fact that your new camera will pring full size pics. I understand that some of them only print the 4×6 images. I will continue to search for my first camera, and hope I make a wise decision when I find the camera of my dreams. Any more tips would be appreciated in your next aricle. Thank you

  3. Morgan says:

    I find it hard to believe this reviewer did not know the essential differences between optical and digital zoom, and yet was still allowed to write this review. I suspect we have another incidence of "writers-artists" thinking that they have an irreplaceable clarity that makes their muddling valuable in a world where a little effort to understand information is actually more important. For someone who cares about the quality of pictures, there is a very important difference between optical and digital zoom.

    I believe digital zoom simply does not use the light sensors on the picture edges, making an object appear larger in the final picture but also resulting in an irreversible loss of detail and clarity compared to use of an optical zoom (because the camera is creating fewer pixels because part of the light sensor is not being used. You can "digitally zoom" any part of any picture you already have by simply using the "crop" and "resize" functions of the most common types of picture editing software. So, you don’t need a camera to do a "digital zoom" for you unless you want to avoid any picture editing and can accept the loss of quality. Digital zoom technology is cheap, but poor.

    An optical zoom, however, enlarges the image that strikes the sensors and this enables it to use the entire sensor and create all the pixels the sensor is capable of, creating a sharper and more detailed picture. Optical zoom requires lenses and mechanics and the cameras are heavier and more expensive and larger as a result.

    Optical zoom and digital zoom can be combined if needed, but once again let me stress that as soon as you use digital zoom you throw away information at the edge of the image. A careful photographer can just decide not use the digital zoom, and later do a more careful "digital zooming" at home using the "crop" and "resize" functions of picture editing software, getting an image with the same clarity and detail but much more careful selection of the final picture edges.

  4. Victor Strasser says:


    I enjoyed your article, and the premise that breaking your old camera has an upside was very clever – the folks who called you "stupid" were waaaay off the mark.

    About Zoom:

    Optical zoom uses the lens optics to enlarge the image it projects onto the image sensor. If you have a 4MP sensor, using optical zoom you get 4MP worth of image data of your subject.

    OTOH, Digital zoom uses just part of your camera’s image sensor, then stretches the pixels out to fill the frame. If you have a 4MP camera, 2X digital zoom uses just the 2MP at the center of the sensor. Digital zoom, IMHO, is completely worthless except as a marketing tool, because you could achieve the same result by simply cropping after you take the shot.

  5. Scott Howell says:


    I can empathize with the shutter lag issue – I also have an Olympus ~$200 point and shoot camera, but after too many pictures of the back of people’s heads, etc., I started researching cameras that had the least shutter lag, within a reasonable price range. The one I found is the Fujifilm FinePix F10 which features a "High-speed shooting mode for increased focusing speed". But it’s about double your budget price.

    BTW, did your Olympus eat up batteries pretty fast? Mine does…

    And finally, I found this to be a good review site: It features a "Picky Details" section for things like shutter lag.


  6. Joe Winters says:

    I will certainly agree with Mr. Strasser, and reinforce his comments. A digital zoom is worthless, and the cheap way to get an awful picture. Any point & shoot camera with 3 mega pixels will give you a very nice 4 x 6 picture, and if it includes editing software it will allow adjustment of picture quality before printing. It is possible to get longer lasting batteries for cameeras that use AA cells, but you will have to searh for a camera store that sells them.

  7. jsoh says:

    what is the differnece between digital cvameras and old film camreas

  8. martin says:

    i finally banged my 2M ixus into pieces on the wonderful trip to kangaroo island.

    it is a good camera, but the button is easily shifted between play, shoot, movie.

    at least nothing will ever losing my precious moment anymore 🙂

    a camera = a moment

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