Even though it'd be difficult to tell from the weather in some parts of the country, spring is here, spring is here, life is skittles, life is beer. Baseball season, crocuses poking up through the melting permafrost (here in the northeast at least), grads, grooms and brides pomping and circumstancing, muffin-top bikini anxiety, Little League, mothers' and fathers' days, Memorial Day, 4th of July… With warm weather comes plenty of photo ops.
Except your digital camera is a few years old, and it was barely adequate when you bought it.
Time for a new camera. Here are a half dozen tips to getting one that's right for you.
1. Don't spend a lot. Ponder the Canon Powershot A1200. It's a 12.1 megapixel camera capable of snapping around 200 photos on a couple of regular old AA batteries. It's a got a 2.7-inch LCD screen, a 5-times (5x zoom) and captures high-definition video – all for $110. I'm not saying the A1200 is all you need, but I'll bet it's twice the camera than the one you paid twice as much for a few years ago, and it gives you an indication what kind of camera you can get for your money.
Caveat emptor: Don't buy a camera just because it's cheap. If the camera you're considering doesn't at least have 10 MP, a 4x zoom and high-definition video capture – and it's not from a brand name you recognize – move on.
2. Ignore megapixels. I can't stress this enough – the number of megapixels is NOT, I repeat NOT a measure of camera or picture quality, merely of the size of your resulting image. It's like saying a size 10 dress is better than a size 4. The ONLY benefit of more megapixels is how tightly you'll be able to zoom in and crop to a tiny part of the photo, such as a picture taken from the upper deck of a batter at a baseball game.
Caveat emptor: If you're torn between two seemingly and otherwise equal models, you may be better off with the one with fewer megapixels – fewer megapixels could mean higher quality shots snapped in low light.
3. How big a screen? The new normal is 3 inches. A bigger screen is better because you'll be better able to see the details of what you're shooting. But a growing number of cameras now include a touch screen, handy for touch focusing – you touch the part of the scene you particularly want to focus on.
Caveat emptor: Being able to see what you're shooting in bright sunlight is not something you'll be able to tell without taking your prospective purchase outside. Shop on a sunny day, and ask the sales person to let you step outside to check how well the screen shines in the sun.
4. Avoid "super zoom" models. You'll see a lot of super-zoom cameras offering 10x, 15x, 20x optical zooms. With inexpensive 12 to 14 MP cameras available, however, a super-long optical zoom isn't necessary – you can crop and zoom your high megapixel shot when you transfer an image from a 3x to 5x zoom camera to your PC. A super zoom lens can actually be detrimental – it's much harder to hold still enough to get an in-focus photo when you're zoomed all the way in. Plus, they're kind of bulky.
Caveat emptor: Check only OPTICAL zoom. You never, ever want to use a camera's digital zoom – you'll end up with grainy, awful results.
5. Rechargeable or AA battery? There is no "right" answer to this question. For AA, the argument is universal replacement – if you run out of power, you can always buy another couple of AAs at practically any retail location. But rechargeable lithium-ion cells can snap around 50 percent more photos on a single charge, can better handle the power sucked by larger LCD screens, and also tend to be found on more stylish and thinner models.
Caveat emptor: If you opt for rechargeable, make sure you get a model that charges the battery outside of the camera rather than those that charge the battery only when it's in the camera. An external charger means you can buy an extra battery, which means you always have a fully-charged battery with you.
6. Buy a camera with HD video recording. If you're being offered a camera that DOESN'T include HD movie capture, you're being cheated – it's hard to find a camera that doesn't shoot HD video. The better cameras capture 1920 x 1080 Blu-ray-like highest resolution video rather than lower resolution 1280 x 720, but both are considered high-definition, and you may only notice the difference on a 50-inch-plus HDTV. If video quality is that important to you, though, you should buy a full-sized HD camcorder from Canon, JVC, Panasonic, Samsung or Sony.
Caveat emptor: Avoid cameras that shoot HD video using a format called "Motion JPEG." This format doesn't yield results as good as a format called "H.264" aka MPEG-4 AVC, and may not be compatible with your PC, YouTube or other online posting site, or video editing software. Check the spec sheet. If under "Movie Format" you see Motion JPEG (or M-JPG or some variation thereof) and NOT H.264/MPEG-4 AVC, move on.
As to where to shop for your camera, go to a store. Your comfort with a camera's ergonomics and how you locate settings in the menus are as important as any of these specifications. Once you find the model that suits you, now you can look for a cheap online price.