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Does this scenario sound familar...
You walk up to a store's camera counter. A clerk approaches and offers to help you. You say you're looking for a digital camera, and the clerk immediately asks, "How much did you want to spend?"
Needless to say, this scenario nearly always ends up with the discovery that the "perfect camera" for you costs just about exactly what you have to spend. (Surprise, surprise!)
Unfortunately, it also often leaves you with a digital camera that's far less - or far more - than you need.
To get the best camera for your needs, you should answer a few questions before you walk into the store. They're simple questions... but they can save you a bundle of money.
First, ask yourself how you'll use the camera. For snapshots at family outings and other occasional use, a compact point-and-shoot digital camera is all you'll need. If you like to shoot candids on the fly and capture spontaneous moments, then a pocket camera is probably most appropriate. If you're into sports or wildlife, a digital SLR or "superzoom" model will be more appropriate.
Next, ask yourself how you'll use the pictures. If you'll mostly send them to family and friends or post them in an Internet photo album, a low-resolution camera will be fine. On the other hand, if you want poster-sized prints, you need a high-resolution model. For most people, the ideal is somewhere in between.
Then ask which features are important to you. Today's cameras offer lots of features... but very few people need all of them. Selecting just those that are important to you can help keep your camera cost down. Here's a quick review of some key features:
* Lens. Most digital cameras come with either a fixed focal length lens or a zoom lens. Fixed focal length lenses often have the advantage of being "fast." That is, able to shoot in lower-light situations. Zoom lenses have the advantage of being able to make far-away object seem closer. With point-and-shoot cameras, the most comon zoom length is 3x, though there are some with longer zooms. Some "superzoom" cameras now sport zooms over 20x - though these lenses tend to be relatively slow. With a digital SLR, you can choose from a variety of fixed focal length or zoom lenses, and change them at will.
* Manual control. Most compact and pocket-sized digital cameras offer only automatic operation. For most people, this is fine. But if you like to get creative with your photography, options such as manual exposure and manual focus may be critical to your buying decision.
* Expandability. Digital SLR's are "system" cameras. That is, you can add more capabilities to your camera with various lenses, flashes, filters, power grips, etc. Most other cameras don't offer much in the way of expansion. These cameras are limited to their built-in features.
* Size and weight. This is an important consideration that most people overlook. Consider this: The Canon EOS 50D with Canon's 70 - 300 mm zoom lens weighs three pounds. To get an idea of how comfortable that much weight will be to carry, put a rope on a 3# barbell, hang it around your neck. Now try walking around for two or three hours with the dead weight hanging there. If you find that tiring, you'll have the same problem with the camera. On the other hand, Samsung's NV4 is a tiny 2.3" x 3.8" x 0.7". That's not an awful lot larger than a credit card... and possibly too small to be comfortable in large hands.
Of course, there are many other features, but these are some of the most important to consider.
Finally, your last question to yourself should be, "How much do I have to spend?" And that's how you should approach your purchase. When the clerk asks you the question, take a pass and simply say, "What I'm looking for is..." and tell them the type of camera and resolution you need, plus the features you want. Then ask them to show you the cameras that fit your specifications.
That way, you can choose the camera that fits you best - and probably come out spending less than you'd planned to.