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how to buy a camera: geek speak

You shouldn’t need a Geek Squad to decipher the Geek Speak.  Especially not when trying to decide what camera to purchase; a camera that will document your child’s first year of life, your twentieth anniversary adventure, your mountain hike, your girl’s night out.  Your camera is about to fill a very practical function, and each of the geek-eeze mumbo jumbo is telling you how the camera will meet your needs. As I wrote last time, the fundamental camera-buying decision is:  “what is my budget?” As showcased in the chart below, in today’s technologically advanced market, any budget above $100 is money that simply adds icing to the basic camera cake.

What’s a megapixel and why do I need more? 

The megapixel war began around the time digital cameras we invented.  Possibly before (heh).  Scientifically, a megapixel is a unit of graphic resolution equivalent to one million or (strictly) 1,048,576 (220) pixels” according to the mecca of all knowledge, Mr. Google.  In pragmatic reality, the camera’s megapixel rating tells you the number of dots that together create your digital photograph.
I am very grateful for the advancements inspired by the megapixel war — it’s nice to be able to easily print 5 x 7 photographs without noticing a decline in quality. (My first digital camera had fewer megapixels than today’s most basic smartphone camera. Possibly even by half.) But somewhere along the way, this war for more has turned into the key marketing race of digital camera salesman; it’s the most praised feature of any new camera modal, but often the least applicable feature.

While you deciding what camera to buy, ask yourself: How often will you be printing photos larger than 11 x 17? Not often, you say?  Well, you just proved the digital camera salesman obsolete:  you don’t  need that 24 MP camera he’s nudging you toward.   The digital SLR guide has created an informative chart for determining how large a print you can make without losing quality.  And, in fact, if you do let him talk you into the 24 MP camera, you might as well buy several extra memory cards and possible even a larger hard drive — those camera files are going to be massive!

Does the size of the LCD screen matter?

While the size of the LCD screen seems like an integral part of the process when you buy a camera and is often listed as one of the key features of a camera model, the real question is how large the camera itself is. Are you holding the camera in your hand?  Is it too heavy to add to your purse? Do you need it to fit in your purse? Do you want a slimline camera, or does size not matter?

If you are only ever going to be looking at the LCD (it’s the type of electronic display in use; stands for Liquid Crystal Display) screen for composing your photo, then it’s size is of higher priority.  However, if you’ll be looking through the viewfinder most of the time and merely using the LCD for previewing your shots, maybe that size (and possible flexibility) won’t be as necessary.

Besides, most cameras on the market today flaunt their 3.0 inch screen with pride.  How much bigger do you really need?

How much zoom do I need?

Before trying to weed through pages and pages and pages of Amazon digital camera pages trying to buy a camera, you need to understand one very important different:  digital versus optical zoom.

While it may be exciting to be able to flaunt your “40x zoom” to your friends, do so with discretion: is it optical zoom or digital zoom?  Optical zoom is the important number: it’s the physical mechanism in the camera that zooms in to magnify your subject.  Digital zoom, on the other hand, just takes a central portion of the image and enlarging it, thus ‘simulating’ optical zoom. In other words, the camera crops a portion of the image and then enlarges it back to size. In so doing, you lose image quality.”  (Source.)

Digital zoom has it’s benefits in certain situations, but optical zoom is the key feature to watch.

What is ISO and what is it In Search Of?

Remember buying film back in the dark ages?  Remember having to decide between 24 and 36 exposure rolls, and between 100 and 400 varieties?  The 100 or 400 number was the ISO and indicates the sensitivity of the film to light.  Thankfully, the digital age doesn’t require choosing the ISO for a whole roll before even leaving the store.  Instead, each photograph can be set to a different ISO.

The ISO in photography does not actually stand for “In Search Of”, but it might be an easy way for you to remember that the ISO of the film indicates how strongly it is in search of light.  Lower light requires a higher sensitivity film, 100 ISO is for the brightest of sunny days and higher numbers are for cloudier/darker settings. \

While a camera manufacturer will proudly share the full range of ISO that your camera is capable of (12,800 anyone?!), the real question you need to ask is what ISO can this camera do well. If you’ll be routinely shooting in low light situations, this factor is even more important. (At higher ISO, cameras are likely to acquire a grain/noise that can be distracting if you weren’t expecting it.)

Functionally, as long as you’re spending $100 on a digital camera, you’re going to be able to take great photos in most situations and print them at relatively normal sizes (at least 11 x 14, usually) without decrease in quality.  The “extras”, then, are what increase the pricetag: the ability for interchangeable lenses, the quality of video recording, any motion steadying technology, the option of uploading photos directly from the camera via wifi, the competency of the battery life.

Pick your budget, do a little research, and buy a camera. The end.

Buy a Camera: Make the Decision

To empirically prove that consumer cameras are essentially equal, this chart showcases a wide pricerange of consumer cameras on the market from Nikon and Canon as of May 1, 2014.  Chosen based on Amazon rating, Prime-availability, and without lenses in the case of DSLR bodies,  these cameras vary in price but showcase only minor differences except in the zoom capability and the “extra features”.

P.S. Isn’t Lindsey awesome?  She’s a high school senior heading off to photography school this fall and our senior session in Winston Salem, NC was, of course, photography- themed.

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