How to Shop for a Camera


I often see in the Etsy forums people asking for advice on buying a new camera.  While others’ experiences and opinions can be quite valuable, most of the responses simply state what the writer is currently using, along with some verbiage like “I love it,” or “it’s a piece of crap.”  Unfortunately, those responses rarely include the reason the person feels that way.  Responses like this one are also pretty common — “I use a Canon PowerShot.  It’s fantastic.”  Of course, it’s never mentioned which of the 28 currently available PowerShot models they’re using!

So by now you’re probably thinking to yourself … OK, smart-ass, what camera do YOU recommend?  Well, I don’t.  What I do recommend, however, is thinking about what you’re planning to photograph, learning about the features important to that type of photography, and then doing a little research into what camera best fits your requirements.  Today I’m going to help you do just that!

But I’m going to start out with a disclaimer that the things that I say are important (or unimportant) when choosing a camera assume we’re talking about product photography for your online shop.  If your main interest is shooting your child’s soccer game, or sweeping vistas, or parties and weddings, then you’re in the wrong place (although you still might learn something interesting).  This discussion is also limited, for now, to compact (point & shoot) cameras.  If you’ve  already read this, and still believe a dSLR is the right choice for you, then you’ll have to wait for my upcoming “How to Shop for a dSLR” article.

Look online at the “specifications” page for any camera and you’re likely to see a list of 50 or so individual points.  Which ones are important?  Unfortunately, there really is no consensus on this.  But I’ll give you a list of nine that you really should pay attention to and use for comparisons.  So let’s get to it, starting with a simple list of features that do NOT matter, should not be considered and should make you go elsewhere if a salesperson starts telling you about why you need them.

  1. Resolution (number of megapixels) — You’ll be hard pressed to find a camera on the market these days that doesn’t have a high enough resolution for your website or online shop images.  8, 10, 12 MP … it really doesn’t matter.  Learn why here.
  2. Digital zoom — You shouldn’t be using it anyway, so it doesn’t matter whether it’s 4X or 6X or 8X.
  3. 37 different shooting modes — Granted, having a camera automatically adjust some settings based on what you’re shooting can be helpful.  But there’s absolutely no need for “foliage mode,” or “pet portrait,” or “toy camera effect.”

Next, a look at what IS important, and what you should make an effort to learn about before deciding on a particular camera.

  1. Custom white balance setting — Learn why here.
  2. Image stabilization, vibration reduction, etc. — Whatever it’s called, you need it!  But turn it off if you’re using your tripod.
  3. Sensor size — Although there are exceptions, in general bigger is better.  Bigger sensors usually allow you to shoot at higher ISO settings with less noise.  All else being equal, shooting at higher ISO means that your shutter speed can be faster, so you’re less likely to have motion blur problems. Sensor size is usually measured as a fraction, so a smaller denominator means a bigger sensor.  For example, the sensors on the Canon PowerShot A490 and Nikon Coolpix S3100 (1/2.3″) are smaller than the sensors on the PowerShot G12 and Coolpix P7100 (1/1.7″).

Lastly, here’s a list of a few “debatable” items, important to some but not to others, depending on how you shoot.

  1. Maximum aperture — Larger apertures (lower f-stop values) can be very beneficial.  They let you play with depth of field a bit, and can provide a little more flexibility in low-light situations.  But the advertised maximum aperture on most compact cameras only applies when the lens is zoomed all the way out.  Zoom in even a tiny bit and that number is meaningless.  So if you’re going to make maximum aperture a deciding factor in picking your next camera, make sure you understand how it relates to the focal length of the lens.
  2. Manual control — I personally wouldn’t buy a camera without a manual shooting mode.  And if you dedicate some time to learn how to use it, then you’ll never regret having it.  But for those of you who know up front that you’ll never have the time or inclination to shoot in full manual mode, then just leave this feature off of your “must have” list.  If the camera you purchase has it, great.  If not, you’ll probably never miss it.
  3. Noise reduction — If you have relatively powerful image editing software, with good noise reduction capability, then you don’t have to worry about this feature.  But if you’re planning to use images with little or no post-processing, then the camera’s built-in noise reduction performance becomes important.  Do a little research, or better yet, go to your local camera shop or big box store and ask the salesperson for a demonstration.

There you have it.  Nine points that should make you a better-prepared camera shopper.  Good luck with the hunt, and as always, let me know if you have any specific questions.

Until next time … Happy Shooting!