Digital Crave

Five features to look for in your next digital camera

Digital Crave

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Good news for those in the market for a new digital camera: Not only are prices dropping all the time, but new features are continually being added, offering even more bang for your buck.

But those not very tech-savvy might find it difficult to keep up with all the lingo, though -- be it "image stabilization," "facial detection" or "interchangeable lenses." And, more importantly, you might not be aware which features are worth paying more for and which ones are not.

Here's a look at a few random thoughts on what to look for and why.

Point-and-shoot vs. dSLR

You will encounter two main different types of digital cameras when you visit your local electronics store: point-and-shoot and digital single-lens reflex (dSLR).

Before you buy, ask yourself whether you prefer a simple, compact and inexpensive camera that can fit in a purse or in a pocket or if you need a more powerful and versatile camera that's bulkier and pricer.

Point-and-shoot cameras are simpler, cost less and offer more portability options than a dSLR rig. But dSLRs have faster start-up times and shutter speeds, you've got more manual options, you can swap lenses to suit the situation (such as a telephoto, macro, wide-angle or fish-eye lens) and you'll get much better photos thanks to a much larger sensor than their compact cousins.

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While dSLRs are larger and heavier, they provide plenty of opportunity for amateur photographers to produce professional level photos with time and skill.

Once you've decided what type of photographer you are -- enthusiast (dSLR) or casual (point-and-shoot) -- you'll be ready to compare the features listed for each device subtype.

There is a third category of cameras, too, offering a smaller body like a point-and-shoot but support for interchangeable lenses like a dSLR. These "mirror-less" cameras (sometimes referred to as "micro four thirds" cameras) are in between both main camera categories in terms of size, features and price.

Good zoom, interchangeable lenses

When it comes to pocket-sized cameras, there are two kinds of zoom: optical and digital.

An optical zoom is made to bring the user closer to the subject, without needing to physically move. Like older cameras, this is done with a retractable lens. Digital zoom, though, only changes the presentation of existing data by guessing where extra pixels should go to give the illusion the user is closer to the object (often called "interpolation").

The optical zoom, therefore, is a more important number to consider since it is the "true" zoom -- remember this when reviewing the camera's specs in a flier or on a website. In fact, many camera companies have removed the digital zoom number as it's really not relevant.

Generally, a small point-and-shoot camera offers 3x or 5x optical zoom, but a 10x zoom or more is helpful if you want to capture distant details, such as the candid emotion on someone's face.

Click here for more info on camera lenses.

Megapixels

It's often the first word you see when surveying the specs of a new camera: megapixels.

"Megapixels" -- which means a "million pixels" and refers to the tiny squares that make up a digital image -- are a way to measure the amount of detail in a given photo.

So, by this logic, is a 10-megapixel digital camera twice as good as a 5-megapixel camera? It depends on what you're going to do with that photo.

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A camera with more megapixels has two main advantages:

* If you're interested in turning a photo into a poster-sized print, more megapixels in the image will mean the photo will look less grainy or "pixilated." The human eye cannot discern the difference between a 5-megapixel image and a 10-megapixel image when staring at a 4x6 photo. But at 16x20 or larger, the pixilation is apparent.

* The second advantage to more megapixels is when you want to zoom in on a photo on your computer and crop it. For example, you take a photo of seven kids, arm in arm, in a row. If you want to isolate your granddaughter among the crowd -- by cropping out everyone else in the photo -- that edited photo will be clearer if there are more megapixels.

Image stabilization

Image stabilization prevents photos from appearing blurry as a result of shaky hands. Blurred photos occur more often when snapping images at slow shutter speeds or when zooming in from afar using a telephoto lens.

A camera with integrated image stabilization works to sharpen your photos by using a hardware solution ("optical image stabilization," which is implemented in the lens or body itself) or a software solution ("digital image stabilization"). Optical image stabilization is more effective than the other.

Face detection and other assists

Many digital cameras offer "face detection" technology. As the name suggests, these cameras have a built-in algorithm that detects faces in a scene (by looking for a typical facial composition, such as two eyes, a nose and a mouth) and automatically adjusts the focus and lighting to these images as the priority. Some cameras can detect up to eight or 10 different faces in one scene.

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This means no more out-of-focus portraits.

A few cameras also have a "smile shutter" option that won't take the picture unless the subject is smiling. Features like this are easily disabled if you're interested in candid shots.

The latest cameras also offer an "auto scene" option, which automatically detects the kind of shot you're taking -- such as a night or close-up ("macro") shot -- and chooses the right mode for you.

HD video recording

Why can't you have your cake and eat it, too?

Most new digital cameras also let you shoot video, as well. After all, an infant's first steps or a child's laughter is more powerful as a moving picture than a still one.

And, thankfully, the prices of digital memory -- the postage stamp-sized cards that snap into the camera -- are getting cheaper all the time, while capacity is on the rise.

Most dSLR models shoot 1080p-quality video, which looks outstanding when played back on a compatible high-definition television. And with the "Live View" LCD screen on many new dSLRs, you can see the video you're shooting in real-time on the back of the camera (and in many cases, tilt it to get the perfect view), instead of having to peer through the viewfinder.

And a few more "nice to haves"

Other good digital camera considerations include good battery life (and try to find one with a rechargeable battery so you don't need to spend money on disposables); in-camera editing tools (such as red-eye removal); built-in art filters (to get creative with your shots); and a speed burst mode (to take multiple shots per second so you can choose the best one).

Another popular trend with point-and-shoot cameras is durable adventure-proof models that can withstand the elements. These cameras are waterproof, freeze-proof, drop-proof and dust-proof — without requiring a special case.

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If you're so inclined, other new camera features include geo-tagging (stamping the photo with GPS location info, so it'll show up in the right place when imported into mapping software); high-speed cameras that lets you play back photos or video in slow-motion (a good way to analyze your golf swing); and new panoramic technology that's as easy to use as pressing the shutter button once, panning the camera from side to side, and then waiting a second or two for the camera to create an instant, seamless panoramic image.

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