A Quick Intro Before We Dig In
I'm writing this because many people in the past have asked me for advice on buying a camera. I know what they're hoping for -- they're hoping I'll point them to a specific camera. I won't do that, because everybody has different needs and expectations. I think I can help people better by understanding what to look for in a camera, rather than pointing out a particular one. So, while you'll see ads on this page for cameras, the text of this article is not intended to sell you a specific camera.
First, Examine Your Needs
The very first thing you should do when you're shopping for a camera is decide how you want to use it. Don't let others (especially salespeople!) make assumptions for you. For example, I didn't say "a digital camera" because that assumes you want a digital camera. There are valid reasons for wanting a film camera! I also didn't say "a new camera" because your needs might be better served with a used camera. So, you first need to cast aside all assumptions so that you can really get to the heart of how your camera will serve you.
Next, grab some scrap paper (the blank side of junk mail works great!) and a pen, and jot down a list of all the ways you see yourself using your camera. Will you be taking pictures of a new baby? How about a family member's sporting event, or dance recital? Could you be taking artistic photos to sell, or show in galleries? Would you want to sell your photos on microstock sites like Shutterstock or Dreamstime?
Take a good amount of time on this step, because getting a thorough understanding of what you want will help ensure you actually get it, without spending too much or too little and without missing features or getting features that go unused.
Next, Prepare Your Mind To Ignore Hype
Camera manufacturers and store salespeople know that a huge list of features can increase sales, because most people won't read this article and won't go through the first step discussed above!
The truth, however, is that a camera having a feature is not the same as you actually needing or wanting that feature. For example, my company has a camera that is used for basic utility purposes, and it has a feature where the photo will be a "black & white" image (or "grayscale" in computer terms) with the exception of one color that the photographer can select. Has this feature ever been used? Just once, to see how it worked! Was this feature even considered during the purchase decision? Not at all.
The only list to guide you in your camera purchase is the list you made in the first step above, not the list of features provided by a camera manufacturer or store salesperson.
Now, Compare Capabilities
This is the nitty-gritty of selecting your camera. Don't worry about price too much yet, the purpose of this stage is to winnow down your list of possible cameras to ensure that the ones you compare for prices will meet your needs and expectations.
Here are some key things to look for, although how relevant they are depends on that list you made in the first step. (See how important that list was?!)
Format: Digital or Film
For a very wide range of "general consumer" uses, digital will probably be the right choice. It eliminates the costs and delays of getting film developed and printed, and makes it quick and easy to share your photos with friends and family no matter where they are. However, there are specific times you might want to use film. For example, you may be interested in the artistic control of developing and printing your own photos at home. Or, you may be studying photography and need a low-cost camera that offers full control over shutter speed and aperture in a way that an inexpensive digital camera can't provide. There may be specific film types you want to use for certain results, and so forth. There's a good chance that you'll already know whether you want a film or digital camera, but it's best to make that decision directly rather than going with an assumption.
For digital cameras, this is measured in pixel dimensions of the photos the camera creates. The "big print" will tell you a somewhat-accurate rating in megapixels, while the "fine print" (perhaps only in the user manual) will tell you the exact pixel dimensions. For print cameras, this is measured in the actual size of the film -- 35mm is most common, but you may actually want a medium or large format, or (in rare cases) something smaller than 35mm.
Make sure the size you select will fit all the needs you identified in your list. For example, if you want to sell your photos on microstock sites, you would want a digital camera with a minimum of 5 megapixels.
If you're just taking family snapshots, the lens on your camera may not matter much to you. However, if you want to have a high level of control over your photos, you may want to be able to put different lenses on. With an SLR camera (film or digital), you will be able to change lenses for various purposes. Most compact cameras do not allow changing the lens, although some (such as the Canon PowerShot S series) allow adding a convertor to the fixed lens, giving you the option to add a lens in front of the built-in lens.
How Many Photos Before Changing Media
For film cameras, you'll normally have to take a fixed number of photos before you change the film, and that will be determined by the film you buy (12 exposure, 24 exposure, etc.). Some film cameras, such as the Minolta Maxxum 7, allow you to switch rolls part way through.
For digital cameras, this will be determined by the capacity of the memory cards you can use in the camera. This is one area where you may want to think about price, but the price of the media. Some memory card formats are more expensive than others, per megabyte or gigabyte of storage space, so that may become a concern.
Make sure that the camera you select will let you change media (film or memory cards) at a frequency that will fit your needs. If you're going to be taking photos at a sporting event, you won't want to change your media after every dozen shots!
One of the "basic" accessories that you may want to add, especially if you want a high level of control over your images, is a flash -- either connected directly to your camera or a remote flash that will be triggered by your camera's flash. Other accessories include basics like camera bags, tripods, etc. Make sure that any intended use, from your list of needs created in the first step, will be supported by the accessories available for the cameras you consider. For example, if you're going to do tabletop macro photography, you won't get far with a camera that can't be mounted onto a tripod.
There Are More To Consider!
For reading online, the list of all possible facets to consider is unfortunately too long, especially considering both film and digital cameras. You can read another, older article I wrote about shopping for a digital camera if you know you want a digital camera. The important thing to remember is that you need to compare the features of the camera (and its available accessories) against your list of needs and expectations.
And, again, the goal here is to go from having thousands of cameras to consider, down to having half a dozen possible models that you're reasonably sure will meet your needs.
At Last, Compare Prices
Once you have a list of cameras that probably will fit your needs, it's time to find the best price. Be sure to look at local stores, but also check on the Web. You'll find a very wide variety of stores sell cameras, so you'll have a lot of prices to choose from. To keep track of them all, you might want to create a spreadsheet in a program like OpenOffice.org or Microsoft Excel. Don't forget to factor in elements such as sales tax and shipping. Some sites I always check are Amazon.com, NewEgg.com, and Vanns.com, but you might ask people you know for recommendations, especially if you heard they got a good deal or particularly good customer service.
Rather than pointing you to a specific camera, I have tried to show you the importance of understanding exactly how you will use your camera and what it needs to offer in order to meet your expectations. Although a list of every possible facet is not feasible to provide here, hopefully the guidance I have provided will help you make the best choice. As long as you are working toward finding a camera that meets your needs, rather than assumptions others make for you, you're virtually guaranteed to be happy with your choice!
Please let me know if you find this article useful, and feel free to share a link to it with others you know who may be in the market for a camera.