Buyer's Guide: How to Shop for a Digital Camera

By Jennifer Schiff | Posted August 09, 2005

It seems like every few months the big-name digital camera manufacturers — Canon, Kodak, Sony, Nikon and Olympus — come out with new models touting some new improvement or must-have feature. With so many brands, models, megapixels and features to choose from, how is a small business owner to pick the right digital camera?

SmallBusinessComputing.com talked to two digital camera experts and several small business owners to get the lowdown on what you need to consider when purchasing a new digital camera — or adding one to an existing inventory. We've also included a handy checklist to help prioritize the features you want, which you can print, clip and take shopping.

Why Buy a Digital Camera?
Many small businesses — from insurance adjusters, realtors, appraisers and lawyers to landscapers, contractors and artists, just to name a few — can benefit from having a digital camera on hand.

"Photography is one of the key components to the whole eBay set up," says Aditi Goswami, an eBay PowerSeller and a FoundValue specialist who helps others sell their stuff on eBay. "The picture is everything to your auction. If you have a bad picture, no matter how good a product you are offering, you're not going to get as many hits as you possibly could with a good picture."

Presenting good pictures on the Web, as well as in advertising and brochures, is equally critical for real estate agents trying to sell houses.

"Prospective clients, either listing their house or wanting to buy, always want to have pictures," says Carol MacDonald, advertising coordinator for Realty Seven, an independent real estate firm in Connecticut. "People are visual. On the Web, if there's a listing for a house and there's no picture, people aren't going to get excited. So it's important."

Indeed, whether you are selling on eBay or selling houses, if your business depends on putting pictures on the Web, you need a digital camera.

And what exactly is a digital camera? As defined by Webopedia:

A digital camera is a camera that…stores images digitally rather than recording them on film. Once a picture has been taken, it can be downloaded to a computer system, and then manipulated with a graphics program and printed. Unlike film photographs, which have an almost infinite resolution, digital photos are limited by the amount of memory in the camera, the resolution of the digitizing mechanism, and, finally, by the resolution of the final output device (i.e., your printer).

In other words, a digital camera is great for taking pictures you can manipulate with some software on your computer and then uploading onto the Web (think eBay – or any Web site where pictures are essential), not as great for printing gorgeous, high-resolution 8- x 10-inch or larger pictures, though there are plenty of high-end digital cameras that will allow you to do that, for a price.

What is a Megapixel Anyway?
Pixels are dots or tiny elements that make up a digital picture. A megapixel equals one million pixels. Cameras come in a range of megapixels and, the theory goes, the more megapixels your camera has, the better — or sharper — your picture will be. In general, it's a pretty good theory. However, the reality is somewhat different, depending on how — and where — you plan to use pictures.

If you're mainly throwing pictures up on the Web, "megapixels don't really mean a whole lot, because the images being placed on the Web are going to be low-resolution, 72 dpi (dots per inch), and about 300 or 500 pixels in width," says Chuck Chaney, a professional photographer who manages Calumet Photographic's Santa Barbara, Calif.-based store.

Where megapixels come into play, says Chaney, is when your main goal is to print pictures larger than 4-x-6 inches. For this, you should probably consider a higher-end digital camera or a regular 35-millimeter film camera.

However, "for eBay, your basic 3.2 megapixel digital camera is fine," says Goswami, who often posts upward of 100 pictures per week on the auction site and is happy with her three-year-old, 3.2 megapixel Canon PowerShot S30.

Indeed, even Kodak digital camera guru Phil Scott, the general manager of digital capture for the Americas region, admits "if someone is just using their digital camera for eBay, they probably don't need a camera with a lot of megapixels. But if you want to be able to crop that image, you do need more megapixels, because more megapixels allows you to crop pictures down further."

More megapixels can also be helpful if you want your print images to be as sharp as possible. Realty Seven uses a high-end, 5.3 megapixel Konica Minolta DiMAGE A1 so they can just as easily post pictures on the Web as print them in four-color brochures and sales sheets.

Which Features Do I Really Need?
Before you begin evaluating cameras, make a checklist (or use ours) of what you really need — or think you need — in a digital camera. Next prioritize. Then go to your local high-end camera or electronics store, present your requirements to a (hopefully) knowledgeable salesperson and try out some different models.

Here are a few basic questions to consider:

Are you mostly taking up-close pictures that require lots of detail, such as pictures of jewelry or other small objects to sell on eBay or your own Web site?
While all cameras let you take close ups (that's what that little flower icon means), how you access that option can vary. So if you're going to be doing a lot of close-up work, look for a camera with an easy-to-use close-up feature.

Feature Very
Important
Somewhat
Important
Not
Important
High optical zoom
(4x or greater)
Large LCD (greater
than one inch)
Wide-angle lens
Pocketsize or
lightweight
4-to-5 megapixels
6 or more
megapixels
$350 or less
Extra memory
Memory card reader
Print, clip and fill out this list to help you prioritize the
digital camera features you need most.

Do you need a camera that lets you capture an image from far away?
In that case you probably want to look at cameras with a higher optical or "true" (as opposed to digital) zoom than the 3x optical zoom on most cameras. However, be aware that cameras with bigger zoom capability tend to be bigger or bulkier (though this isn't always the case).

Is lighting an important issue for your work?
"Lighting is actually more important than any particular camera, because if you have bad light, you're going to have bad pictures," says professional photographer Chuck Chaney. "And the typical digital camera isn't going to give you good light."

Most built-in flashes can properly illuminate a subject up to only about 10 feet from the camera. And even then, they don't always shed the best or right kind of light. That's why Chaney recommends that eBay sellers and similar users make sure they use some kind of supplemental lighting when shooting inside (or outside at night). And if you decide that you need an external flash, make sure the camera you buy has a hot shoe, a mount typically located on the top of the camera body where an external flash would go. (Note: When shooting outdoors in daylight, Chaney recommends shooting early in the morning or late in the afternoon, when the light is best for taking pictures.)

Do you typically take lots of pictures of large exteriors and/or interiors (e.g., houses or construction sites)?
You may want to consider a camera with a wide-angle lens option — something that does not come standard on many cameras and will cost you a bit extra, but can be a good investment.

Does camera size matter?
Is smaller really better? That depends on you, the experts say. While the idea of a pocketsize camera sounds like a dream, if you have big fingers, or your fine motor control isn't the best, it can be a nightmare. Similarly, a smaller (and lighter) camera will probably not offer a high optical zoom or a big LCD because those features take up a lot of space. Some vendors also make tradeoffs in battery power in favor of a small footprint. This is another case where trying before buying makes sense.

What about LCD size?
"The LCD [Liquid Crystal Display] is ultimately the thing that makes a digital camera unique from any other picture-taking device, the ability to look at the picture you just took and decide, do I want to keep it or do I want to get rid of that picture?" says Kodak's Phil Scott.

Especially if you are trying to capture detail, you need a "good LCD, with the ability to zoom in or magnify the picture that you're looking at, to make sure that you caught the detail," he adds. "A tiny LCD without enough resolution won't give you that detail."

However, he also notes, a larger LCD, say two inches, means a larger camera and greater battery drain. Again, you may have to make some trade-offs.

Are you on a budget?
Here's the good news: You can buy a perfectly good 3-, 4- or 5-megapixel name-brand camera with lots of nifty features for between $300 and $500 these days. "In all honesty," says Chaney, "that $300 to $350 range will pretty much satisfy the majority of people out there." The important thing, again, is to find the camera that delivers the best value (i.e., features and handling) for your money. And to do this, it makes sense to try before you buy, even if you ultimately end up buying online.

Chaney, who has used and handled many different brands, also notes that all the leading manufacturers — Kodak, Canon, Olympus, Sony, Nikon, and Minolta — make excellent cameras. It's really a personal choice issue.

Other Things to Know When Buying a Digital Camera
The scoop on batteries
Before you buy the camera, "it's important to consider battery life and what type of batteries go in the camera," notes Scott. "A lithium-ion battery is much better than a nickel metal hydride (NiMH) battery. These are both rechargeable batteries, and they're better than alkaline batteries. A digital camera alkaline battery is better than a regular alkaline battery. And don't even think of putting a heavy-duty battery in there because it will die very quickly. You may get 25-30 shots out of it if you're using an LCD. And here's the other part of it: The bigger the LCD, the more battery power it consumes.

"For any business owner taking a lot of pictures, rechargeable is definitely the way to go," says Scott. "Otherwise you're constantly replacing batteries, and that gets to be expensive. And make sure you have a back-up one that you keep charged. A $14.95 rechargeable backup battery is a wise investment."

And because every camera is different (though models within the same brand will tend to use the same kinds of batteries), it is essential that you know the battery life for your particular camera, or the number of pictures the camera will take using the battery supplied. You can find that information in the owner's manual. A good digital camera will probably give you upward of 300 shots before you need to recharge the battery.

Be sure to buy extra memory
"Typically, you can figure you're just going to have to buy extra memory," says Calumet Photographic's Chaney. "We're even starting to see some manufacturers not include memory cards at all. So just figure you're going to spend between $40 and $100 — per camera — on extra memory, depending on how many images you want to store on each card."

Most cameras take either CompactFlash memory cards or Secure Digital (SD) memory cards, both of which can be purchased in just about any size, from 64 MB (around $35) to 128 MB (around $50) to 256 MB (around $70) and 512 MB (about $100 or more), to allow for maximum storage.

Before you buy a memory card, find out what kind of memory your camera uses. Similarly, and this applies to batteries too, if you already have one or more digital cameras, it probably makes sense to buy a camera that uses the same type of removable storage media (i.e., memory) and batteries as your existing camera(s). Typically, if you are buying a camera from the same manufacturer, particularly in the same line, you are safe.

Get a memory card reader or docking station
How many times have you or one of your employees spent hours trying to figure out how the heck to download those images from your digital camera? Phil Scott of Kodak has heard and seen it all. That's why Kodak developed the EasyShare system.

"The Kodak EasyShare system is a printer docking station that recharges your camera's batteries. Push a button to transfer your pictures to a PC, if you're connected to a PC, or print right from the digital camera, bypassing the PC altogether," says Scott.

And while Consumer Reports and others give the Kodak EasyShare system and Kodak EasyShare cameras high marks, you can get similar results by purchasing a memory card reader. Readers basically act like an external hard drive that you attach to your PC or laptop to download pictures stored on that card. And many newer machines come with memory card slots built in, saving further time, aggravation and battery life. Just make sure the reader you buy is compatible with your memory card and your PC.

Features to forego: audio and video
If making videos is important to your work, buy a camcorder. While almost all digital cameras come with some sort of short-play video capability, the resolution is typically poor and it will eat through your memory faster than a horde of hungry rabbits. Use your camera for how it was intended, to take pictures.

Software and printing
Almost all digital cameras come with software that lets you download images to your PC and then print. Some cameras even come with proprietary picture-editing software. However, if editing your pictures is critical to your business, invest in a good photo-editing software package, such as Adobe Photoshop Elements or Corel Paint Shop Pro.

As for printing your pictures, if you plan on printing pictures yourself, make sure you have a printer that will yield the best photo images – and be sure to keep a pile of good photographic paper on hand. Depending on what you are printing, you may just want to upload your pictures to an online photofinisher, such as Shutterfly, Snapfish, or the Kodak EasyShare Gallery.

Sites to Help Make Your Decision Easier
The experts agree — nothing beats going into a good camera or electronics store, talking to a knowledgeable salesperson and testing various models before you make your final decision. But before you do — or even after — check out one or more of these tried-and-true resources to get a direct comparison of features and prices:

Jennifer Lonoff Schiff writes about business and technology.

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!

Comment and Contribute


     

    Get free tips, news and advice on how to make technology work harder for your business.

    Submit
    Learn more
     
    You have successfuly registered to
    Enterprise Apps Daily Newsletter
    Thanks for your registration, follow us on our social networks to keep up-to-date