Digital Cameras: How Low Can You Go?

Have you been dreaming of a new digital camera, but held back from buying because of the hefty price tag that might accompany your purchase? Worry no longer--it's time to wake up and get to the store. The quality of digital cameras has shot up in the last year, and prices have plummeted.

Today, the price of a 5- or 6-megapixel point-and-shoot digital camera has dropped below what a 4-megapixel camera was selling for less than a year ago. Take the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-P150, for example. When it debuted, this 7-megapixel model sold for $500. Today, you can find it at some online retailers for $369--a price drop of 26 percent.

What should you expect to spend for a digital camera? How low can you go?

"$200 to $300 is a sweet spot for the mass market," says Michelle Slaughter, director of digital photography trends at InfoTrends. "In this price range, consumers can obtain a good point-and-shoot digital camera with an image resolution of up to 5 megapixels and a 3X optical zoom lens."

The Sweet Spot

A digital camera priced at between $200 and $300 should offer the following features (at a minimum):

  • An optical zoom lens with a range equivalent to that of a 35-to-115mm lens in a film camera.
  • Lens openings that range from f2.8 to f4.8, and shutter speeds of from 4 seconds to 1/2000 second
  • Built-in flash
  • An optical viewfinder and an LCD of 1.5 to 2 inches (measured diagonally)
  • The ability to capture video clips at 320 by 240 resolution (often with audio)
  • From 10 to 20 scene modes
  • The ability to shoot 1.3 frames per second
  • Rechargeable batteries
  • Solid plastic or metal housing that can survive a drop off a table

A few things to keep in mind when you shop: Mass megapixels by themselves don't guarantee good photos. The most useful feature for point-and-shoot picture taking is scene modes. With scene modes, you don't need to know how to adjust your camera manually for such shots as a fireworks display, a sunsets, and birthday candle blowing. The handier digital cameras have scene mode selections available to handle just those types of situations.

Many digital cameras in the $200 to $300 range will fit in a jacket pocket. A few strive for the heft and size of a traditional 35mm camera, and others go for the cool factor that comes with being sleek and petite. You're likely to pay a premium for ultracompact size.

What kind of cameras can you find in this price range?

On the street, about $300 will buy you a 4.23-megapixel Fujifilm FinePix S5100. It has a generous 10X optical (not digital!) zoom that's the equivalent of a 37-to-370mm lens on a 35mm film camera. And it looks and feels like a full-size 35mm camera, which some people prefer over a camera they can hide in their palm.

Also in this price range is the Olympus C-740 digital camera, which sells on the street for just under $300. It offers 3.2-megapixel resolution and a 10X optical zoom.

For about the same price ($289 street), you can get the Kodak EasyShare DX7630 Zoom, weighing in at less than half a pound and topping out at 4 inches. It packs 6.1 megapixels along with 22 scene and color modes. The optical zoom, though, is only 3X.

Another option: the HP Photosmart R707; $275 (street) buys you 5.1 megapixels, a 3X optical zoom lens, 320-by-240-pixel video with sound, and ten scene modes.

Cutting Costs

If you can't spend more than $200, you're probably be buying last year's technology. The price for a camera with less than 4 megapixels may be super low but you won't be able to enlarge your photos. Some 3-megapixel cameras provide decent 5-by-7-inch prints, but you'll run into trouble blowing up photos to 8 by 10 inches or larger.

Some cameras priced under $200 sacrifice optical zoom for digital zoom. Because it exists only in software, digital zoom doesn't cost much to add to a camera. But whereas optical zoom makes the lens work like a telescope to bring things closer, digital zoom merely plays parlor tricks with pixels, multiplying them up in patterns that guess at what your picture would have looked like if you'd been using optical zoom. You can do the same thing with photo editing software on your PC. The less a camera costs, the likelier it is to include digital zoom and lack optical zoom. You shouldn't avoid buying a camera because it has digital zoom, but neyjer should you pay a penny more for a camera because it does include digital zoom.

Still, for $150 to $200, you'll get an autofocus camera with a small built-in flash and an LCD that measures about 1.5 inches diagonally. You won't find scads of scene modes, but you will probably get some sort of red-eye reduction and automatic exposure.

Just under $200 on the street fetches the Canon PowerShot A75. It has a resolution of 3.2 megapixels, a 1.8-inch LCD, and 12 scene modes.

Another sub-$200 camera is the Canon PowerShot A400, available on the street for around $160. It offers 3.3-megapixel resolution, a 2.2X optical zoom, and eight scene modes.

What You Don't Get for Supercheap

For less than $100, you can expect to get a digital camera with very limited features. The lens is likely to be fixed-focus, which means that it tries to keep the entire universe in focus at the same time but can't do justice to any one part of it, resulting in poor-quality (andr potentially grainy or blurry) pictures. Most sub-$100 cameras lack an LCD, too, forcing you to rely on an optical or electronic viewfinder to frame shots.

The camera's resolution will likely top out at about 2 megapixels, limiting the size of prints you can produce from your digital images. You'll have, at best, a couple of scene modes--and you'll be lucky if there's a built-in flash.

If you're sure you want to buy a camera at this low-end price, you do have options. Kodak's EasyShare CX6200 camera, for example, offers 2.0 megapixel resolution and a 1.6-inch LCD, but lacks an optical zoom. It's available for less than $90 online.

For information on other point-and-shoot digital cameras priced at between $349 and $499, take a look at PC World's January 2005 Top 10 Digital Cameras chart.

Prices vary from month to month, and even from day to day. A good place to check is PC World's Product Finder, where you can find the lowest price at dozens of online outlets. Of course, you may not want to buy from the seller with the absolute lowest price, especially if it's a retailer you're not familiar with. Research the retailers you're interested in, and make sure you feel comfortable with a store before you buy from it.

To find out what may have changed in the last 4 hours and to pick up on rebates, coupons, secret discount codes, and unadvertised specials, visit Techbargains.com, where the most obscure and fleeting of bargains are listed.

This story, "Digital Cameras: How Low Can You Go?" was originally published by PCWorld.

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