How to buy a digital camera

Camera specs explained

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Scene modes

Some cameras try to entice prospective buyers, particularly beginning photographers, with a large number of scene modes—presets that are designed for such specialized settings and subjects as the beach, fireworks, and underwater. Unfortunately, selecting one of these less common modes usually involves a trip to the menus and multiple button presses.

Many cameras automatically select the best scene mode to use while they're in Auto mode. Some cameras let you assign one of the scene modes—or a custom mode that you create—to a position on the control dial, where you can more easily access it. Some DSLRs offer multiple positions on their control dial for storing customized settings, and some point-and-shoots allow you to store customized settings as a mode within the scene modes menu or via the control dial.

One potentially helpful feature offered by almost every point-and-shoot camera is facial detection. In detecting people's faces, the camera aims to optimize both focus and exposure for the subjects, presumably to better effect than the more traditional portrait mode that almost every camera offers. Some new cameras even have smile recognition, which will automatically take a picture when someone in the frame smiles; this feature is great for baby pictures or for shooting an otherwise moody subject.

Unique shooting modes

Camera manufacturers are also discovering new ways to make their offerings stand out from the pack. Some in-camera features are worth the price of admission by themselves, and they vary by vendor. For example, a Lytro camera lets you focus your photos after you shoot them. Many cameras now offer high-speed shooting modes for both stills and video. Sony has a Sweep Panorama mode that lets you press the shutter button once and then pan across a scene to create an instant panoramic image, and several other vendors have since adopted this mode. Many cameras have a "Miniature Mode" or a "Tilt-Shift" mode that makes large objects look like miniature models. Several companies also have cameras that shoot 3D images. And you'll find quite a few cameras today with built-in GPS and mapping features. When it comes to cameras, don't be afraid to dive into the details; you may discover a cool feature hiding in the spec sheet that makes a camera a top contender for meeting your needs.

White balance

Almost all digital cameras allow you to choose a white-balance setting via presets. This setting tells the camera which elements in a shot should look white, and (by inference) which elements should look black—and what everything in between should look like. If you're finicky about color accuracy, look for a custom white-balance mode in which you press the shutter button while aiming at a white object.

LCD and viewfinder

All digital cameras have an LCD screen; these vary in size from 1.8 to 3.5 inches. The smaller size limits your ability to review just-taken images on the camera. A good LCD is essential for knowing whether you got the picture you wanted, and it can usually give you an indication of whether the shot was properly exposed. Newer cameras have touchscreen LCDs that allow you to tap on subjects in the frame to focus on, as well as to navigate menus. If you're thinking about getting a camera with a touchscreen LCD, make sure that the screen is responsive—and account for the screen-smudge factor. Also, confirm that accessing the settings you'd normally use doesn't take too many screen-presses.

LCD quality varies widely: Many wash out in sunlight or become grainy in low light, or the image may change if you tilt the camera slightly. If possible, try using a camera outdoors before you buy it. Some cameras also have an eye-level viewfinder, which is a convenient backup for framing your shots (and if you turn off the LCD when you're not using it, you'll save battery power). Perhaps the best way to ensure an accurate exposure is to view the photograph's histogram on the LCD, if the camera offers this feature. A histogram is a graph that show you highlights that are overexposed to the point of being pure white, and shadows that are underexposed and show as pure black.

Wireless features

In order to compete with the smartphone's encroachment on the standalone camera's turf, more and more cameras have built-in Wi-Fi features to help you share photos more quickly from a camera. These wireless capabilities aren't just used to transmit images to a PC, a printer, or a photo-sharing site; they often come with a companion mobile app to let you share images and video with a smartphone or tablet. There are iOS and Android apps that let you use a smartphone as a remote control, a remote viewfinder, and a tethered storage device for your photos.

A few years ago, only the most basic point-and-shoot cameras offered Wi-Fi features, and the implementation of these features wasn't too compelling. That's changing very quickly. Samsung has added Wi-Fi features to its NX line of interchangeable-lens cameras and its higher-end point-and-shoot cameras, Nikon has released a Wi-Fi–enabled 10X-zoom camera that runs the Android operating system and mobile apps, and Sony continues to introduce more and more Wi-Fi cameras that tie into the company's PlayMemories online service.

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