How to buy a digital camera

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Camera shopping quick tips

Look for low-light excellence: The larger the sensor, the better your low-light shots are likely to look. In the realm of compact cameras, small-sensored models are also getting better in challenging-lighting situations. Look for a camera with a dedicated low-light mode, which may also be called Handheld Night mode or something similar. The best of these modes take several photos at once at different exposure settings, combining the shots inside the camera to create a single, crisp shot in dim light; it's a process called exposure bracketing, which is also used for HDR (high dynamic range) photography. A lot of cameras these days have backside-illuminated (BSI) sensors, which generally do a good job in low-light situations. Many cameras also have auxiliary lights that help them focus in dim settings. That's important for many indoor shots.

Pay attention to the battery: Battery life isn't the only thing you should pay attention to, as some newer cameras require charging the battery by plugging the entire camera into a USB port or wall socket. That means you won't be able to use your camera while the battery is charging unless you have a backup battery. In any event, it's a good idea to buy a second battery for your camera, especially if you know you're going to be away from power outlets during your shooting day.

Match megapixels to your use: Most point-and-shoot cameras offer a resolution of at least 5 megapixels, which is overkill for producing 11-by-14-inch prints. Cameras with more megapixels will yield even larger prints and will allow you to blow up part of an image with less likelihood that the print will be blurry. If you plan to make only 4-by-6-inch prints, though, you don't have to shoot at the camera's highest resolution—and as a result, you'll be able to fit more shots onto your memory card.

Disregard digital zoom: Most cameras offer at least 5X optical zoom—and some boast an optical zoom as high as 42X. But sometimes vendors tout a "combined" or "extended" zoom that includes digital zoom. In general, digital zoom produces photos that are inferior to those produced with an optical zoom.

Try the camera before you buy: Some cameras have commands and menus that are easier to use than others, a fact you can ascertain only by means of a hands-on trial. In testing a camera, evaluate the lag time between when you press the shutter button and when the camera actually takes the picture. Try the zoom lens—does it operate quickly and smoothly? Find out how long you must wait between taking pictures. And try the LCD viewfinder—in the sun if possible—to determine how easy it is to read.

Buy a second memory card: If you have a second memory card, you can keep shooting while the images download, rather than having to keep the camera hooked up to your PC. Also, you won't have to worry about running out of space (and missing your perfect shot) quite so quickly.

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