Guide to Buying a Point and Shoot Digital Camera

By Mar 10, 2011September 2nd, 201228 Comments

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Lynda is back again as part of our Ask the Expert series.  This week she is answering a question on how to buy a digital camera.  Wow!  I wish I’d had something like this to read before we bought our digital camera last year.  To get all the details you need, read on.

The Regal Renegade asks:

My question is about a digital camera – I need one. I’m a newbie when it comes to digital photography and want to start somewhere, preferably with something around $100. I’d like to get a digital camera that has the capability to work with me as I get better and gain knowledge. If this is impossible at this price, I understand, but I have no idea what to look for or what to spend. I’m a bargain shopper and don’t mind buying used. Can you give me any suggestions, Lynda

For someone who seriously wants to learn photography, nearly any digital SLR will be a great choice as it has all the automatic features of a point and shoot, plus full manual exposure options. However, even an older model will be well over $100 used.

Buying a point and shoot digital camera can be hit or miss. That’s not to say they can’t be excellent tools for photography and help you take amazing photographs, because they absolutely can! Features vary so much that you really need to know what you’re looking for and what you expect out of the digital camera before buying it.

Camera StoreImage Credit: Helga’s Lobster Stew

New Camera Basics

If you’re in the market for a new point and shoot digital camera, regardless of your plans for learning photography in the future, there are a few technical considerations you need to make:

  • Resolution. The resolution is usually given in megapixels or MPs. The higher the resolution, the larger your files will be. Anything above 6MPs will look fabulous both in print and on the web. Unless you plan to regularly blow up poster or wall-sized images, more than 10MPs is overkill.
  • Storage Device. Most digital cameras use CompactFlash or SD Cards to store photos. Make sure to budget in the cost of a few cards with your camera purchase. (They are available on Amazon.com for much cheaper prices than any local brick and mortar store!)
  • Battery. Lithium batteries are cheaper and better for the environment than disposable alkaline, but you need electricity to charge them. A back-up lithium battery or two is also a good idea, though I’ve gotten by for years without one for my SLR or Point and Shoot. If you’re frequently traveling, camping or otherwise away from electricity for extended periods of time, alkaline may be a better option.
  • Zoom Capabilities. Look for “wide angle” and “telephoto” in the camera specs. Many proudly promote their optical zoom, but that doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about what the digital camera lens can see. This number represents the wide angle-to-telephoto ratio. For example, I have a 5.8x optical zoom lens for my SLR. That alone tells you nothing about the lens which is capable of shooting anything between 18-105mm. {To calculate this range, take 105, divide it by 5.8 and you get roughly 18.}

    Below are two photos taken from the same spot. The one on the left is zoomed all the way out at 18mm. The one on the right is zoomed all the way in at 105mm.

    02-27-11 - Zebras 18mm02-27-11 - Zebras 105mm

    If you take a lot of photos around the house or in enclosed spaces, look for lower wide angle values. If you take a lot of pictures of landscapes, concerts or at the zoo, for example, look for a larger telephoto value.

    You may completely ignore the digital zoom, by the way. The camera shoots the photo at the maximum optical zoom and then “magnifies” it by cropping it to create an artificial close-up photo.

  • Macro Mode. If you have any desire to take shots of something any closer than about 1.5 feet, the camera is going to need a macro mode. In most point and shoots, this will look like a little flower icon on the control dial. You may also want to take note of the “focal range” in the camera’s specs if they’re indicated. This tells you how close to the subject you can be while still being able to focus.

Advanced Features

Even if you know absolutely nothing about photography right now, but want to learn, find a camera that can grow with you. (You don’t really need to know what all the features do right away, but if your camera has them, it’s a plus!)

  • Manual Modes. Look for “Aperture Priority”, “Shutter Priority” or a complete Manual exposure mode.
    • Aperture controls the specificity of the focus. Check the camera specs for the lowest aperture values as they will produce more depth of field and bokeh. Point and shoots generally don’t have higher aperture values, like 11+, so no need to worry about that.
    • Shutter Speed is simply how long the shutter stays open. A fast shutter speed can be helpful in freezing fast action, such as at a sporting event or children playing. A long shutter speed can be invaluable if you want to do night photography or capture motion creatively. A longer shutter speed of up to 30 seconds would be a good find on a digital point and shoot.
  • A Lot of Scene Modes. In the absence of any manual exposure mode, a wide variety of scene “auto” modes (such as Portrait, Sports, Night, etc) will give you more control over your photographs. Some point and shoots have 15 or more scene modes! Each mode will do something slightly different with the aperture, shutter speed, ISO and possibly white balance. To take full advantage of the modes, you will need to read your camera’s manual completely.
  • Lens Attachments. Some point and shoots have threaded lenses that can accept filters and lens attachments. There are a wide variety of filters available for cameras, such as close-up attachments, circular polarizers and neutral density filters, all of which can achieve a unique look for your photographs when used in the right conditions.

Researching Camera Models

Once you decide what type of photographs you’d like to take and which features you want in a digital camera, the hard part is finding models that fit this criteria within your budget. I recommend the following articles and resources:

  • Top Point and Shoots with Manual Controls compiled by PC World. This list of cameras have most of the manual features indicated above and range from $180-$500 brand new.
  • Squidoo has a couple of articles on The Best Cameras Under $100 and The Best Cameras Under $200 for when you want a great digital camera for a low price.
  • Digital Photography Review. This is my favorite website for digital camera research. They extensively review the most popular point and shoot and SLR cameras. You can use their buying guide to specify what’s important to you and see what comes up, then read the full reviews for those cameras.
  • Amazon.com Point and Shoot Digital Cameras. On the left hand side of their page, you can pick options to specify some of the features you’re looking for in a digital camera. What I really like about Amazon’s site are the consumer reviews. Popular brands receive hundreds of reviews which can be sorted by star rating and how helpful others found them.
  • Flickr’s Camera Finder. While reading reviews all day may be valuable, you could probably learn nearly as much simply by looking at the photographs produced by a specific digital camera. Flickr captures camera models within a photograph’s metadata so once you choose your camera, you can see a sampling of photos taken with it by the Flickr community. You can select specific types of shots to look at too, like macros or portraits.

It would also be wise to visit a local camera or department store to see your top camera choices in person. Camera stores are usually more willing to let a potential consumer play around with the equipment than department stores are if your cameras of choice are not on display.

Buying a Used Camera

When you know what model you want, consider buying it used, especially if that digital camera is outside your budget. With a classified site such as eBay, pay close attention to the seller’s reputation and read the ad thoroughly.

Several of my photographer friends have recommended B&H Photo as an excellent resource to purchase used cameras and camera equipment. You can search their used digital point and shoots and get an excellent deal. They have many options under $100.

Craigslist may also be a good option in your area. In that case, make sure to test out the digital camera and look it over thoroughly before any money exchanges hands.