2009 Holiday Camera Buying Guide

The one major problem with giving a great new digital camera as a gift during the holidays is that by the time it's opened, all the best moments have passed. Still, a digital camera can be a great gift for the holidays allowing your loved ones to capture the wonderful little moments that make enduring the month of music and garish decorations worth it.

The problem is that there are about a million digital cameras in the marketplace with names that were written by a cat running across a keyboard (S90? LX3? DSC-W190?). Clicking over to B&H Photo will net you 200 different makes, models and colors to bemuse and bewilder you, and that's before you start looking at what these cameras are supposed to do. Relax last-minute shoppers, help is on the way to start narrowing down those 200 to a dozen or so.

Step 1: Who is the recipient?

It's not as easy as you think to pin down just who your giving a gift to. Is it a present for your brother Geoff the accountant, or is it a present for your brother Geoff the avid outdoorsman?

Someone less technically savvy might want fewer options and easy to navigate menus, and the someone with very small hands might not want a very big camera (and vice versa). Once you know the answer to that question, it's a lot easier to start narrowing your options and answer the next question.

Step 2: Picture What?

At weddings I'll inevitably get into a conversation with someone about my equipment and their cameras, and the latest and greatest piece of technology to hit the market. Sometimes I'll be asked for a camera recommendation and I'll stare blankly for a minute, before simply asking "what are you taking pictures of?"

While most point and shoot cameras are okay for a variety of photos (just look at the dial and the 400 scene modes, right?), some perform better than others under different circumstances. Some cameras shoot wide angles and others have great optical zoom, the former is great for someone that likes to shoot the outdoors and the latter for portraits of people.

If the camera is for someone more adventurous, you might also want to consider options like waterproofing and impact resistance. The camera that you take rock climbing is going to have to stand up to a lot more than the camera you only take out at family reunions.

Step 3: Narrowing the field

Once you've answered the first few questions you can start to pick off cameras one by one. To do that you need to understand some terms that get painted in big letters on boxes, and pour out of the mouths of very inept salespeople.

Megapixels: Simply put, digital pictures are like a puzzle and pixels are the pieces. A megapixel is one million pixels.

The more megapixels you have in an image, the larger you can print it (design215.com). There is a caveat however, generally the more megapixels you try to put onto the same size sensor the more "noise" you're going to get in your image (which will show up when you print larger photographs). So more megapixels doesn't make a better camera.

A good rule of thumb is to find a camera that's in the middle of the range of megapixels. The really high numbers may not have worked out all the kinks and the lower numbers don't offer you the versatility. At the moment a 10 megapixel camera should shoot most casual photographer just fine.

With more megapixels you can also digitally zoom into photos, more about that below.

Zoom: There are two types of zoom in the world of digital cameras - optical and digital - and optical is the only one you should care about.

Why? Optical zoom reflects the range of the lens in your camera. Digital zoom is a trick your camera does by cutting out a part of a photo and blowing it up larger. You can do the same trick at home with your photo software.

When looking at optical zoom you're presented with two sets of numbers. The one on the box (something like 4x or 12x) gives an idea of the range of the zoom, the bigger the number the more versatile the lens. That number is taken from the focal length of the lens (generally expressed as millimeters, like 24-70mm), which tells you about how wide it is and how far it reaches. Here a small number, like 14, indicates a wide field of view while a large number, like 200, means that distant objects become a lot closer.

Optical and Digital Zoom, done in Photoshop.

Aperture: Typically listed after the focal length of a lens (as in 24mm f 2.0), the aperture tells you how much light your camera is letting hit the sensor. It's a lot like your iris, when there's a lot of light the camera shrinks its aperture and when there's very little it gets a lot larger to gather as much light as possible.

Counter-intuitively, the smaller the number (or f-stop) the wider the aperture the camera is capable of. So if you want to shoot a lot in low-light without flash then you want to have a small aperture number.

Sometimes you will encounter cameras with two aperture numbers. The lower number is typically only available at the widest focal length of the lens and the more you zoom the less you are able to open the aperture. Cameras with a fixed aperture don't have that problem.

Shutter Lag: This number is harder to find, because often camera makers don't want you to think about it. Shutter lag is the time delay between when you click the shutter button and when the picture is actually taken. Some cameras have delays as long as two seconds, which can be frustrating when it causes you to miss quick moments, while others are almost instantaneous.

Step 4: Making Your Choice

This is by no means an exhaustive list of questions to ask before you buy a new camera. You also want to consider how a camera feels and how easy it is to use, and for that you might want to stop in at your local electronics store to get one in your hands and play with it. Research is also important, read the reviews (good and bad) about your choices and hopefully you'll make the right decision.

Hopefully this will help you find a camera that someone will love this holiday season, because the best camera is the one that you have with you.