Digital photography keeps getting better. Higher resolution, more sophisticated controls and better technology all make taking great pictures easier than ever.
The big picture
Megapixels still matter a lot to digital camera shoppers, in part because manufacturers and retailers hype that specification above all others. If you're having a hard time figuring out which camera to buy, you may be tempted to make a decision based solely on megapixel count; that's why nearly all manufacturers print the number on the front of their cameras.
But a camera needs more than just a high pixel count to take great pictures, so pay attention to other traits as well. For example, a lethargic camera that takes too much time between shots may miss the best action, and a big, heavy camera may spend more time on the shelf than in your carry-on bag. A camera with no manual controls may take fabulous shots in bright sunlight, but lousy ones in more challenging situations.
Resolution: If you intend to take pictures only to e-mail them to distant friends or to print at snapshot size, a camera of most any resolution will do. Even so, having more pixels gives you greater flexibility -- you can print sharper pictures at larger sizes, or crop and print small sections of pictures. These days most cameras offer a resolution of at least 5 megapixels, which is enough to make a sharp 11-by-14 print.
Size, weight and design: To some users, how much a camera weighs and whether it fits in a pocket may be more important factors than resolution. PC World has tested cameras that weigh as much as 2.3 pounds and as little as 4.2 ounces. Small cameras are convenient, but they frequently have tiny dials and few buttons, which make changing settings somewhat trying.
Zoom lens: Inexpensive cameras often lack a powerful optical zoom lens. If we had to choose between a camera with more optical zoom and one with higher resolution, we'd take the model with the more powerful zoom lens -- it means you won't have to magnify your subject and then use software to crop the image (and discard some of the resolution as a result). A few cameras now offer zoom ratings of up to 15X. These lenses are great for nature or sports photography, but you may need a steady hand or a tripod to avoid blurry pictures at extreme telephoto lengths if the camera doesn't have image stabilization. You should try a camera's autofocus at full zoom: We've tested some models that were slow to focus at full zoom in low light.
Be wary of advertised zoom ratings -- many vendors combine the optical zoom (which moves the lens to magnify the subject) with digital zoom, which merely captures fewer pixels and magnifies those. Optical zoom gives you all the benefit of the camera's maximum resolution, combined with the ability to get closer to the action.
Manual focus: For close-ups or situations in which the camera can't get a focus lock, switching to manual focusing can help you get the shot. Low-end cameras often omit manual focusing or allow only stepped focusing, which forces you to choose from a few preset distances.
Storage: At its highest resolution, a typical 5-megapixel camera can store six to eight images on a 16MB "starter" memory card. The size of the memory card that a camera ships with isn't terribly important, because you'll almost always have to buy another one (unless you're willing to transfer your images after every handful of shots). CompactFlash, SD (Secure Digital) Cards and SmartMedia cards cost about $6 to $15 for 512MB, or $25 to $40 for 2GB.
Match megapixels to your use: Most point-and-shoot cameras offer at least 5 megapixels, which is plenty for producing 11-by-14-inch prints. Cameras with more megapixels will yield even larger prints and allow you to blow up a part of an image with less likelihood that the print will be blurry. If you plan to make only 4-by-6-inch prints, you don't have to shoot at the camera's highest resolution -- and as a result, you can fit more shots on your memory card.
Look for rechargeable batteries and a charger: The cost of disposable batteries adds up over the long run. Some cameras can use AA batteries of any type -- disposable or rechargeable. That capability can be helpful if your rechargeable batteries run out of juice and you don't want to wait while they replenish.
Disregard digital zoom: Most cameras offer at least 3X optical zoom -- and some boast an optical zoom as high as 15X. But sometimes vendors tout a high total zoom that includes digital zoom, which you should disregard: Digital zoom produces photos that are inferior to those produced with an optical zoom.
Look for a low-light focusing aid: Some cameras have auxiliary lights that help them focus in dim settings. That's important for many indoor shots.
Try the camera before you buy: Some cameras have commands and menus that are easier to use than others, a comparison you can make only with a hands-on trial. Also 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.
Give extra consideration to a camera with a good selection of software: Look for useful packages such as PhotoShop Elements, Ulead Photompact, and Corel Snapfire for editing images, as well as applications for organizing and sharing them.
Don't base your decision on video capability: Any still camera's ability to take moving pictures is limited. If you want to shoot video, invest in a camcorder dedicated to the job.
Consider investing in a memory card reader or a camera dock: A memory card reader acts like an external hard drive attached to your PC or laptop, allowing you to download pictures directly from your camera's storage media. Many newer laptops have one or more memory card slots built in, as do some inkjet printers. 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. Alternatively, some cameras come with a dock or offer one as an option, and some of these docks offer a dedicated button for uploading all of your new photos on a memory card. A dock also charges the camera's battery.