Which camera should I buy?

By: jerry | 08/22/2007

As a serious amateur photographer and resident technology geek, this is a question I get asked frequently. My brother-in-law recently posed this question so I thought I'd share my thoughts as I expressed them to him. Of course all of this information will be dated in a few months or so and I have not personally tested all of these camera's, so please don't take this as gospel. You should always exercise caution and do your own research when making any major purchase including a camera, and if possible you should try it you buy it. That said, here is I what I sent to my brother-in-law.

The camera market is constantly changing and what you get depends much on what your particular needs are. When I'm camera shopping I usually check out reviews at a couple of sites including cnet.com, dpreview.com and http://www.steves-digicams.com. I've done some looking at what's current and based on your budget of $200-300 I have four suggestions for you with some explanations on why it might or might not be appropriate. I've included links to the details page on dpreview.com for each camera. There are links to online stores selling these cameras there including there price. There is often quite a bit of variance in pricing between different stores. Check out the store before you buy and make sure they look reputable. Also, be sure to check Amazon.com and NewEgg.com before you buy as they are often very competitive in pricing. Buying at a local store is almost certain to raise the price by 25%, but you do have the advantage of someplace you can go if there is a problem. I've bought quite a bit of camera equipment online and never had a problem. (Knock on wood!) Also, don't forget that you'll need at least one memory card and that batteries are not cheap. If you don't have them already, plan on buying 4-8 AA rechargeables and a charger, otherwise the batteries will eat you out of house and home. Plan on getting at least a 512mb memory card. All of these cameras are at least 5 megapixel. If you can swing it get a 1 or 2 gb card (or if it's cheaper, a couple of 512mb cards.)

Ok, now the cameras. Flat out my recommendation is the Canon S2 IS. (http://www.dpreview.com/reviews/specs/Canon/canon_s2is.asp) One of my pet peeves about point and shoot cameras are the wimpy zoom lenses. Most point and shoot camera's come with a 3x optical zoom which is better than nothing, but only barely. By the way, digital zoom is worthless. Ignore all digital zoom features and don't use them. They are the equivalent of taking your photo into MS Paint or Photoshop and cropping them then enlarging them. Completely useless. A 3x zoom is the equivalent of a 105 mm lens which is fine for a lot of things, but you'll get annoyed as soon as you take the camera to a little league game or the ice rink or anything where you can't be right up close to the action. The Canon S2 IS has a 12x optical zoom. More than enough to get the job done in virtually any situation. Plus the IS stands for Image Stabilization. The problem with long zoom lenses is that they magnify camera shake. The IS helps combat that problem. The downside to this camera is the size and the price. It's a little large for just sticking in your purse or pocket. It's not as big as my camera, probably half the size, but it's not a pocket camera. The other problem is the price, this one will be right at the upper limit of your budget without adding rechargeable batteries or memory cards.

If you find this camera interesting, you might also check out the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7. (http://www.dpreview.com/reviews/specs/Panasonic/panasonic_dmcfz7.asp) I've been hearing good things about the Lumix cameras and this one has most of the same features as the Canon S2 IS, plus it's a 6 megapixel camera vs the Canon's 5 megapixel. The same downsides apply to this one as the S2, plus I don't have any personal experience with it.

If you want something smaller and or cheaper, take a look at the HP R817 (http://www.dpreview.com/reviews/specs/HP/hp_r817.asp) Now I don't have any personal experience with this camera, but the price to feature ratio on this camera is very good. The size is more manageable than the S2 or Lumix and it still has a 5x optical zoom which is excellent for a camera this size. I can't say I'm a fan of the HP brand for cameras, but that's mostly a lack of experience with them. Definitely worth checking out.

If the HP is still to big or if you want to stick with a more name brand camera check out the Canon SD600 (http://www.dpreview.com/reviews/specs/Canon/canon_sd600.asp). Fair warning, I'm a big Canon fan. This looks like a solid contender, but the zoom is only 3x.

I would take a trip to a camera shop or Best Buy, etc and try to play with this cameras yourself before you make a decision.

Since I prepared the previous, my brother (ubergeek, Ben) has found another contender, the Ricoh Capilo R4 in the $200-300 category. Nice stats: 7x zoom, 6 megapixel. A few niggles on the image quality, but not enough to damage it's user rating on DPReview. I'll leave you with the link. (http://www.cameratown.com/reviews/review_listing.cfm/hurl/id%7C2368)

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