(Feedback based update: 7/7/2004)

Due to my computer and photography interests, I get asked quite frequently to spew about my recommendations for purchasing a digital camera.  Of course I have opinions, but so do a million other photographer/computer nerds out there.  So, take what I say with a grain of salt.  What works and is important to me, may not be important to somebody else. 

First and foremost, a cheap point-and-shoot camera is capable of taking pictures as good as any high-end model.  Most of the quality comes from the eye of the photographer, not the hardware.  Yes, you can argue about barrel distortion, chromatic aberations, and moire patterns all day and night.  But if it looks like there's a tree limb sticking out of Uncle Bob's head nobody's going to give a rip about all that technical mumbo-jumbo.  In my opinion, great photographs should jump out at you rather than be dependent on very close analysis.

My list of key specs is short so it should be easy to remember as you're looking around.  It is mostly geared toward people interested in getting a camera to replace their old film-based point and shoot camera. 

You really can't go wrong with any Nikon or Canon.  It's not that other manufacturers can't or don't make products that are as good as or better than these two, it's just a little more hit and miss with others.  Nikon and Canon have been in the camera, lens and photography business forever.  They know what makes good picture-taking-gadgets.

There's really nothing wrong with Kodak and Olympus camera's, or Minolta, or HP, or Sony, or Fuji, or whomever. The reason I like Nikon and Canon more is that they are the two companies that most professional photographers use (purely based on empirical evidence). Their businesses rely on keeping their reputation at a high level in the professional market, for sure. I guess I'd say, it's "in their blood" to make a decent camera and lens. Other companies, like Sony and HP don't have that kind of "baggage" to carry around. Heck, either of those two companies could completely drop their digital camera lines and hardly miss a beat. I don't really know much about Olympus and Minolta, other than they've been competing for mindshare with Nikon and Canon for as long as I can remember.

Kodak's in a strange position. From what I understand they have mostly relied on the profits from analog film sales. The digital boom seemed to catch them off guard, and they've been paying dearly. Now they're playing catch up by pushing more in the hardware aspect of photography.  Ironically enough, some of the original HIGH end 35mm digital cameras that were available before the Nikon D1 came out were made by Kodak. BUT these cameras were actually Nikon bodies and shutter mechanisms, with digital hardware tacked on by Kodak. Go figure.

Fuji is another company I don't know too much about other than being well known for their analog film products. They are also a humungous company, like Sony, so good digital cameras isn't something that's going to make or break their existence.

Compact Flash digital film format is best.  It's the cheapest, highest capacity, and abundant form of flash memory for the foreseeable future.  Most Nikon and Canon cameras use this format.  One of the readers of this blog indicated that Canon has started using SD format memory in their smaller models.  Based on what I've seen recently surrounding devices that make use of memory expansion, SD appears to be gaining a foothold.  So I suppose if you're really interested in minimizing size, SD is probably the next best alternative to compact flash.

3 Megapixel is sufficient to print high-quality 8x10's.  When's the last time you got an 8x10 of any of the pictures you've taken?  I'm guessing most of you would answer: 'uh, never'.  When would you need more than 3 Megapixels?  Well, if you'd like to print a significant number of 8x10's or even 5x7's OR you're likely to do some heavy cropping of your pictures (say for scrapbooking hobbies) you'll want to try to maximize your megapixels.

Examine shutter lag and auto-focus lag to differentiate between similar cameras.  I'll bet you'll be more frustrated with long total lag (auto-focus + shutter) on cheaper point-and-shoots than any other feature or lack of feature.  If I were to spend any extra money for anything, it would be to choose the camera that has the minimum delay between when you press the shutter button and when the picture is taken.  When reading a review of a camera, say on the most excellent http://www.dpreview.com, find and take note of 'Shutter Lag' and 'Auto-Focus Lag'.  The shorter the better!

By the way, one way to minimize this effect on most cameras is to pre-focus whatever it is you're trying to take a picture of.  Usually that involves holding the shutter button half-way down a couple seconds before pushing it all the way down.  While this usually does make it easier to live with a long shutter lag, in practice (yes, I do have a small Nikon point and shoot that my wife mostly uses.  :) I've found it quite limiting and annoying.

Don't worry about zoom, both the optical and digital type.  It is an overrated feature on most point-and-shoot cameras.  Digital zoom can be completely replicated AFTER you take a picture.  The optical zoom capability on a small camera is usually quite limited anyway.  For most situations moving closer or further from your subject can be just as effective.  To get really close (like of the Little Leage pictures on my website) you'll need the SLR equivalent of a 300mm zoom lens.  200mm equivalence will get you fairly close to most action that's within 30 yards or so.  Most instruction manuals and camera review web-sites will list this equivalency spec.  Here's a nice definition if you're interested in understanding this a bit more.

There.  5 key points to remember.  If you'd like to get more serious about photography, try to veer toward an SLR-type camera.  Here are the price ranges I'd recommend based on your level of photgraphy interest:

  • $150 to $400 - For most typical family and friend snapshots.
  • $400 to $1000 - If you want any chance of being able to take good pictures in more difficult situations than simple people poses.  For example, sports (especially indoor sports), plays, nighttime shots, etc.  Be aware that practice and patience will STILL be required to pull these situations off well.
  • > $1000 - For this amount of money, you'd be able to take fantastic shots in almost any situation  Of course, you may need to practice, read the manual, buy more manuals, spend extra money, or be extremely lucky to realize your potential, but in theory just about any type of shot would be possible.