Digital camera buying guide
The most important things to know when shopping for a camera.
For many people, buying a camera isn't an easy thing to do. It's not really a one-model-fits-all kind of product, so there's not just a single camera you can point to and say, "Buy this!"
In fact, it's the opposite; with such a range of types, sizes, features, and prices, unless you know your exact needs, you could very well end up disappointed with your purchase. And that's what this guide is all about: Helping you make the best camera purchase for your needs and budget.
For people who just want some good recommendations, hit the slideshow below for some of our top choices or check out our lists of best cameras by category. Otherwise, read on for our advice.
The most important stuff
1. There is no spec that tells you which camera is best. A higher resolution (i.e., more megapixels) or bigger zoom range doesn't make the camera better. I'll repeat: you're never looking for the camera with the most megapixels or longest zoom.
2. Don't get hung up on making sure you've got the "best" in a particular class. The truth is, one camera rarely bests the rest on all four major criteria -- photo quality, performance, features, and design. (You may have noticed how few Editors' Choice Awards we give for cameras. That's partly why.) At least not at a friendly price. You want something best for you. And that may mean, for example, that it doesn't produce stellar photo quality, or at least photos that pixel peepers think are stellar quality.
3. Try before you buy. Make sure it fits comfortably in your hand and that it's not so big or heavy that you'll leave it at home. It should provide quick access to the most commonly used functions, and menus should be simply structured, logical, and easy to learn. Touch-screen models can allow for greater functionality, but can also be frustrating if the controls and menus are poorly organized or the screen can't be calibrated to your touch.
For more general buying advice, check out our steps to the perfect camera purchase.
What type of camera?
Because it came up in the comments, I'll open a can of worms and address why I start the category of "pro" cameras far lower on the price scale than a lot of folks might. (This is Lori talking now.) I use a far broader definition of "professional camera" than most, because these days professional covers far more territory than it used to. In fact, I don't use the technical definition of "professional" -- someone who gets paid for it -- as the way to define who needs professional equipment. There are great amateurs and lousy professionals; gear doesn't define which is which. Instead, I define pro-quality gear as cameras and accessories that consistently and reliably get the shots you need, with the necessary features to make getting them as easy as possible. If you don't buy that, also remember that many pros are turning to smaller, cheaper cameras to supplement their expensive, heavy workhorses in more intimate or casual shooting situations.
On the flip side, though, it's very fashionable today to say "gear doesn't matter." I disagree.Appropriate gear matters a lot, and up to a point, you'll take better photos with better cameras. But that point is different for everyone and as with everything you reach diminishing returns. If you don't enjoy shooting with your camera or aren't comfortable with it, you probably aren't taking your best photos. Just because you aren't taking your best photos doesn't mean it's your camera, though.