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High-Tech Specs, Part 3 - Digital Cameras

Computer stores and shopping sites bombard us with details about a device's speed, resolution, format, and other important-sounding information. Much of that data is less important than it may seem. The following are some specifications that are worth paying attention to if you’re in the market for a new digital camera:

Many consumers are much more familiar with compact digital cameras, since these models have flooded the marketplace. Like cell phones, it's hard to walk down the street without seeing someone snapping a photo. Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) cameras are less common, and until 2005 were primarily used by professionals.

There are many advantages to using a DSLR camera, not the least of which is that you see exactly what the lens sees; you can change lenses; DSLRs have large image sensors that produce high-quality photos; and they have a near-zero lag time (from the time the shutter is pressed until the photo is taken), so they are ideal for action photography

Here are a few things to look for in a DSLR, also known as a Digital SLR or Digital Single Lens Reflex camera:

Megapixels - The most hyped and misunderstood camera spec is the megapixel count. The pitch is generally that the more megapixels, the better the photo, but 5 megapixels is enough to create a sharp 11-by-14-inch print. A higher megapixel number does come in handy if you need to crop and zoom in on a section of a photo, but unless you're planning to print movie-size posters, a 14.5-megapixel camera is overkill.

Optical zoom - You can pretty much ignore vendors' specs for digital zoom and focus instead on optical zoom. Digital zoom crops the image you see in your viewfinder and expands it to full-frame, reducing the quality of the resulting image. Optical zoom uses the lens to magnify the subject, resulting in a crystal-clear photo. The higher the optical zoom, the more important optical image stabilization becomes. If you zoom in tight, very slight movement will blur your shot. Most point-and-shoot cameras have optical zooms of 3X or 4X. For anything higher than that, you'll need optical image stabilization. (See below)

Manual focus - Manual focus is an excellent option for a point-and-shoot camera to offer, and all DSLRs have it. Very-low-end cameras frequently omit manual focusing or permit only stepped focusing, forcing you to choose from preset distances or scene modes. These days, more digital SLR cameras are offering point-and-shoot-like features, such as auto-focus to attract casual users. Amateur photographers who are looking for more functionality may be better off opting for an upper-end point-and-shoot with a high optical zoom and a host of manual settings than splurging on a DSLR.

Exposure settings - Many digital cameras offer aperture- and shutter-priority modes, which let you fine-tune the exposure settings for certain situations. Look for a camera with high shutter speeds if you plan to capture fast-moving action, such as cars racing, athletes running, or careening three-year-olds. Try to find a camera with a low aperture, such as f2.8, if you want to take shots in darker environments, without using a flash.

Viewfinders - A big, beautiful display is handy, but it's also a huge energy drain. Determine if you can adjust the screen's brightness, and whether you can toggle it off completely. Old school or not, having an optical viewfinder as well as an LCD can be a tremendous advantage when you're trying to prolong a camera's battery life.

Optical image stabilization - With image stabilization, as with zoom, optical wins out over digital big time. Because it physically shifts the image sensor to counteract movement, optical image stabilization does a much better job of capturing a clear shot. Digital stabilization simply adjusts the image's pixels or the camera's shutter speed in an effort to create a less-blurry image. In any case, a tripod can save the day.

Making Your Selection - With literally hundreds of DSLR cameras to choose from, deciding which one will best serve your needs and fit within your budget can be a challenge. The Digital SLR Guide will help you select the best camera using a simple four-step process.

Click HERE to read High-Tech Specs, Part 4 - Networking Equipment

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