Mega what? Mega who?
Before you walk into one of those electronics superstores and put your trust in the disgruntled, acne-prone kid at the camera display who hates you, you should know a bit about what you're looking for. You'll hear a lot of talk about megapixels, zooms, and any number of options you may never use. Go into it being realistic - you're not Ansel Adams, you're someone who likes to take drunken self-portraits at parties, email funny shots of your dog to vague acquaintances, and sell old junk on Ebay. So when the sales kid hauls out an eleven megapixel, 70x digital zoom with twenty-four image modes, all the while dreaming of the Xbox he'll buy with the commission, let him know that you're in the market for something more your style.
The Internet is crammed with professional photographers wanking themselves silly over the lackluster quality of digital imagery. In truth, it would take about a 100 megapixel camera to compete with the resolution of a 35mm negative, but for the typical person and even the iPod-strapped, laptop-slung hyper geeks, the latest digital point and shoot cameras are more than adequate.
Small digital cameras range in megapixels from 2.1 to 7. Higher megapixel counts result in sharper images (and pricier cameras). If you plan to store and view most of your images electronically, you'll be happy with a 3 megapixel point and shoot. If you're replacing your film camera altogether with a brand-spanking-new digital, and you're going to be having prints made either with your own photo printer (more about photo printers) or through an online service (digital album info), grab something upwards of 3 megapixels.
Once you've got the megapixel question sorted out, you might be thinking about a zoom lens. Most digital cameras offer a zoom and many now have a digital zoom option. The term 'optical zoom' refers to the lens on the camera physically extending (you'll hear a buzz) to capture something farther in the distance than when the lens is contracted. Digital zoom further enlarges the image but not via the lens, which remains fully extended but static, it does it inside the camera in much the same way your imaging software uses that little magnifying glass tool. Digital zoom will always degrade your image because it's stretching the pixel information. Don't consider the digital zoom magnification a selling point of your camera, though the sales person will definitely present it that way. You'll end up with wildly magnified images that are total crap to look at. Optical zooms are superior, though even a misused optical zoom could compromise your shots. Zoom lenses darken the image in the distance as they extend and should only be used in good light. Trying to shoot a distant subject where flash is necessary will almost always result in a foggy, grainy product. Trying to shoot your favorite band from the back of the venue will most often result in close-ups of some hipster's scalp.
So what are the cool options? Many digital cameras shoot movies. It's one gimmick you might actually use. If you opt for something with a movie feature, spend the extra for a memory card with adequate capacity. For cameras 3 megapixels and up, invest in 64 megabytes or more of storage. Higher resolution images take up more space, but 64 megabytes is plenty for a casual shooter. You'll almost always have to buy the memory card separately, or upgrade from the inadequate little bundled one.
Your salesperson will probably spend a huge amount of time explaining shooting modes, most of which you won't ever use. They're pretty standard across makes and models - the night mode, slow sync mode, action mode, self timer - but you'll probably throw it on auto, fire away and never change it. Like the digital zoom, modes are just a mostly arbitrary gimmick and shouldn't be a deciding factor in your purchase.
Something that does deserve your consideration is the camera's power source. Some are packaged with rechargeable proprietary batteries (these also come with accompanying chargers) while others use standard double-a alkalines. Choose the former for a lighter, more environmentally and wallet friendly camera, and the latter for the convenience of being able to run to 7-11 when your pet-trick shooting binge sucks the life out of your camera.
Now when you approach the kid behind the camera counter who's staring blankly at anything but you, you're prepared. Weigh your megapixel, zoom and battery options, and stick with a familiar brand. Name brand cameras are pretty comparable within any given price range, and most of those megastores have seven-day return policies so you can fire off a couple shots of Fido and if you're not pleased, return the camera within a week. Just be sure to ask about the specific policy before you hand over your credit card.
Brenna Jennings can be reached via her website notbrenda.com