“Should I buy this camera?” – A Camera Buyer’s Guide

“Do you think I should get this camera?”

I turned to the young woman standing next to me. I didn’t know her, but she’d obviously seen the large-ish camera hanging over my shoulder and assumed I knew something about photography. We were in front of a ramshackle booth at the Wentzville Flea Market on Sunday morning scrounging through a table of various old and older cameras. She’d picked up an old digital point and shoot and wanted to know if I thought it was right for her.

I get asked this question quite a lot, sometimes by friends and clients who know I’m a professional photographer, sometimes by strangers who see me with a big camera. “Should I get this one or that one?” Or the old standby, “Which one has the most megapixels?”

Here are a few things to look for when considering a camera, new or used. Used cameras have a couple additional considerations.

1- Megapixels.

Want prints up to 8×10 inches, 5 megapixels is more than enough. Want prints up to 13×19 inches, 7-8 megapixels is about perfect. Want to clog up your hard drive or have noisy images, then go for as many pixels as you can possibly cram into a tiny sensor.

Don’t be mislead into thinking that you need 10 or more megapixels just to make that 4×6 inch print for your scrapbook or photo album. If the largest print you can ever honestly see yourself making is 13×19 inches (which is pretty big) then you DO NOT need more than about 7 to 8 megapixels. I’ve personally made detailed prints this large from my old (2004 vintage) Sony Cybershot V-3 with 7 megapixels, and I’m very picky about the quality of my prints.

2- Control of the Camera.

I always suggest getting a camera that gives you as much control as possible. Even if you’re currently on “auto” mode, it allows you to experiment and grow when you’re ready. These cameras are easy to spot. If the camera has a dial on the top or back with “M, A, S, and P” (among the little mode icons)  printed on it, then it’s going to give you the option of adjusting the aperture, shutter speed and other shooting parameters.

3- Lens.

Make sure the lens is an optical zoom, which actually moves the glass elements around to increase the focal length. It is usually indicated on the front of the lens barrel with text such as “3x optical zoom.” Typical zoom ranges go from 3x to a whopping 20x. For everyday snaps of friends and family, 3x is usually just fine, but if you want a super long lens so that you can capture small details from far away, look for a larger number like 8x or more.

Lens speed is also something to look for. Speed refers to the light gathering ability of the lens and is expressed as an “f-number.” Most compact cameras will have a lens speed of f/3.5 – f/5.6 printed on the front. This is a pretty typical range. The lower the f-number, the more light gathering ability a lens has and the better photos you’ll get in dark conditions.

4- Included Accessories.

Certainly this applies more to a used camera than a new one. Is it a body only, or are the instruction book, software and various cables included? If not, the price should be considerably lower to reflect this omission.

Does it include a memory card? More often than not, it won’t, so make sure you already have or intend to pick up a compatible card. The most common are SD (Secure Digital) or Compact Flash on a somewhat older camera. Some manufacturers like to use their own card type, however, and that can be an important factor if you already have a stack of SD or Compact Flash cards lying around. Sony likes to use their Memory Stick/Memory Stick Pro and Olympus has a love affair with their XD card type.

And don’t forget batteries. Often a camera will use standard AA batteries, but some use a proprietary battery that can be expensive and hard to find. Make sure the battery is included and that it can hold a charge. Frankly, if there is no battery at all and you can’t even power it up to see if it works before buying, I’d avoid the purchase altogether.

5- Overall Condition.

Does the camera look new, or does it look as though it was used as a door stop in a nightclub? Some wear is normal, but obviously the better the condition, the less it was used or the more careful the previous owner was with it.

6- Some Questions to Ask the Seller.

It pays to be prudent. Obviously you’ll want to be more careful at a flea market or with an unknown individual than at a reputable camera store.

“Why are you selling?” If the answer is, “Cause it don’t work no more,” move on.

“Where did you get his camera?” This is more for flea markets or anyone selling you a camera out of the trunk of his/her car. You don’t want to buy a stolen camera. (I am NOT implying that flea market vendors are dishonest, but it is a valid question.)

“Is everything included?” See #4 above.

Also, be sure to power on the camera, make sure the lens extends and retracts, the LCD screen works and that it can actually take an in-focus picture. Zoom in on the photo on the screen to make sure the focus is accurate.

Finally, does it feel good in your hand? If it is uncomfortable to hold, you won’t be very inspired to make many photos.

I’ve had good experiences buying used equipment. I’ve also learned the hard way what to look for and avoid. But, don’t be afraid to check out the used section of your local camera store, you might find a gem at a really good price.


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