Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A camera for an aspiring photographer - Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2008

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Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2008

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A camera for an aspiring photographer

QMy teenage daughter is interested in photography. So, I would like to buy her a digital camera for Christmas. Since she's just starting out, I don't want to buy a high-end model. I was thinking of spending between $200 and $300. What features are important? It would be particularly helpful if you mentioned specific cameras.
—Bill in Phoenix, listening on KFYI 550 AM

AI'm sure your daughter will be thrilled to get a camera for Christmas. Your price range will buy a lot of camera.

Digital camera technology has advanced rapidly. Today's digital cameras are advanced, compact and affordable. There are many quality digital cameras between $200 and $300.

In this price range, 8-megapixel resolution is the baseline. It wasn't so long ago that 8 megapixels cost a ton. She'll get good quality 8x10-inch prints.

Cameras in this price range usually offer a 3X-5X optical zoom. Zoom ratings can be difficult to understand. You see the numbers, but they don't really tell you much. That is, unless you read my handy buying guide. It explains everything you should know about zoom ratings.

Look at superzooms

Superzoom cameras also fall into this price range. I already have a tip on them. So I won't reinvent the wheel here. But your daughter might well be interested in them. Superzooms are particularly nice when you must shoot from a distance.

Camera manufacturers also promote digital zoom. They then multiply optical zoom by digital zoom. The result is something that would let you shoot from miles away! Ignore this; it's baloney.

Digital zoom simply crops and enlarges shots using software. The result often is grainy pictures. Using a computer to do this will yield better results.

Image stabilization is becoming the norm in cameras in the $200 to $300 range. This helps prevent blurred photos in low light. Go with optical image stabilization; digital stabilization is inferior.

Scene modes

You should also look for scene modes. Modes will allow her to optimize the settings for a particular situation. Examples of scene modes include Snow, Fireworks, Portrait or Action.

Scene modes are easy to use. They are particularly helpful for beginning and casual photographers. She'll get great shots without much fuss.

However, an aspiring photographer might well want manual controls. At the least, I would look for aperture and shutter priority. Some cameras may allow her to save custom settings as scene modes.

Most point-and-shoot cameras record video. Look for the highest possible resolution. The higher the resolution, the better the video quality will be. High quality videos will also play in a larger screen on her computer.

Memory cards

One thing to keep in mind is the memory card. Some cameras have built-in memory. This usually isn't enough to take more than a few photos. So, include a higher capacity memory card in your budget.

High resolution photos and movies use quite a bit of memory. I recommend at least a 1 gigabyte card if she plans to take photos predominantly. If she plans to shoot video, she will want a 4GB card or higher. For more in-depth help, check my buying guide.

There are many other features to consider. Low-light capabilities, flash options, accessories, and color controls are a few.

You'll see many cameras with built-in editing tools. You can change coloring, remove red-eye, and crop images right from the camera. This eliminates the need for photo-editing software in some cases. But she'll probably get better results editing her photos on a computer.

Following are a few of my favorite cameras between $200 and $300. The prices were found using PriceGrabber.com and Shopping.com, price comparison sites. Remember: This price range is the camera sweet spot. There are many other cameras available. If you don't find exactly what you want, keep looking.

Nikon CoolPix S710

This camera sports 14.5-megapixels. That is a lot! It includes a 4x optical zoom and 16 scene modes. It automatically tracks and focuses on moving subjects.

Possibly the best feature of this camera is its optical image stabilization. Sensors detect movement caused by hand shake. The camera shifts an element to counteract the movement. She'll get better shots in low light.

Another great feature is the Face-Priority AF system. It detects faces no matter where they are in the frame. This helps ensure that subjects' faces are in focus. Smile detection will automatically snap a photo when subjects smile.

If your daughter would rather do it herself, she can use manual controls. It has both aperture and shutter priority.

The LCD is big at three inches. Plus, it has a wide viewing angle and anti-reflection coating. This makes it easier to see in sunlight.

The S710 lists for $380. I found it online for $294.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W170

The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W170 is a feature-rich compact camera. This 10.1-megapixel camera has a Carl Zeiss lens with a 5X optical zoom. You'll find 10 scene modes.

The DSC-W170 includes optical image stabilization. Sony shows few manual settings for this camera. Mostly, it does it for you. Your daughter might not be happy with that.

Among its automatic settings is face detection. Sony also has Smile Shutter technology. The camera takes a picture when it detects smiles.

The 2.7-inch LCD has an anti-reflective coating. This makes it easier to review photos and adjust settings in harsh light. The DSC-W170 also features a host of in-camera editing options.

The camera works well with HDTVs. It can be connected to an HDTV with component video cables. The 16:9 aspect ratio shooting mode produces photos that fit your HDTV perfectly.

The DSC-W170 lists for $250. I found it online for $206.

Casio Exilim EX-Z250

The Casio Exilim EX-Z250 is equipped with a 4X Optical Zoom Lens. The resolution is 10.1 megapixels.

Your low-light shots will look great thanks to the optical image stabilization. And the Easy mode will help you in any environment. You can specify image size, flash and self-timer. The camera does the rest.

The camera offers a whopping 37 scene modes. Additionally, face detection ensures that your subjects are always in focus. It also offers manual focus.

The Exilim EX-Z250 shoots video at several resolutions. For example, you can record widescreen video (848 x 480) at 30 frames per second. You can record up to 4GB of video. There's even a YouTube mode that optimizes videos for the Web.

One of the most interesting features of the camera is the Makeup function. It is designed specifically for portraits. It smoothes skin and softens shadows on the face. There are 12 different levels of strength; you choose which to use.

The EX-Z300 lists for $300. I found it online for $269.

Canon PowerShot SD880 IS

The PowerShot SD880 IS is a 10-megapixel compact camera. Its 4X optical zoom lens features optical image stabilization.

Despite the camera's diminutive size, it has a large, 3-inch LCD. The display has a wide viewing angle and anti-glare coating.

This camera has 16 scene modes. Program AE offers manual exposure compensation, white balance, tone and ISO.

Additionally, the My Colors feature can alter the colors in a scene prior to shooting. You can enhance certain colors or swap different colors. Your daughter may find that worthwhile.

The SD880 IS can shoot movies at 30 frames per second. The maximum resolution is 640x480. It also features face detection.

The SD880 IS lists for $300. I found it online for $247.


Online price

Effective megapixels

Optical zoom



Nikon CoolPix S710




4.4 oz

3.7 x 2.2 x 0.9 in

Sony DSC-W170




5 oz

3.7 x 2.3 x 0.9 in

Casio EX-Z300




4.2 oz

3.8 x 2.3 x 0.8 in

Canon PowerShot SD880




5.5 oz

3.7 x 2.2 x 0.9 in

Cameras make great gifts. But, you can make a great gift even better by adding accessories. Learn more about the accessories every photographer should have:

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