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Ten Things to Think about When Buying a Point-and-Shoot Camera

Consider these pointers before laying down big bucks for that new camera outfit. We'll tell you exactly what to consider so you get just what you need--and, for the right amount of money.

This article was written in 2002.

You probably have a camera already. And chances are good that your camera has the right stuff to help you make better pictures--if you bring the right attitude and an intelligent eye to it. But you may decide that to take the kinds of pictures you'd like to take and get the picture quality you want, you have to go out and buy a new point-and-shoot. Your old camera may be a bulky, complicated 35mm single-lens reflex (SLR) that you'd like to replace with something more compact and simpler to operate--a camera that doesn't sit in your closet when you're at home, and stay home when you're off to occasions and on vacation. Or you may have an old 110 camera and are ready to graduate to the immensely better picture quality of a 35mm or Advanced Photo System point-and-shoot.

Maybe you're already using a 35mm point-and-shoot but want to get a new camera (an APS model?) with more features or creative options--extra flash modes or a longer-zooming lens. And some of you may be considering the purchase of a second point-and-shoot, perhaps a more full-featured model for specific kinds of subjects, a more pocketable model for go-anywhere convenience, or even a digital point-and-shoot. You may not even be shopping for yourself: The camera may be a gift for a spouse, a parent, a child--or that friend who keeps borrowing your camera. Whatever your reasons, this will tell you what to think about, and look for, when you're point-and-shoot shopping.

Don't Buy More Camera Than You Need

When you go shopping for your camera, don't let a salesperson talk you into buying more camera than you really need. If you want extra zoom power or added features, naturally you have to pay more. But don't fall for things that a salesperson says you'll grow into, when your intuition and photographic purposes tell you you'll never use them. How often do you really think you would need an intervalometer, a mode for time-lapse photography? On the other hand, if such photographic exotica intrigues you, remember that moderately priced zoom models tend to have pretty advanced features anyway, because the point-and-shoot marketplace is so competitive.

Another thing: Visit your newsstand to check out the major photo magazines and their comprehensive buying guides. (I recommend Popular Photography.) And most important, ask snapshooting friends which models they've been happy with.

How Much Do You Want to Spend?

The question of how much you want to spend dictates all other questions. If you want to spend $50 or less, then you can't get a zoom lens--so you don't have to figure out what zoom range you'd like. You'll get a single-focal-length (nonzooming) lens, and you probably won't get autofocus. I think autofocus is worth the extra money; you have to spend more than $50, and more often closer to $100, to get it.

With non-autofocus models (also called fixed-focus or focus-free models) you have to worry about whether you're too close to the subject, because you must ordinarily stay back at least four feet to keep the subject sharp. With autofocus models, you don't have to worry--but you need to help the camera focus in the right place. (Models between $50 and $100 may have primitive autofocus, but I'd hit the $100 mark and get a better system.)

If you're willing to spend closer to $150, you have a choice between a modest zoom camera--perhaps something with a 35?70mm or 38?90mm lens--and a good nonzooming model, which typically has a single-focal-length lens of 35mm or shorter. In many cases, I would vote for the nonzooming model simply because you can do what the zoom does just by moving a few steps closer, and I happen to like the look of the wider angle. (At this price, the nonzooming model's lens will also probably be faster--that is, have a larger window in its lens, the better to shoot by dim light--and sharper.) Tight portraits are another story, though.

Finally, if you're prepared to spend $250, you'll get a pretty long-ranging zoom--perhaps one that goes beyond 115mm. And models that take you out to 140mm or 160mm may cost as much as $300 to $350, even at a discount. But the waters are muddied here by designer point-and-shoots that cost as much as $1,000 and have single-focal-length lenses. With these models, though, you're paying for professional-quality optics and camera bodies made of metal alloy rather than plastic. And you're paying for style, of course. (One model I can think of even has a sapphire shutter button.)

For simplicity's sake, I'm discussing 35mm point-and-shoot models. Prices for comparably equipped Advanced Photo System (APS) models may be up to 15 percent higher. Also, remember that equivalent APS focal lengths and zoom ranges have lower numbers; a 35mm model's 38?115mm zoom would be the approximate equivalent of an APS model's 30?90mm zoom, in terms of how big it makes the subject on film and/or how much of the scene it takes in.

Who Will Be Using the Camera?

Buying a top-of-the-line point-and-shoot for a teenager who just wants it for buddy pictures would be silly. And for a person with artistic yearnings to buy a discount store's blister-pack point-and-shoot would be pointless. The teenager should get the blister-pack model (especially because he is likely to lose or abuse it), or, if parents are feeling more extravagant, an under-$100, single-focal-length model with autofocus. And the artistic type should get the top-of-the-line model for its choice of modes and optical quality, though a gadget-loving snapshooter would be equally happy with such a camera.

The family documentarian can do her job--from shooting at-home candids to snapping family vacations--with a standard zoom model, say one with a 38?90mm lens. A shirtpocket model may make that job easier because it's so portable. Try to match special features to the intended user. A person with poor eyesight may appreciate a special model with an oversized viewfinder window because it's easier to look through. A rugged outdoors type may want a rugged camera--either a waterproof sports model or a weather-resistant, rubber-sheathed one.

What Subjects Will the User Be Shooting?

Most people shoot a variety of subject matter, but some photographers have special passions that call for particular camera models or features. Someone with a penchant for architecture and landscapes, interestingly enough, may be better off using a nonzooming (single-focal-length) model. A typical 35mm nonzooming model has a lens focal length of 35mm or shorter (often 32mm or 31mm, sometimes 28mm), which means the camera has a wider view that takes in more of a big subject than is possible with a zoom model starting at, say, 38mm. (With the Advanced Photo System, typical nonzooming, single-focal-length models have 24mm, 25mm, 26mm, or 28mm lenses; a typical zooming APS model may start out at 30mm, the equivalent of about 38mm in the 35mm format.) Ideal for that architecture or landscape fan: a zooming model that starts at 28mm, which would let him or her shoot the wide view and then zoom in to 70mm or 90mm for details.

Portrait fans, on the other hand, should be using a model that zooms at least to 70mm, because you get a more flattering scale in facial features when you don't have to shoot from too close to the subject. And sports fans--even those whose ambitions extend only to little league--will probably want a camera that zooms to 120mm, 135mm, or beyond, though other drawbacks plague long zooming.

Do You Want a Digital Camera or a Film Camera?

Choosing between a digital or film camera is a cut-and-dry choice: If you're content to store pictures on your computer's hard drive or compact disc, view them on its monitor, and share them by e-mail (or on Web sites), then a digital (filmless) point-and-shoot is just what you need. But if you want hard copies--real prints--a film point-and-shoot beats a filmless one by a mile, in both cost and quality.

You can get prints from a digital point-and-shoot, just as you can print any computer file. But the service costs more than conventional prints. Even if you invest in a good desktop color printer (now under $100), the picture quality from most digital point-and-shoots is visibly inferior at sizes much larger than 4 x 6 inches; even at that size, with a good model, you'll probably notice some difference in quality. Plus, printing each picture can take several minutes.

What's more, the price that you pay for equivalent features in a digital point-and-shoot is much higher than that of a film point-and-shoot. For the $250 that buys you a top-of-the-line film point-and-shoot with a superzoom, you'll get a lower-end, usually nonzooming digital point-and-shoot. (The camera probably won't even have autofocus.) That gap will certainly narrow as digital technology gets better and cheaper. But for the time being, even if you're computer-savvy, a digital point-and-shoot is probably best as a second camera--to complement your film point-and-shoot.

The more pixels a digital camera has, the better its picture quality is--and the more it costs. But if you're only viewing digital photographs on a computer monitor, and not printing them, you're unlikely to see much difference between a model with 300,000 pixels and one with 800,000 pixels. The price difference, on the other hand, can be several hundred dollars!

Do You Want a 35mm Point-and-Shoot or an APS Point-and-Shoot?

The 35mm format is tried and true and delivers incredible image quality with today's color print films. But Advanced Photo System cameras offer a number of advantages over 35mm models. The system's match-numbered cassettes and index prints--processed film stays rolled up in the cassette--make keeping track of your pictures much easier. They also make reprinting a breeze. And the system's frame-by-frame choice of three different print sizes lets you match print shape to subject, which I especially enjoy. (You can, of course, get 35mm models with a panorama setting.)

If you like big blow-ups, however, 35mm has the quality edge because it's a larger piece of film. And 35mm films are available in a greater variety of types and speeds. In terms of features and operation, though, 35mm and APS models are very similar. So you can't go wrong with either one.

Do You Want a Zooming or Nonzooming Model?

With a nonzooming model, the only way you can make a subject bigger or smaller in the frame is to change your distance from it--moving closer to make it bigger, away to make it smaller. With a zoom model, you can zoom the lens in and out to make the subject bigger or smaller in the frame, in effect composing by zooming. But zooming is not necessarily a good way to compose. Even if you want the convenience of a zoom model, you need to use your legs.

On the other hand, if you have a nonzooming model with a typical 35mm lens, moving in close for a head-and-shoulders portrait may distort your subject--producing a "big-nose" effect. Zoom cameras that zip even to a modest 70mm or 90mm help prevent that effect by allowing you to shoot from farther away. If you shoot sports and other far-away subjects, go for an even longer-zooming model.

Most digital point-and-shoot cameras are nonzooming models. Because the digital technology itself is costly to produce, this design keeps the overall cost of the camera down. So you generally have to pay quite a bit extra for digital models with a zoom lens.

If you decide to buy a zoom point-and-shoot, don't buy one with a zoom range less than 2X--less than 35?70mm with a 35mm model, for example, or 30?60mm with an Advanced Photo System model. Anything less than that (for example, 38?50mm), and you're probably better off just moving in and out on your own steam.

What Zoom Range Do You Need?

Point-and-shoot makers have been battling to see who can zoom the longest. At the moment, the battle seems stalled at a focal length of about 135mm or 145mm, though at least one model goes to 200mm. But you should consider models that zoom beyond 105mm or, say, 115mm, only if you really need to shoot distant subjects that you can't get any closer to--perhaps boats at sea or a bush leaguer on a playing field. Zooming out to 135mm to capture a face or an overall scene makes little sense. Most of the time, a few steps closer with your zoom at 105mm and you fill the frame just as easily--and without the exceedingly small lens aperture that makes longer zoom settings an even more likely cause of picture-blurring camera shake.

In my humble opinion, the most useful of all zoom ranges is also the poorest selling. I'm talking about 28?90mm, a true wide-angle-to-telephoto focal length range. Starting out at 28mm rather than 35mm or 38mm can make all the difference in the world in your ability to capture a broad range of subjects. It gives you a much wider angle of view, so you can take in much more of a scene from a given position.

You can shoot tall buildings in a single bound, for example, without always having to back away so far that something else gets in the way. Or you can fit much more of a tight interior into the frame when your back is against the wall. The same goes for big landscapes: You can't back away much from that canyon rim or scenic pullout to include more of the scene, but if you have a 28mm zoom setting, you won't feel the need as often.

Yet zoom in to 90mm with your 28?90mm zoom, and you've got an ideal setting for flattering portraits. And, of course, you get a bunch of useful focal lengths in between. Alas, as of this writing, only two 28?90mm models remain: the Pentax IQZoom 928 and the Rollei Prego Zoom 90. And but one holdout exists in the 28?70mm category: the compact, clamshell Minolta Freedom Zoom Explorer. (You may find an occasional 28?56mm model, again a 2X zoom.) A hopeful sign: Olympus has introduced a point-and-shoot model that zooms from 28?80mm, the Infinity Stylus Zoom 80 Wide DLX. I can't overstate the value of the 28mm setting: You can't always move back to fit the whole subject in the viewfinder, and when that's the case, the 28mm setting lets you get pictures that you may not get with any other lens.

Cameras of all focal lengths and focal length ranges have been shrinking dramatically. By my thinking, you shouldn't consider a 35?70mm zoom model unless it's fully pocketable, because you can get 38?90mm, 38?105mm, and even 38?115mm models that are hardly any bigger.

What Features Do You Want?

Many cameras suffer from mode overload. They have more features than you would ever use. But you don't want to get caught with too few features, either. Look particularly at flash modes. Fill flash is pretty basic these days, but the less common slow-sync flash is also extremely useful, and lower-end models tend not to have it. Having a full range of flash modes actually lessens the need for more advanced features such as exposure compensation and backlight compensation, though these modes do give you extra control with atypical subjects. You may want to avoid models that forcibly combine red-eye reduction with slow-sync flash; even the most basic models seem to have some form of red-eye reduction, however, and it can be next to useless.

Don't be fooled by a point-and-shoot's styling. Some models are handsome and some are out-and-out homely, and you often pay more for good looks. But what matters is that the camera gives you the right lens for your needs and the features that you really want. Pretty pictures are better than a pretty camera.

Is the Camera Comfortable to Hold and Operate?

Take the model you're considering for a walk around the store, just as if you're trying on a new pair of shoes. (Don't buy a camera that the salesperson doesn't let you play with--batteries installed!) Can you get a firm grip on the camera? Do your fingers and thumbs fall naturally into place on surfaces and controls? Is the zoom control easy to operate? Can you hold the camera steady? Does it feel too small or too big in your hands?

Pretend to shoot some pictures with the camera just to see how responsive it is. Is there a noticeable lag between when you press the shutter button and when the camera fires? (Make sure that the flash is fully charged when you assess the camera's responsiveness; the camera won't fire until it is.) If a lag seems to exist, ask to see a different model and compare its shutter button action. Also, operate the zoom control to see how quickly and smoothly the lens zooms in and out. A quick zoom may make getting the shot faster, but it can also require more back-and-forth motion to get the exact focal length and composition that you want.

Is the Viewfinder Easy to Look Through?

On some point-and-shoot models, the viewfinder can be awkwardly placed and physically small. When you raise the camera to your eye, this placement may make finding the viewfinder difficult; you may have to wiggle the camera around to do so. That extra time may cost you the photo op that caught your eye. Also, are the viewfinder's edges easy and quick to see? If the viewfinder is hard to find or to see in its entirety, consider buying a model that has an oversized viewfinder. Designed specifically to help eyeglass wearers see the whole frame better, these models sometimes have the phrase "big finder" in them. However, they may be widely available only in cheaper, nonzooming models, so look and ask around.

Also consider the clarity of the viewfinder. Is it bright and sharp from edge to edge? Overall? If it doesn't seem sharp overall, does it have a diopter control (a small dial by the viewfinder) with which to adjust it to your individual vision? In a word, compare. Viewfinders can be very different. But, but...

A new camera is like a new car: It takes some getting used to. A camera's viewfinder may seem hard to find at first, but the more you use the camera, the more quickly you can get your eye into position. A button or switch that seems awkward initially will probably, over time, feel more comfortable. No camera can be all things to all people!