[Written for Better Digital Photography magazine, 2004]
10 tips for buying a digital camera
1 Don’t spend more than you need to
The salesman in the shop wants to get as much of your money as he can, so he’ll try to sell you a much more expensive camera than you really need. If all you want one to take 6x4-inch snapshots, you don’t really need an 8-megapixel superzoom. A 3 megapixel, 3x zoom compact will do perfectly well.
2 Don’t limit yourself
The flipside of the preceding tip is that if you want a decent hobby camera, it’s worth paying a little extra to get a good one. Look for manual exposure options, accessible controls and good lens quality. A good zoom range will also be useful. For the serious enthusiast, a five or six megapixel camera is pretty much the minimum, and a digital SLR is ideal.
3 Don’t forget the extras
If you have £400 to spend, don’t spend it all on your new camera. Instead, spend £300 on the camera and the remaining £100 on a couple of decent-sized memory cards and a spare battery. You can’t get the best out of your camera with just the 16MB card that it came with. If you can afford it, get yourself a decent tripod, a cleaning kit and a carrying case as well.
4 Megapixels aren’t everything
Cameras are usually advertised exclusively on the number of megapixels they have, but there are many other factors that affect performance and image quality. Look at the lens quality, start-up time, battery life and build quality, as well as other features such as the size and quality of the LCD monitor and the number of manual options on offer.
5 If it sounds too good to be true…
…then it probably is. There are a large number of cheap Chinese and Taiwanese import cameras on the market, apparently offering top-class performance at rock-bottom prices – but beware of false economies. These cameras are usually built using last year’s technology, and are slow, heavy on batteries, badly put together and frequently unreliable. Often their advertised megapixel number is based on interpolation, and picture quality is usually very disappointing.
6 Buy from a reputable dealer
We had a call from a reader recently who had bought a 6-megapixel camera for £79 from a well-know toy retailer, and was disappointed with the performance and quality.
The answer is to buy only from established specialist camera retailers, because they’ll be able to give you good advice and will usually stock cameras from the better manufacturers.
7 Buying online
The big online retailers are offering some remarkable bargains, undercutting the high-street shops by as much as £100 on some models. Buying online is not as risky as it once was, since most credit cards now offer insurance against online fraud, and anyway, fraud problems are rare.
The only disadvantage is that you can’t try before you buy. On the other hand, if you know exactly what you are looking for, then shopping on the internet can be a good way to save yourself a substantial amount of money.
8 Grey imports
With the current strength of the pound in relation to the US dollar, it is possible to buy a camera in America for about two-thirds of the price in this country. If you’re planning to buy a high-end camera costing over £500, it can actually make sense to take a cheap flight to New York and buy it there.
On your return to the UK, you’ll have to pay VAT on your purchase, but there’s an interesting and little-known loophole that you can legally exploit. Although film cameras and video cameras are subject to import duty, digital still cameras are not!
The only problem you are likely to find is that the mains adapter will have the wrong plug on it. Most warranties are international, but it’s worth checking that yours is valid in Europe.
Digital camera technology is evolving so quickly that a camera just a couple of years old is now pretty much obsolete. For this reason, it’s usually not worth buying a second-hand camera. The only exception to this is old digital SLRs. Cameras such as the Canon D30 and D60, Nikon D100 or Fuji S2 Pro are still very usable, and can be found at bargain prices in the second-hand market. As before, the best advice is to buy from a specialist camera retailer. You might see what looks like a bargain in a pawn shop window, but you have no way of knowing how much abuse that camera has suffered. Your local camera shop will be much less likely to sell you a lemon.
10 Buying on eBay
In case you’ve been living in a cave for the past few years, eBay is an online auction site where people from all over the world buy and sell items of all kinds. As with buying from pawn shops and other non-specialist outlets, the advice for buying cameras on eBay is ‘buyer beware’. While eBay and its online payment subsidiary PayPal have many safeguards against fraud, you are still buying ‘sight unseen’, so you are taking a small risk. If someone does rip you off badly, complain to eBay at once and they can usually refund your payment.