Take Control of Buying a Digital Camera
Posted: 25-Jan-2004

Mac Guild Grade

Publisher: TidBITS


Reviewer: Dale Mead $5.00

Take Control of Buying a Digital Camera
By Lawrence Chen
eBook in PDF format, 53 pages, 2.6 MB
Dec 9, 2004, US $5 (
Free Excerpt)

What the Book is About
This book holds the reader's hand while buying a digital camera. Chen certainly fills a need; last holiday season, digital cameras were the #1 Christmas gift. Without some preparation beyond comparing pixel counts, when you step up to the digital camera rack at a Best Buy store, you'll be immersed in a sea of choices with strange-shaped lenses, unfolding display monitors, buttons, dials with arcane symbols, and labels touting features of indecipherable value. No more ironic symbol of modern technology exists than the point-and-shoot digital camera with the 150-page manual.

The author restricts his book largely to point-and-shoot cameras. Fancier cameras, specifically digital single-lens-reflex (SLR) cameras, on which lenses can be changed, are relegated to an appendix at the end. These third-tier cameras cannot be ignored altogether; chances are this audience includes a number of people who use film SLRs and have to decide whether investing in a digital version of what they're used to is worth the cost. But an appendix is sufficient introduction, since his audience generally will be happy with a fixed-lens digital camera. Most people who buy a DSLR, even experienced film SLR owners, first owned a digital point-and-shoot.

Target Audience
Chen aims his book specifically at aspiring digital photographers, whether experienced with film photography or getting into picture-taking for the first time. Its prepares them to take the big first step. The book does not get into photography fundamentals. It assumes readers understand picture taking. People who already have gone through the process of shopping for and purchasing a digital camera may not find a lot of value in this book. If it's of use to long-time digital camera owners at all, it's as a model of how they could assist friends making the plunge -- which digital photographers inevitably do these days.

Chen could add experienced digital photographers to his target audience by adding a chapter on what's really out there. To start with, the image sensors in consumer and prosumer digitals, apart from the pixel count, differ significantly in pixel quality. I divide them roughly into three categories: the <$500 cameras, the $500-$1,000 cameras, and the <$1,000 cameras (most of which are DSLRs). You don't see much difference in image quality in emailed images and "snapshot" prints (4" by 6"); but it's noticeable, even stunning, for projections and larger custom prints. I have a 20x30-inch enlargement from my low-end DSLR, printed on canvas by a professional lab, that seems impossibly sharp, subtle and vibrant. My comparably sized traditional enlargements look soft and pale by comparison.

What to Expect
Having just purchased a backup digital SLR body, I am on my fourth digital camera (plus the the one I use occasionally at work as a photographer). But Chen's target audience will get a great deal out of the tome. It demystifies the technologies and features that distinguish digital from film photography and are very likely to perplex a prospective buyer.

The book is broke into the following chapters:
  • Introduction
  • Quick Start for Buying a Dgigital Camera
  • Set a Realistic Camera Budget
  • Understand Camera Usability
  • Compare Camera Features
  • Read Between the Lines of Camera Reviews
  • Evaluate Picture Quality
  • Buy the Camera
  • Find Camera Accessories
  • Look at Pictures on Your Computer

The book includes four appendices as well:
  • Camera Buying Worksheet
  • Feature Roundup
  • Buying a Digital SLR Camera
  • Improve Your Photography

Chen's structure is good, but some of the key information needed for making a decision is buried in later chapters when it should be presented up front. He makes an excellent point in the "Understanding Camera Usability" chapter: Before checking out the features of cameras, you need to decide what you want to do with yours. What are you going to photograph, and how good do you want the photos to be? Unfortunately, he totally under-develops (no pun intended) that point, taking a mere couple of paragraphs to divide prospective buyers only into two very general groups: snap-shooters vs artistic photographers. This implies that once you decide whether you're casual or serious about your picture-taking, you're ready to check out camera features.

Having already been down this road, I believe that you won't be ready to shop until you define your intentions and your needs beyond just casual vs serious. Some questions to consider:
  • Will you be taking action pictures such as kids, pets or sports, or less mobile subjects?
  • Will you be shooting primarily outside or inside?
  • Will you be shooting extreme close-ups such as individual flowers?
  • Do you need a wide-range telephoto zoom?
  • Will you be carrying a camera all the time, perhaps shooting in circumstances where you need to pack light, such as backpacking? Or will your photo treks stay close to home base, making bulkier equipment acceptable?

All these issues impinge on the next step Chen outlines, which is to study the features of various cameras to determine which ones best meet your newly identified needs. At the end of the book, Chen acknowledges the need to define your intentions more thoroughly; his Camera Buying Worksheet in Appendix A starts with Pictures and Priorities, a table that lists seven categories of pictures and the camera features that matter most for each. These categories should have been discussed in the first chapter.

One critical issue that is overlooked altogether: What will you do with the pictures once they're taken? In the film era, camera buffs had two choices: Take slides to project, or make prints from negatives or slides. These options have grown! Now we have the Internet, email and digital projectors (including TV sets) along with prints. Even printing has variations, from camera-to-printer 4x6-inch prints, to image files for the drug store photo lab, to the personal computer-driven digital darkroom. Deciding the preferred medium for sharing images should precede and be a factor in what camera you buy, yet it comes up nowhere in Taking Control of Buying a Digital Camera.

If Chen would comprehensively summarize camera features by model in one chapter -- say, in a table -- he would expand his book's target audience several times over. Incorporating that kind of detail in his book entails risk, because the pace of camera improvements is dizzying; any summary could possibly be obsolete in months. On the other hand, frequent updated editions are much easier and inexpensive for ebooks than paper books; each of Tidbits Publishing's In Control series, in fact, has a button to find updates. Such updated information would create a great incentive for even jaded digicam buffs to buy new editions frequently just to see what the camera makers are up to now.

The most valuable facet of this book is its structure, laying out the camera-buying process step by step. That process brings home the key point: A buyer needs to start out by analyzing what he needs a camera to do rather than simply buy a camera for its bells and whistles. Unfortunately, this is not presented strong enough in the first chapter, reducing it to a simplistic decision: Are you a casual or serious photographer? Fortunately, he spells it out quite well later on in the book. The first table of Appendix A lists seven kinds of pictures a person might prefer to take and the camera features needed for each. The worksheet condenses the critical first step into a concise to-do list. With that point made, the subsequent steps in later chapters become transparently sensible.

Mac Guild Grade
B (Very Good)

Final Words
Chen breaks the decision-making down into a very logical order:
  1. Decide first how much you're prepared to spend, and shop in your price bracket;
  2. clarify how you're going to use the camera, primarily what you're going to photograph;
  3. learn the features of the various cameras, concentrating on those capabilities that serve your uses;
  4. read Web reviews that transcend hype, compare sample images, and try out cameras in stores;
  5. buy the camera;
  6. shop for accessories; and
  7. once you start, maximize your investment: Analyze the pictures you take (in the camera and on a computer), learn from what you see, and protect your precious image files.

The Camera Buying Worksheet alone boils the process down to a compact to-do list. Overall, the appendices pack lots of supplemental information in a small space, often in tables.