Before you buy a digital camera

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Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, graduations, weddings, summer travel: If there were an official American picture-taking season, it would definitely kick off in May. And now is also the hottest time to buy a digital camera–new models are debuting at great introductory prices, while last year’s are substantially discounted. The trick is to pick one that matches your needs, so you’ll pay only for features you’ll actually use.

If you’re a Casual Snapshot Shooter …

You don’t want to fuss with camera settings. You like to capture the moment on the fly, whether it’s your daughter’s birthday party or your puppy’s first bath. You generally print 4×6 photos, and you care most about portability and ease of use, so you’ll sacrifice fancy options (like rechargeable batteries) for serious savings.

* Look for … a point-and-shoot camera. These typically offer 2 or 3 megapixels of resolution. (The more megapixels, the better the photo’s “resolution,” or detail.) Ideally, you want at least a 3x zoom lens, meaning that your closest close-up will appear three times bigger than it would without the lens. Do choose a camera that uses a flash memory card, a removable device for storing photos. Otherwise, you can take only as many photos as your camera’s internal memory can hold, which varies from model to model but is always limited and non-expandable.

* Expect to spend: $99 to $250

At the higher end of this range is the new Canon PowerShot A510, which costs less than $200 and has 3.2 megapixeis of resolution. This camera is extremely lightweight and takes a great photo with a simple point and click (but it also has a few features that can help you get the best pictures in different lighting situations, such as dim light, sun, snow, etc.). Or try the Fujifilm FinePix A340; you’ll find that it’s deeply discounted (down to $100 in May) on Internet comparison-shopping sites (see box for tips).

If you’re a Memory Keeper …

You faithfully document every event, from Uncle Joe’s retirement bash to the company picnic, and you like to make prints in larger sizes. You might save your photos on your computer’s hard drive, burn a CD to give out at the family reunion, print up holiday cards, or share your photos online.

Look for … rechargeable batteries, a powerful flash, a self-timer, a large LCD preview screen (to view the picture before taking it–the newer ones are typically 1.8 inches wide or more), and optical and digital zoom lenses (optical zooms are physical mechanisms; digital ones use software to create the “zoom” effect). Also, choose a camera with enough controls to let you shoot well in bright sunshine or a candlelit room. Go for a model with at least 4 or 5 megapixels (for 8×10 prints and larger, you need better resolution). Like e-mailing and printing photos? Pick a camera that sends shots to your PC wirelessly or comes with a printer docking station so you can print 4×6 photos at the touch of a button.

* Expect to spend: $250 to $600. One good option is the HP Photosmart R717 for $250; this camera shoots panoramic views and has automatic red-eye correction, among other features. On the pricier side, check out the Kodak EasyShare-One system for $600, which offers wireless printing or transferring of photos.

Find the best deal–anywhere

Smart shopping tip: Start your research at shopzilla.com, shopping.com, or pricegrabber .com. These sites search all digital-camera models available (online and off) and give you a list of who’s selling what, and for what cost. Just remember to figure in tax and delivery (since costs will vary), and check with the store to make sure the product’s available!


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