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If taking the highest-quality photos you possibly can is all that you care about, you should opt for a digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera. But when you carry an item around all day, you soon realize the value of light weight and compact size. Here's what to look for in a DSLR or a point-and-shoot.
Megapixels: The most hyped and misunderstood camera spec is the megapixel count. The pitch you'll get is that more megapixels equals better photos--but 5 megapixels is enough to create a sharp 11-by-14-inch print. A higher megapixel number does come in handy if you need to crop and zoom in on a section of a photo; but unless you're planning to print movie-size posters, a 14.5-megapixel camera is overkill.
Optical zoom: Ignore vendors' specs for digital zoom and focus instead on the optical zoom. Digital zoom crops the image you see in your viewfinder and expands it to full-frame, reducing the quality of the resulting image. Optical zoom uses the lens to magnify the subject, resulting in a crystal-clear shot. But the higher the optical zoom, the more important optical image stabilization becomes; if you zoom in tight, very slight movement will blur your shot. Most point-and-shoots have optical zooms of 3X or 4X. For anything higher than that, you'll need optical image stabilization.
Manual focus: Manual focus is a great option for a point-and-shoot camera to offer, and all DSLRs have it. Very-low-end cameras frequently omit manual focusing or permit only stepped focusing, forcing you to choose from preset distances or scene modes. These days, more digital SLR cameras are offering point-and-shoot-like features, such as autofocus and scene modes to lure casual users. Casual photographers who are looking for more functionality may be better off opting for an upper-end point-and-shoot with a high optical zoom and a host of manual settings than splurging on a DSLR.
Exposure settings: Many digital cameras offer aperture- and shutter-priority modes, which let you fine-tune the exposure settings for certain situations. Look for a camera with high shutter speeds if you plan on capturing fast-moving action, such as cars racing by or athletes running. Try to find a camera with a low aperture, such as f2.8, if you want to take shots in dark environments without using a flash.
Viewfinders: A big, beautiful display is handy, but it's also a huge energy drain. Ask if you can adjust the screen's brightness, and whether you can toggle it off. Old school or not, having an optical viewfinder as well as an LCD can be a tremendous advantage when you're trying to prolong a camera's battery life.
Optical image stabilization: With image stabilization, as with zoom, optical wins out over digital big time. Because it physically shifts the image sensor to counteract movement, optical image stabilization does a much better job of capturing a clear shot. Digital stabilization simply adjusts the image's pixels or the camera's shutter speed in an effort to create a less-blurry shot. In any case, a tripod can save the day.