Holiday Buyers Guide: Part 4–Digital Cameras for All

You, yes, YOU can be like the girl who saved Christmas.  You can be smart, savvy, suave and with it.  YOU can buy your loved one(s) the perfect Holiday gift and allow them to relive the happy moments over and over again. 

What do you have to do, you ask?  Simple – buy the right digital camera, with the right cables and software, and then just sit back and bask in the glory that is all you.  Provided…that is, that you get the right camera and follow some basic photography rules.

So let's get to it and find the best camera for your 2010 Holiday needs.

Screen shot 2010-12-15 at 11.49.11 PM
Say Cheese..!

Digital Cameras
When it comes to my holiday memories, I want the best I can afford; but as always, I want it within reason. I’m not going to go and skip a car payment or something so I can purchase a better digital camera; but you need to understand that you get what you pay for.  So, for the purposes of this article, I’m going to set a budget of $550-$600 for purchasing a still camera; and budget of $750-$900 for a video camera. Going over these amounts, for my purposes would probably break the bank, (dare I say it) especially in this economy.  So, unless you’ve been blessed with some kind of windfall or happen to be comfortable right now, is only going to get you convenience vs. needed features. It may also mix some metaphors (taking movies on your digital SLR, for example); and while that may be cool, its really nothing more than convenience.

Now, time for a little digital camera 101 – the big debate: lens vs. megapixel rating.  My father used to say, you can learn your stuff, or try to dance you’re way through a subject.  So, I can either baffle you with bull$hit, or I can dazzle you with dexterity.  Here’s the truth about digital camera lenses and megapixel ratings – its all about the quality of the lens.


The larger your megapixel rating, the larger the picture is, the more data you have to to work with.  That means that if you’ve got a 15MP picture, you might be able to blow it up and print a 10×13 or bigger; but if it’s a crummy picture, all you have is a larger, crummy picture. The better the lens, the better the quality of the picture. That means a couple of different things for the two different kinds of still cameras you’ve got to choose from.

  1. You’re likely going to pay a bit more for a better lens
    This is likely true regardless of camera type you buy (DSLR vs. P&S).  Again, the better the lens, the better quality picture you’ll take.
  2. Don’t get sucked into the optical/digital zoom debate
    Optical zoom takes you closer to the object you want to take a picture of. Digital zoom brings the picture closer to you.  You want the former and not the latter.  Digital zoom (taken to the extreme to illustrate the point) does nothing more than magnify the imperfections in your photos.  If you can’t zoom in far enough to get the picture you want from where you’re standing/sitting, get up and move closer to your subject. Using digital zoom on top of optical zoom is only going to distort your shot; and is a really cheap way for manufacturers to increase their zoom rating.  If you want more zoom in your zoom lens, buy a better lens. Period.

    Based on our budget and the above, I am recommending the following in each of the following sub-categories.

  • Point & Shoot Cameras – Canon PowerShot S95
    The Canon S95 is a 10MP point and shoot camera that offers a 3.8x optical zoom lens (28-105mm, f/2 4.9). It can shoot 1.9fps, capable of 720p (basic HD) video.  It also has a 3″ digital LCD view finder.  The body is small and slim, and easily pocketable for easy portability. Sporting Canon’s HS System, the camera is great for quick point and shoot photo opportunities that don’t require you to capture fast action subjects.  Shots are clear and bright, and its HD video is awesome, provided you have a big enough SD card to hold it all.  DSLR users will love its full feature set, and beginners will be very happy with its clear, steady shots.  At $399.99 MSRP, it’s a tad pricey for a point and shoot; but for form, function, and capabilities, the Canon S95 is hard to beat.
    You can pick up the Canon PowerShot S95 at
    Amazon, New Egg, B&H Photo-Video and Crutchfield.
    The Canon PowerShot S95…

  • Digital SLR’s  – Nikon D3000
    When it comes to DSLR’s its going to be difficult to stick to our budget.  If you’re a digital photo/photography nut and live and die by your photos, then DSLR’s like the
    Nikon D90 or the Canon EOS Rebel 60D are probably more to your liking.  They offer a decent camera body with good performance at a mid-range MSRP of around $1000 USD.  However, most amateur photographers ready to move from point and shoot cameras to an entry level DSLR might find the Nikon D3000 a better buy. 

    At an MSRP of $549.99, the Nikon D3000 kit, with 18-55mm VR lens, offers 10.2MP resolution and basic features and performance. However, it delivers the photo quality and performance you expect when stepping up to a DSLR, with an optional interface that’s very beginner friendly.  The nice thing about a camera like the D3000 is that it is a full featured DSLR, meaning that you can swap lenses at your convenience.  This gives you a great deal of flexibility to expand the capabilities of your basic camera body with an advanced lens as you get more experienced.

    This is the camera I bought early this year, and while its not the most advanced camera on the market, it’s a great place to start, offering growth and expandability while delivering great photos. You can pick up the Nikon D3000 kit at  Best Buy, B&H Photo Video, Amazon and CompUSA.

    The Nikon D3000…

Video Cameras
I remember back in the day when my mother-in-law got her first super 8mm video camera.  That woman went video crazy and shot video of everything.  Literally EVERYTHING. Looking back on that experience (as well as some of the videos), it was both funny and embarrassing. However, it really does illustrate how precious those moments truly are.  Today, it seems that including a digital camera on your mobile device/smartphone or other gadget is a no brainer.  Many people are using sites like Facebook, Picasa, Flickr and ShutterFly to store and share their digital still and video content.  Many smartphones make it very easy to capture and share this kind of content (you’re likely, always to have your phone with you as opposed to your much bulkier, dedicated video camera).
Many of those devices can also take and store HD video (720p) as well.  As such, some people are finding that spending the extra money for a dedicated video camera is hard to justify.  However, the problem of sharing that content on something other than your computer is still a challenge. Not everyone wants to be constantly tied to their computer to view this kind of content; and until things like
Boxee, Apple TV or Google TV become mainstream (where its easy to view digital still and video content), cracking the home movie content nut is going to be tough. In the meantime, you can always use your iPhone, HTC EVO, Samsung Galaxy S or other smartphone to take video.  Again, you’re just going to have to make certain that you have an SD card big enough to hold the content.

However, having a good video camera around is a great idea. If you find yourself in the market for one, then I recommend the following, as they both fit into our budget of $750 – $900 USD.

  • Hard Drive/Flash Memory – Flip Slide HD
    I’ve been going back and forth debating with myself over which product/product type to recommend.  There are a number of mainstream video cameras out there that push our budget envelope that I know many people would be very comfortable in using, but would really have a hard time being comfortable paying for, myself included. Given the state of my current finances and the stability of the economy, even though out budget stretches to $900 USD, I’m going to come in WAY under that with my recommendation.  In the end, if you go with a more mainstream video camera, all you’re really paying for is the lens. All of the other feature candy is just that…candy; and we all know what too much candy will do to your teeth. So, unless you really need to get in close, or are planning on taking a lot of video of subjects from a great deal of distance away from you, you likely don’t need all of the extra fluff.

    My pick for a hard drive or flash memory based video camera is the Slide HD from Flip Video. At $229.99 USD, the Slide HD has 16GB of built in storage, enough to hold 4 hours of video at 720p. It has a 1.5m to infinity fixed focus lens with a 2x digital zoom. While this may appear to go against my earlier advice of optical vs. digital zoom, I think the pros out-weigh the cons here. Yes, you’ll have a little difficulty zooming in on your kids at a sporting event while you’re in the stands, but the 720p HD resolution will make up for some of that when you do use the digital zoom.  The device’s portability, H.264 video compression HDMI output, and built in QVGA screen for instant viewing provide a great deal of value.  Flip’s built in FlipShare software makes it easy to organize, edit and share your videos with the world. It also comes with direct support for Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

    The Slide HD is available directly from Flip for $229.99, here.  It is also available from a retailer near you.

    2010-12-16 11.58.59 am
    The Flip Slide HD…

  • DVD  – Sony Handycam DCR-DVD40
    One of the things that I’ve learned very quickly about my family is that they aren’t as technology savvy as I am.  Just because a computer guru is a member of the family, doesn’t mean that you’re going to be raising Steven Hawking wanna-be’s in your home. So while I’m 100% comfortable with digital still and video photography and everything that it implies and needs, some members of the extended family (as well as those under my roof..!!) are more comfortable with more traditional video solutions.  Since tape is (thankfully) going the way of the dodo, the only other set top box viewable method of (near) instant viewing on an everyday TV is through your DVD player.  And while I know I can always burn a DVD with video on it with tools like iDVD or Windows Live Movie Maker, there’s still the issue of set top box compatibility. 

    As such, a good video camera that records direct to DVD is the Sony Handycam DCR-DVD650.  Well inside our budget, it offers great video quality and Dolby 5.1 Digital Sound that is automatically stored on a very convenient, universally accessible medium.  Everyone can play a DVD.  However, the video can be a little soft in some lighting conditions and there are some editing issues with DVD vs. MiniDVD. 

    The Sony Handycam DCR-DVD650 can be purchased from B&H Photo-Video, PC Connection Express, Wal-Mart and Amazon.

    2010-12-17 10.29.20 am
    The Sony Handycam DCR-DVD650…

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