For Cameras, Zoom In on Your Resolution Needs
For years, you couldn't go wrong by letting one number drive your digital-camera shopping: the megapixels, or millions of picture elements, that the camera could record in an image.
A two-megapixel resolution was good enough only for 3-by-5 prints, so why not spring for a three-megapixel camera when one became available? Four megapixels, in turn, made 8-by-10 enlargements feasible, so that was hard to pass up as well. And why not step up to five- or six-megapixel cameras when they arrived in stores?
Now you can easily buy cameras with 10 or 12 megapixels of resolution. But unless the amateur photographer on your gift list is going to order poster-size prints of the shots, there isn't much need for that resolution. It will eat up more space on the camera's memory card and on the computer's hard drive, with a longer transfer time between the two.
Knowing how much resolution is too much, however, isn't the same as knowing how much is enough. To do that, start by looking around your amateur photographer's house. Are there any 8-by-10 photos -- especially any taken by that person -- hanging on the walls? If there aren't, eliminate from consideration any cameras with more than four or five megapixels.
If, however, the house is graced by blowups of the better snapshots, don't get anything with less than five megapixels. Seven should be enough, although if the photos tend to be cropped with an ax instead of a scalpel, a higher resolution will leave an enlargement-ready picture after the edits.
With a resolution in mind, you can pick out a style of camera: a point-and-shoot model or one that allows the option of full manual control of a shot's focus, shutter speed and aperture. How do you know which one's right? Easy: If the photographer on your list is savvy enough to define "aperture" (the variable opening through which light travels to the camera's sensor) from memory, you want the second kind.
Then choose a camera size. Unless he or she already has a pocket-size camera, you're probably better off avoiding the larger models, such as the pricey but powerful digital SLR (single-lens reflex) models that enthusiasts love geeking out over. Get something that can go anywhere, and they'll not only take more pictures but will also learn to take better ones with all that practice.
Whatever size and shape of camera you look for, keep a few features on your shopping list.
One is as much zoom as possible. Even pocket-size models now offer optical-zoom capability up to 5x or 6x. A few models from Nikon, Kodak, Panasonic and other companies use clever lens designs to fold a 10x zoom into a compact body.
Don't get a camera without "optical image stabilization," which moves the lens or the sensor to compensate for any jitters. (Digital image stabilization, where the camera tries to do this with software processing, does not work as well. Image stabilization has an almost magical effect on photographs, allowing crisp indoor photos without flash.
Almost all cameras store photos on removable memory cards, but not all use the same kind of card. Get a camera that takes SD cards, the cheapest and most widely used type.
If you can find something that meets all of the other requirements and runs on AA batteries, you're doing especially well. A set of rechargeable AAs and a charger will cost far less than the proprietary batteries used on many cameras, and it's easy to find extra AA batteries in an emergency. You may have to yield on that feature to get the most compact cameras, however.
Don't worry about what software comes with the camera; third-party photo-album programs such as Apple's iPhoto or Google's Picasa are usually better. But do worry about the software on the camera itself: Good cameras can take care of many routine editing steps, such as rotating pictures to the correct orientation, cleaning up red-eye effects and even stitching together several photos into one wide panoramic view.
All those criteria aside, some of the deciding factors come down to personal taste. The user interface on some cameras can seem pared-down, while another's is too busy (from what I've seen, Kodak makes the simplest controls). For some, a really large LCD screen could eliminate the need for a viewfinder, while others may prefer to focus shots by holding the camera right up to the eye.
If the person on your list is also a video hound, resist the idea of substituting a camera with a movie mode for a camcorder. The cameras suffice for taking a quick clip of somebody wiping out on a ski slope or blowing out birthday candles, but to document a vacation or even just a family dinner, a regulation digital camcorder is the way to go.
Camcorders come in two basic varieties: tape and DVD. For those with zero interest in editing home movies -- they just want to view the footage on TV with a minimum of fuss -- a DVD-based camcorder will be the best fit. Note, however, that some older DVD players may have trouble with those models' recordable discs, while a DVD player or computer with a slot-loading drive won't be able to read the discs.
On the other hand, if the user will splice and dice the video on the computer, adding soundtracks, titles and video effects in editing software such as Apple's iMovie or Adobe's Premier Elements, there's no beating a tape-based camcorder with a FireWire connection. The tapes -- usually cheap MiniDV cassettes-- are easy to transport, while the FireWire connection allows a fast, convenient transfer of video to a computer. Beware of camcorders with only USB ports; they will require messing with driver software and may preclude the use of some popular video-editing programs.
You will probably see some camcorders that use hard drives or flash memory instead of tapes or DVDs, but those technologies are a few price cuts and capacity upgrades away from relevance to non-enthusiasts.