9 Ways to Be a Smarter Camera Shopper

We're here to help you focus your search, be a smarter buyer, and add the right accessories.

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The holiday shopping season is upon us. With so many cameras and so many deals out there, shopping for a camera can be overwhelming. We're here to help you focus your search, be a smarter buyer, and add the right accessories.

Choose the Right Camera

• Figure out what you want to shoot. Our first tip is also the most important. There is a huge variety of camera types out there, and each is aimed at a different type of user: superzooms for youth sports and wildlife shooters, travel zooms for those who are always on the go, advanced compacts for those who aspire to own a DSLR someday, and plenty of near-disposable point and shoots for those on a tight budget. And that's just scratching the surface.

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The most important thing is to define your parameters. How much zoom do you need? How important is size and weight? And of course: What's your budget? Answer these questions and you'll have a clearer picture of the type of camera that's right for you.

• Narrow down your options. Once you have a genre in mind, pare the list even further. If you shoot a lot in dim light, look for cameras that tout low-light abilities, and eliminate those without image stabilization. Sports and wildlife photographers will appreciate stabilization, too, and ought to look for models with high-speed burst shooting options and large buffers. Landscape and architecture enthusiasts would do well to prioritize cameras with impressive wide-angle settings, broad dynamic range, and minimal distortion.

Savvy shoppers should be able to narrow their list down to two or three cameras. While you're here, start with our product type pages, and pick out a few models with the best scores in their genres. Snapsort.com and DPReview.com have useful side-by-side spec comparison tools to help your choice as well.

• Find out what others are saying. Once you've got your shortlist, it's time to seek out some informed opinions. Professional review sites (like the one you are reading) spend days performing rigorous lab tests on new cameras, providing insightful technical analysis and exposing the limits of a camera's performance. They are also particularly good at offering perspective on where a camera stands among its peers.

Customer reviews, on the other hand, are useful because they reflect the more subjective, anecdotal, and even passionate experiences of day-to-day users. They can often reveal useful tips and tricks that reviewers can miss in their brief time with a camera, and can reveal widespread quality control issues. But be careful to take extremely negative reviews with a grain of salt—unhappy users are exponentially more likely to take their experiences online than happy users.

Be a Smarter Shopper

• Get your mitts on some real live cameras. The next thing you should do is take your shortlist to a local electronics mega-mart and handle as many of the cameras as possible. You can read specs and user opinions until your eyes bleed, but even the best-equipped camera can be ruined by poor ergonomics. And ergonomics aren't one-size-fits-all. Some people have big hands, some are dainty. Some people like firm shutter buttons, some like 'em spongy. Touchscreens? Even if you generally love them, you ought to try out the interface before committing—there are some truly awful touchscreens on cameras. Really, just get in there and give the camera a workout. You wouldn't buy a car without test-driving it, right?

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• Shop around. By this point, you should have a pretty good idea of which camera you want. Now you need to actually buy it. Good news: the internet is full of places to buy things. Bad news: the internet is full of places to buy things—how do you know you're getting the best deal?

Answer: sites like Google Shopping and pricegrabber.com. Go there, plug in the model number you're interested in, and they'll give you the best deals available on the internet at that very moment.

You should also keep an eye on deal sites like Slickdeals and Fatwallet, which aggregate unusually good sales on all kinds of products, often including rebates and coupon codes. Before you buy, search for your chosen model there and make sure there's not some freaky-good deal hiding in plain sight.

And let us tug on your heart strings for a moment: If you go to a brick-and-mortar store to handle a camera and the salesperson treats you well, you shouldn't feel bad about spending a few extra bucks to buy it then and there. If you feel like he or she is pushing you to buy a camera that you just don't want, then walk away. But you should reward good service with your purchasing power. The salesperson gets a few bucks, you get a new gadget right away, and a store stays open.

• Don't get scammed. Most people have go-to shopping sites for various kinds of goods, and for electronics and cameras it's probably a site like Amazon, Best Buy, Newegg, or even B&H Photo. Those sites offer consistently excellent customer service and a trusted buying environment.

However, product price aggregators like the ones we described above can often include less well-known sites, often offering the same product at drastically lower prices. Our advice is simple: if the price sounds too good to be true, it probably is. But if you're not willing to dismiss a shop out of hand, look it up at Reseller Ratings —if it's a scam site, you'll know right away.

Purchases After the Purchase

• Buy a memory card. You probably have a memory card lying around from an older camera, but it's probably still a good idea to upgrade. Increasing megapixel counts, crazy burst shooting speeds, and HD video recording mean that today's cameras require faster write speeds in order to make the most of their impressive capabilities. If you plan to shoot a lot of HD video or continuous stills capture, look for Class 10 memory. Cards are cheap these days, so stock up.

• Don't over-accessorize. Many camera sites, even otherwise reputable ones, will try to con you into adding accessory kits. The cost of upgrading is usually minimal, and it sure seems like you get a lot of stuff: memory cards, cases, batteries, filters, conversion lenses, tripods, even lens cleaning cloths. You name it, they'll try to push it on you.

Some of these items sound useful, but they're often bargain-basement quality: tiny, flimsy tripods and off-brand, low-speed memory cards. Then there are add-ons like filters and conversion lenses. While high-quality polarizers and neutral density filters still have a place in digital photography, you don't want these filters, and there's a good chance you'd never use them even if they were decent. If you don't select one of these packages initially, some companies will call you—or ask you to call them, under some pretext—and give you the hard sell. Stonewall them.

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• Insurance might save cash in the long run. Insurance of any kind is a gamble. Many people buy it, never use it, and end up feeling like suckers—but they'll readily admit that it's nice to know they have it. Ultimately, only you can decide if it's a service you need, or a cost you can afford. It's no different with electronics protection plans, which are available from most big-box retailers and online companies like SquareTrade. If you think you might be in the market for a protection plan, we have a few suggestions:

1) Understand what your plan covers. Some plans only protect against product failures, while others cover accidental drops and spills. Always be sure to read the full coverage description, so you know what you're getting.

2) Consider whether your camera is valuable enough to be insured. If it's a cheap point and shoot, is it really worth tacking 15-20% onto the initial purchase price? Probably not.

3) Think about where your camera is going to live. Do you have small children? How about big dogs? If there's a higher than normal chance of your camera getting inadvertently knocked to the floor, or having a sippy cup dropped on it, you should probably give accidental damage coverage some serious consideration.

4) Check your renter's or homeowner's policy to see if it already offers this protection. Many policies cover accidental damage within your property, which may be good enough for you.

Share your shopping suggestions in the comments below!

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