It's been awhile (more than two years) since I've surveyed new digital cameras, and a few people have asked me about them. Specifically, one acquaintance wondered whether the Canon PowerShot S300 is a good model for her.
First, go look at the Digital Camera Resource Page's Holiday 2004 recommendations, since it's more comprehensive and informed than my discussion here.
Cameras from Canon and other manufacturers
For general consumer digital cameras, I recommend Canon models to anyone who asks—although I don't own one myself (I have a Kodak), I've used them quite a bit and those to whom I've recommended them have been happy. Rather than playing keep-up-with-the-Joneses, Canon seems to think its features through more thoroughly than some other manufacturers, and their cameras are particularly good at focusing in low light when taking flash photos, which is important at parties, outdoors in the evening, and so on. (Some other cameras use their flashes, but make blurry photos because they don't focus properly in low light first.)
Size vs. features: Whether, for instance, the Canon S300 is the right model for you depends on whether size or features is more important: smaller cameras like the S300 are a bit easier to carry around, but slightly bigger ones are still simple to bring with you, and may give you better pictures in more situations—or you can get a better camera for the same money, or more accessories to help you get better photos.
Pixels: I find that, for most people, 3 or 4 megapixels (like the S300) are plenty. You won't generally use all the resolution of 5 megapixels or more unless you make big enlargements or do a lot of cropping; it's better to spend money on a better camera, or lens, or a lens with a wider range of optical zoom.
The Canon A75 is an excellent 3-megapixel camera, and the similar A85 and A95 have more pixels and are also good. They are otherwise nearly the same camera, so which one you prefer might depend solely on your budget.
Batteries: Aside from the extra flexibility, better lens, and nicer LCD screen of the "A" models, they use standard-size AA batteries. I do not recommend using regular Duracell/Energizer non-rechargeables there (digicams go through them incredibly fast), but rechargeable AA's are cheap, as are external rechargers, and you can always use those Duracells in a pinch if your others wear out. With the S300 and smaller cameras, you're stuck with the proprietary battery they come with, and usually have to charge them in the camera. If you don't buy a spare and you're on the road without a power outlet, you might find yourself with a dead battery and no way to take pictures. That's less likely with the A models.
Models not from Canon: Aside from Canon, Nikon makes good consumer digicams if you like taking close-up shots (Nikons can focus much closer than most other models), and Pentax has some nice models in the price range as well. Even HP and Kodak have some nice cameras if you want super-easy-to-use models. If you want a big zoom (more than the typical 3X zoom), this Panasonic model is the one to check.
What accessories do you need?
For a 3-megapixel camera, each photo is 1 MB–1.5 MB at high quality, so you can take 100-120 photos on a 128 MB card, for instance. If you have more pixels, you get fewer photos, but generally you'll be safe with a 256 MB card (pretty cheap these days—about $60 or less, I think), unless you're going on vacation without a computer to download photos to, in which case several 256 MB cards would probably be better (and safer, in case of any errors) than a single bigger card.
Make sure you get the right kind of memory for the camera you buy—the Canon S300, for instance, uses SD (Secure Digital) cards, while the Canon A models use the older, bigger, but reliable and slightly cheaper CF (CompactFlash) design.
My recommendation when buying a digicam is to get:
- the camera
- a bigger memory card (256 MB or two 128 MB)
- two sets of rechargeable batteries (one set for the camera, one set as a spare), plus charger if appropriate
- a mini-tripod for self-portraits etc.
- some sort of lens-cleaning device (a lens pen or lens paper) in case of smudges
- a small camera bag to hold it all