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Lower your sights for a better camera deal

Top-of-the-line models may have pricey features you don't really need.

November 22, 2009

Even in this era when cameras have become nearly standard equipment on cellphones, there's still a place for digital point-and-shoots.

"The nice thing about a camera on a phone is that you can take a quick snapshot and send it along," said Will Chambers, editor in chief of the consumer review site Steve's Digicams. "But the optics on those cameras is very cheap."

On the other hand, "the image quality you get from even a low-level point-and-shoot camera is so much better," he said.

But you might not be able to find huge bargains this year. Unlike many other gadgets that get less and less expensive as the years go on, the cost of point-and-shoots seems to be holding steady. In fact, as of September the average retail price was $173, exactly one dollar higher than in 2008.

You don't have to pay that much, however, for a terrific camera if you choose features wisely.

Resolution: Point-and-shoot cameras are now commonly being offered with the ability to shoot at 12-megapixel resolution and more. But for most consumer applications, Chambers thinks that's overkill.

"That high of a resolution is for someone who wants to print out a poster," he said. "At 8 megapixels, you have more than enough for a high-quality 4-by-6 or even 8-by-10 print."

Screen: View screen sizes have been growing, making shots easier to frame. But Chambers said a 2.7-inch screen is fine for most uses.

Intelligent auto-exposure: This feature, sometimes called iAuto or Smart Auto, is a souped-up automatic mode that quickly sets several variables to ensure a good shot.

"It's a really great asset," Chambers said. But it might not be found on some budget cameras.

Size/weight: Generally speaking, the smaller and lighter the camera, the higher the price. If you're looking to keep costs down, a more bulky model can still take fine pictures.

For example, Canon's lower-priced A-series cameras are bigger than many of its offerings and use disposable (instead of rechargeable) batteries. One of the newest additions to that line, the A1100, can shoot at 12 megapixels and costs about $130.

The lighter, slicker SD1200 that shoots at 10 megapixels goes for about $180.

-- David Colker

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