Let’s face it – cameras are just tools to use so you can freeze time and share the moment.  Yeah, some people endow certain brands or gear with mystical qualities and a must-have reputation but for most people, amateur and professional, the camera is not the reason you buy a camera.  It’s all about the image, right?

Not so long ago (digitally speaking) it was a numbers game, at least to listen to the camera marketers.  More and more megapixels meant “better” photographs, right?  Not so much anymore – all recent cameras have lots of megapixels.  Besides, all that resolution needed for clear prints is not needed where photographs are shared on screens of all sizes.  When prints are actually made, few people are enlarging their photographs larger than 8×10”.   An 8-megapixel camera will fulfill your needs just fine for computer, tablet, smartphone or 8×10” print so if that’s all you’re worried about you can pretty much randomly pick a camera off the shelf and know you’ll have enough pixels to make you happy.

Here’s an example.  The image on the left was made with a 21 megapixel camera; the image on the right with a 10 megapixel camera.  At this size, on the screen, not much difference.  You would have to blow these up over 200% of their native size in order to start seeing differences just due to number of pixels.

So, if not pixels what is being promoted now?  Features.  Now there is a universe of specialty cameras with confusing functions and vague benefits, each clamoring for the attention of the poor consumer who just wants a good tool in hand for special occasions, or serious hobbies, or unusual locations.  Never has it seemed so hard to pick out a camera.  How are you to decide?  Well, what is your end in mind?

As with most good tools, you first have to know what you expect to get from your tool.  Got a bunch of friends who want you to take pictures at their wedding, graduation, parties, etc.?  You’ll most likely need a camera different from your buddy who photographs the antenna of moths or close-ups of model railroads.  Do you plan to hang monster prints of the Grand Canyon or Yosemite in your friends’ living rooms?  Your camera system will need features probably not found in the pocket sized version you keep in your back pocket.  Are you posting your life online – what you’re eating, where you’re exercising, that cool pair of shoes you scored?  Surprisingly, your smartphone is probably your best tool.

OK – so how do you decide?  Let’s start with some rules of thumb.

General or specialized photography?  Consider general photography the art of the snapshop – spontaneous, unposed, quick views of the world around you.  For general photography just about any camera you pick up with work fine however point-and-shoot versions are the most popular for this.  Versions range from small, flat pocket-sized cameras not much bigger than your cellphone to larger, more ‘camera-like’ bodies with zooming lenses.  With these you get to keep your gear simple and you’re ready to shoot just about anything quickly.  General is a broad term but with the zoom lenses available on many cameras today you’ll be ready for closeups as well as grand landscapes – within reason.

Naturally, just as a single screwdriver or wrench might work most of the time there are those occasions where specialized tools are needed.  Now you’re getting into systems where you can switch lenses, add flashes, mount remote shutter releases, etc.  You know, gadgets.  Here you can get as complicated as you want depending on what you’re doing, what you expect to get and how much you’re willing to pay.  Want extreme close-ups of fishing ospreys?  Stick a long lens on your camera.  Want poster-sized photos of a treasured stamp?  Get out that macro lens.  Want a group portrait of all 100 of your family at a reunion?  You’ll need a wide-angle lens.  Now you are in the realm of digital single lens reflex (DSLR) cameras.  The major brands have good choices in this category and enough gear to fill a hybrid car.

An emerging trend to consider is a hybrid between the point-and-shoot and DSLR cameras.  These are smaller than DSLR’s but use interchangeable lenses.  Since there’s no mirror inside (which helps keep them small) you may be composing on the screen on the back or through a viewfinder that is an electronic screen inside the camera.

So, you know what kind of photographs you’ll be making and the three major types of cameras you might find.  You’re already ahead of most amateur photographers heading for the store.  Fine-tuning your selection will require you to know a few more things, which I’ll cover in Part 2.