Are you ready to buy? Not so fast. We can only do so much for you; you need to hold the cameras in your hand, feel their weight, make sure the eyepiece isn't awkward to look through, and that the buttons are large enough for your hands (we've seen big guys stumble over this last one). Just like buying clothes, you should "try on" the cameras you think you're interested in to make sure they're comfortable.

The sales clerks will also tell you what's coming out soon, which technologies have become obsolete since we wrote this article, and, most importantly, what's on sale. They can also answer your specific questions regarding specific cameras, like whether the camera is small enough to sneak past the security guards at a concert. In this spirit, here are a few questions you'll want to ask before you buy:

  1. What functions on the camera are manually operated? You should find out if you need to advance the film manually (yes, those still exist), turn on the flash before you can use it (some cameras automatically flash), or, with APS cameras, choose a photograph size. And if you're thinking SLR, you'll want to know whether the camera can be fully automatic, or fully manual, or what combination of those two it's capable of.

  2. What special features does this camera have? Hopefully your salesperson has already gone over these with you; after all, he or she is there to sell you the camera. But don't be afraid to ask what something is or how it works - red-eye reduction isn't exactly an intuitive concept (more flashes and more light causes less red-eye?). Cameras are gadgets, they're supposed to do cool things for you, so make sure it has all the features you want/can afford.

  3. What comes with the camera? Point-and-shoot and APS cameras generally come with a faux-leather case, good for protecting the camera (if not your sense of style). If you're buying an SLR, make sure that you get a lens AND a body. Generally, manufacturers sell SLRs as a camera kit (with the lens and body together) at a price cheaper than all the components bought separately. Digital cameras need to come with the appropriate hardware (like a serial cable) and software for uploading the images onto your computer.

  4. What can I add to this camera later on? This question, more relevant for SLR and digital cameras, looks for camera-specific accessories that won't come with a manufacturers kit, like a mounted flash, or a larger memory card. Point-and-shoot and APS cameras can have these accessories too, the most common being a remote control.

  5. What kind of warranty does this have? This question is simply common sense for any major electronics purchase.

If you want to buy a digital camera, you'll find it's like buying a computer - there are a host of technical questions you'll need to ask before you buy. We aren't going to go into those details here simply because the technology moves too quickly: just last year, 3 megapixel cameras were not really available in the consumer market, and now they dominate the top-end models. So you'll need to do some research to learn the most up-to-date innovations in digital technology before you buy a digital camera. Both MacWorld.com and CNET.com frequently write about and review digital cameras. You can also use the common sense you've gained from buying computers as a guide: the more megapixels, the sharper the image; the more memory, the more pictures you can store; and the more bells and whistles, the higher the price tag.

Finally, it never hurts to shop the Internet. Online retailers often sell new cameras at large discounts, and generally have a wider selection to choose from, including discontinued models and used cameras. A sneaky way to do this is to go to a store, find what you like, then go to the Internet and buy it there. B&H Photo arranges its site by camera function, and J&R Photo organizes its site by both price and function.

Now get out there and start taking pictures. Just don't shoot photos of anything we wouldn't shoot. Really, we mean it. (Have you looked at our site?)