One day it might happen to you if it hasn’t already. You’ll buy a camera that based on word of mouth, early adopter reviews, or testing seems to take great pictures. After several photo shooting sessions, the camera seems to be everything you could’ve hoped or wanted. Then right out of the blue, you’re faced with an unsuspecting flaw so obnoxious that had you known about it beforehand, you would’ve never bought the camera in the first place.
Why does this happen? For one, all too often we as consumers think that because a camera’s most important feature is its picture taking abilities, this criteria should be the only one to go by. So if we hear a model takes great pictures, we immediately snap it up without really thinking about other potential problems it may have.
But too– most importantly– sometimes we just wind up buying a camera with a major annoying problem because we had no idea that such an issue could exist in the first place. So in failing to anticipate a particular issue, we don’t look for it while window shopping. By the time we do in fact learn that such problems can occur, it’s usually too late to do anything about it.
With the frequency with which consumers constantly get burned by cameras with an oh-so-annoying flaw, it almost seems like a fact of life to occasionally get burned yourself. But it doesn’t have to be. By learning about the following ten “dealbreakers,” you can happily avoid running into the all too frustrating situation of buying a camera you can’t stand or regret purchasing.
Dealbreaker #1. Poor ergonomics
It’s hard to believe that a camera can be terribly designed to the point of annoyance. After all, isn’t there a universal template for where everything goes? The LCD screen goes over here; the dial up here; buttons over there and under here; and the battery compartment right there.
Seems simple, right?
Yes. However, some manufacturers get a little too carried away when they design their cameras, placing buttons, menus, and other important items in weird or hard to reach places. Even worse, they may even mold their cameras in shapes that make them awkward to hold. Unfortunately, this often results in nuisances that wind up slowing you down and even hampering you while taking pictures. Some examples? Buttons that are hard to reach or press; a body that feels hard to grip; battery compartments that are easily pushed open; dials that are easily knocked out of position; and flashes that are easy to overlap with a finger.
How can you prevent yourself from getting a camera with such issues? Easy! When testing a camera in-store, never just examine it for its features. Also pay attention to how it handles when you’re moving it around in your hand, turning the dial, and pressing the menu buttons. Look for potential problems (for example, buttons accidentally being pressed because of their proximity to other buttons). If you come across a problem, never assume that you’ll get used to it once you’ve bought the camera, or that easily turned dials and opened compartments are the result of the normal wear and tear of being an in-store display model. It could very well be a legitimate design flaw.
2. Terrible menu
A digital camera isn’t just a picture taking device; it’s a computer that comes with software to help you tweak its settings, take pictures, and connect with other devices, such as a computer, TV, or printer. This requires a menu system that’s intuitive and easy to navigate, with a design that makes the process of taking, reviewing, and transferring pictures easy and hassle free. When a menu is anything short of intuitive or fussy to use, it can make for a very frustrating experience, especially when you’re trying to quickly tweak settings in the heat of the moment.
That’s why if you ever get a chance to try out a model you’re interested in, you should really play around with its menu. Does it seem easy to find and change settings? Slideshow through all the images? Set priority modes? If yes on all counts, great! But if you find yourself fiddling too much to do any of these things, you might want to consider moving onto a different camera. Yes, you’ll be tempted to want to buy it because of its picture taking abilities, but just remember that if it becomes too frustrating to alter settings when you need to the most, you’ll regret ever having bought it.
3. Lack of optical or electronic viewfinder
All point and shoots come with a live preview LCD screen, but not all of them come with an additional electronic (EVF) or optical viewfinder. Why is this important to know? Because a common problem of LCD screens is that they become so washed out during sunlight that the camera becomes virtually unusable for several crucial hours during the day. For most people who intend to use their cameras for afternoon and evening events, not having an EVF or optical viewfinder is a non-issue. However, if you intend to use a camera exclusively during the height of daytime, pass. You may get plenty of Kodak moments during your family vacation in the tropics or sunny Mediterranean, but with sunlight washing out the screen most of the time you’ll be lucky if you can capture any of them.
4. Hard to learn
Operating a camera shouldn’t be rocket science. Even if you’ve never come across a particular model before and aren’t sure initially how to access certain features or tweak settings to make it perform at its best, a good camera should be intuitive to the point where just playing it for a day or so is enough to help you get a basic grasp of how it ticks. If at worst it is unintuitive, it should at least have a manual to help you through the rough spots of operating it, particularly when it comes to doing things like switching optional features on and off (like the flash, red eye reduction, etc).
Beware of the camera that seems to need a masters degree to yield decent photographs or has a manual that doesn’t explain the basics of operating it in plain English. You’ll give it the old college try in the beginning but after a week your new camera will be collecting dust as you seek a simpler model to use.
5. Terrible warranty and support
What’s the worst thing to happen to a brilliant camera? Having it break? No. Having it break, then having to deal with terrible customer service and an equally terrible warranty that requires an arm, a leg, a third extremity, and the life of your first born son to get fixed.
Never underestimate the power of a really bad warranty to really spoil your enjoyment of a camera regardless of how good it is. The consumer world is filled with horror stories by customers who absolutely fell in love with their cameras, only to turn on the brand after a disastrous encounter with customer support that had them spending hours of time and up to hundreds of dollars to fix it.
Before snapping a particular model up, search for reviews by unhappy customers who complain about terrible support and warranties that have unfair coverage or–worse yet– required them to spend a ridiculous amount of money to get their camera repaired. Sure, you could take the chances of purchasing that model in the hopes of not getting a lemon. But ask yourself if it’s really going to be worth the aggravation and expense should something go wrong.
6. Not enough zoom
This is one of those dealbreakers that’s not necessarily a flaw inherent in the camera, but a problem stemming from an underestimation of just how much zoom you really need. For example: when the Panasonix Lumix LX3 came out, users jumped at the chance to buy it because of its hyped up above average picture taking capabilities. There was one problem: the camera had a zoom (2.4x) that was way below the typical consumer’s desired range. That meant that it was unusable for extreme closeups from a sizable distance (like shots from the stands at a sporting event, the zoo, or similar type event or setting that would require a long zoom).
Because a lot of consumers bought the LX3 based on this “takes great pictures” criteria, many of them wound up being stuck with a camera they felt regretful purchasing in spite of how well it performed, since they couldn’t use it for subjects that required a longer zoom. Don’t fall into the same trap: always consider the zoom of a camera you’re interested in, because no matter how beautiful a picture it takes, it will be virtually useless if you can’t use it for the types of shots you intend to take.
7. Ticking time bomb
The camera seemed like a real winner– solidly built, gorgeous pictures, well designed. Then just a week after the warranty expired, kablammo! Something went horribly wrong. Maybe the LCD screen coughed up black bars or the lens went haywire. You thought you got a lemon when, uh oh, come to find out upon further research that this model had a fatal flaw that would malfunction precisely at the year and a half mark.
Welcome to the wonderful world of the “ticking time bomb”, a camera with a major defect that isn’t apparent initially because it doesn’t show itself until some time later, usually breaking down like clockwork after a specific amount of time. It could be a lens that suddenly gives an error code precisely 6 months after you’ve used it, or a screen that malfunctions after one year. Whatever the case may be, the defect always turns an otherwise brilliant camera into a stupid piece of junk way before its time and results in weeks, if not months of headaches trying to get it fixed.
Usually when something like this happens, manufacturers try to do their best to rectify the problem since it’s obvious that this was a problem on their end. Nevertheless, this is not a fun experience to go through regardless of whether there’s a chance it will be fixed free of charge, so the best way to deal with it is to avoid such models altogether.
But how can you? Wouldn’t you need to be clairvoyant? No, there’s a way you can anticipate such a problem. One method is this handy trick I’ve used throughout the years: when reading customer reviews about a camera, always read the negative ones no matter how many raves it’s gotten (even if it’s seeing up to 95% positive reviews). If the negative reviews seem trivial or due to customer error, you can trust the camera to be safe. But if you start to see a pattern to the comments– i.e., customers complaining over and over that a specific part of it tends to break down after a few months or even a year, start to research this problem, because the complaints are a red flag that it might be a ticker.
8. Proprietary accessories needed
Digital cameras need several accessories to get any use out of them, such as memory cards, lenses, and batteries. These can either be standardized (usable across several camera brands and models) or proprietary (brand specific). You might not think so, but buying a camera that requires proprietary batteries, lenses, or memory cards can be a dealbreaker for many reasons.
Number one, these more often than not will tend to be more expensive than the standard. Two, they will be much harder to find, which can be downright disastrous if you need them just a few hours before an important event or social function. And there’s nothing worse than that, to have a wedding, birthday party, or graduation coming up, only to have to find yourself scrambling from store to store to replace a lost memory card or find a special battery that costs $40-$80.
So before buying a camera, find out whether it uses proprietary accessories and if it does, how you feel about it. If you think the camera’s so good or such a steal that using proprietary accessories is worth it, then by all means, buy it. But if you don’t like the idea of paying more money than usual for batteries or trekking hill and dale to find a store that sells them, you might as well pass.
9. Cheap build
This is probably one of the most overlooked dealbreakers when people go window shopping for a camera. It makes sense why. After all, when you’re buying a camera, the most important thing you’re going to be concerned about is how well it performs, as well as whether it has all the features you want. You’re not really going to pay too much attention to how well made the body was put together or what types of materials were used in making it.
But believe it or not, camera build– or how a camera feels quality-wise– can really put a damper on your purchase, especially if it’s a pricey prosumer or DSLR. No matter how flawlessly a camera performs image quality-wise, no one wants to feel that the $400-$800 model they just bought has a body that feels as cheap as a plastic toy or one of those $6 disposable film cameras you can buy at a pharmacy chain. They want to feel that they got their money’s worth. Make sure that the camera you’re interested in fits the bill. Otherwise, you’ll wind up feeling burned by your purchase.
10. Too heavy, big and clunky
If you’re the type of person who likes to carry a compact on you wherever you go, you’re going to want a camera that’s lightweight, streamlined, and small enough to slip into a pocket or small bag. If you’re more interested in a DSLR, a model that is light and as small as possible is a must, because the last thing you want is a camera that feels like it weights a million pounds when you have additional lenses to carry along with it.
Unfortunately, sometimes that perfect camera you’ve set your eye on turns out being a lot less compact and portable than you’d hoped. This is why a trip to an electronics store is so important. With an actual model there for you to hold and play around with, you can really get a feel for how portable and light it is. If it’s small and lightweight enough for your means, then you know you’ve chosen the right model. But if you find it unwieldy, clunky to hold– and above all, just too heavy to carry around with you– don’t be tempted to buy it just because it takes “great pictures.” You’ll find yourself leaving it at home with each passing day, only trotting it out for “special occasions.”