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In the market for a new, used or refurbished digital camera? Many advertisements tout the number of megapixels, or the millions of tiny digital dots that make up a picture. But for the casual photographer (and smart consumer) opting for one with lots of megapixels is probably unnecessary.

A Question of Quality
Megapixels "don’t denote anything about quality,” says Terry Sullivan, a Consumer Reports expert on digital cameras and digital imaging. “They primarily affect print size and the size of images themselves.” Especially if you’re a casual photographer who just emails pictures and posts them online, quality lies in the sharpness, brightness, color and contrast of photos.  More pixels (or picture elements) per inch can make for larger pictures, but on a computer screen, a camera with eight or 10 megapixels is not a must.

Back when a three-megapixel camera was the best on the market, comparison shoppers demanded the highest number possible in their price range.  But these days, when 10 megapixels or more is the norm, most consumers share their photos online and by email than by printing them out. So, ironically, megapixels isn’t the primary concern.

“There’s a lot of misconceptions about megapixels depending on image quality.  Truly, for most average people, the number of megapixels on a camera these days doesn’t make a heck of a difference,” admits Canon spokesman Chuck Westfall (Stock Quote: CAJ).

If you’re sharing your pictures electronically, the biggest difference you’ll see is that the more megapixels your camera has, the more space is required to store them on your memory card or computer. So in that sense, more megapixels may actually not be a good thing.

Even when you need prints, megapixels probably won’t matter.  People usually want a 4-by-6 inch or a 5-by-7 inch print, and for these sizes, three or four megapixels is fine. It’s rare that a consumer would want an 8-by-10 inch print or larger, for which more megapixels would be beneficial, says Sullivan, who worked at Nikon before joining Consumer Reports.

When You’ll Need More
If you’re taking pictures from far away or plan to edit your photos, that’s where more megapixels makes a difference. 

“If you’re going to do lots of cropping, it gives you more flexibility,” Sullivan says.

With more megapixels you can focus in on a smaller piece of a picture and blow it up. You might be constrained if you’re editing photos taken with a three or four megapixel camera.

Also, if you’re planning on getting a very large print (for example, creating a life-sized picture of yourself), the more megapixels the better. Unless, of course, you want to end up looking like a character from an old video game.

What You Should Be Looking For
Face detection and blink detection technology, which reduce the number of shots you end up having to delete, also help improve focus and color balance, Westfall says. Some cameras even have a face detection self timer, meaning there’s no need to run to get in front of the camera when you want to be included in a shot.

Image stabilization, which shifts the placement of the lens based on input from two sensors that track left and right, and up and down motions, is also a must-have to ensure image quality, according to Westfall.

Stepping It Up
Point and shoot cameras are adequate when it comes to photo size, but more sophisticated single lens reflex (SLR) cameras are better because the optics are better, says Sullivan.  With a digital SLR, each individual pixel is larger, which makes for a cleaner image and more details in shadows as well as in white.

“It tends to keep down image noise,” like the speckly shadows in camera phone pictures “that just makes someone’s face look like hell,” Sullivan says.   And prices for digital SLRs have come down.  A Nikon digital SLR for the average consumer cost $2,000 eight years ago. But now, for example, a Pentax digital SLR runs about $500.

Running the Numbers
New pocket-sized point-and-shoot cameras as well as compact cameras with more buttons and controls than smaller cameras range in price from $100 to $500, says Sullivan.  The $50 range is where quality may start to suffer, unless you’re buying an older camera used or refurbished.  Point-and-shoot cameras with 10-times optical zoom or more cost between $200 and $600.

Stepping up from the point and shoot cameras, the basic SLR generally costs between $500 and $1,250, and advanced SLRs, with more controls and a more rugged build cost between $700 and $1,600, according to Consumer Reports.

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