Buyers who do online research can usually narrow their choice to two or three models, says Hoffenberg at Lyra. "Then you've gotten to a manageable number for close comparison."
Focus. Don't let all the bells and buttons distract from the primary goal, which is to get the best photo quality for the money. Buyers should give more value to basics such as optical zoom lenses and image stabilization. Then they can consider features that might help get a good photo under varying conditions, such as automated shooting modes or the ability to detect if a subject is blinking or smiling before taking a picture.
Value shoppers should shy away from extraneous features, such as cameras with built-in pico projectors or GPS chips. While they have undeniable "wow" factor, many, like the projectors, are more useful to niche markets such as real estate agents. Others, like the GPS chips that allow "geotagging" of photos, will eventually have broad appeal but are too expensive for now.
[Read how some photographers are geotagging photos with a new cameras and add-on devices.]
Shop. The Internet offers the best prices, but uncertain buyers are wise to visit the local camera shop. "You need to hold that camera and see if it fits in your hands," says King. Also, most local shops allow a trial period that's crucial for testing a camera; they'll take returns for several weeks without penalty. Most online and big-box stores charge a restocking fee that could be 15 percent of the original price.
While the prices might be a little higher at a camera store, experienced salespersons can still save a shopper money. They can help a buyer think through how a camera will be used, ruling out costly features that aren't needed, says Chuck Pace, who has 22 years behind the counter at Robert's Imaging in Indianapolis. And when given a chance, the local shop might match online prices or come close, Pace says: "It pays to ask, especially in this economy."