In deciding which camera to buy for your classroom, ask yourself the following questions:
1. What is my price range?
The first step in finding a camera is deciding how much money you can spend. For around $300 you can find a great camera with lots of bells and whistles: HP Photosmart 720 and the Kodak DX4330 are examples of higher-end cameras with 3x zoom, built-in flash, and LCD panels for previewing shots. However, for most school needs, cameras in the $100 to $200 range, like the Sony Mavica series, are quite adequate.
If you have only $30-$50 to spend, don't think you can't afford a camera. A low-priced model like the Argus 1550 camera is perfect for the classroom. While it doesn't have a zoom lens or an LCD screen, you do get a very sturdy camera that holds up to 80 low-resolution pictures or 8 seconds of video without an external memory card. In high quality mode, the Argus' photos are somewhat grainy when printed, but they still work well when used in multimedia presentations.
2. What features are important for my needs?
By matching your camera to your specific needs, you can make the most of your budget. For example, when I purchased digital cameras for my school, our budget allowed us to buy a single higher end camera. However, after reconsidering our needs, we decided to purchase one middle-of-the-line camera, and 10 low-end cameras. This way, we have both a nice camera to use for photographing school events, and enough general-purpose cameras to use with groups of students.
Here are some features to consider when determining your camera needs:
Resolution, represented in pixels-per-inch, determines the quality of your photo. Pictures taken at low resolution on low-end cameras are fine for posting on the Web, but they may appear grainy when printed out. If you are planning on making 5" x 7" prints, a camera with resolution of 2 or more megapixels (MP) will work well; for printing 8" x 10" photos, look for a camera with a resolution of 3 or more megapixels.
For the best photos, look for a camera that includes both a regular, hold-your-eye-up-to-it viewfinder and an LCD panel. An LCD panel is a great feature that lets students see their pictures on the spot, and helps them to find just the right shot. However, these screens are hard to see when outside, and are easily damaged by mishandling.
Most mid-range cameras include optical zoom lenses, which give you much greater range in framing your shot. Many models also include a "digital zoom" function, in which the camera software, rather than the lens, enlarges the image. Using this function sacrifices your overall picture quality, however, so it's better to pay attention to a camera's optical zoom rating. A lens with a rating between 3x and 5x should be suitable for most schools' needs.
I've found that smaller is not necessarily better when using cameras with younger students. No matter which camera you purchase, make sure that it fits well into a child's hands. Check the controls for important functions such like shutter and zoom lens. The buttons should be large enough for younger students to use, and well spaced, so that they aren't pressed accidentally.
A built-in flash is a good idea for taking pictures indoors, and in other low-light areas.
3. What storage media are required?
Most cameras today use one of three types of media to store photos: Sony Memory Sticks, SmartMedia cards, and the most common format, CompactFlash cards. The media type, however, shouldn't be as important a factor in your camera purchase as much as capacity, price, and overall convenience.
In general, the greater the capacity (i.e. number of photos that can be stored), the more a storage card will cost. Buying a single large capacity card may give you more memory for the dollar, but it may not be the most convenient solution for the class sharing a single camera. Consider instead buying several smaller cards and one or two media readers. This way, once a group finishes taking pictures, they can remove the media card and pass the camera on to the next group! Some cameras, like the Sony Mavica series, can even store photos on regular floppy disks or CD-ROMs, which allow students to load their own disks onto computers without the need for a media reader.
4. What kind of power supply is required?
Batteries may differ in size and price, but the most important consideration in comparing power supplies is battery life. Many cameras still use alkaline AA batteries, which are inexpensive and easy to find. However, digital cameras can be battery hogs, so rechargeable batteries may be a cost-effective alternative. The initial purchase of rechargeable batteries (plus an external charger if your camera doesn't come with one) might be expensive, but it will pay off in the long run. Additionally, it's a good idea to buy two sets of batteries, so that you can keep a charged set handy at all times.