Justin Bernhaut

What You Should Care About

Zoom lens: This lets you switch from wide-angle mode, to capture a landscape or everyone at the family reunion, to telephoto, for close-ups. A 3x zoom covers most situations, but spring for a 6x for your proud best friend who wants to document her sports star in action.

Shutter speed: "If you take pictures of anything that moves, find a camera that responds quickly to your finger," says San Francisco photographer Jonathan Mandel, whose work with children makes him an expert on moving targets. The best way to check a camera's speed is to go to a store and try it out.

ISO rating: This measures sensitivity to light. High sensitivity means a camera can take photos well in dim light without a flash. Virtually all cameras have an ISO rating of 400, but 800 will give you more flexibility.

What You Can Overlook

Megapixels: All new cameras pack plenty. Unless you often make enlargements (8-by-10s or larger), in which case more megapixels mean more detail, "four to six megapixels will be fine," says Mandel. (In fact, he warns, "more megapixels mean bigger files, fewer shots per memory card, more time uploading them, and more disk space to store them.")