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When to buy a camera--and when to wait

Regardless of your skills as a photographer there's one time when you don't want to buy a new camera.

With spring here and summer around the corner, there are plenty of reasons--graduations, weddings, vacations, outdoor events, and reunions--to invest in a new digital camera. It's understandable that you'd want to rush out and get something that's faster, or has a longer or wider lens, or has better photo or video quality--simply put, a model that will hopefully get you that shot you can't get with your current shooter. However, right before a big event is one of the worst times to buy a camera.

Sony's Cyber-shot DSC-HX5V is a great camera, but you have to play with settings to know how to get the best results. Sarah Tew/CNET

Regardless of professional reviews, your past history with a manufacturer's cameras, or what your friends and family recommend, you really don't want to head to a major event with an unfamiliar camera (or camcorder, for that matter). Every model has its own features, functions, and, most importantly, shooting abilities and limitations. Controls and menu systems change.

Your 3-year-old *insert brand here* camera may have been great, but the update might be junk in comparison. It would be wonderful if "newer" always meant "better," but that's definitely not true.

For example, I recently reviewed the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX5V, a generally excellent camera overflowing with features for improving low-light photos and capturing action. Like many products, though, getting the most from it takes some tinkering with settings and understanding the capabilities of its shooting options.

Leaving it in Auto will get good results, but all automatic modes have limitations. Luckily, a couple of them can be addressed by switching to one of its specialized scene modes. Of course, those modes have their own sets of limitations that you certainly don't want to discover during the party you're shooting. You'll spend more time being frustrated by learning how to use the camera and end up missing crucial moments.

If you've got a week or two--or even just a couple days to read the manual and experiment with settings and different situations you might encounter--go ahead and buy a new camera. At least you'll have an opportunity to see how it will behave. Maybe you can just leave it in Auto for what you'll be shooting, but in the middle of a vacation, a big holiday gathering, or your kid's wedding is not when you want to find out that your camera won't do what you need it to do.

The one exception to this is if your camera is about to or has died. If it's on its last leg, you may want to buy new, but take both. Or you could pick up a disposable film camera, too.