Digital cameras buying guide

Thinking about buying a digital camera? Here's what to look for.
 
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01.Introduction

Digital camera

Buying a digital camera can be a daunting exercise — there are literally hundreds of models on the market and a bewildering array of specifications and features.

Before making your decision, read this guide. It'll tell you what you need to know about this complex technology, so you can narrow down the type of camera that will suit you best.

Please note: this information was current as of July 2007 but is still a useful guide to today's market. 


Megapixels

More megapixels does not mean a better image. It just allows you to print a bigger picture without your being able to see individual pixels.

A camera with around 6.0 megapixels is a good starting point. If you want to print your photos at very large sizes (bigger than A4), you may want to consider a higher resolution. Professional photographers tend to use cameras with 12 megapixels or more.

Many digital camera manufacturers list resolution in effective megapixels. This is based on a standard generally accepted in the industry and gives a reasonable indication of the maximum number of pixels the camera uses to create an image.

Memory cards

This is the main form of storage for your images. There are many types of cards available, but most cameras will only accept one (see the Details window from the Digital camera comparison table for more information).

The type of memory card is probably less important than storage capacity because they’re all physically small and their cost is tied to memory capacity.

The capacity of most of the cards supplied with the cameras isn’t large, so you should consider buying a bigger one. Remember to factor this cost into your overall purchase cost. 

Batteries

Digital cameras are usually pretty power hungry and as a general rule rechargeable nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries are a good idea. However, some cameras are more energy efficient than others.

Also, there are some situations (such as travelling) where being able to use normal alkaline batteries is a real advantage. Unfortunately many now can't, but some can, so having a spare rechargeable is pretty important. This information is available in the Digital camera comparison table.

Video output

A connection port that allows you to look at your pictures or movies on TV. This is a handy way to show your pictures to a group and makes your digital camera a highly portable display device as well as a camera. Some of the latest cameras have a High Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) allowing you to easily connect your camera to the latest flat screen LCD and Plasma TVs.

Digital cameras

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Viewfinder type

Some of the cameras we test have an optical viewfinder which you look through, as well as an LCD monitor on the back of the camera.

Some cameras have a viewfinder which is really a very small LCD screen. These tend to be acccurate, but can be slow to refresh in some circumstances which makes them less effective when taking pictures of fast moving objects.

See the Specifications section on the details page in the Digital camera comparison table to see which cameras have a viewfinder and what sort it is.

Preselection of aperture/shutter speed

Aperture controls the depth of field in your picture, allowing you to determine how much of the image is in or out of focus. Setting the shutter speed is handy if you’re taking photos of fast-moving objects or to compensate for low lighting.

Manual focusing

All the cameras we test have autofocus, but manual focus is useful for situations where the automated function isn’t up to it.

Low light and subjects behind glass or with little contrast can be tricky for some systems. Continuous manual focus is more useful than systems that only offer a number of preset distances as it allows for more precise control.

Shutter delay

In the Specifications section of the Digital camera comparison table the number is how long it takes from when the shutter button is pressed until the shutter opens to take the picture. Many of the cameras are pretty slow without pre-focus engaged, taking one second or more to respond — too slow to catch really spontaneous photos. The quickest are under one-third of a second. However, all models are much faster when prefocus is engaged.

Delete an image straight after taking

In the Other specifications section of the Digital camera comparison table a 'Yes' indicates that it is possible to delete the most recently taken picture before it is saved to the camera's storage card, while it is still only in the camera's temporary memory. This can be particularly important if you are storing pictures in RAW or TIFF format, as they may take some time to write to the storage card.

White balance

Light comes in many colours — fluorescent is usually greenish, tungsten (normal household bulbs) is red/orange and daylight blue to red depending on the time of day. Automatic white balance should make sure whites always appear white regardless of the lighting conditions, but sometimes you'll get a better result if you can manually override the automatic setting.

Image stabilisation

With longer lenses it can be difficult to hold the camera still which can lead to slightly blurry pictures. Image stabilisation can help by either adjusting internally for the camera movement, or by a system called Best Shot Selection (BSS) where the camera will automatically take a number of images when you press the shutter and decide for itself which of them has the least blurring. Generally BSS is considered to be a compromise solution and not really image stabilisation. Few of these systems are really effective and some actually degrade the quality of the image. Optical and mechanicall systems are better than electronic systems which generally just increase the ISO settng. Ultimately, if you're taking pictures in a low light situation or with a long lens you'd be better off using a tripod.

PictBridge

This is a way for digital cameras and inkjet printers to communicate. The printer and camera don't have to be of the same brand, but the connection between them must be via a USB cable. Once connected, the camera can control the basic printer functions so you can print without the need for a computer. This function is listed in the comments section at the end of the product description in the Digital camera comparison table.

Macro performance

Most digital cameras can focus pretty close to their subjects, but some do a better job than others, especially if they have a 'macro' option.

Want to know more?

Our highly-popular book, the CHOICE Guide to Digital Photography is packed with helpful tips and advice.

Be sure to visit our article on digital camera reviews, with over 90 compact digital cameras compared.

Video: Compact camera or Digital SLR?

If you're torn between a compact camera or a digital SLR, let Chris Ruggles shed some light on your options.

 
 

 

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