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How to buy the best digital camera

Cheap and compact or pricey and professional – find the right one.

digital cameras in a shopping bag

Do you have a keen interest in the technical elements of photography, or are you someone who likes to point-and-click to capture those special moments?

Even for those who prefer a simpler experience with great results, the latest breed of compact and ultra zoom cameras will do the job just fine.

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What type of camera is right for you?

Finding the right camera can be a bit confusing if you're not sure what to look for. Megapixels are meaningless as a way to tell a good camera from a rubbish one. So how do you know? There are a few of types of camera to consider, each with a different level of complexity.

Compact digital cameras are small and portable, and usually an all-in-one automatic kind of deal – particularly good for casual or basic use. They sacrifice advanced features and some picture quality for compactness and simplicity. This type of camera has taken a hit in popularity due to the improved camera performance of smartphones.

Ultra zoom cameras cameras are often more expensive, and have all the features of a compact, but have some advanced features as well. They're often a bit bulkier, and a good option for someone around the intermediate point in the market. Sometimes these models are also called Bridge cameras as they are a transition from a basic compact camera to a more sophisticated DSLR (see below).

DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) cameras remain popular, with a much larger sensor than other types of camera that can give great image quality, but they are often quite heavy and bulky. These are good for people wanting to take a pretty mean photo.

MIL (mirrorless interchangeable-lens) cameras are a good alternative to the Ultra zoom or bridge camera, as they have similar sensor sizes as DSLRs but in a much smaller camera body.

Tough cameras are another option – they have protected features so they can be taken into most situations without fear of dropping or exposure to heat, cold, moisture and sand. The difference is how much rough–handling they can take. Their image quality and ease of use makes them a beginner to intermediate model.

Should you buy a basic, advanced or expert camera?

Are you after a beginner, advanced, expert or tough camera model?

Basic camera models 

These are designed for quick and easy use in automatic mode, which is why they're often referred to as point-and-click cameras. Though they can perform well in well-lit environments, they typically struggle in low light without the help of a flash. Also, manual settings are very limited, leaving little creative flexibility. Smartphones have replaced this option for many users, particularly when travelling or for those looking for a casual snappy.

  • Small and light – it'll slip into a pocket or purse without weighing you down.
  • Simple and quick to use – not too many steps between getting it out and starting to shoot.
  • Auto everything – it's more about utility than art, you don't want to have to think about turning on the flash or checking white balance.
  • Able to take a quality snapshot – they'll usually be okay for prints up to around A4 size, but the quality may suffer on enlargements of a bigger size.

Advanced camera models

Advanced are designed for people that want good quality photos, without having to learn the ins and outs of photography. They have a broad selection of automatic modes and some manual functions, that strike a balance between letting the camera do the work, and giving you some creative control. Some models have interchangable lenses, others have a single built-in option. You can also find high-end compacts in this category.

These should have:

  • Good image quality –always important, but the camera should perform well in low light or with lots–of–contrast scenes.
  • Manual control – auto systems are great most of the time, but you'll need some manual controls that you can access quickly when the unexpected happens.
  • Ease of use – the menus and settings should be clearly labelled and easy to reach. Knobs, buttons and dials have to be responsive, so you know what's happening without actually having to look at them.
  • Zoom – look for an optical zoom that begins wide enough to be useful in tight situations and can narrow down to pick out that detail a long way off. Something like 24mm-240mm (10x) would be a good start.
  • Shutter delay and start–up times – you want the camera to be ready when you are and to respond quickly when you press the shutter. Ideally, less than 2 seconds to start up and well below 0.3 of a second for the shutter.
  • Lenses – there are cameras with remarkably long zooms (often called SuperZooms) that will cover most situations, but a system camera (one that has a changeable lens) can give you more options at a better quality.
  • Image stabilisation – is like a steadying hand when your long lens and/or the poor light are making it hard to hold still. Optical and mechanical are more likely to be more effective than electronic, but nothing is as good as a tripod.

Expert camera models

At this point, you need to have a good grasp on how your camera works to make the most of the tools at your disposal. Sure this takes work, but once you get your head around the technical side of things, you'll have total creative control backed up by high-end components that can result in stunning images. They're very flexible, with a range of consumer and pro-grade lenses available, as well as other accessories such as an external flash. They're also designed to perform well in all lighting extremes,.

Features include:

  • High megapixels – but don't get hung up on them. Most of the cameras you'll be interested in will have more image resolution than you need.
  • Sensors – bigger may be better, but only because the tiny sensors in compact cameras introduce noise which can affect the quality of the image. Full frame sensors are useful for specific applications but can add to the overall cost.
  • Lenses – have a significant impact on image quality, but can also affect ease–of–use, movie and flash performance. They'll often end up costing you more than the camera body.
  • Easy-to-use features – manual controls on the camera body, menus and information displays have to be easy to see and get to, as do playback/delete options.
  • Mirrors – a DSLR has a mirror to make it possible to see what you're taking through the viewfinder. Some cameras do away with both the viewfinder and the mirror, making the camera lighter and smaller, but this means you have to rely on the monitor on the back to frame your shot. Recently, cameras have appeared without a mirror, but with a viewfinder that uses a small video screen. It's a technology that could mean the end of the bulky DSLR.

Tough cameras

Tough cameras are in a league of their own, though in terms of functionality and performance, most consumer grade models sit in the basic or advanced categories. Beyond that, enthusiasts and professionals buy waterproof/tough housing for their DSLR cameras.

If you want to buy a tough camera, look for:

  • A protected body and lens – manufacturers will usually call them "resistant" if they can only handle a splash of water or a bit of dust, and "proof" when they have been certified at specified depths or temperatures. A water/dust resistant camera might be good for the kids at the beach, but you'll need to check its waterproof depth if you're going diving or to the snow.
  • Good image quality – while it may be reduced a bit due to the protection of the lens, it's still about getting a picture in difficult circumstances. Most ruggedised compact cameras can produce very decent images.
  • Easy to use features – buttons, knobs and dials may be more difficult to use. Try before you buy, especially if you'll be wearing gloves (and put on the gloves while trying it out).
  • Auto everything – the more the camera does, the less you'll have to deal with menu screens while you're on the go.

What should you look for in a camera?

Some things to keep up top while you're shopping:

  • Batteries: Digital cameras are usually pretty power hungry and, as a general rule, rechargeable batteries are a good idea. There are some situations (such as travelling) where being able to use normal alkaline batteries is a real advantage. Fortunately some can, but many can't, so having a spare rechargeable is pretty important.
  • 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 adjusting internally for the camera movement. The best system is often referred to as 'optical anti-shake', where the lens elements move. Some cameras now have very effective mechanical system where the camera's sensor moves. Electronic systems tend to increase the sensitivity of the sensor, open the aperture as wide as possible and use the fastest shutter speed possible. The result is often noisy as well as blurry pictures. If you're taking pictures in a low light situation or with a long lens use a tripod if possible.
  • Manual focusing: 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 pre-set distances as it allows for more precise control.
  • Manual selection of aperture/shutter speed: Aperture controls the depth of field in your picture, allowing you to determine which parts of the image are 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.
  • Memory cards: The main form of storage for your images at present. SDHC and SDXC cards are high-capacity SD cards, and most cameras that can handle them can also use SD cards. This may not be the case in reverse as some older cameras will not recognise SDHC or SDXC cards. 
  • Memory card speed: This isn't really an issue if you're just shooting stills, but you'll need a a high-speed card if you want to capture 1080p or 4K video. 60-90 megabits per second (MB/s), is suitable for 1080p up to 60 frames per second (fps), and 4K at 24 fps. Shooting 4K at anything higher than 24fps, requires a much faster card, up to 300 MB/s.
  • Resolution: The bigger the resolution the more storage space you'll need, but keep in mind that resolution is not always an indicator of image quality.
  • Shutter delay: Is how long it takes from when the shutter button is pressed until the shutter opens to take the picture. Some cameras can be pretty slow without pre-focus engaged, taking one second or more to respond – too slow to catch really spontaneous photos. Only cameras consistently at or under a third of a second should be considered for sports and other fast action.
  • 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. HDMI is pretty common these days.
  • Viewfinder: Most compact digital cameras don't have a viewfinder these days. Those that do, usually have an electronic viewfinder. Be wary of slow responses and colour shifts when in low light conditions. For cameras that don't have a viewfinder at all, you have to use the monitor on the back to frame your shot. This can cause problems seeing what you're taking in bright sunlight, though.
  • White balance: Light comes in many colours – fluorescent is usually greenish, tungsten (like a normal household bulb) 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.

Lens mounts and converters

DSLR and mirrorless cameras both use interchangeable (removable) lenses. However, they use different mounts, which means you can't just put your collection of DSLR lenses on a new mirrorless model, even if you stick with the same brand. Manufacturers have released official converters so you can attach different lens types, but they come with a caveat.

Converters can change or limit certain camera functions in the lens and body. If you use a converter to mount a Canon DSLR lens on a Canon mirrorless body, it may add a crop factor, or reduce the aperture range. Picture quality may also take a hit, but this isn't as noticeable unless you're working with pro-grade equipment. Some cameras support other lens mounts without the need for a converter, but they can still face the same sort of problems.

This isn't to say that official, first-party converters within the same brand are bad for your camera. Just bear in mind that they don't provide a one for one transition. If you're concerned, look up the specific lens/body combination you're considering online, and note how the converter will impact performance.

Though you can also opt for a third-party converter, there are risks involved as they can damage the electronics in your lens. This is also the case with cross-brand converters (e.g. a Nikon lens mount for Canon cameras), and specific features, such as auto-focus, may not work in these configurations.

What do cameras cost?

Having decided what you're likely to want the camera for and which of the categories you most likely fit into, there's also price to factor in. You don't want to buy an entry-level camera for its ease of use if you're planning to take an intermediate users course later, so try using your smartphone or a friend's camera for a week or two to see how much interest it sparks before committing to a model grade.

Here's a quick breakdown:

  • Basic: Prices range from around $80 to $400.
  • Advanced: rices range from around $200 to $1500.
  • Expert: Price range from $450 to more than $3000.
  • Tough: Prices range from around $150 to $500.