Digital camera buying guide
Digital cameras provide instant results, making it easy to capture and share special moments. Whether you’re looking for a simple compact shooter for holiday snaps, or a fully-loaded DSLR to feed your photography addiction, today’s market offers no shortage of models to choose from. If you’re a little overwhelmed or don’t know your ISO from your autofocus however, then here’s what to look out for whilst making your decision.
Compact cameras are the most popular type of digital camera out there, and every brand from Canon to Nikon produces them. They’re small, easy to use, and generally provide automatic settings that allow you to point and shoot with minimal fuss. They range from cheap and cheerful cameras costing around £50 or less, to top-end models that run well into the hundreds. While many lack the bells and whistles needed for top quality imagery, they’re perfect for the casual snapper.
DSLR stands for Digital Single-Lens Reflex. These large high performance cameras are the weapon of choice for both professional photographers and more serious photography enthusiasts. They offer lots of versatility in the way of controls and settings, as well as interchangeable lenses and flashes too. If you want results worthy of a glossy magazine, then a DSLR is the way to go. Models cost into the hundreds, while top tier DSLRs however can easily run into the thousands.
If you want the best of both worlds, a bridge camera might just tick your boxes. Bridge cameras can approach the image quality of a DSLR, but they’re generally more compact – with a comparable size and weight to the smaller DSLR cameras out there. They offer manual control over things like shutter speed, aperture, and ISO sensitivity, as well as a long zoom and a fixed lens instead as opposed to an interchangeable one. They’re generally less expensive too. There’s a variety of bridge cameras in the Nikon COOLPIX range.
Most of today’s digital cameras come loaded with features and settings, many of which can be slightly overwhelming if you’re not down with the techy stuff. Here’s what to look out for.
A camera’s resolution is measured in megapixels – another name for all the tiny dots that make up an entire picture. The more megapixels a camera has, the larger and sharper the photographs can be. The majority of digital cameras these days offer large resolutions, so unless you’re a professional or serious photographer, it’s not something you really need to worry about. Bear in mind that the first professional digital cameras were only 1 Megapixel and produced great results. Sensor noise and lens quality are more important than the number of megapixels, something that has become more of a marketing gimmick than an actual sign of picture quality.
Most digital cameras utilize SD memory cards to store photos. They come in a variety of guises and sizes, but the three main ones are the standard SD card, the SDHC (SD High Capacity), and the SDXC (SD Extended Capacity). Many manufacturers however don’t include a memory card in the box with your camera, so you’ll have to purchase it separately. When picking out a memory card make sure it’ll be compatible and consider how much storage you’ll need. An 8 GB memory should suffice for most compact camera users, but bear in mind that the more megapixels your camera has, the larger each image file will be. Make sure the capacity you are buying is accepted by your camera (some larger sized cards will not be recognized by smaller or older cameras), and prefer a faster class card or you might have to wait a while for the camera to save the images - especially important if you are planning on taking many pictures very quickly or if you are going to be using a non-compressed format such as RAW.
DSLR cameras are compatible with additional lenses to suit various different purposes. For example there are long-focus lenses suitable for sports photography, macro lenses for tight close-up shots, and zoom lenses for capturing subjects that are far away. Many prominent brands such as Canon, Nikon, Olympus and Sony (who bought Minolta) offer lots of compatible lenses for each of their models at varying prices - so it’s worth seeing what additional equipment you want to buy before committing to the camera itself.
A flash has been a standard feature on cameras for decades, but some of the more professional DSLRs don’t feature a built-in flash. This is because many pros prefer to use their own separate flashes.
These days there are two types of zoom: the more desirable optical zoom, which utilizes the lens, and the digital zoom, which uses the cameras internal technology instead. Some cameras combine both. Best results are achieved using optical zoom.
Autofocus & image stabilization:
A standard feature on all cameras, the autofocus ensures the subject stays sharp. Image stabilisation also contributes to an image’s sharpness, by compensating for the small inevitable movements your hands make while holding the camera. Some cameras have a stabilized lens, while some have a stabilized sensor: both can prove very useful.
Face recognition & red-eye reduction
Many cameras today, particularly compact ones, recognize faces and automatically focus on them whilst you take a picture. Red-eye reduction is a similarly clever feature, which automatically removes any red-eye effects caused by the flash.
Video is a feature primarily seen on compact cameras, but it makes an appearance on some DSLR models too. Whilst it’s generally not high quality enough to be a substitute for a proper camcorder, it can be useful for grabbing footage on the go. In recent years, however, DSLRs have improved the quality and resolution of video that they are being used more & more often in proper film production, due to the fact that they can have very bright lenses with wide apertures and are so small they can fit in more places than standard cinema cameras.
Many models from brands such as Canon, Nikon, Fujifilm, and Sony offer built-in WiFi technology. This allows you to wirelessly download your pictures to your computer and other devices, or email them directly from the camera itself.
The resolution and size of the screen is an important feature. If it is too small, you will not be able to see what you are taking or what you have taken, and if the resolution is too low you will not be able to check if the result was satisfactory. Some screens will tilt and swivel: this can be very handy for taking pictures in awkward settings or angles, but may also result in less reliability than a fixed screen.
The viewfinder on DSLRs will give you exactly the same angle as the actual picture because you are actually viewing through the lens and not through a separate and offset viewfinder. Optical viewfinders on anything but a DSLR will therefore provide a slightly offset angle than will not enable you to frame the picture exactly as it will result once taken. Therefore viewfinders are disappearing from compact digital cameras and being replaced with...the screen. If the screen is a good size it will actually make picture composition easier than a viewfinder. Some DSLRs also let you use the screen as a viewfinder through some ingenious trickery, but this will generally mean slower operation, so choose well if you do not wish to use a viewfinder.
The ISO settings on a camera determine its sensitivity to light. The higher the number in the ISO settings, the more sensitive the camera can be set. In a nutshell, with a higher sensitivity, the shutter will not have to stay open as long, meaning your images will be less blurry in low-light conditions such as indoors or at night. The problem with high ISO settings is that they create noisier pictures (explained below), something you should avoid. Worry not, however, most cameras do a very good job at choosing the best ISO setting for the circumstances, so if you are uncomfortable with this level of technicity just let the camera do the work for you and leave the ISO set to Auto.
We've kept what might be the most important factor for last, noise. Noise in an image is the total amount of colour aberrations which result in an unpleasant graininess. Luckily, there is an objective way of measuring noise in cameras and therefore of finding out what the best cameras are. Visit the DXO Mark website and you will be shown a list of cameras listed by noise rating, with the least noisy at the top. You can also choose other criteria based on your specific needs, such as colour depth, for example. So if you are looking for a camera that will let you take great quality snaps indoors without a flash, do check out the DXO website and pick your camera accordingly. Then come back to PriceRunner for the absolute best deal on the market.