Digital cameras buying guide

 

With zero processing times and the ability to shoot again and again on inexpensive memory cards, it's easy to see why digital photography took over from analogue. These marvels are everywhere now, and getting more sophisticated all the time. Whether you're after a Smart point-and-shoot, a super zoom bridge or professional DSLR, this guide contains everything you'll need to know before settling on the right choice for you.

What are the choices?

Digital Compact 

Entry-level digital cameras are ideal for personal or family use, and fun for sharing memories with friends via e-mail. Good value and easy to use, resolution runs in the average to high megapixel rage - good enough for printing as well as web viewing, although printed images may look a little pixilated with some cameras. 

Super Zoom

Digital cameras offering either an extended optical zoom lens (e.g. 10x or 35-350mm equivalent) to capture vivid images from distance or powerful digital zooms (e.g. 8x) to enhance detail of images during playback. High zoom capability can be found anywhere from high-end digital compacts and bridge cameras to DSLRs. 

Bridge 

Bridge cameras are balanced between the power of a DSLR and the ease of use of a compact. Their larger bodies allow them to have more complicated components allowing for higher megapixel counts and greater zoom ranges. However they differ from DSLRS by having a single integrated lens. 

Smart 

Smart cameras are a new generation of online enabled cameras that borrow elements from smartphones. They can be capable of wireless transfer, cloud storage, running apps and games while others can even track your trips, geotag, tweet and more.

Compact Systems

The Compact Systems camera (or ‘Micro Four Thirds’) is similar to bridge models in that it offers a mix of power and usability. The main difference is - like a DSLR - you can swap lenses for totally different styles of photography. Their slimline design also means that they’re almost as portable as a family compact, making them ideal for enthusiasts who want to travel light. 

DSLR 

Digital SLR (single lens reflex) cameras are designed for professional and semi-professional use, often boasting a high megapixel count or including powerful zooms, extended features or a combination of quality photographic elements. Digital SLRs offer the features and functionality found on a conventional SLR camera such as interchangeable lenses, designed to cope with the demands of professional photo shoots and media coverage.

What to look for: 5 easy steps

1. Memory and memory cards

A digital camera's internal memory can usually only store a few pictures at any one time - its maximum image rating will tell you how many images it can hold at the lowest possible resolution. The number of pictures you can store depends upon the compression settings you choose when saving the files, as well as on how an individual camera compresses. Higher compression allows you to fit more pictures on a card, but image quality will suffer.

A 5 megapixel camera with 64MB of memory can hold about 24 high resolution JPEG images, however if you buy an 8 megapixel camera you should be aiming for at least 1GB of additional storage from a memory card. If you’re going on holiday you might not have access to a computer and you might wish to take a number of movie clips which take up more memory. There are many different types of memory cards – you’ll need to check the compatibility of your camera.

Here’s a quick guide to storage capacity (in number of JPEGs), based on that of a typical Memory Stick PRO DUO.

Photos 8GB 16GB 32GB
6 megapixels 2400 4800 9600
8 megapixels 2160 4320 8640
10 megapixels 2040 4080 8160
12 megapixels 1600 3200 6400
15 megapixels 1200 2400 4800
22 megapixels 1080 2160 4320
Music      
128kps (better than FM) 8192 16384 32768
Video movie clip      
MPEG 4 Super Fine (1 mbps CBR) 1092 2184 4368

2. Resolution (expressed as Megapixels, or MP)

The pixels are the tiny dots that make up the image. So a higher resolution will allow you to enlarge your photos further when it’s time to crop and print your shots. Here is an approximate guide to maximum print size by resolution, based on prints at 150ppi acceptable photo quality (pixels per printed inch):

 

Pixels Megapixels Max print size
3008 x 2000 6 MP 20.05" x 13.34"
3264 x 2448 8 MP 1.76" x 16.32"
3872 x 2592 10 MP 25.81" x 17.28"
4290 x 2800 12 MP 28.60" x 18.67"
4920 x 3264 16 MP 32.80" x 21.76"

3. Lens

Lenses on most entry-level and mid-priced digital cameras are smaller than on their traditional counterparts. For an idea of a camera's range, check the '35mm equivalent' lens rating.

Anything shorter than 50mm is considered wide-angle - for landscapes and shots where you want to include as much as possible.

Lenses longer than 50mm will give you a telephoto picture, suitable for close-ups and zooming in on distant objects.

4. LCD screen / viewfinder

Many digital cameras come with a traditional optical or high-tech digital viewfinder, but most will have an integrated LCD (Liquid Crystal Display) screen which can be used as a viewfinder.

Many now consider a large LCD screen one of the most important purchasing factors.

Check what your shot will look like before you take it and review photos you have already taken, giving you the option of deleting those you are not completely happy with.

Bear in mind that the screen is a very power-hungry element which can drain the batteries if used excessively.

5. Battery life

Most of our cameras use lithium rechargeable batteries and are supplied with a mains battery charger. As an alternative some of our cameras use AA disposable batteries. For these cameras AA Ni MH batteries tend to suffer less with the battery memory effect than AA Ni Cad. It’s worth keeping extra batteries with you if you anticipate taking lots of shots.

Lithium batteries offer the shortest recharging times.

Plan on recharging batteries at least every other time you use your camera.

 

Other features to consider

Optical zoom:

If you will be taking a lot of long-range telephoto pictures, optical zoom magnifies the image using a traditional multi-focal length lens. Combined with digital zoom, this allows you to take more detailed pictures of distant objects. For example, if the magnification level is measured as 3x optical zoom, and the camera's minimum focal length is 50m, then it has the ability to zoom up to 150m.

Image stabilisation:

An unsteady handgrip will blur the still image - especially in dim conditions or if you’ve zoomed in a lot. If you don't have a tripod, many top-end digital cameras have Image Stabilisation which steadies the picture so the shake is largely eliminated.

3D shooting:

3D shooting is becoming more and more common. It works by taking multiple images from a single button press, then layering them into an eye-popping 3D photograph when shown on a compatible TV or computer.

Remote control / self-timer:

This delays a picture, so you can include yourself in the shot. Also useful for low-light photos, combatting the 'camera shake' effect sometimes caused as a result of pressing the exposure button.

Face detection:

When taking pictures of friends or family this setting will automatically detect your loved-ones faces, ensuring the focus is firmly on their smiles and not on the scenery behind them!

 

Manual settings:

In addition to the automatic controls, some digital cameras come with manual over-ride, allowing you to set the shutter speed, aperture size and ISO speed exactly as you would do with a traditional camera. Available on some mid-level digital cameras, Manual focus is useful for close-ups as it lets you focus on exactly what you want - also handy for certain special effects (e.g. out of focus lighting).

Shutter speed and aperture priority:

Shutter-speed priority mode lets you select the shutter speed to control exactly the amount of motion blur. Aperture priority mode lets you adjust the camera’s F-value, which controls how much of your scene is in focus (a low 2.8, for example, will put the background out of focus, a high 8 will put lots of the scene in focus).

Continuous shooting / Burst modes:

This lets you take multiple rapid-fire shots with one touch of the exposure button - a useful feature when photographing motion, such as sporting events.

GPS:

Higher end models have started to come with built-in GPS. Just like on your smartphone or car satnav, it can let you track your progress and stamp your images with location data so you always know what image was shot where. This lets you relive every leg of your holidays, or just consult your camera during adventures for points of interest.

 

Creative effects, editing and connectivity

Scene modes:

Most mid-range digital cameras can be automatically set-up by selecting one of many ‘scene modes’ to offer you a range of options, such as shooting in black and white or sepia, and as panoramic or macro shots. Choosing ‘sport’ mode to take a photo of a football match, for example, freezes movement so a ball and player appear still. Without it, you might get motion blur in your shot. Some cameras even have special shooting modes to capture stop-motion animation, 3D pictures, and other special types of images.

Viewing images on your TV:

A 'video out' or 'HDMI out' function gives the option of hooking your camera up to a television to view your pictures. You can also use a Blu-ray player to view your pictures on-screen, if you have one that plays JPEG files - most players do. Many players and modern TVs will even accept the camera's memory card directly, letting you cut right to the chase!

 

In-camera editing:

Many cameras allow you to resize, copy, or make other changes to your images before you download them to a computer. Some even let you edit video in-camera.

Wireless transfer:

A few digital cameras allow you to send images wirelessly to a compatible device. Many cameras now come with built-in Wi-Fi as standard and some professional DSLRs are compatible with wireless transmitters that you attach to the camera. Many cameras have now started to support 'Eye-Fi' wireless enabled memory cards meaning you can transfer your images and videos without ever removing the card.

Image-editing software:

To edit digital images on a computer most digital cameras arrive with software that lets you crop, enlarge, correct colour and add effects to your pictures.

 

Digital SLR camera

Direct printing

So how do digital cameras work?

Instead of processing pictures onto film, digital cameras transfer them onto a light-sensitive chip and store them in the camera's memory as thousands of minute, coloured dots called pixels (short for 'picture elements').

The images are stored as RAW (unprocessed) data, TIFF (Tagged Image File) files or, to save space, as compressed JPEG (Joint Photographic Experts Group) files. Either way, you are at liberty to review these images and edit, accept or delete them at every stage.

Image files are stored on some kind of removable storage media. SD/SDHC and SDXC cards are currently the most popular type as they're compatible with most brands and offer advanced copyright protection. The number of pictures you can store depends upon the compression settings you choose when saving the files, as well as on how an individual camera compresses. Higher compression allows you to fit more pictures on a card, but image quality will suffer.

 

Glossary

Absence of noise

Noise is seen as random speckles in an image, especially in areas of even colour (e.g. the sky). When a higher sensitivity (e.g. ISO 400 and above) is used, these get more prominent.

Absence of distortion

Distortion sometimes occurs when you’ve zoomed right in or right out. Straight lines near the edge of the image might look slightly bent.

Aperture rating

As with traditional cameras, the maximum aperture rating indicates how much light can be let in. The lower the aperture rating, the more light sensitive the camera is and the better it can take photos in low light.

CCD

Charged Couple Device - the light-sensitive chip in a digital camera used to store images.

CMOS

Complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor: a type of sensor technology that reduces noise and power consumption when taking shots.

Colour reproduction

The ability of a camera to record colours that are true to life.

Compression

Compression is the process that shrinks a photo's file size. The majority of digital cameras take photos as compressed JPEG files, which means more images can be stored on the memory card.

Compression makes for speedier saving and downloading of pictures and also means it is easier to email them. Because compression results in a small amount of data loss, it is best to buy a camera which takes uncompressed photos if you want only the sharpest possible results.

Continuous shooting

Allows a camera to take several rapid-fire exposures when the shutter button is held down. This feature is useful for shots where there is quick action and you want to take multiple shots.

Digital Print Order Format (DPOF)

Lets you send images directly to the printer, and to control the quantity and order of the images being printed.

Digital zoom

This works by enlarging the central 50% of the image. Digital zoom allows you to zoom in on a specific part of your picture during playback, however, resolution quality may be affected by higher increases in zoom.

Docking stations

Plug into your computer and enable you to hook up a digital camera quickly and easily for simpler downloading.

EVF

Electronic viewfinder. The image captured by the lens is shown on a miniature digital display that emulates a traditional optical viewfinder.

Fixed-focus

Most digital cameras come with a lens preset to focus at a certain range. However, most medium-range digital cameras have autofocus which automatically focuses the camera at your subject's distance.

FPS (Frames Per Second)

A measure of how much information is used to store and display motion video. Each frame is a still image; displaying frames in quick succession creates the illusion of motion. The more fps, the smoother the motion appears. In general, the minimum fps needed to avoid jerky motion is about 30.

Hot shoe

A device found on some digital cameras to which an external flash unit is attached.

Image capacity

A camera's memory capacity for images shot at high resolution using the amount of memory shipped.

ISO-equivalent rating

Indicates how light sensitive a camera is according to standards defined by the International Standards Organisation. For example, a camera rated ISO 100 is perfectly acceptable for everyday use, with approximately the same light sensitivity as a conventional camera loaded with ISO 100 film.

Higher ISO ratings indicate the camera is more sensitive to light and can take pictures in darker settings.

 

JPEG files

Joint Photographic Experts Group) files - the file format used to store compressed images.

LCD view screen

(Liquid Crystal Display) Large viewfinder screen offering high resolution images.

Macro

 lens feature for taking 'close-up' at 12" or less from your subject.

MegaPixels (MP)

One million pixels. The greater the number of pixels, the better the resolution (see above). Usually expressed as the number of horizontal and vertical lines of pixels, e.g. 1280 x 960.

The total resolution is found by multiplying the two figures together. If the result is above a million it is termed a 'MegaPixel' resolution.

Memory card slot

Allows you to easily store still images in JPEG and MPEG formats and transfer them from your camera to your PC. Often a 16MB MMC (Multimedia Card) or 32MB SD (Secure Digital) Card, which offers advanced copyright protection.

Memory Stick

A memory format. A removable, chewing gum sized smartcard produced by Sony. Compatible with most of Sony's extensive portable digital range, but not with equipment produced by other manufacturers.

Optical zoom

For long-range telephoto pictures an optical zoom focuses the real image without the need for additional lens attachments, such as on a traditional SLR.

Pixels

Short for 'picture elements', the minute, coloured dots used to store images. The greater the number of pixels, the better the resolution (see below).

RAW

This large file type features minimal compression and no processing. They act like a digital negative, in that they hold the full, unaltered data of the original image.

Resolution

The resolution of a digital camera refers to the sharpness of its pictures and refers to how many pixels make up a photo. The higher the resolution, the better the picture.

Most cameras provide a choice of resolutions and which one you choose will be determined by what you plan to do. If you will be e-mailing photos to friends or putting them up on the web, a lower resolution of 640 x 480 will be fine. However, if you plan to print out your photos or work with enlargements, a minimum resolution of 3 or 4 megapixels will produce better results (see ‘5 easy steps’ for resolution/print size chart).

Rotatable lens

Lets you to change the angle of the lens - as much as up to 360 degrees in some cases, permitting self-portraits.

SD card

‘Secure Digital’ storage media which offers advanced copyright protection. About the size of a stamp, supported by most leading brands.

SLR (single-lens-reflex):

A user looking through the viewfinder on this type of camera actually looks through the picture-taking lens, thanks to a series of mirrors and prisms within the camera. This is a very improved type of viewfinder, because what you see is what is in the actual picture frame.

TIFF files

Tagged Image File files - the format used to store uncompressed images.

Wide-angle lens

A camera lens with a short focal length, such as 24mm or 28mm.

Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi allows the camera to connect without cables, for features like backing up photos and posting directly to social networking sites.