Digital Camera Buying Guide

How to choose a digital camera

Digital cameras. The choice is yours. From the budget camera to the camera phone to the high-quality digital SLR camera with a range of settings that resemble the dashboard on the Starship Enterprise.

Ultimately, which digital camera you choose (see some reviews here) will depend on your budget and on what you want to use it for. For example, are you a holiday-only photographer or have you always had a sneaking suspicion you’re the next David Bailey if you could just see past all the jargon? Begin by asking yourself what type of photographer you are.

Beginner

If your knowledge of photography is limited and you’re wary of splashing your cash, start with a basic model. For holiday and family snaps, camera manufacturers like Canon, Sony and Casio all offer good budget digital cameras up to around £130. These cameras are simple to use. How simple? Think point and shoot. On the plus side, technology has moved on since the Kodak Brownie, these digital cameras come with an integrated flash and usually a few other features.

Some will offer a minute or so of video capture and some will deliver limited optical zoom. Optical zoom uses the lens of the camera to bring the subject closer (not literally, obviously). Happily, most come with a snazzy LCD screen that enables you to size up your pictures.

Type of camera: Budget, Basic or Entry
Price range: £70 to £130
Features: Value for money, integrated flash, optical zoom up to around 4x, LCD screen
Examples: Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-S600, Canon PowerShot A460.

Intermediate

If you see yourself a rung or two up the ladder from the happy snapper, you might be interested in compact digital cameras. You can take these just about anywhere, and use them in automatic mode which means all the tricky stuff is done for you. These digital cameras are handy as they come pocket-sized, or sometimes even credit-card sized.

Choice is as wide as the Grand Canyon in this category, and quality is very good. Most come with a resolution of six or seven megapixels. No, not pixies, pixels. Pixels means picture quality. A pixel is a tiny square of colour, and a megapixel is one million pixels. Put simply, the more pixels your picture has, the better the detail. Six or seven megapixels is good, although some argue that with smaller shots of 6 x 8, anything over 3 megapixels is wasted. But they’re just spoilsports!

The good news is that your compact digital camera will adapt the viewfinder and lighting all by itself. Chances are, it’ll also have preset modes. With these, you can switch your digital camera to ‘portrait’, ‘night’, ‘action’, ‘landscape’ and numerous other settings that’ll give you great results.

Feeling more ambitious? You might want to look at a compact SLR camera. SLR? Whoa! Aren’t we getting a bit serious now? Well, yes and no. Compact digital SLRs are really SLRs for cheats. SLR stands for single lens reflex. It’s a type of camera where light from the lens is directed by a hinged mirror. But these type of digital cameras, which give great results, can be bulky. They can come with lenses the length of the Mersey Tunnel. And they can be harder to operate than a MIG jet.

Compact digital SLR cameras though, come with multiple lenses, automatic focus, high-quality optical zoom (see above), and anti-shake technology. All done for you. Sony, Fuji, Canon and others all do excellent cameras in this category.

Type of camera: Compact, Compact Digital SLR, Mid-range
Price range: £130 to £260
Features: Integrated flash, optical zoom up to around 12x, LCD screen, preset modes, video
Examples: Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-T300, Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-H10 Digital SLR, Canon PowerShot S3 IS.

Advanced

OK, if you’re a bit technical and can talk for hours at parties about f-stop numbers, hot shoes and aspect ratios, or if you think you could be able to with the right training, then you’ll want an advanced camera. Top of the range SLR digital cameras, or digital SLRs, allow you to control all the parameters when taking pictures.

With a digital SLR camera, you get all the same great stuff as on a compact like LCD screen, manual set-up, digital technology but you get the advantages of an SLR camera too. For example, fast shutter speeds that will freeze moving objects like running water. So, shaky hands are just not a problem.

You also get great light sensitivity, with a high ISO at 1600 or even 3200. Whoa, rewind. ISO? ISO denotes how sensitive the image sensor is to the amount of light present. The higher the ISO, the better pictures you get in low light.

What about interchangeable lenses? Normal, wide-angle (creating the impression of more distance between subjects that actually may be closer together), and telephoto (for enlarging faraway objects). Obviously, you’ll pay a penny or two more for this type of camera but if you’re serious about taking great photos then its worth the extra.

Type of camera: Digital SLR
Price range: £300+
Features: All compact benefits plus interchangeable lenses, fast shutter speeds, light sensitivity, fantastic image quality
Examples: Canon EOS 5D, Sony DSLR-A700, Nikon D80

Points to ponder

Just a few points to bear in mind when buying your digital camera.

Sensor resolution

The more pixels you have, the better you can enlarge or blow up your picture. For best quality, 300 pixels per linear inch is enough. Often, a five-megapixel picture (1200 x 1600 pixels) is fine for prints up to 11×15 or even larger. If you rarely blow up your prints, 3 megapixels will probably be fine.

Lenses

Many digital cameras don’t suit zoom lenses. There are two types on digital cameras optical and digital. Digital zoom is not the same as optical zoom. The results are not as good, although it’s useful on extreme close-ups. Use it sparingly.

Weight

Carrying your digital camera around is obviously going to be an important buying consideration. Compact cameras the size of a credit card weigh a little over 100 grams, so let’s not worry about them. At the other end of the scales, digital SLRs complete with lenses can weigh over a kilo which may be an issue for some people. They are, however, more stable when shooting.

Video

Having video on your camera is cool, although the quality can vary and some digital cameras don’t have sound. But, hey when you see that breakdancing penguin at the zoo, that’s not going to be an issue.

Batteries

Always buy rechargeable batteries if you can. Entry-level cameras take AA batteries but their lifespan is short.

Memory card

So, you’re new camera has been delivered, you’ve played with all the buttons, and now you can take pictures. Four of them. Yes, the inbuilt memory on some digital cameras can be poor. First check the resolution settings, do you really need to be able to enlarge a photo to poster size? Next, get yourself a 1Gb, 2Gb or 4Gb memory card. They retail from about £12 upwards and will enable you to take hundreds of shots. Upload your shots to your PC, delete them from your card and you’re good to go again.

Printing

Connect your photo printer to your computer and you can have prints as good as normal print development and at not much more cost. Check to ensure your digital camera is compatible with your printer.

So, there we have it. Whether you’re David Bailey or just a happy snapper, there’s a digital camera out there for you. Now go find it in our Digital Camera Review section!

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