Digital Cameras Buyers' Guide

Digital Cameras Buyers’ Guide

Digital cameras are getting smaller in size, but have more megapixels and more features than older generations of digital camera.

Compact or SLR?

Some of the compact models are so small now making them extremely convenient to carry around in your pocket or bag. But small doesn’t necessarily mean poor quality. Many compact cameras are equipped with sophisticated features and produce high quality pictures. However, if you want really professional quality, you’ll need to go for an SLR camera. These are generally bigger in size and price. They are better if you want to photograph fast-moving images, as you can shoot multiple shots per second. They also allow you to use different lenses for different situations, such as capturing a vast field or a tiny blade of grass. SLRs also give more clarity through the viewfinder meaning that you can see detail and colours more clearly.

compact SLR

How many megapixels do I need?

The more megapixels (MP) a camera has, the higher its resolution– this is measured by the number of dots per inch or DPI on the captured image. Broadly translated, it means that the higher the DPI the sharper the image will be when printed. The number of megapixels you need depends on how big you are planning to print your pictures. If you want 10×8 prints, you will need a minimum of 7.2MP but if you only want to produce 7×5 prints, you can safely use 3.2MP. As a general rule 8MP is ample for most needs but anything under 4MP might mean sacrificing picture quality. If you use image editing software, cropping the images further reduces resolution.

Often you will want low resolution pictures – for example if you are putting photographs on a web page or emailing them to a friend. Many cameras have different quality settings so you can shoot at lower resolutions if you want to. This also saves you space on your memory card meaning you can take more photos without having to stop to upload them to a computer.

What sort of zoom do I need?

Cameras come with different optical zoom ranges for example 38-420mm or 28-105mm. The first figure refers to the shortest lens setting. The lower this number, the wider the angle of view it can take – for example an estate agent would need a low figure to make a room look wide. The second figure gives an indication of how far the zoom extends. The higher this figure the closer you can zoom in on distant objects, like wildlife.

Most cameras also have a digital zoom allowing you to get an even closer view of distant objects. However, this results in a loss of picture quality. To avoid confusion when choosing your camera, just look at the figures for the optical zoom.


Once you’ve established the type of camera, the number of megapixels and the optical zoom range you want, choose a camera that also has the features you think you will use. Here we explain the main features:

Some digital cameras come with an LCD screen for composing shots where as others have a more traditional viewfinder where you look through the lens with one eye. These are useful in bright conditions when you can’t always see LCD screens. You can either get an optical viewfinder or an electronic viewfinder. Electronic viewfinders are actually miniature LCD screens.

Manual focusing
Most cameras have auto-focus (AF) but some also have manual focusing (MF). Manual focus allows you to change your point of interest in a photo and also helps in low light situations where your camera’s auto-focus might struggle. You can also use manual focus for a more artistic approach by blurring your subject, for example.

ISO setting
The ISO setting on a camera tells you how sensitive the camera is to light and takes its name from the Greek word Isos meaning ‘equal’.
You can change the ISO setting manually on most cameras. For example, a 100 ISO setting is fine in bright conditions, but for dim conditions, you’ll need a higher ISO setting, like 400, 800 or 1600 when you are not using a flash. This also helps avoid blur if you are taking pictures of a moving image as it allows for faster shutter speeds. However, you can get colour interference speckles (known as ‘noise’) when using higher ISO settings.

Aperture setting
The aperture affects how much light is allowed into the camera. Most cameras allow for manual changes in aperture. Moving to a wide aperture such as f1.8 lets in more light which in turn means you can take a photo at a lower ISO setting (less noise) and a faster shutter speed (less motion blur). Look for wide aperture lenses if you are interested in low light or band photography, for example.
Aperture also effects your Depth of Field (DOF) meaning that more or less is in focus in front of and behind your subject.

Face detection
Some compact cameras come with face detection which ensures that faces appear sharp and not too bright or dark.

Remote control/self timer
Remote controls and self timers delay the time the shutter closes on your camera which allows you time to get in front of the camera for the picture. It also avoids any camera shake and is great for getting in that family portrait or even taking long exposures of the night sky.

Video capture
Most compact cameras have a form of video capture which means that they can record short video clips with sound. The amount of footage you can shoot varies. Some cameras only do 30 second clips while other cameras record until the memory card has been filled.

Image stabilisation
Unless you are a professional photographer you are unlikely to carry a tripod around with you. Image stabilisation, either in the camera itself or built into the lens, helps to compensate for hand shake. Hand shaking is amplified the further you zoom in and so image stabilisation helps to avoid motion blur when shooting at low shutter speeds or photographing distant subjects.

Scene modes
Scene modes help you to take good pictures in various situations. For example sports mode is useful for taking pictures of moving images without causing them to blur, and burst mode allows you to take a series of images very quickly if you are taking pictures of a race, for example. Close-up (macro) mode allows you to focus on small objects, like a flower, and panoramic mode is good for landscapes. Some cameras also come with options that allow you to shoot in black and white or sepia.

Questions and answers

What size and format of memory card do I need?
Most cameras come with a small memory card, such as 128MB (megabyte), which won’t allow you to take many high resolution images before needing to download them. This can be inconvenient, especially if you are away from your computer. So it’s best to upgrade to a higher capacity memory card so that you can take lots of images before needing to download them. A 1GB (gigabyte) card is a popular choice.
The format of the memory card you buy will depend on the camera you choose: Compact flash (CF) memory cards are usually found in bulkier cameras, like SLRs. This system is supported by Canon, Fujifilm, Konica-Minolta, Nikon, Olympus, Sony and Samsung.
Microdrive is similar to CF cards but faster and with more storage capacity.
Secure digital or Multimedia cards are the most popular as they are compatible with most brands.
XD cards are found mainly in Olympus and Fujifilm cameras.

My camera doesn’t come with rechargeable batteries, is it worth buying them?
Yes, if your camera uses alkaline batteries invest in a battery charger and some Lithium or Nickel Cadmium rechargeable batteries. Upgrading to rechargeable batteries will work out cheaper in the long run.

Is it worth paying more for a pricier digital camera?
Generally, you are paying for more features when you buy a pricier camera, so if you don’t think you will make use of them, just stick with one that has the right resolution for your needs. Obviously if you want professional quality, then you will need to pay a bit more for an SLR camera.

Do I need to have a computer if I buy a digital camera?
It’s useful to have a computer to store your images on and also to email them to friends or family. If you want to use photo-editing software, you’ll need one, too. However, it is not essential to have a computer if all you want to do is take the images and print them. You can print your pictures at a digital processor straight from the memory card or, if your camera is PictBridge compatible, you can print directly from your memory card to a PictBridge enabled printer. Some cameras allow you to resize, copy or alter your images on the camera before you print them, using the cameras LCD screen, but this is trickier than using photo editing software on your desktop or laptop computer as the screen is smaller.

Can I create a slide show with my images to show on TV?
Yes, there are several ways of doing this. You can connect your camera straight into your TV’s video-in port from the video-out port on your digital camera. Put your digital camera in playback mode and switch through the AV channels on your TV until the pictures appear. Alternatively you can transfer your photos to your computer and then burn them onto a CD or DVD and play them on your CD or DVD player.

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