Whatever type of camera you are looking for, there are certain traits shared by all cameras that can be compared against each other in order to get a good idea of their particular strengths and weaknesses. Here's ten things to look out for and bear in mind when looking to choose a camera that best suits your needs.
1. SENSOR SIZE
In the early days of digital cameras, manufacturers were keen to push the myth that more megapixels equalled better cameras. However, these days it’s the sensor’s physical size that is generally considered to be the most important factor in overall image quality. There are other factors, but as a rule of thumb the larger the sensor is, the more potential it has to deliver better image quality. For a clearer understanding, check out the Wikipedia page here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image_sensor_format
Don’t obsess about the number of megapixels a camera has. The more pixels are squeezed into a given space, the smaller they have to be, and this can cause problems such as increased image noise. Image quality is dependent on a whole range of factors, of which the number of megapixels is just one. In any case, unless you are planning on making billboard-sized prints 12MP is perfectly enough to make A4 or even A3 prints with.
This refers to how sensitive the sensor is to light and is spoken of in terms of ISO. Ideally you want to keep your camera’s ISO setting as low as possible, say at ISO 100 or ISO 200, as this results in clearer, sharper, brighter images with more detail. To use lower ISO settings like this, however, you do need to be shooting in good light. When light levels drop, you can select a higher ISO setting, although you need to be careful because the higher you go the more unwanted ‘noise’ will begin to creep into your images. Noise usually manifests itself as a grain-like texture and a smudging of detail (cause by in-camera noise reduction), although in extreme cases it also affects colour saturation and contrast too. Most basic cameras offer sensitivity settings from ISO 100 to ISO 1600 at the very least, with more expensive cameras going much higher – all the way up to ISO 102,400 in the case of the £5000 Nikon D3s! Be sure to check the ISO Performance sample galleries on all of our online reviews to see how well the camera you’re interested in performs.
Getting the perfect shot is often about split-second timing, so it pays to know how long the camera takes to start up, and how quickly you are able to shoot consecutive images with it. Autofocus is another important area and while most cameras are pretty quick in broad daylight, performance can quickly drop off as light levels fall. Again, all of our reviews look at these performance issues (usually with a stop-watch in hand!), so be sure to swot up on how your camera performs in advance.
5. BUILD QUALITY
Cheaper compacts tend to be encased in toughened plastic and should be able to survive a few knocks and bumps. However, if you’re planning to use your camera in extreme situations and weather conditions regularly you may want to opt for a weather-sealed or ‘ruggedised’ model. If you’re buying a DSLR or CSC then you can expect to see a similar difference in build-quality between entry-level and enthusiast/professional models. Some of the more expensive DSLRs, for example, house everything within a weather-sealed magnesium-alloy cage, while cheaper models are predominantly housed in plastic casings.
There are numerous types of camera design, from slimline compacts to bulky DSLR-styled superzooms and retro rangefinder CSCs. Taste is subjective so don’t be afraid to like the look of a particular model. But do make sure you can get a proper grip on it and are able to reach all the buttons.
Cameras vary greatly in size and weight. Some people find small cameras difficult to hold and the controls fiddly to access. On the other hand, smaller cameras are easier to take on trips than big, heavy ones and are also more discreet. Decide whether you’re a small-camera or a big camera person before buying. Also, while the vast majority budget and mid-range compacts are pocket-friendly, and most advanced compacts and CSCs will just about fit inside a larger jacket pocket there are a great many other superzooms, CSCs and DSLRs that will simply be too big for any pocket, in which case you’ll need to invest in a bag or carry-pouch.
8. ADDITIONAL FEATURES
Many cameras excel when it comes to particular features – from Sony’s expertise with creating one-touch panoramas to Fujifilm’s mastery of super high-speed shooting. In addition, there is currently a trend for cameras to offer digital filter effects that can transform regular images into ones that look like a miniature model or a painted watercolour without the need for any time-consuming alterations using dedicated post-processing software such as Photoshop. In addition to recording still images nearly all cameras – from budget compacts to professional DSLRs – offer the ability to capture moving images too, including 720 HD and 1080 Full HD capture. That said, there’s a huge difference in quality so be sure to read our reviews in advance.
The vast majority of compact cameras come with a fixed zoom on the front. These can vary in range, but 3x-5x zooms are currently the norm for regular compacts, rising to 12x-16x for travel compacts and up to 36x for superzooms, with most offering a widest setting of 24-26mm. Compact system cameras and DSLRs, however, are usually sold with a ‘kit lens’. These are usually standard zooms that offer a focal range of around 18-55mm or thereabouts, although some models (CSCs especially) can also be purchased with a fixed ‘prime’ lens, or as part of a twin-lens kit that is more expensive initially but usually good value too. Should you want to get a completely different lens to any of those supplied as part of a package then check to see if it can be bought as a body-only package.
If you’re buying a CSC or DSLR then bear in mind that each manufacturer uses a different type of mount for attaching lenses. If you already have a 35mm SLR system it may be tempting to stick with the same brand, especially if you already own several lenses. If, however you are buying into a system for the first time – be it a DSLR or CSC system – be sure to research what’s on offer from that system and how much it will cost you to expand your system with new lenses and suchlike.