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Conclusion

The digital camera market has finally matured to a point where affordable models are no longer compromised on quality and features, while mid-range models are offering more controls and facilities than were ever dreamt of on their film counterparts.

Today we take instant-playback, reusable memory cards, movie modes and TV outputs for granted, but these are of course all part of the digital imaging revolution.
Just about the only criticism die-hard film photographers have remaining against digital is that film still has much higher resolution. This is true, but it’s important to consider the conditions required for film to perform at this level. 35mm film can contain over 15 megapixels worth of detail, but only if it’s professional stock, combined with excellent optics, precision exposure and careful processing. If you’re using cheap film, budget processing and a modest camera, chances are a half-decent digital camera will actually deliver better quality.

More crucially there’s the fact that the vast majority of all photographic prints are made at 5 x 7in or less, and for these a 3 megapixel digital camera will have sufficient resolution – indeed they can even stretch to decent-looking 10 x 8in inkjet prints. Certainly if you want incredibly detailed prints larger than A3, then stick to film, but this is a tiny market. Once you realise digital can offer sufficient quality, or even exceed your requirements, you can relax and enjoy the unique additions it has to offer – not to mention have a great deal of fun too.

That said, we absolutely stick by our belief that 3 megapixels is the threshold at which point digital cameras become truly useful. Unless your budget is extremely tight or you’re after a specific lifestyle model that’s only available with 2 megapixels, then 3 is the minimum you should go for. Higher resolutions capture greater detail, allowing bigger crops or enlargements to be made before the actual pixels become visible as blocks and jagged edges. So if you want good-looking 10 x 8in prints or larger, go for a 4 or 5 megapixel model.

Of the five mid-range and five higher-end cameras we tested, there were models which stood-out and performed better or offered greater facilities than their rivals. That said, it’s important to note every single one was capable of producing a good-looking print, and when viewed in isolation, most owners would be more than happy with the results. The differences only become noticeable when you compare images from different models very closely and directly against each other. At this point, clear leaders emerge. Here are our recommendations.

Mid-Range

As discussed earlier, all five of the 3 megapixel cameras we tested were capable of producing great-looking 5 x 7in prints from a lab or 10 x 8in prints on a colour inkjet before there was any discernable loss in quality. Coupled with a 3X optical zoom lens, each of the five models make decent affordable cameras.

In terms of pricing, we were particularly impressed to find such specifications available at list prices of just £229. At this price point we preferred the features and quality of the Olympus {mju:} 300 compared to the Fujifilm Finepix A303, but find it hard to absolutely recommend either because of what’s available for only a small amount of extra cash. That said, if your budget has no flexibility, both are remarkable for their price (although the Olympus has the edge).

A small jump to £279 gets you Nikon’s Coolpix 3100 or Sony’s Cyber-shot DSC-P72, both of which deliver excellent image quality in small, light packages. The choice between them boils down to personal preferences on styling and support for specific features.

If you’re into movie modes, then the Sony is the one to go for. These modes may still be a novelty and no replacement for a camcorder, but the P72 includes sound and records for as long as you have available memory. In contrast the 3100’s movie mode can only capture 20 second clips at its best quality and unforgivably without sound.

Where the Nikon 3100 scores higher than any other camera we’ve tested though is with its whopping 14 scene presets, four of which also include on-screen help with framing. The Sony P72 may have five scene presets, but if you’re into this kind of thing, the Nikon 3100 is the camera to go for, and it has a wonderful macro mode too. At the end of the day though, it’s a case of swings and roundabouts: both are great cameras and come Recommended.

Nikon Coolpix 3100
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Sony Cyber-shot DSC-P72
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Our Editor’s Choice in this category is Canon’s PowerShot A70. It may have fully Auto and five scene presets for those not wanting any hassle, but it’s the only sub-£300 camera to fully embrace the concept of proper manual control and a great number of accessories.

Canon PowerShot A70
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The A70’s picture quality is also noticeably superior to its rivals, and its amazing what Canon has managed to coax from its sensor. You will have to buy your own set of rechargeable batteries, but the A70 is ultimately the best camera for under £300 – it’s great for beginners, but uniquely will allow them to grow with manual control. It’s also the ideal pocket camera for enthusiasts.

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