Choosing the best digital camera – compact and DSLR: Buyer’s Guide review

All the advice you need to pick the right digital compact or DSLR
Photo of Choosing the best digital camera – compact and DSLR: Buyer’s Guide

Get your choice of digital camera right, and it could quite literally change your life. Offering you the convenience of posting images online, sharing them with friends or printhing out for a hard copy, they represent the perfect way to capture every special moment. But when it comes to buying a digital camera – whether you’re looking to capture high-resolution still images or video – there are a few important things to consider before you part with your cash. Luckily, IT Reviews is here to help.

Light sensor
In order to capture images, digital cameras are generally equipped one of two types of sensor: either a ‘charge-coupled device’ (CCD); or CMOS (‘complementary metal oxide semiconductor’). Both are consist of a huge array of individual light-sensitive pixels.

This array captures light that falls upon it, recording the information from each individual pixel as a digital signal to build up the complete image – or, in the case of a digital video camera, capturing hundreds of sequential images that give the illusion of movement.

The quality of the sensor is extremely important. The standard specification that you’ll be quoted – its resolution in megapixels, which represens the number of millions of pixels that make up the sensor. This tells part of the story, but on its own it’s not enough to differentiate between camera models.

The higher the number of megapixels captured by a sensor, the higher resolution the image created. While a higher resolution image is larger, and may make it easier to hide flaws, it’s not necessarily higher quality – and a good quality 5MP sensor may outperform a cheaper 10MP sensor when shooting conditions get tougher, such as during low-light photography or filming.

Just as important as the sensor in a camera is the lens in front of it. A larger lens gathers more light – which means higher-quality images, clearer video, and less blurring in low light conditions. In compact cameras, you’re likely to see zoom capabilities referred to as ’10x’ or ’4x’ – but if you’re in the market for a Digital Single Lens Reflex, or DSLR, camera you’ll often see the focal length given in millimetres, referring to the equivalent focal length on an old-fashioned 35mm film camera. Basically, the higher the number, the closer you can zoom in to your chosen subject.

The majority of still cameras on the market today also take video – but if still photography isn’t important to you, you may find that there are additional features on dedicated digital video cameras that a still camera is missing.

Alternatives to a digital camera
Before you rush to spend your cash on a dedicated digital camera, don’t forget about your mobile phone. Today’s smartphones often boast sensors with resolutions equal to or greater than those of basic dedicated compacts – and while the lenses are largely lacking, they can provide surprisingly good quality video, and decent still photographs under good lighting conditions.

Plus, there’s the added bonus that your smartphone is almost certainly with you at all times – and a camera that is with you will take significantly better pictures than the one you left at home.

Digital compacts
The still camera market is split into three distinct segments: compact cameras, so-called ‘bridge’ cameras, and digital SLRs, . Each addresses a different part of the market – but they’re roughly analogous to budget, pro-sumer, and professional.

Canon PowerShot A800
Canon’s retro-styled PowerShot A800 is a stripped-down budget compact with basic features.

Preview screen
A compact camera is usually dominated by a large preview screen at the rear – and increasingly comes without a dedicated optical viewfinder, leaving you to use only the display to frame your shots. More expensive models may include a touchscreen, which can make accessing the camera’s functions significantly easier. High-end compacts will even let you focus on a particular object by tapping it on the screen.

The sensor in a compact camera can make a huge difference to the image quality – but it has to be backed up by a good-quality lens. Don’t be fooled into buying a cheap 14-megapixel camera with a fixed-focus, tiny plastic lens – the quality of photos you get from it will be terrible in all but the brightest of lights. Instead, look for a camera that mixes a good sensor with good size lens for optimal light gathering.

Zoom functionality is important in a compact camera, but remember that the higher the zoom level the bulkier the camera gets. Additional layers of glass have to be included in the lens, along with motors to move them – which is why the majority of compact cameras top out at around 4x zoom.

And don’t take any notice of the so-called ‘digital zoom’ which makers often quote, along with suitably inflated figures, on the product packaging. Digital zoom simply ‘blows’ up a central portion of a photograph without actually adding any additional image data – something that you can easily do with image-editing software, and no substitute for a ‘proper’ optical zoom.

Memory cards
Most compact cameras take SD memory cards, and a modern SDHC-compatible camera can accept cards of up to 32GB. Even if you’re taking pictures at the highest possible resolution – or shooting high-definition video, which the more expensive compact cameras are capable of – 32GB should give you plenty of space.

A modern compact camera is likely to include an impressive array of facilities built in: smile detection is common in the higher end models, delaying taking the picture until all subjects are smiling. Face detection auto-focus systems ensure that portrait shots are always in focus, while panorama modes stitch together multiple images to create an impressive wide-screen image. Don’t be swayed by the number of features, however: if you didn’t know a feature existed before you saw a particular model of camera, the chances are you don’t need that feature.

Rugged and travel cameras
One increasingly popular category of compact camera is a ruggedised camera designed for the rough and tumble of holidays and other adventures. These are frequently shockproof, and – to a greater or lesser extent – waterproof, with many newer models now offering GPS location features and the ability to ‘geo-tag’ a photograph with the location at which it was taken. If you’re an ardent backpacker or outdoor sports enthusiast, their added durability could be appealing – but bear in mind you’ll be paying a premium for it.

Digital SLR (DSLR) cameras
A digital SLR differs from a compact camera by including a physical viewfinder, which works via a mirror that normally directs the light to the eyepiece, but which flips out of the way to allow the light to instead shine on the sensor when a photo is taken.

Interchangeable lenses
As with traditional film SLRs, the biggest benefit of a digital SLR is interchangeable lenses. Rather than being limited to a single, fixed lens, an SLR user can buy multiple lenses and switch between them in the field: an 8mm ‘pancake’ lens offers a very wide angle of view, while a 200mm telephoto lets you zoom in close to your subject. Most cameras come with a ‘kit lens,’ which is an adjustable 18-55mm lens, suitable for most common scenarios.

Until recently, digital SLRs were unable to shoot video or to preview a shot live through the rear-mounted LCD. While both features are still relatively rare, high-definition video shooting and live preview functionality are starting to appear at the higher end of the market – and will soon trickle down to the cheaper models as the technology improves.

Sadly, there are a couple of catches: digital SLRs cost significantly more than a compact camera with the same resolution, and while the quality is usually much higher, the habit of buying new lenses – known by users as an addiction to ‘glass’ – can become expensive.

Pentax - K-r
Digital SLRs like the Pentax K-r offer an array of creative features and interchangeable lenses.

As digital SLRs focus more on the professional end of the market, they also lack some of the automation and hand-holding that a compact camera has. You’re unlikely to find smile detection, panorama modes, or other niceties – but you do get control over things like aperture size and exposure length, which provide a far greater level of artistic freedom to those with the time to learn.

‘Bridge’ cameras
To address the gap between high-end digital SLRs and low-end compacts, companies have started to produce so-called ‘bridge’ cameras. These are mirrorless digital cameras that mimic the design of an SLR – often including interchangeable lenses – but which cost significantly less.

At the lower end, manufacturers build compact-style cameras in shrunken SLR-style bodies. While these don’t offer the range of features that a true SLR has – and usually feature fixed lenses, albeit high-quality ones with up to 14x zoom capabilities – they are significantly cheaper to buy.

At the higher end of the market are the ‘true’ bridge cameras, currently dominated by a format known as ‘Micro Four-Thirds’. These mirrorless cameras include all the functionality of a digital SLR in a much smaller body, and the lack of a mirror means that they are cheaper to produce and are capable of shooting video.

While the number of bridge cameras available isn’t as great as that of either compact or SLR markets, increasing numbers of manufacturers are coming on board – and it’s expected that bridge cameras will soon take over from digital SLRs at all but the professional end of the market.

The digital video camera has suffered a decline in recent years for all but professional use. With smartphones taking high-definition video at surprisingly high quality, and even cheap digital still cameras typically including a video mode, fewer people are buying dedicated video cameras.

A true video camera still has a lot to offer, however – and if you’re in the market, there’s a few things to consider.

As with the still camera market, the video camera market is split into two distinct segments: compact, handheld models, often resembling a mobile phone in size and shape, and full-size camcorders. Both have advantages and disadvantages, so it’s worth doing your research before splashing the cash.

Whichever you buy, it’s important to look at the resolution of the video that is recorded. While older cameras record in 576i or 480i, the majority of modern digital video cameras record in an HD format. At the low end, cameras record in 720p – a progressive format which results in video files with a frame resolution of 1280×720. Higher-end models will either record at 1080i or 1080p – respectively an interlaced, lower-quality or progressive, higher-quality version of 1920×1080 resolution video.

Compact video cameras
A compact video camera, such as the Flip Mino HD, is a pocket-sized unit that looks more like an mobile phone than a camera. Featuring a small lens on the front and a screen at the rear, it doesn’t offer any of the advanced features of a true camera – but it’s small enough to fit in your pocket, and will capture surprisingly good video when adequate light is available. Typically, these record at 720p – although an increasing number offer 1080p recording.

Compact digital video cameras offer surprisingly good quality recording in a device no bigger than a mobile phone.

Sadly, the small lens means that there’s typically no zoom functionality – and in low-light conditions, the video quality usually suffers. There’s also usually no facility for adding extras such as external lights or microphones to the camera, although most models include a tripod mount on the bottom.

Dedicated camcorders
True video camcorders, by contrast, are typically a bulkier affair. Designed to be held in the hand with the thumb operating the controls, a camcorder’s design includes room for a large lens – meaning higher-quality low-light visuals and a large zoom capability, typically eclipsing those available with a still camera.

Memory formats
While older digital video cameras recorded onto tape – with the Digital8 format being popular – most modern camcorders either record onto SD cards or an internal hard drive. Both have their advantages and disadvantages: SD cards are easy to change in the field, but don’t hold much video at higher resolutions; an internal hard drive holds a lot of video, but requires tying the camera up to transfer it to a PC.

When buying a video camera, it’s always worth purchasing a few extras at the same time: a padded case will prevent damage when you’re not filming, while a extra battery always comes in handy. A tripod – or monopod – is also a good idea, especially for cameras with extreme zoom facilities that are almost completely unusable without one.