Choosing a digital camera is a tricky business. There hundreds of models to choose between and different types of camera to boot. Here we offer our expert advice on making sure you spend your hard-earned cash on the right camera. See also: Best CSC cameras you can buy now
How to buy the best digital camera: Compact, bridge, CSC or DSLR?
Apart from your budget, which you’ll already have in mind, you need to first decide what type of camera you want. You may not know, but these descriptions should help:
Compact digital camera
These are typically the point-and-shoot type of cameras which are lightweight and – as the name suggests – compact. They typically offer a small zoom range, a large screen and easy-to-use controls.
Prices range from £50 to several hundred depending on the features you want, but price usually corresponds to quality, too.
Also known as super-zoom, bridge cameras are larger than compacts and have a big zoom lens which lets you get close to the action. They’re ideal for safaris and other situations where you can’t physically move closer to your subject.
Unlike CSCs and DSLRs, the lens is permanently attached and can’t be changed. Prices are typically higher than compacts, but less than a camera which takes a variety of lenses.
Bridge cameras usually offer enthusiast-level control, so you can get creative with images when you outgrow the auto mode.
Compact System Camera
CSCs or interchangeable-lens cameras are roughly the size of compact cameras, but allow you to swap lenses. You could switch from a large zoom lens to a ‘pancake’ lens depending on what you’re photographing or how small you want the camera to be.
CSCs are more expensive than compact and most bridge cameras, primarily because of their larger sensor and extra components required for changing lenses. A larger sensor means better quality photos and videos.
CSCs normally include a lens – known as the ‘kit’ lens – but you may also be able to buy the body only and choose your own lens.
The largest type of camera, and usually the most expensive, although budget models can be cheaper than some CSC and bridge cameras. Almost all DSLRs have an optical viewfinder, which means you see through the lens to compose the image.
DSLRs offer a larger variety of lenses to choose between than most CSCs, and range from beginner’s models through to professional-level versions which cost thousands of pounds, even without a lens.
Like CSCs, DSLRs normally come with a kit lens, but if you don’t want it, you can buy the body only and choose exactly which lenses you do want.
How to buy the best digital camera: Features
As well as the type of camera, you should decide which features you want. This will depend partly upon what you want to shoot with your camera. For example, you may not be bothered about video at all, while for others video will be as big a priority as photography.
For photos, some features to look out for include:
Face detection: this focuses on any faces in the frame to avoid shots where the focus is on some other object or on the background.
Face tracking: This goes beyond detection and locks onto a face (or possibly an object) to keep it in focus even if it’s moving.
Stabilisation: It’s hard to avoid shaky hands, but stabilisation helps to keep photos sharp even if the camera is shaking. The best type is optical, which means the lens or sensor physically moves. Electronic stabilisation is where the movement is counteracted by software and isn’t usually as good as optical stabilisation. You really need stabilisation when zoomed in, since any camera shake is magnified.
Manual control: A good auto mode is essential on any camera, but being able to control settings manually gives you much more creative control of a photo. For example, if you want to take the classic waterfall shot where the water seems to be flowing rather than frozen, you’ll need a shutter priority mode and to set the shutter speed to be much slower than the camera would automatically choose. The same applies to panning shots where you want the moving person or object to be in focus but the background to be blurred.
As well as control over the shutter and aperture, you might want to manually set the white balance and ISO.
Burst mode: Photographing action is tricky, and burst modes help by taking a series of photos in quick succession – you can then review the shots and choose the best one. Burst - or continuous shooting – modes are rated in frames per second, and the higher the better. However, manufacturers often overstate these figures, and it’s crucial to know the rate at the camera’s maximum resolution – not a much lower resolution.
Wi-Fi: Built-in wireless networking is a nice-to-have feature, but by no means essential. It means that photos can be transferred to a computer or another device without having to remove the memory card or use a USB cable. You could use this to copy photos to your photo library, or even share them directly to Facebook when you’re out and about via a smartphone.
How to buy the best digital camera: Megapixels
Don’t get hung up on megapixels. A higher number is not always better. When more pixels are packed onto a sensor, each one receives less light. In dim conditions, this means you either end up with a dark photo or, to compensate for the lack of light, the image brightness is electronically increased. The problem with the latter is that this leads to grainy, noisy images. Manufacturers apply noise reduction so you don’t see this grain or noise, but this image processing usually results in smudgy looking images with a lack of detail.
So, a 10Mp compact camera could easily take better photos than a 20Mp camera, assuming they both have the same size sensors.
The lens also plays a huge part in image quality, and it’s hard to know whether a camera has a good lens or not from the specifications. This is where you need to turn to reviews written by experts.
How to buy the best digital camera: Zoom range
Talking of lenses, it’s important to understand what it means by 18-55mm or 70-200mm on a lens. Most manufacturers quote figures in 35mm terms, because it’s easiest to relate everything back to a traditional 35mm film camera.
Without getting into the technical aspects, everything from 35mm downwards is considered ‘wide angle’ or zoomed out. From around 70mm upwards, a lens is considered telephoto, or zoomed in.
When you see a ‘3x’ or ‘12x’ in relation to zoom, it’s just another way of expressing the zoom range. If a camera has a 10x optical zoom, then when fully zoomed in, the resulting image is magnified ten times.
Most people will be happy with an 18-55mm kit lens, as it offers a nice wide angle of 18mm – great for getting a lot into the photo – and it goes to 55mm, which is good for portrait head-and-shoulders shots.
For a telephoto lens, 70-300mm is a good choice as you can still use 70mm for portraits, while 300mm lets you get really close to the action, and may also be useful for ‘macro’ photography. Macro is where objects appear larger than life size.
Lenses vary hugely in price. Cheap lenses may have no stabilisation, or they may have a small maximum aperture.
How to buy the best digital camera: Aperture
Aperture is one of the most confusing aspects of photography. You shouldn’t have to worry about aperture unless you are buying a lens.
Lenses are rated in f-numbers. A higher number means a smaller aperture, and a small number means a large aperture. The aperture is simply the hole through which light passes. A bigger hole lets in more light, so lenses with small apertures are known as ‘fast’ lenses.
For example, a cheap 70-200mm zoom lens might have an aperture range of f/4.5-5.6. This means that at 70mm, the maximum (largest) aperture is f/4.5. At 200mm the maximum aperture is f/5.6.
Ideally, you want the largest possible aperture – preferably something like f/2 or lower – but lenses with this specification are very expensive.
Using a larger aperture (smaller f number) means a smaller depth of field – the part of the photo that’s in focus. You may want a small or large depth of field depending on how you want the photo to look. To get the ‘out of focus background’ look, you need to use a large aperture, which makes the depth of field very narrow. In such photos, the foreground and background are out of focus.
Compact cameras typically don’t offer large apertures, which is why you can’t get the blurry background effect that makes DSLR photos so appealing.
However, you can achieve a similar effect with a long zoom lens – so a bridge camera can take such photos without needing to offer a large maximum aperture.