Digital camera buying guide
Looking to buy a brand new camera, but confused by all of the options available? CNET Australia is here to help with our comprehensive guide to choosing a compact.
If you're confused about any of the terms discussed, make sure to read over our primer on digital camera basics.
This guide covers compact cameras only. If you're looking for a digital SLR, make sure to check out our guide to the best digital SLRs for beginners.
A pixel is the smallest component that makes up a digital image. The megapixel value on any camera simply means how many pixels (or photo sensors) are found on your image sensor. The "mega" denotes 1 million.
A camera's megapixel count relates to the resolution of the image that it is able to produce. Unless you are aiming to make very large prints of your digital images, more often than not a 10- or 12-megapixel sensor will produce a large enough file for you to work with for 10x15cm prints all the way to A3 size.
Most manufacturers have (fortunately) stopped the race for more megapixels, and concentrated their efforts on improving the image-processing engine inside the camera itself, as well as improving the optics (lens).
Just looking for a cheap and quick camera purchase? Don't worry about sensor size, and keep reading. For everyone else, this section is for you.
Compact cameras generally have very small image sensors, in the region of 1/2.3-inch or 1/1.7-inch. When it comes to sensors and image quality, bigger is always better. A larger sensor can cope better with noise at higher-sensitivity levels, and generally has a greater dynamic range. In conjunction with the lens, a camera with a large image sensor has a greater surface area for gathering light, which may result in better photos.
Lenses and zoom
The next thing to consider is the lens that your new camera comes with. This is arguably the most important part of the camera, as it does the most work in forming the picture. A bad-quality lens will more often than not equal bad-quality pictures.
If you want to get closer to your subjects, there are a few manufacturers that offer a longer lens in a compact body. Sony makes the Cyber-shot HX20V, which comes with a 20x unit in a relatively slim chassis.
The world's longest superzoom camera.
Alternatively, if 20x just isn't close enough for you, consider a superzoom camera. These models look a little bit like shrunken-down SLRs, and come with incredibly long lenses. The longest on the market is currently the Canon PowerShot SX50 HS, which tops out at 50x optical zoom. Consult our guide to the best superzoom cameras on the market if you are looking for one of these models.
You may also want to consider the wide-angle component of your camera's lens. This is a measurement, usually denoted in millimetres on the spec sheet or documentation, which determines the widest field of view. For example, a fairly standard wide angle on compact cameras is 28mm, though there are some models that go down to 25mm, 24mm or 23mm. A wider lens is useful for getting more in your shots, which is good for landscape photographers or general big family snaps.
Unlike megapixels, when it comes to LCD screens, bigger is always better. Not only will you be able to avoid squinting to see your pictures as you review them, but the extra real estate also means that your image won't be cluttered with menu options and visual overlays taking up your space.
It also makes it far easier to share pictures with others on the fly, especially if you're the type of person to inspect every photo you take. The average screen size is now 3 inches, though some cameras stretch to 3.5 inches or even 4.8 inches on models like the Samsung Galaxy Camera.
If you do a lot of high- or low-angle shooting, consider a camera with a rotating or articulating LCD screen. This means it can pop out from the camera body for a clearer view in some situations.
Every camera will come with an LCD screen, but not all will come with a viewfinder. Still a remnant from the old days of photography, viewfinders have slowly been pushed out of camera specs to make way for larger screens, but you can usually still find them on some superzooms. Viewfinders are great for when there's glare and it's too bright to see through the LCD screen, or when you're trying to squeeze out more photos on a low battery.
If you've decided that you definitely want a viewfinder, you have another decision to make: viewfinders come in two flavours, the traditional optical type and the electronic variant.
Electronic viewfinders give you a direct readout of what the camera's image sensor sees, along with any overlays, like shooting options that you would normally see on the LCD screen. Optical viewfinders are less common on compacts these days, and are made of plastic or glass that gives you an overlay of what the scene and framing will look like once the photo has been taken. Unless you are using an SLR, any optical viewfinder on a compact camera will suffer from some degree of parallax error.
Have you ever experienced the phenomenon of pressing the shutter button on your camera to take a picture, and the camera only takes the photo after a considerable delay? That's shutter lag, where the camera determines the exposure and focus after you press the shutter button (unless you have already pressed the shutter button halfway). Compact cameras are getting better at reducing shutter lag to let you take more instantaneous photos, but they still have some way to go before they are as good as digital SLRs in terms of responsiveness.
Take a look at the performance metrics in our reviews to compare shutter lag relative to other cameras in the class. Generally, a shutter lag of 0.3 seconds or less is considered excellent performance for a compact camera.
The touchscreen camera has been a little bit of a gimmick in the past, with manufacturers including them on some high-end models to pad out an otherwise lacklustre feature set.
The Samsung Galaxy Camera has a big, 4.8-inch touchscreen.
These days, touchscreen cameras are generally excellent performers, and they closely mimic the sort of experience that you are used to from a mobile phone or tablet. We strongly suggest that you look for a capacitive rather than resistive touchscreen on any camera you consider buying.
Advantages of touchscreens include being able to tap anywhere on the screen to set a focus point, touching the screen to take a photo or swiping back and forth between images in playback mode.
While image stabilisation was a nice optional feature extra on many compacts from a few years ago, shaky hands everywhere can now rejoice, as it's definitely a standard on pretty much all cameras sold today.
Some companies will market it as Vibration Reduction (Nikon), anti-shake, Mega OIS (Panasonic) or SteadyShot (Sony). Regardless of the name, all mean the same thing: reducing camera shake.
If you have the equipment to edit and store your HD videos, having this functionality is a definite advantage. Most cameras on the market today can capture at least 720p footage, which is classified as HD. Full HD is denoted as 1080i or 1080p in the specifications.
Another perk to look for is HDMI connectivity. This means that you will be able to directly connect your camera to a TV with an extra cable, so you can watch photos and videos back on a big screen.
All compact cameras use a memory card to store images. Most on the market will use SD, SDHC or SDXC cards (Secure Digital/Secure Digital High Capacity/Secure Digital Extended Capacity). SD cards come in various capacities, although we suggest that if you are planning an important trip, or looking to store a lot of photos and videos without backing up regularly, buy several smaller capacity cards like 4GB or 8GB to spread the load. This means that if one card goes missing or fails, not all of your images will be lost.
Some Sony cameras also have dual card slots that can accept SD cards, as well as its own Memory Stick format. Other cameras, such as some Samsung models, use microSD cards like those found in many mobile phones.
Most cameras are powered by a rechargeable lithium-ion battery. It is increasingly rare to find a camera that is powered by AA batteries, though if you insist on using these units, look at some of the cheaper superzoom cameras on the market. AA batteries are much more convenient when you are on the road without easy access to an electrical outlet to charge your lithium-ion unit, but they're a lot more expensive and environmentally unfriendly over the long run.
Want to get a bit more advanced with your photography? Look at slightly higher-end models or superzooms. The advantage of manual controls is that you are able to tweak exposure to adapt to changing conditions where the camera's inbuilt program or automatic mode may not be able to cope. Check out our list of the best compact cameras for advanced photographers.
Warranty and after-sales support
While this is a bit of an obvious statement, get to know your camera's warranty and where you can go for help should something go wrong post-purchase. This may entail returning the camera to the manufacturer's service centre (often only in one capital city in the country), involving some expensive freight costs that you may have to bear.
What else should I buy?
Before you hand over your cash for a shiny new toy, make sure to look at what else comes in the box with your camera. More often than not, you'll find that your camera comes with a wrist strap at the very minimum. Others will have a soft carrying pouch or other protective case.
If not, this is something else to consider, especially if it looks like your camera is susceptible to bumps and scratches.
As mentioned earlier, if you want to view photos and videos via HDMI, you will need to buy the cable. And if, after all this, you're still confused as to what camera is best for you, check out our digital camera round-ups.