One of our most asked questions is ‘What is the best camera to buy?’ It’s a question that’s impossible to answer simply. We may as well ask what’s the best car to buy, or the best place to go on holiday.
The fact is that we all have different needs, tastes and budgets. The perfect camera, car or holiday for one person will be completely unsuitable for someone else. Our job is to help you to ask yourself the right questions so that we can narrow down the choice to a small selection that may be right for your needs. From there it’s down to your personal preference.
How many pixels is enough?
Many people assume than the more pixels a camera has the better, but this isn’t the case, particularly with compacts. In order to squeeze more pixels onto the same sized sensor the pixels have to be smaller. The smaller the pixel the less light it can collect, so the more its signal will have to amplified by the processor to get enough for a picture. This results in image degradation. So in fact fewer but bigger pixels is often better than more, smaller ones.
DSLRs, and most Compact System Cameras, have much larger sensors than compacts, so although the same risks apply in over-populating it there’s a lot more room on the sensor to play with. The benefit of having more pixels, if done without degrading the image quality, is that bigger prints can be made, and selective crops may look better. This is especially important with higher-end DSLRs aimed at professional photographers and aspiring pros. A wedding client may want a giant canvas print for the wall, or a magazine may want to run a selective crop from an image across a double-page spread. If photography is your passion you may also be driven to achieve the finest possible image quality for its own sake. For most people though ten megapixels is more enough to get a decent A4 or even, with care, an A3 print.
How much do I need to spend?
For £100 you can buy a good basic point and shoot compact, but as you spend more you begin to get additional benefits such as superior styling, faster operation, better image quality and more cool features.
If you’re looking for a camera for creatve photography you should be looking at the top end of the compact market or a camera with interchangeable lenses. For £300 you’ll have the pick of compact and bridge cameras and for £400 even some entry-level DSLRs and CSCs will be just within reach. These can produce stunning quality pictures and lack only a few bells and whistles of their more expensive siblings. Spending more gets you higher-resolution images, faster shooting, better build quality and more fine-tuning options, but the differences get more subtle as the price increases.
Types of Digital Camera
Your bog-standard compact camera is actually much more than that these days. Forced by the spectre of cameraphones to up their game, today’s compacts offer more features and better image quality than ever. Technologies like face detection and intelligent auto ensure sharp, perfectly exposed photos in most situations while some of the on-board extras, such as in-camera editing, effects filters, automatic panoramas and slo-mo video are great fun and can produce amazing results.
In addition to the basic pocket-friendly version there are waterproof compacts (usually just down to a couple of metres, for snorkelling) and some are designed to withstand being freozen, dropped or crushed. Do check the limitations though!
The more expensive models, sometimes called ‘creative compacts’, offer premium features like slightly larger sensors, better quality and wider aperture lenses, manual controls and features such as the ability to shoot Raw files.
Browse our Compact Camera reviews
Canon Ixus 220HS: Tiny but gorgeous stainles steel model that takes great pictures for a modest price
Samsung MV800: you may have seen this on TV, with its panoramic touchscreen that flips upwards 180°
Fujifilm Finepix X100: This retro masterpiece delivers stunning image quality thanks to its DSLR size sensor
Superzooms (also known as ‘Bridge’ cameras)
Bridge cameras, also known as superzooms, are distinguishable by their prominent zoom lenses with ranges that extend at least 20x and in some cases over 30x. They also feature electronic viewfinders (EVFs), which are like smaller internal versions of the LCD, that you view through an eyepiece. Some are styled to look like mini DSLRs but the key difference is that the lenses cannot be removed. Bridge cameras use compact camera sensors so the quality is not as good as a DSLR but they offer the convenience of all-in-one package with a zoom range that you can’t get in a DSLR or CSC with a single lens, and would require spending considerably more and being lumbered with several kilos of kit to achieve at all. If this sounds like your ideal camera do try one first to see how you get on with the EVF, as not everyone likes them.
Bridge cameras can be found within our Compact Camera section
Panasonc Lumix FZ150: Its 24x zoom may not be the longest but few that can match its AF speed and all-round performance.
Canon Powershot SX40 HS: A whopping 35x zoom and up to 10fps, making it perfect for sports and wildlife, while the HS sensor delivers great image quality.
Compact System Cameras
CSCs offer the interchangeable-lens benefits of DSLRs but in smaller, near compact-sized bodies. Some of them, such as the Sony NEX and Samsung NX systems, use DSLR-sized sensors for optimum image quality, but the latest models, the Pentax Q and Nikon 1, use smaller sensors and put a greater emphasis on compactness. In between is the Micro Four Thirds system, jointly developed by Panasonic and Olympus, which has the widest range of models, lenses and accessories.
This means that those looking for a CSC type camera must first decide which is the most important: small size or superior image quality, and buyers should look at the whole package, including the lens – the Sony NEX cameras, for example, are among the smallest but their lenses are, on average, the biggest.
There are two main types of CSC: those with EVFs and those with only an LCD screen for viewing, though some of the latter category can accept an optional clip-on electronic viewfinder, at additional cost.
Browse the latest Compact System Camera Reviews
Olympus E-P3: The flagship PEN is a retro styled, beautifully made delight, with a superb OLED touchscreen and high-end features like a hot-shoe for external flash
Panasonic GF3: One of the world’s smallest CSCs the GF3 is a delight to use, with lightspeed autofocus and great images at a great price. Great for beginners.
Samsung NX200: With a whopping 20MP APS-C sized sensor the NX200 can only be matched in image quality by the Sony NEX-7, which costs more than twice the price.
Digital SLRs (DSLR)
The most popular category of camera among hobbyists and professionals, DSLRs use larger sensors for superior image quality, and they feature interchangeable lenses. The distinguishing feature of an SLR (Single Lens Reflex) camera is its internal optical system, in which an angled mirror reflects the image coming through the lens up to a prism above, and out through an optical viewfinder. When the shutter is pressed the mirror flips up out of the way and the shutter opens momentarily so that the image can be exposed onto the sensor. The main benefit is that the user gets a bright, clear view of exactly what the lens sees, and is able to focus precisely on the point of interest. In general, DSLRs offer the highest image quality, fastest and most accurate focusing and the greatest range of lenses and accessories.
Browse the latest DSLR reviews
Pentax K-r: a fast burst rate, high-resolution screen and built-in sensor-based shake reduction make this great value for money
Canon EOS 600D: arguably Canon’s best ever consumer DSLR, with a 18MP sensor and features like a vari-angle screen and full HD movies.
Nikon D7000: an outstanding camera with lots of semi-pro features, such as twin SD card slots, 39- point AF, 6fps burst mode and magnesium alloy construction.
DSLT (Digital Single Lens Translucent)
Sony’s DSLT (Digital Single Lens Translucent) system is a variation of the DSLR and is only about a year old. It still uses an angled mirror but it is fixed and translucent. Two-thirds of the light hitting it passes through to the sensor, and one-third is reflected upwards to a phase shift AF module for auto focusing, while the viewing is provided by an electronic viewfinder or ‘EVF’ (a smaller, internal version of the LCD screen on the back). The benefits are in faster burst rates with continuous high-speed AF, and a viewfinder that shows exposure, white balance and all shooting data, and can also be used for video shooting (which DSLR viewfinders cannot). The downside is that EVFs are not as bright and clear as optical viewfinders (though the new models come closer than ever before) so not everyone likes them. Sony is the only company making DSLT cameras at present, and its cameras can accept the same Alpha lenses and accessories as its DSLRs. because there are only a handful of DSLT cameras available, you’ll find them within our DSLR reviews
Sony Alpha 35: Sony’s entry level DSLT offers fast AF, fast burst shooting and great image quality at a bargain price
Sony Alpha 77: WCD’s Product of the Year for 2011, the A77 has an awesome spec but its the handling and stunning image quality from that 24MP sensor that set it apart.
Choosing a camera: features to consider
Different people look for different things when buying a camera, but to WDC the image quality is the most important consideration. This is determined by three main factors:
Lens: The lens is what captures the scene before you and focuses it onto the sensor. If it’s a good lens it will do so with maximum brightness and sharpness, and minimum distortion. Almost all cameras now feature a zoom, so the field of view recorded by the camera can be altered to show either a wide view or crop in on a selected area.
Sensor: The sensor’s light-sensitive surface captures the light coming through the lens to form an image. It is comprised of a grid of millions of tiny light-sensitive pixels. A million pixels equals a megapixel, so a 12-megapixel camera has a sensor with 12 million pixels. As we explained earlier, the number of pixels is no longer the primary indicator of image quality. Rather, the design of the sensor and how it works with the lens and processor, are more important.
Processor: The processor is a mini computer in the camera that turns the ‘light map’ recorded by the sensor into a recognisable photo. It’s vitally important because the quality of the processing determines the speed at which a camera operates, the features it can offer and the colour, sharpness and accuracy of the final picture.
High ISO settings are useful for many situations such as parties, your child’s indoor gymnastics display or any low-light situation where you can’t use flash. Even when you can, a high ISO available-light shot is often better. It’s important not only to have the high ISO settings available but for the camera to deliver high quality images at these settings with minimal image noise. They do so with varying degees of success, and the only way to know which cameras are best in low light is to read our reviews.
Many people, especially older users, struggle to use LCD screens, whether it’s because their eyesight isn’t great or because of reflections on the surface of the screen in bright light. A viewfinder solves this problem, but fewer and fewer compact cameras have them. Bridge or superzoom cameras (see page 14) usually have electronic viewfinders, as do some CSCs, while DSLRs feature big, bright optical viewfinders.
Some cameras have higher-resolution LCD screens for sharper images, while a few have adopted the generally superior OLED technology that can be viewed from a wide viewing angle, and consumes less battery power. A few cameras now incorporate touchscreens that allow users not only to adjust settings but in some cases even fire the camera, but these vary in quality and responsiveness.
Most cameras can shoot fast bursts in continuous mode. While most compacts manage less than 2fps, some can shoot at over 10fps, though usually at lower resolution. Also, it’s little use having a fast burst speed if the camera’s AF can’t keep up with the subject or if the camera’s buffer (its short term data storage area) fills up after only a few shots. DSLRs generally perform better with action, with max burst rates ranging from 3-12fps at full resolution, bigger buffers and faster AF systems.
If you aspire to more than casual snaps and see photography as a hobby, you’ll want a camera that offers full creative control over the aperture and shutter speeds, as well as quick access to other key parameters such as ISO sensitivity. The ability to produce images with shallow depth of field is also a highly sought-after quality best achieved using cameras with larger sensors, such as DSLRs and some CSCs.
All digital cameras now have movie modes but not all offer the full 1920×1080 pixel HD – some have only the smaller 1280×720 pixel size, though confusingly this is also called HD. Some cameras record only mono sound while others have stereo, and a few have external microphone ports. Other considerations are the type of compression and file format used to store the clips and the frame rate, though these are less important factors to most casual shooters.
Zoom range/Lens range
If you’re buying a compact decide how long a zoom you need. Longer zooms enable you to fill the frame with subjects that are further away – ideal for sports or nature wildlife – but the camera will be bigger and there’s greater risk of getting camera shake at the longer settings. If you want a long zoom then a decent image-stabilisation system is a must.
If you’re after an interchangeable-lens camera consider the lenses that you might want and check they’re available before buying the camera. Compact System Cameras are quite new and few have very extensive lens ranges yet, so check that any lenses you want are available or coming soon. With DSLRs you can save money by buying used lenses down the line, but CSCs are too new for there to be many around yet. On the other hand most CSC lenses have the benefit of being smaller than their DSLR counterparts.