Digital Compact Cameras buying guide

Jan 28, 2011 No Comments by

What will you use your camera for?

Some compacts are more compact than others.  The Sony Cybershot DSC-T99 and Samsung ST100 are very slim, making them easy to carry in a pocket and less obvious to thieving bastards.

Does your camera need to be rugged and/or waterproof?  The Canon Powershot D10 and Casio EX-G1 are good choices for beach/sea snaps.

Are you going to use your compact as a DSLR substitute?  Professional snappers and brand loyalists will look at high-end compact cameras such as the Canon Powershot S95, Leica V-Lux 20 or Panasonic Lumix TZ8.

How much do you want to spend?

Perfectly decent, new compacts can be picked up for under £100.  Among recognised brands Panasonic’s FS series tends to be very good value.  Shop around for older models that have been discontinued; the Nikon Coolpix L-range, for example.

High end compacts can cost up to £300 (Leica’s are even more) but don’t spend more than £200 unless you’re VERY fussy.

How big are you likely to print your photographs?

Camera manufacturers seem to be trying to outdo each other in the, “Mine’s got more megapixels than yours,” game.  Pixels are the weeny dots of colour that collectively, make up the image, whether it’s a photo print, TV picture or huge 48-sheet roadside advertising poster.  The smaller these dots are, the greater their profusion and the more effectively they are crammed together, the clearer and more accurate the end result will be.  One megapixel = one million pixels.

However, a huge megapixel count has less to do with the resolution and clarity of the end result than the quality of both the lens and the image sensor – the gubbins that actually captures the image.  So don’t be swayed by sales nobs blabbing on about how many megapixels a camera has.  Ask what kind of sensor it has (CCD and CMOS are most common) and how big it is.  If they don’t know, go to a better shop.  A camera shop.  That doesn’t also sell washing machines and hairdryers.

If you have trouble sleeping there’s a (relatively) interesting chart about image sensor size here

Interesting to see how far up that chart the Olympus Pen EP-1 is.  Read more on this and other new generation cameras here.

8 megapixels is plenty for the majority of demands.  Any more and you’ll be paying for performance you’re unlikely to ever use or need.  8 megapixels is more than enough resolution for printing a 10×8 photo.

How bothered are you about farty extra features?

HD video, face recognition, anti-shake, panorama pics – aside from upping the megapixels manufacturers keep cramming in extra features that, individually, aren’t much of a reason to buy.  Collectively, though, they can be tempting.  But once one brand introduces a feature, most others follow.  It’s now a challenge to find a camera that doesn’t have anti-blur/shake or face recognition.  Anti-blur and ‘image stabilisation’ are not the same thing.  The latter is better. Optical zoom is good; digital zoom is less good.  It’s for you to figure out what constitutes a useful feature and what’s a pointless extra.

Memory card compatibility

Most compact cameras now use SD (secure digital) or MicroSD memory cards.  Be aware that newer high capacity SD cards (SDHC and SDXC) are not ‘backwards compatible’ – they won’t work with older cameras that take standard SD cards.  Sony held out for years with its ‘Memory Stick’ but their new cameras now also take SD cards.  Olympus also had a memory card that was a different shape from everyone else – a MicroSD card slotted into a Olympus adaptor.  You can buy MicroSD-to-SD adapters; worth doing if you have such an Olympus compact.

Be aware that using a compact camera to shoot video – especially high-definition (HD) video – will fill a memory card pretty quickly.  Most digital SLR cameras limit how long you can shoot video continuously – 5 minutes is typical – because all that digital processing makes the camera get rather warm.  This is not an issue with smaller, compact cameras or superzoom digital cameras.