How to choose a compact digital camera

Features James Hunt Jan 24, 2013

Choosing a digital camera system can be hard. James gives you some advice to make it easier

Digital photography is one of the success stories of our times, having effectively banished traditional darkroom photography to the annals of history along with other Victorian technologies such as snuff and chimney sweeps. As well as being cheap and convenient, digital photography gives us all multiple chances to get the best picture, and thus improves the overall standard of the pictures we take.

Of course, before you can take pictures you have to buy a camera, and that means narrowing down potentially hundreds of models to just one choice. Not a simple task.

There are two main categories of digital camera, and your choice of which to buy should depend on a combination of your abilities as a photographer, your understanding of the technology inside, and of course, your budget. This week, in the first of two pieces focusing on digital cameras, we’re going to focus on the basic ‘point and shoot’ camera, also called a ‘compact’. Digital Compacts tend to be cheap, simple to use and very easy to figure out, but as a trade-off, they have (relatively) limited capabilities. You can expect them to capture images far in excess of the maximum resolution of your monitor (although they may be limited by storage space) and have fairly unimpressive optical zoom functions, favouring instead the worse-performing digital zoom.

Compact cameras are essentially all-in-one devices, meaning you don’t have to buy a detachable flash or additional lenses, and this also makes them ideal for people who are want to take a few snaps as mementos than pursue professional-quality or artistic photography. Those that do, should look instead to the more sophisticated DSLR cameras (which we’ll be covering next week). Of course, the delineation isn’t entirely clean. There are ‘enthusiast’ compacts which are almost as sophisticated as low-end DSLRs, and mid-priced ‘bridge’ cameras - a mixture of the two, but nevertheless a broadly useful distinction. If you think a compact camera is right for you but don’t know how to choose one, then keep reading, and soon you’ll find out.

How much should you spend?

The cheapest compact digital cameras cost around £30, for which you can expect a sensor between 10 and 12 megapixels, and optical zoom of maybe 3x or 4x. Not very sophisticated, but enough to do the basics with, and durable enough that it should survive a few holidays without any problems. At the lowest price ranges, cameras tend to contain the same basic technology, so they try to distinguish themselves from one another by emphasising colourful shells that give you an ‘individual’ choice.

Things don’t get substantially more serious until you hit £60, and we’d recommend that anyone looking for a good quality compact aim to spend at least this much. You’ll get sensors of 14-16 megapixels and 5x or 6x optical zoom, as well as other technical leaps like the use of a rechargeable Li-on battery and software effects.

Once you pass £90, things become substantially more sophisticated, so only go beyond that threshold if you spot a particularly good deal. At this price, you can almost afford to buy ‘bridge’ cameras, which have high-speed shutters, far greater optical zoom functions, and CCD sensors rather than CMOS ones.

Although some websites sell compacts up to £200 (and even beyond) a glance often reveals that they’re more likely just cheap bridge cameras with CMOS sensors, or specialised compacts (such as ultra-slim, ruggedised or waterproof cameras) or even compact camcorders with an equal emphasis on photo function.

The upshot, then, is that spending up to £100 on a compact is acceptable, but anything over that requires a more serious investigation of whether a bridge camera would be more appropriate.

What make/model/manufacturer should you look for?

All digital cameras are based on very similar technology, so there’s very little variation in quality especially at the low end of the market where margins are tight. Choosing a good one is simple: If you’ve heard of the brand, it’s worth buying. If you haven’t, you’re taking a slightly bigger gamble. Canon, Nikon, Fujifilm, Sony, Olympus and Samsung are all safe bets. Although in terms of specific models, though, we do have a few suggestions.

The Samsung PL120 is a strong compact that you can pick up for around £80. With a 14.2 Megapixel sensor and 5x optical zoom it’s well ahead of the field in its technical capabilities, and has a secondary 1.5” screen on the front to help when taking self-portraits. A great feature for those who want to take pictures of themselves on holiday without handing the camera over to a stranger. There’s also a range of filters and effects, and in-camera editing - everything you’d expect at this price point, and a little more.

If you want to go a little cheaper, Canon has always been well-known for its range of budget digital cameras, and the PowerShot A800 is a decent choice at the £50 price point. It’s far more basic than the Samsung PL120, but it features a 10 megapixel CCD sensor and 3.3x optical zoom. The sensor might seem small, but because it’s CCD it can produce strong images even in poor light.

If you’d rather go with something that has a bigger sensor in, the Nikon CoolPix L26 is 16.1 Megapixels and 5x zoom, and can also be picked up for around £50 if you shop around (its RRP is higher, but most chains are offering decent discounts on it). It’s easy to pick up and use, produces good quality images - certainly for the money, and gets you far more pixels than the PowerShot A800. Not at all a bad choice.

What technology should you look for?

The primary component of all digital cameras is its sensor. The pertinent information you want to know about it is how many megapixels it can detect. This number, quoted in megapixels, determines the maximum real resolution of your image, and therefore the amount of detail that can be picked up - generally, the higher the better.

The type of sensor may vary, but in compact cameras you’re only likely to find CMOS sensors, because they’re the cheaper of the two main types. CCD sensors give clearer, less “noisy” images, but use much more power than CMOS ones, which can impact battery life.

At a similar level of importance are the zoom capabilities of a camera. Optical zoom is the important kind, because it refers to an actual change in the lens which refocuses the light, like a telescope or binoculars do, to give a full-quality zoom. The bigger and longer the lens, the better the optical zoom is likely to be, but compact cameras – as the name suggests – rarely have room for better optical zooms. The value is given in multiplications of the original image, so “10x” cameras zoom in further than “4x” cameras.

Don’t worry too much about digital zoom capabilities, though. These are little more than a computerised transformation of the digital image, and you can accomplish just as much (or better) in a software package like Photoshop. They pick up no extra detail, and thus the more you use digital zoom, the worse the image looks.

Many compact cameras are capable of recording video, normally in sub-HD resolutions, although higher-end examples can record in HD. The quality isn’t comparable to a camcorder and options are limited, but the feature is easy to implement - which is why most cameras support it. It’s certainly good enough to capture impromptu moments for later uploading to social media sites - and probably far better than your smartphone’s facility.

Most compacts have some limited software effects, such as black-and-white or sepiatone modes, but more expensive cameras will also have additional software functions. Face detection can automatically maintain the camera’s focus on people in the shot, while panoramic stitching allows the camera to automatically combine multiple photos into one large image.

Is now the right time to buy?

The digital camera market is fully mature, so there’s very little value in waiting to see what’s just around the corner, or what might come along. In most cases, the camera you want isn’t going to get significantly cheaper - it’ll just be replaced by a successor with a slightly better sensor at the same price. Even that isn’t worth worrying about, because the sensors in even the lowest end cameras are hugely capable.

The price of so-called ‘smart’ cameras, with wi-fi capabilities and built-in sharing IS likely to drop as the features spread to other devices as standard, but that’s still a reasonable way off happening. At present, smart cameras are all above £100, and there’s no reason to expect them to drop any lower in the near-term.

The advice you can take from that is to buy a camera as soon as you’re ready. 

What are the technical constraints?

Digital cameras require batteries for power, but the type of battery can vary depending on the type of camera. Cheaper models will require AA batteries and then will probably take great pleasure in eating them for breakfast, especially if you use the LCD screen or flash functions a lot. More expensive cameras tend to come with a more capable Li-on battery which you can recharge over USB. This option will prove to be far more convenient in the long term, trust us.

Note that, while in principle it means better quality images, there are situations where more megapixels can actually be detrimental to the quality of your pictures. For example, in low light conditions a higher-megapixel sensor distributes less light to each pixel than a lower-megapixel sensor would, so the resulting picture can be duller and harder to see. In practical terms, it’s hard to guess how and when this would make a difference, but it’s worth being aware of. You’ll probably come to the conclusion, as we have, that in most areas of photography, getting a good picture is less about the technology and more about knowing how to use it well. We’d could even make a strong case for budgeting for some kind of book or guide to subject, if you have little or no knowledge.

Finally, note that the onboard storage of most point-and-shoot compacts is quite low, only enough for a few photos (tens, rather than hundreds). To get the most out of a digital camera, you’ll need some kind of memory card storage to augment the onboard capabilities. Luckily, this isn’t very expensive and unless you’re a particularly enthusiastic snapper, a single card should be all you need for a virtual lifetime’s worth of photography. If you’re lucky, some compacts even include a free one in the price - but don’t assume that they do! 

What’s the alternative?

Leaving aside DSLRs, which we’ll cover in more detail next week, you’ve got two real alternatives to a compact camera: use a disposable non-digital camera and get the film digitised (which is strictly the behaviour of luddites and format snobs) or use a device which contains a camera as a secondary function, such as a smartphone or tablet.
While taking photographs with a tablet is hardly convenient (or subtle), the smartphone camera is a popular choice. The capabilities of smartphone cameras are roughly analogous to a cheap point-and-shoot (though usually with worse optical zoom functions and lower resolution images as standard), and this has led them to outright replace a separate camera in many people’s eyes.

They do, after all, have a permanent Internet connection which allows them to use social sharing functions - on a smartphone, you can take a photo and upload it to Facebook or Twitter within seconds, or use apps to edit it directly. A far more appealing prospect than having to wait until you’re back home to show people what you were up to. There are ‘smart’ cameras, which support similar functions, but they’re taking their cues from smartphones, not the other way around. The former will always be more versatile.

The big difference, of course, is in price. A good smartphone is going to cost something from four times the cost of a compact camera, and probably more if you factor in the cost of a phone contract. As a result, if you’ve got a smartphone, you may not want to bother buying a simple point-and-shoot digital camera, because you’ve technically already got one sitting in your pocket, but you can hardly make the case for buying a smartphone instead of a point-and-shoot.

Still, if you like the idea of apps and easy sharing, smartphones are a good area to investigate. After all, they do have a lot of other functions that might appeal too – you certainly can’t play Angry Birds on a camera, for one thing…