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What to Look For When Buying a Compact Digital Camera

Along with a TV, a digital camera is the one piece of technology you can guarantee nearly everyone in the country owns – even if it’s just part of their mobile phone.

And with the winter event and party season nearly here, there will be plenty of opportunities to snap away. Whether it’s Christmas present opening with the family, a New Year’s Eve night out with friends, fireworks in the garden or Halloween trick-or-treating with the kids, having a compact camera around will capture memories you will treasure forever.

How do you find a standalone camera that’s right for you?

Digital cameras are generally split into two camps, Compact and Digital SLR. The former are smaller, cheaper and automatic, whereas the latter are larger with many more settings to give you far more scope when capturing shots.

You can find out more about Digital SLR in our separate Buyer’s Guide, while in this guide we will take you through buying a Compact Camera. There’s also a handy list of the jargon you might come across at the end of this article.

I want a small compact – what should I look for?

There are two main types of Compact Camera on the market, and which to go for depends on your needs and budget.

The cheaper models, starting from as little as £25, are called ‘Point and Shoot’ cameras. They have less features but the output is of a high enough quality for everyday snaps. They are certainly a step up from shooting on your mobile phone.

The small size of these products makes them very portable too, with ‘super slim’ models perfect for a night out. You can easily slip them into your handbag or pocket.

But compacts can go up to around the £400 mark, with these models termed ‘advanced compact’. They will be made of better materials, for example metal rather than plastic, and have more automatic features and manual settings to choose from to create picture perfect photos.

Snaps taken on a compact are generally good enough to print out at anything up to A4 size, whether that’s using your home printer or taking them to a shop creating digital prints. Those with a megapixel rating of above 8MP should also be capable of A3 prints with the quality of the image increasing as the megapixels rise.

What are megapixels and how many should I go for?

Every image you shoot on your camera is made up of a tiny dot called a pixel. The more dots involved, the better the quality of the snap. So for years cameras were sold on the basis of megapixels, with everyone racing to move up and up the numbers.

But we’ve now reached a point where even the most basic of compact cameras has enough megapixels to create high quality images. It wasn’t so long ago that five or seven megapixels was common, now we’re into 12, 14 and 16 on even the lower priced models.

So while this does give an indication of quality, opting for anything better than 8MP will produce good results. It is therefore advisable to choose your camera based on the additional features and modes it has built-in as this will differentiate models more easily and will impact on the price.

What about the zoom and lens?

Most digital cameras now come with an optical zoom, allowing you to magnify the object you’re shooting by moving the lens in and out.

The larger the zoom, the closer the image will appear while still maintaining a high quality shot. The most common on a compact is 5X, meaning you get five times closer, but they do go right up to 36X.

Digital Zoom may also be included which uses technology inside the camera to add an extra level of close-up but this can reduce the quality of the final image.

When it comes to lenses, basic compacts will have a standard unbranded lens, but as you move up the price scale you may get branded ones such as Carl Zeiss. In general, these may produce higher quality images but the differences may not be readily apparent if you’re simply using the camera for holiday snaps and family parties.

If the lens is ‘wide-angle’, you will be able to fit a wider view into the picture. Unlike with a zoom, where a higher number is better, with wide-angle lenses it’s the smaller number you’re after.

Right, so what features can I get on a compact then?

With so many models out there, you will find plenty of useful features available but also plenty of gimmicks that sound great even though they may never, or rarely, be used. Some of the most popular include:

Geo-tagging

For years cameras could tag a photo with the time and the date it was taken, now this feature adds the location it was shot too, anywhere in the world using GPS like you’d find in a sat-nav.

Wi-Fi and/or easy upload

With wireless internet technology you can directly upload pictures onto social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter as long as you’re connected to the web. You can also automatically transfer them via Wi-Fi to a computer or mobile device.

Face Detection

This finds the faces of people in a picture and adjust the focus and exposure to ensure brighter and clearer results. It will make the faces more of a focal part of the image. Other detection technologies you will find available are Smile – where the picture only takes if people are ‘saying cheese’ and Blink to prevent a snap being shot if someone has their eyes closed.

Face Recognition

This is similar to Face Detection but it will actually remember faces in a crowd. So you can set it to look out for a particular person and make them the main focal part of an image. You can also use it to search for images stored on the camera containing that person.

Intelligent Scene Recognition

This works out where the picture is being taken – for example a dark nightclub or red hot beach – and adjusts the settings accordingly. You will also find most compacts have a range of automatic modes to choose from depending where you are shooting. These could include a beach, snow, water, capturing fireworks on Guy Fawkes Night, night shots, animals or fast-moving sport.

Motion Panoramic Mode

Instead of taking just one picture, you simply move the camera around a scene and it stitches the different shots together into one big wide panoramic view. Other cameras may have panoramic modes, which stitch the final shot together from single pictures you have taken separately.

Optical or Digital Image Stabilisation

If you have shaky hands, then this will help stop the picture from blurring. You might also see it called Anti-Blur.

HD Video Recording

More and more digital cameras are now also able to shoot video in High Definition too. Look for the rating of the movie mode. It may be 720p, or the higher quality full HD known as 1080p. To shoot such high quality video you will need a large memory card as it uses up storage space fast.

HDMI Output

If a camera has this kind of connection, you’ll be able to plug in an HDMI cable and hook it up to your TV to playback photos and more importantly high-definition movies.

Other Features

These include self-timer, red-eye reduction, macro modes for very intimate close-ups and automatic ISO – which adjusts for the light level – these are all common on most models.

How sturdy is a Compact Camera?

If you’re planning a holiday where your camera might be exposed to the elements, or if you’re just clumsy, there are lots of models out there to resist shock or drops, water, dust, sand, intense heat and ice.

Does the screen make a difference?

The screen size is down to your own personal taste. The bigger it is, the clearer you’ll be able to view back the shots you’ve taken. Some might also use touch controls to work various options on the camera. Sizes range from 2.5 inch to 3.5 inch.

There’s also a Samsung model on the market with dual screens, one of which is on the front to help out when taking photos of yourself.

Is there anything else I should know?

You don’t have to settle for black and silver any more. Today’s compacts come in red, pink, blue, purple, silver – you name it, there’s a camera somewhere that will come in it.

It’s also worth bearing in mind what software comes with a camera. Many will have editing suites on a CD in the box along with a USB cable to connect it to the computer.

Also look for deals that package the camera with a case and memory card. It can often work out cheaper to buy it all together as most cameras will only come with a small size memory card, if they come with one at all.

Jargon Buster

  • Image Sensor- A very important part of a camera, the larger the sensor, the better quality the image the camera will produce
  • Storage Media – This is the type of memory card you will need in order to store the pictures and videos your camera takes. They may be SD, MMC, Micro SD or HD versions of some of these
  • PictBridge – A technology found on many digital cameras allowing you to plug them straight into a printer using a USB cable, without the need to use a computer to print snaps
  • ISO – This sets the light sensitivity of the camera’s image sensor, similar to the old speed ratings on traditional camera films. The higher the ISO, the better the camera can handle low, dark and dim conditions


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