This is very simply a basic guide to buying a digital camera. This is basic info and is a guide, opinion only. We cannot be held liable for any information contained here or any act based on this info. Inclusion and links in this page do not mean endorsement of any of the products, companies or any guarantee of their suitability or reliability! This has been updated, November 2015.
Pixels are dots of information. They make up what you see on an image, a TV screen etc. The higher the number, the higher the quality of the image and the larger you can produce the image. (If an image is poor quality and you enlarge it, the quality drops). Nearly all digital cameras (and camcorders, phones) have at least 12 Megapixels.
A higher Megapixels level does not equate to a better image necessarily, though it may mean you can enlarge an image more effectively. A Megapixels count can be high but the key thing is the amount of light that each sensor lets through and the quality of the sensor. So a higher Megapixels camera won't necessarily be better than a slightly lower one. There are many factors at play (e.g. quality and size of the lens etc).
Importance here is both the size of the lens and the brightness and the way this information is transmitted. There are two types of sensors very basically - CCD and CMOS. This is a complicated measurement. Usually the higher this number the better. CMOS sensors are increasingly common in both compact and DSLR type cameras. A high quality CCD may well still give better results, however.
The larger the camera, the larger the sensor and therefore the more light and more information that the camera captures - making the picture of higher quality (dependent on the quality of the picture-taker obviously!)
This is a very important one. Lenses differ vastly in quality and in what you are able to achieve with them. Increasingly, cameras such as DSLR ones and Micro Four-Thirds cameras give you the option to use different lens (foe example for long-range photos, for wide-angled photos and for macro, close-up photos etc). Lenses come in all sizes and qualities. You will pay significant amounts of money for a good lens, often as much if not more than the camera body. Small compact cameras usually don't give you the option to replace lenses.
One important aspect to think of when choosing a camera is the 'optical zoom' - which is basically how much a camera can zoom in on a subject without losing quality. Cameras will have an optical zoom of at least 10x, if not more. Bear in mind that the more you zoom in, the more shaky the image will be (so with big zoom you'll need a tripod).
Note that Micro Four-Thirds cameras have a lens system that is smaller than the DSLR system and will provide more zoom with a smaller lens - so for example a smaller m43 lens will have the zoom of a larger DSLR lens.
Some cameras / camcorders 'fake' an optical zoom which can extend the optical zoom without too much loss of quality, although the more you zoom in with these systems, the more quality you inevitably lose.
You will also hear of 'digital zoom' but this is of much less importance as it reduces quality. As with camcorders, this is zooming in on an image taken more than an image.. here's what I mean.. these photos an simulation of digital zoom, not actual..
So, the main point to note here is to ignore the 'digital zoom' claims. Instead, you want a good 'optical zoom' figure.
|Here is Washington DC looking along the Reflection Pool|
|Here is the same image with faked digital zoom - no loss in quality|
|And here with a digital zoom effect - notice how the pictures is becoming 'blocky' as digital zoom effectively makes the image larger rather than zooming in on the subject|
Image Recording Format and Quality
Most digital cameras take photos as jpeg/jpg images (these are exactly the same, just that different makes use the different 'endings' - so for example me.jpg or me.jpeg are the same). This is basically one method of image compression. There are other formats where the image you take does not get compressed at all (these formats are usually RAW and TIFF formats). Compression is basically a balancing act between image quality and file size. So, the greater the compression, the more of the quality you lose.
Your camera will probably use jpeg and that is absolutely fine unless you need high quality images for stuff like print and media work, in which case you won't be reading this!
So, the compression. Just check your camera has a varied range of compression settings. This means your images can be adjusted in terms of their quality - with the higher the quality, the larger the file size (but the larger you will be able to print without loss of quality).
As well as settings for quality, your camera will also give you settings for size - e.g. 2048 x 1536 pixels, 1600 x 1200 etc.
My prosumer Panasonic camera has different options. There is an option of picture size and quality. However, the camera imports both 'TIFF' and 'RAW' formats. Don't worry too much about them, except that if your camera has the option, it will cost more and be of better quality as there is generally less compression than a jpeg image.
Remember not to enlarge prints beyond their actual sizes. Remember that if you edit jpeg photos too much in your computer, you will gradually lose the image quality of your image. One way to avoid this, is to import your photo to your computer as a jpeg. Then, save the file as an uncompressed (or less compressed) format - such as a Photoshop or a TIFF file. Then you can edit and not lose too much quality.
Make sure the camera has a flash too, or an accessory 'shoe' where you can attach a separate flash. The very best kinds of flash are ones with 'diffusers' where the light is diffused across the image and not focused in one place, resulting in making the photo very bright in one place!
Your digital camera will come with an SSD (memory) card built in. These have names like 'SD' and 'Micro SD' etc. This is a small memory card you insert into the camera and is where the photos you take are stored. The higher the storage space on the card, the more images you can store at once. This is useful when you take your camera away and don't have access to a computer to download the images - to start over. There are various forms of storage media - don't worry too much about which one but some are more expensive. Buy more memory when buying the camera to save money!
Memory may all be the same size, but won't all be the same quality or speed. Check the specifications for your camera and get the highest speed card that you can, as well as one with the highest GB (gigabyte) storage possible. Often it's worth having a spare memory card. So with speeds you will find that cards have things like 'Class 4' or 'Class 10'. The higher the 'class', the faster the card. You'll also see the transfer speeds listed (e.g. 45MB/s or 100 MB/s etc). Again, the higher that number the faster it will be - up to the point that your camera can cope with!
Many compact and larger format cameras come with various modes to help you shoot specific scenes and situations without being an expert. Examples include the night sky, sports events, fireworks, landscape scenery etc - with every manufacturer offering different types.
The camera will also offer various creative effects to add to your photos, so you don't have to put them onto your computer in order to do funky looking effects! Useful things are the ability to remove blemishes, remove red-eye etc. Some effects look pretty bad!
You'll also want to check out the quality of the movie mode on your camera. Some DSLR and Micro Four-Thirds cameras can take video that is of similar (and occasionally higher quality than many basic camcorders). HD will be standard, with some manufacturers offering 4k products (double the resolution of HD). Again these claims need to be taken with a pinch of salt as they will vastly differ relative to the lens, the quality of the camera and the compression rates.
If your camera shoots movie (and you want to do this well), an accessory shoe and a Mic input is also useful in order to capture high quality audio with an independent microphone. Good audio can make a video go from good to professional.
One mode worth considering is HDR mode which helps you for example when a day is very bright but for example you are taking a picture of a large object such as a mountain. When you shoot the photo, you may find that the mountain goes very dark - or alternatively that the sky goes white. The camera does this to compensate for the differing light. What an HDR photo does is to take both subjects (eg the sky and the mountain) at the same light - so you get the mountain looking nice and light, as well as the blue sky.
Of course, while some still use the viewfinder on cameras, many prefer to use the screen - so make sure the screen size is good enough, detailed and light enough and can be viewed well in bright light situations, in order to help you use the device and navigate around touchscreen menus etc.
WiFi / NFC etc
Many people like the ability to upload photos to other devices or even to Facebook easily. Most cameras will have WiFi and even NFC (near-field-communication via bluetooth) built-in to enable you to do this quickly. Higher end models will even have apps which allow you to control aspects of your camera over WiFi.
The higher up you go when buying a camera, the more manual control you will have. On a basic camera, you may not have much access to settings such as the focus (although most cameras offer touchscreen touch focus), the ISO, aperture, shutter speed, exposure etc. All these help achieve certain kinds of effects or certain ways of shooting that the more advanced user will find necessary. For this you'll need to look more towards the Micro Four-Thirds and DSLR cameras, although these will be physically bigger (especially DSLR cameras) and more expensive.
The higher the ISO setting can go, the more likely the camera will be to be able to take quality photos in low light. On basic cameras this setting will be very limited.
The lower the 'f stop' the more light the camera can let in and therefore the more light hat can come in, the greater the detail and the greater the 'depth of field' (the bit in focus) can be.
This is where photography gets more personal and more fun. Most cameras will give you different shooting modes - low light, backlit compensation, red-eye reduction, fast shutter (for sporting events for example) and more. These are fine but there are some things to look out for to help..
Backlit compensation is an important tool. Think of this scenario: you are at a wedding, taking a photo of the bride and groom. Unfortunately, they are sat with their backs to a window, with the sun streaming in behind them. If you take a photo of them, they will be dark (set against a bright background). Backlit compensation will mean a small flash to light up the subjects in the foreground so they won't look so dark. Better still, get a photo when they're not in front of a bright window!!
A macro mode will enable you to take photos of small things very close up effectively. With no macro setting, the camera will not be able to naturally focus on something very close (eg 3cm away)
Does your camera have decent night or low light shooting settings? Most digital cameras suffer from poor quality photos when the light isn't good, some compensate for this with various effects and tricks. Check this to help make the most of low light shots (raise exposure, or use a night setting).
Shutter / ISO settings (the faster this is, the better for shooting movie subjects), the lower the shutter speed, the more dreamy and blurred an image can be. (This is how people take images looking down on traffic on the highway from a bridge at night and achieve the effect of seeing no cars but the trails of the lights of the cars, as the cars have moved between the time of the shutter opening and shutting, if you know what I mean!)
White balance adjustment.. Have you ever seen video or camera shots that look a bit 'blue'? Things that are supposed to be white look blue instead.. This is because the white balance hasn't been set right. In these and other times, you may want to manually change the white balance, to make sure whites look white. This will be different under different types of lighting (inside, outside, fluorescent, tungsten etc). Have a play and see!
Exposure is very important, especially if shooting in manual mode. You can adjust the exposure manually on most cameras, not just the more 'professional' or 'prosumer' ones. Enclosed are 2 examples of good and bad exposure..
BAD: In this first image (above) you can see that the subject looks very 'washed out'. Look closely at the face and you'll see that it is too bright, you can't make out skin tone, only 'white'.
GOOD: In this example (above), you can see that the skin tone is more finely balanced and this is a more correct exposure.
Finally, what about manual focus? Automatic is very good but if you want control, get manual. My prosumer Panasonic camera has a manual focus (and zoom) ring at the front of the camera to allow me to focus. If you don't have this, you may have 'spot metering' which tells the camera which 'spots' to focus on. Most cameras have this, although my camera will allow up to 9 different 'spots'.
What difference does manual focus make? Well, something called 'depth of field' (DOF for short). Depth of field creates the feeling that the subject is in the 'foreground' against a 'background'. Check out the 2 examples below.
NO DEPTH OF FIELD: In this picture, we see the subject in the foreground holding some ice cream at a party. You can clearly see the subject, and the people behind. (Note this is a well taken photograph, with the subject positioned to one side of the photo and lots of 'air space' to the right, creating a nice dynamic)
DEPTH OF FIELD: In this pic, we can now see that the subject is in focus, whereas the people behind are out of focus. This makes the subject more clearly defined and gives the image a 'depth'.
When I was looking to buy a camera, this was something that concerned me. I didn't want a big bulky camera but I wanted one that could be expandable. I love effects and if you get a camera that takes lens attachments, you can get effects if you want them in the future, like the fisheye lens effect, or wide converter, tele-coverter, close-up lenses, flashlight etc.
Editing on Your Computer
If you own an Apple Mac like me you'll have the delight of using a programme called iPhoto which opens up as you plug in a digital camera to your system and stores your images amazingly well for a free piece of software. In terms of movie making you have the excellent iMovie which will enable basic video editing and comes with loads of effects.
Whatever operating system you use, there will be free software in order for your computer to recognise your digicam as it plugs into your USB port.
You may also want other software to edit your photos a bit more effectively. For this I highly recommend Adobe Photoshop Elements, a quality basic package for this kind of thing. If you want something more advanced get Photoshop full version.
Remember (as mentioned above), that the more you edit a digital camera photo on your computer, the more the image will deteriorate in quality (especially if you are using the compressed format - jpeg). So be choosy and careful before continually adding effects and saving (or save again, as an uncompressed format once the image is on your computer, before editing). A good photo from a decent camera may not need post-editing unless going for certain effects.
Shopping for a camera
Look around at professional advice websites such as the ones below in order to learn more and make a more informed decision!