Buyer's guide: Point and shoot cameras
WE'VE grown used to using the surprisingly sophisticated cameras on our smartphones, which lull us into thinking it's just a matter of pointing and shooting.
So when it comes to buying a real camera instead - even a simple compact model - there are so many options it can be hard to know where to begin.
Here's our guide to the most important things to consider when buying a budget camera.
1. What is its main use?
It sounds like a silly question - what is the camera's main job? But think about it for a second - is there a particular type of photography the camera will be used for? Children's parties? Landscape photos? Bird or train watching? Action shots at sporting events?
Most budget cameras have a few standout features, rather than boasting a full set - for example they'll have burst modes, or be notable for their close-up capability.
Anyone who can identify which features match up most closely to their needs will be able to narrow down the field considerably.
Cameras with otherwise similar prices and review ratings can differ considerably.
For example, anyone who wants a camera mainly for capturing action shots at sports events will want to look out for a device with a decent burst mode - the number of pictures a camera can take in continuous succession before having to pause.
Some budget cameras will have burst modes of three pictures per second, while others will only manage one picture a second.
But for someone who likes getting up close and personal, those slower cameras could feature a more serious macro mode.
Another camera of the same price and customer rating could have more auto-focus points, better colour sensitivity, or more controllable features, and so on.
2. Image quality
Modern smartphones boast cameras of up to 20 megapixels - more than some DSLR cameras. It's tempting to think that the bigger the number, the better.
But don't fall for the clever marketing: more megapixels don't necessarily mean better image quality.
The type and size of sensor in the camera plays just as important a part in determining the final quality of the images.
Simply put, megapixels are only one part of the equation. Packing more megapixels onto a sensor without increasing its physical size can actually degrade image quality.
So a smartphone may boast lots of megapixels, but a dedicated camera is more likely to have a sensor capable of using the megapixels it has to much better effect, particularly in low light situations.
Which leads us on to ISO.
The ISO setting on a camera is a throwback to the days of film cameras, when ISO indicated how sensitive the film was to light.
The higher the number, the more sensitive the film was to light, and the darker the conditions in which good pictures could still be taken.
ISOs typically range from 100 to 800, but with digital cameras the limits can be pushed much more - and if a manufacturer is boasting of an ISO setting of 3200, that must be pretty impressive, right?
Harking back to film for a moment, the lower the number, the less sensitive to light the film was - and the more detail could be captured without parts of the image being overexposed.
Because of the size of the sensor - likely to be no bigger than the nail on a little finger - compact cameras offering ISO settings above 800-1600 are likely to produce very grainy and noisy results - the equivalent of overexposure - in most situations.
4. Optical vs digital zoom
On a similar note, don't be fooled into thinking that cameras boasting 12x zoom are any better than those boasting 3x zoom. It depends how the zooming is being done.
Digital zoom is all image processing - the camera simply enlarges the area in the centre of the frame. It's the same as opening an image in a photo-editing programme and using the crop option.
Any attempts to enlarge a photo taken using digital zoom will also enlarge the pixels and reduce the quality and resolution of the image.
The optical zoom is the thing to concentrate on. This is what can be achieved using the camera's lens as it moves closer to and further from the body of the camera.
The image taken therefore uses the whole of the sensor and all the megapixels available, and there'll be no loss of quality.
Most basic compact cameras are capable of at least 3x optical zoom, with up to 8x optical zoom cameras available for less than £100.
5. Sharing the results
Remember the impatience of having to wait for the films to return from the chemist? No? Having to wait to get home before being able to download and share all the photos you took?
Different cameras offer different degrees of freedom, but even at the budget end of the market, there are compact cameras offering something that only the most expensive DSLRs used to boast - built-in wi-fi for transferring photos.
For example: Connect camera to smartphone to transfer images between the two. Use the phone's image filters and editing apps, then upload to social media - within minutes of taking the picture.
As well as allowing people to share their photos almost instantly, this is a real boost for anyone worried about losing their memory cards or not having the right USB cable to connect camera to computer.
Giving a compact camera this kind of connectivity really opens up a multitude of options - but it may not be as important to the user as a better zoom or specialised shooting mode.
Again, consider what the camera is most likely to be used for before being wowed by its potential connectivity.
6. Manual control
By definition, almost all point and shoot cameras are brilliant at simple pointing and shooting. But how do they accommodate people who want to take more control over the camera's settings?
Whether or not the user has the technical ability is beside the point - that can be learned through trial and error, experimenting with the camera, and looking up what different effects are possible with different settings.
But the camera must allow the user some degree of extra control, otherwise all that experimentation is a non-starter.
"Creative modes" and "scenes" are available on all cameras; predetermined settings that adjust things like ISO, shutter speed, aperture, flash, colour sensitivity and so on, in order to suit particular conditions: sunsets, beach and snow scenes, or parties, for example.
But budget and compact cameras tend to offer fewer manual control options than more expensive models.
Be sure to investigate whether a camera has a dedicated "manual" or "semi-manual" mode if extra control is important.
In addition, even if a camera does boast a manual mode, check what exactly that means, as even then the degree of control can be quite limited.
7. Build quality
While there are plenty of super-cheap camera options on the market, sticking to an established manufacturer may cost a little more but could well be worth it in terms of build quality.
No matter how cheap the camera, people expect it to put up with all manner of situations.
The rise in popularity of water, shock and generally life-proof compact cameras is testament to this, and definitely worth considering if the camera's main use is going to be outdoors and in active settings, or down on the beach.
Saving a few pounds on the overall price could mean the difference between having a camera that can resist rogue grains of sand, salt water, mud and dust, and one that, well, can't.
A general rule of thumb is that the more established brands will be more likely to withstand tougher conditions, and that spending in the £80-100 bracket will also see an improvement in sturdiness.
8. Memory cards
Finally, remember to factor in the memory cards.
The cost has dropped dramatically over the past decade, and it should be possible to pick up a 16GB SD card for around £10.
On a five megapixel camera, that's enough storage for around 10,000 photos, or two hours of video.
Here's a quick comparison of the different storage capacities possible with differing megapixel count:
|Photo file size (jpeg)||8GB||16GB|
|5 Megapixel||1.5MB||5,000 photos||10,000 photos|
|12 Megapixel||3.4MB||2,000 photos||4,300 photos|
|HD video||1080p (15MB)||60 minutes||120 minutes|
Most cameras take standard memory cards - but some take micro SD cards or memory sticks instead. Those that do are pretty rare, but it is worth checking.
If it turns out the ideal camera for your needs is one of those rare beasts, converters that make other formats compatible with standard SD card readers are easy to come by, and not too expensive.