Your guide to buying a digital compact camera

Most of the photography articles on this site are about advanced cameras and techniques. But recently someone asked me for advice on buying a compact camera for a holiday, so I decided to write this guide. Hopefully it will be useful.

Lens

There’s a lot to know about lenses, and they have a huge impact on the quality of your photos – yet they are hardly discussed when talking about compact or point & shoot cameras.

A good rule of thumb is judging the size of the front piece of glass in the lens. In a phone camera this is probably not more than a couple of millimetres in diameter, and the quality shows. Good lenses are expensive, but aim for at least a centimetre across, and preferably more.

You can also learn something from the focal length. Roughly speaking, the more the lens “pops out” of the camera, the better. Again, phone cameras are very thin with a focal length of a few millimetres at best. Modern compacts have a motorised lens that makes them a few centimetres deep when switched on. A longer focal length usually implies a larger image sensor, which is a plus for image quality.

On most cameras, you’ll find some numbers printed on the lens. Usually this will give the range of focal lengths of the zoom lens. You can use this information to compare cameras. For example, the Fujifilm J20 in the picture above has a focal range of 6.3-18.9mm.

There is usually another number printed on the lens. This is the maximum diameter of the aperture. You don’t need to worry about what this means, but a lower value (e.g. 2.8) is better. Lower values mean the camera works better in low light where you can’t use flash, and will give nicer background blur. In the Fujifilm J20 shown above, the range is 3.1 when fully zoomed out, and 5.6 when fully zoomed in.

It’s also worth briefly mentioning optical zoom. On compacts this is given as a number like 10x, which means you can zoom in ten times closer. In focal lengths, this would be represented as something like 5-50mm. In general, a higher optical zoom means a larger lens and a heavier camera. The Fujifilm J20 shown above offers 3x optical zoom. You might like to go for a higher-power zoom if you are planning on going on safari, etc. Avoid digital zoom.

Batteries and chargers

So far we’ve talked about image quality but there is a lot more to consider. Most cameras now come with lithium-ion battery packs, rather than AA batteries. This means longer battery life but also that it’s harder to get new batteries if you run out of juice on the move.

An important factor is how the batteries are recharged. Do they come out of the camera and go into a charger, or do you have to plug the camera into a charger? If you have to plug the camera in to charge the battery, you can’t also use it at the same time.

For most people it’s best to buy at least two batteries so you can be charging one in the charger while using another at the same time. If you carry spare batteries with you, you can easily swap when you run out.

Check that your battery charger can work overseas. Most can, and are marked with 110~240V. You might need a different cable or adapter, though. Amazon is probably a good place to look for alternative cables for your camera battery charger.

Memory cards

Memory cards are cheap now, so you might as well find out the largest size your camera can take, and buy that size. As a rule of thumb, most modern compacts take photos in JPEG format that are around 3-4 MB in size. You could save around 1000 photos on a 4 GB card.

Most importantly, buy two cards. If you haven’t the budget, it’s better to buy two small ones than one large one. If you are going on holiday, swap the cards over every day. That way if one breaks, or you lose one, you still lose half the photos but you lose every other day, rather than the first or second half of the holiday, or worse – all of them.

Always keep the cards in their little plastic cases to keep them clean. Consider keeping them in your wallet’s coin pouch so you don’t lose them.

If you run out of space, almost all tourist places sell memory cards these days, so you can easily buy another card and avoid deleting any photos.

Other features

Some cameras have other features that you may or may not want. Decide which you want in advance, and don’t let shop salesmen try to change your mind. Consider:

  • Movies. Almost all cameras can record video now, but some do it in poor quality as a secondary feature, or limited to 1 minute. If you want to use your camera as a camcorder, pick one that does video properly.
  • Panorama feature
  • GPS geotagging (records where each photo was taken – can be useful on a tour)
  • Image stabilisation (useful when you usually use full zoom)

Choosing the camera

It’s quite important to see the camera in real life before buying it. Some cameras feel right; others don’t. Some cameras have buttons that seem to be in awkward places.

Seeing the camera in a shop also gives you the opportunity to examine the build quality. Sure, it might tick all the boxes on your wish list, but if it’s plasticky and creaks when you squeeze it then it probably won’t last ten minutes in your pocket. It’s good to look for cameras with metal casing, and a sturdy lens cover. Some cameras have flimsy plastic lens covers that can easily be pushed open in a handbag.

Remember that it’s a bit rude to use a shop to play with a camera, and then buy online. You owe it to the shop to buy from them, but it’s a good idea to print out quotes from online retailers to show to the shop, and use to get a discount. Buying from a real shop gives you somewhere to return the camera easily if it isn’t quite what you were hoping for. Shops will often also do you a deal on a bundle – perhaps a camera, bag, memory card and second battery.

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