A Beginners Guide to Buying a Digital Camera

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A Beginner's Guide to Buying a Digital CameraCompared to traditional film cameras, digital cameras are still in their infancy. As with any new technology, changes come thick and fast, and cameras are constantly sporting new features that bring greater convenience and more varied photo-taking possibilities. Before choosing a digital camera for the first time, take some time to learn a little about how they work, what types are available, and what features they offer.

About Digital Cameras

Digital cameras work in much the same way as traditional film cameras; the optical technology is basically the same. The fundamental difference lies in the way that the images are captured and reproduced. Film cameras capture their images on light-sensitive film, whereas digital cameras capture the image electronically on a light-sensitive digital sensor. The end result is a digital image file that can be transferred to any computer for display, printing, editing, uploading online and more. Some models are even WiFi enabled to allow instant uploading to the Internet directly from the camera.

Common Types of Digital Camera

Several designs of digital camera have been unveiled by manufacturers, but the three most common types available are DSLR cameras, compact cameras, and hybrid types, such as bridge cameras and compact system cameras.

DSLR Cameras

Digital single lens reflex, or DSLR, cameras are professional-quality digital cameras designed with an interchangeable lens system. They are the largest of the main digital camera types and, typically, have the best quality of all. They are also the most expensive and tend to be used by professional photographers, journalists, and photography enthusiasts. They tend not to be used by those who just want a small camera to carry around and take snaps whenever the occasion arises.

Compact Cameras

Compact cameras, as their name suggests, are designed to be small and portable while still being able to take a good-quality picture. Lenses can't be changed on these cameras, but models with zoom lenses are available. Portability and fully automatic operation have earned compact cameras the nickname 'point and shoot cameras' as that's all that the user has to do to take a photo. When set to 'Auto', the camera does everything apart from pointing and shooting. That includes focusing, setting exposure levels and firing the on-board flash if necessary. Compact cameras are the least expensive type of digital camera. Image quality in all but the cheapest compact cameras is generally high but, typically, is still lower than that of DSLR cameras. A compact camera is the type to buy if all that's required is an inexpensive, easy-to-carry camera that takes reasonably good pictures whenever required.

Hybrid Types

Camera manufacturers have also produced cameras that offer a compromise in size, quality, and price between DSLR and compact cameras. Bridge cameras are cameras that are shaped like DSLR cameras but are smaller and don't have an interchangeable lens system. Their larger size enables better quality and features approaching that of DSLR cameras. Compact System cameras are another hybrid type. They are basically compact cameras that have interchangeable lenses.

Common Digital Camera Features

Knowing which features are required makes it much easier to choose a camera. Some are more useful than others. For example, most image editing features are also available in photo-editing software. Common editing tasks, such as brightness, contrast and colour enhancement, and cropping can all be performed more conveniently after the image has been uploaded to a computer and opened in any Photo-editing program. Common camera features include:

Image Resolution

Digital cameras have a light-sensitive sensor comprising millions of 'pixels' that capture the imaged focused onto the sensor by the camera's lens. Current models commonly offer maximum resolutions of between 10 and 20 mega (million) pixels. In theory, the more pixels there are, the higher the resolution of the camera and the more image detail can be captured. In practice, however, cramming too many pixels onto a very small image sensor results in poorer quality at the highest resolution settings. Sensor size is a better guide to resolution and quality; the larger the better.

Zoom Magnification

Zoom is a common feature of fixed-lens compact cameras and always emphasised as a selling point by manufacturers who normally provide two types of zoom: optical and digital. Optical zoom is a genuinely useful feature that uses the power of optics to magnify distant scenes and maintain image quality as much as possible. Digital zoom, by contrast, is simply a method of up-sizing a portion of the image digitally. Unlike optical zoom, enlarging the image digitally doesn't capture any extra detail. If zoom is a required feature, rate any camera based on its optical, rather than its digital zoom capability.

Macro Capability

Many compact digital cameras offer a macro setting, which enables close-up pictures to be taken. Flowers, insects, and any small objects can be shown greatly magnified with lots of fascinating detail being revealed in the final image.

Video Capability

Video is a common feature found on many cameras of all types these days. Many types include HD video and audio capability.

Image Stabilisation

Image stabilisation or 'anti-shake' features enable images to be taken in low-light conditions without using flash. Low-light conditions cause the camera's shutter to remain open for longer than usual. If the camera is hand-held, any small movement will cause blurring of the image. Image stabilisation detects and, as far as possible, corrects changes to the image as a result of camera movement.

Miscellaneous Features

Depending on particular models, these include: on-board flash, timer options, face detection, photo-editing features, power-saving features, rechargeable batteries, and battery charger.

Overview of Typical Features

The following table provides an overview of the more common features found on digital cameras of all types.



Autofocus can make focusing very quick and precise, but in certain conditions, such as low light, it doesn't operate so well. Most cheaper cameras have autofocus these days and many of them no longer provide manual focus capability.


Optical zoom

Optical zoom provides variable magnification of distant objects and scenes.



The macro setting enables close-up pictures of small objects to be taken.



Fast shutter speeds can freeze movement. Slow shutter speeds can be used for timed exposures, such as fireworks displays



Part of the lens structure, the aperture is used to vary the amount of light passing through the lens or to vary the area of focus (depth of field).



The metering function registers the average brightness of a scene or selected parts of it. The correct exposure settings can then be set automatically or manually.



Measured as an ISO value, the sensor's sensitivity can be increased to enable pictures to be taken in low-light conditions.



More pixels mean more detail, but only if the sensor is large enough to accommodate them comfortably.


Image stabilisation

Image stabilisation avoids the inevitable camera-shake and blurring that occurs as a result of holding the camera by hand during longer-than-normal time exposures.


Digital zoom

Digital zoom magnifies the image digitally but, unlike optical zoom, produces no extra detail in the image.



Common editing features, such as cropping, re-sizing and image enhancement, are commonly included on all digital camera types.


Video capability

Video and audio recording capabilities are common features offered these days, even on less expensive compact cameras. Higher-end and even mid-range cameras frequently feature HD video, and some offer stereo sound recording capability too.



All cameras have on-board flash and offer various amounts of flash control.



Batteries are either rechargeable, in which case a charging unit is supplied, or else are standard disposable types.


Digital camera manufacturers are constantly striving to be the first to bring out new features. Given the current rate of development, what's going to be available in a year or so is hard to predict. What's not so hard to predict, however, is that there will always be great deals around with new and often lower-priced models coming to the market as well as many used camera models being sold by owners wanting to upgrade to the latest models.

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