Point-and-shoot Cameras Buying Guide

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Today's digital cameras are chock full of features, making it easier than ever to take a great set of pictures. In fact, the most difficult task you'll have to do is to pick one camera from the seemingly endless selection available.

But don't fret: we've got a few tips on what to consider when looking for a camera. Use this checklist to find a point-and-shoot with the features that meet your particular needs. And if you're still stumped, we have a trio of suggestions for cameras that have fared well in our recent testing.

Point-and-shoot cameras buying advice

The megapixel myth: As already noted in our buying advice for digital SLRs, a high megapixel rating doesn't mean better image quality. In fact, because of the relatively small size of a point-and-shoot camera's image sensor, higher megapixel ratings can adversely affect low-light performance and result in increased image noise. However, having more pixels does give you more flexibility when making enlargements or cropping. If all you want are 4-by-6 photos, anything with a resolution over 6-megapixels will work fine.

Zoom in: Look at optical zoom and ignore digital zoom. Though digital zoom offers a longer zoom range, the image quality isn't as good as optical zoom. If you choose a camera with a long zoom lens (generally anything over 5x), make sure it also offers optical image stabilization to help minimize blurry photos from camera shake (more on that in a moment).

Frame your shots: An optical viewfinder can be handy when shooting in bright light, which can make it difficult to see an LCD. However, many cameras rely solely on the LCD as viewfinder and don't include a optical one. Generally, the bigger the LCD, the better. Some cameras--typically bulkier models--even offer an LCD that can tilt or swivel, making it easier to take pictures at awkward angles such as over your head or close to the ground.

Image stabilization/antishake: Some cameras offer antishake (also called image stabilization) as a shooting mode or as a feature that can be turned on and off. This is helpful when you're shooting photos in situations where it's difficult to get a sharp image, such as in low light. More advanced cameras, including SLRs, tend to employ one of two methods: optical image stabilization, in which an element in the lens adjusts to compensate for movement); or sensor movement, in which the camera's sensor moves in order to compensate for the shaking. Some point-and-shoot cameras offer a digital image stabilization which attempts to steady the shot by adjusting the camera's settings or correcting the image after it's been taken. Digital image stabilization is less effective that optical stabilization (see our guide to different forms of image stabilization). It is worth spending more money for a camera with optical image stabilization.

Camera modes: Point-and-shoots offer shooting modes that automatically set the camera based on your situation. For example, a Portrait mode keeps foreground subject in focus; a Sports mode is good for fast action shots. If you like to tinker with camera settings, look for a point-and-shoot with manual shooting modes.

Face recognition: One of the more useful modes on many new cameras is facial recognition. In detecting people's faces, the camera aims to optimize both focus and exposure for the subjects. We've found the results to be very helpful, especially for candid shots in a group or party setting, and think it's worth spending a little extra to get this feature. Some new cameras even have smile recognition, which will automatically take a picture when someone in the frame smiles; this feature may help with baby pictures or when shooting an otherwise moody subject, but it's not an essential feature.

Wireless Internet: If you like to upload photos to an Internet photo-sharing site, consider a camera with built-in Wi-Fi. When connected to the Internet via a Wi-Fi hotspot, these cameras let you upload directly to the site.

Power play: Some cameras use AA batteries, while others come with a proprietary rechargeable battery. If you plan to be out and about with your camera, consider the battery type and figure out what you need to do to have an extra battery at hand. AA batteries are readily available (you can even use rechargeable ones). A proprietary rechargable battery can carry a charge longer than AA batteries, but are more expensive to replace or buy a spare.

File formats: Most point-and-shoots save pictures as JPEGs, a commonly used file format. A few also use Raw, a format that's ideal for users who want to do significant image editing on their pictures.

Memory cards: Cameras require a memory card, usually a Secure Digital (SD card). Cards that are bundled with cameras have a small capacity, so you will want to buy a card with a larger capacity.

Software bundles: Almost all point-and-shoot cameras work with Apple's iPhoto software for importing pictures from the camera. You can also access the memory card using a card reader, and use the card like you would any other storage device.

All cameras come with software, but the included Mac software is often outdated. You're better off using iPhoto to manage your pictures and to make minor adjustments.

Video: Many point-and-shoots are able to shoot high definition (HD) video, either at 1280-by-720 or at 1920-by-1080. Most sub-$100 point-and-shoots let you record videos at 640-by-480 and/or 320-by-240 resolutions only. The video quality often isn't as good as a dedicated camcorder, but can do in a pinch. Dirt-cheap models don't usually offer this feature.

Often, you can download the recorded videos to iPhoto, and then use them in iMovie for editing. Some cameras may require a QuickTime software plug-in before you can watch the video.

Our favorite point-and-shoot cameras

The Canon PowerShot SD780 IS ( Macworld rated 4 out of 5 mice ) performs very well, with great image quality, a powerful flash, nice low light images, a great selection of scene modes, and excellent optical image stabilization. In our lab's jury evaluations, the 12-megapixel SD780 IS earned some of the highest marks we've seen for a point-and-shoot this year. The camera has amazing color accuracy, and there's a lack of noise in low-light shots at high ISO levels  Read our full review. [$250 (Get best current price); Canon]

The unique Casio Exilim EX-FC100 ( Macworld rated 4 out of 5 mice ) has the ability to shoot bursts of up to 30 full-resolution images per second so you can capture action shots. It can also capture video at up to 1,000 frames per second (fps), resulting in slow-motion video. While at first glance these features may not seem useful to the average shooter, the way Casio has implemented them will make them incredibly valuable to anyone who shoots moving subjects-children, action at a sporting event, wildlife, and more. Read our full review. [$350 (Get best current price); Casio]

If you're looking for a camera under $200 for the teenager on your shopping list, the Fujifilm FinePix Z30 ( Macworld rated 3.5 out of 5 mice ) is a good choice. It may look like a toy, but the Z30 takes excellent picutres. It comes with 20 scene modes, and can shoot 640-by-480 videos. Read our full review. [$180 (Get best current price); Fujiflim]

[Editor's note: This article originally posted on 11/25/2008. It has been updated to reflect changes in the market and with updated picks.]

This story, "Point-and-shoot Cameras Buying Guide" was originally published by Macworld.

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