How to buy a digital camera

Choosing the right kind of digital camera

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Here's the best piece of advice right off the bat: Don't buy a camera based solely on megapixel count. Outside of letting you make huge prints or blow up small portions of an image, a higher megapixel count can be meaningless. In fact, more megapixels can lead to noisier, less-sharp images unless you're using a camera with a larger image sensor (such as a DSLR or a compact interchangeable-lens camera).

You'll want to find a camera with features built for what you'll use the camera for. For example, a lethargic camera that takes too much time between shots is a lemon for sports or action photographers. A big, heavy DSLR that takes amazing photos may spend more time on the shelf than in your carry-on bag. A camera with no manual controls may take great-looking shots in bright sunlight, but lousy ones in darker environments. A rugged camera may be great for a ski trip, but too limited or awkard to use in everyday situations.

Starting at the top of the photographic food chain, here are the pros and cons of each camera type.

Digital SLR (DSLR) camera

Strengths: Superb photos, videos, and low-light shooting; no shutter lag; versatile interchangeable lenses; manual controls for exposure and focus; through-the-lens optical viewfinder

Weaknesses: Expensive; lacking in portability; not all DSLRs shoot video; can be complex and intimidating

How to Buy a Digital Camera
If money's no object and performance is your top priority, a digital SLR will give you the best photo quality and imaging controls of any type of digital camera. The combination of a large sensor, high-quality lenses that you can swap out to achieve a wide range of effects, good high-ISO performance in low light, and lightning-quick shutter response times make it the go-to camera for hobbyists and pro shooters. A DSLR is also the only type of camera that lets you frame shots using a through-the-lens optical viewfinder, meaning that what you'll see through the eyepiece is a true-to-life representation of your shot.

Though the prospect of using a DSLR can be intimidating for novice users, most modern models are outfitted with point-and-shoot-like features and LCD-based viewfinders to make the migration easier. Beyond user-friendly auto-exposure and scene modes, you get room to grow as a photographer due to a DSLR's full range of manual controls.

The biggest drawback of a DSLR is its size, which makes it a tough camera to take with you when you go out and about. Price is another major consideration—even after you spend $700 to several thousand dollars initially on the camera body. Additional lenses are a must to unleash the full power of your DSLR, and they usually cost several hundred dollars a pop (at least). If you're interested in shooting video, make sure that your DSLR supports that function; such cameras can capture stunning HD video, but only the newest DSLRs are video-capable.

Related: Top 10 DSLRs for image quality

Mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera

Examples: Canon EOS M, Nikon 1 Series, Panasonic G-Series, Olympus PEN, Pentax K-01, Sony NEX, Samsung NX

Strengths: More compact than a DSLR; excellent photo and video quality; no shutter lag; versatile interchangeable lenses; manual controls for exposure and focus

Weaknesses: No through-the-lens optical viewfinder; can be expensive; fewer lenses available than for DSLRs; some are a bit bulky for everyday use

How to Buy a Digital Camera
This type of camera is commonly referred to as a "mirrorless" camera, a "compact interchangeable-lens camera," a "compact system camera (CSC)," or by the unfortunate acronym "EVIL" (Electronic Viewfinder, Interchangeable Lens).

Assuming that you can live without an optical viewfinder, these interchangeable-lens cameras offer most of what a DSLR can provide but in a more-compact body: noticeably better image and video quality than your average point-and-shoot, faster shutter response times, swappable lenses, and manual controls. Many of them also have APS-C sensors, which are the same size as the ones you'll find in a DSLR.

Their lack of an optical viewfinder is a by-product of these cameras' smaller size: By eliminating the somewhat large mirror box that lets you frame your shot through the lens, manufacturers are able to reduce the thickness of these interchangeable-lens cameras. This is a growing category of cameras, and there's quite a bit of variation shaking out. Some mirrorless cameras, such as the Olympus PEN E-PM1, the Panasonic Lumix GF5, and the Sony Alpha NEX-F3, aren't much bigger than a point-and-shoot camera and offer simple interfaces and control schemes. Other mirrorless cameras, such as the Fujifilm X-Pro1, the Olympus OM-D EM-5, the Panasonic Lumix GX1, and the Sony Alpha NEX-7, are intended to be more like DSLR replacements, with fine-grained controls accessible via physical knobs and buttons.

One of the main problems with this category of cameras involves deciding which of the emerging compact interchangeable-lens formats to buy into. Like DSLR lens mounts, they're incompatible with one other: Canon uses the EF-M mount; Nikon uses the 1-mount system; Panasonic and Olympus both use the Micro Four-Thirds System lens mount, but not all Micro Four-Thirds lenses are compatible with both companies' cameras; Samsung's NX series uses its own NX lens mount; Sony's NEX series uses the E-Mount system. Pentax's K-01 is the only mirrorless camera that can accept full-size DSLR lenses natively, as it uses the company's K-mount system.

How to Buy a Digital Camera
That said, you can use full-size DSLR lenses with these cameras, but for each system you'll need an adapter that often costs a couple hundred dollars. A few of the adapters available stand out: Canon's EOS M mount adapter and Nikon's FT1 mount adapter let you use legacy DSLR lenses with each company's mirrorless cameras, and Sony's NEX mount adapter not only lets you use Sony's A-Mount DSLR lenses, but also adds fast phase-detection autofocus to the company's NEX line by adding a translucent-mirror AF system in the body of the adapter.

Related: Top-rated mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras, The incredible shrinking interchangeable-lens camera

Premium compact camera (advanced point-and-shoot)

Strengths: Better image quality than most fixed-lens cameras; manual controls over shutter speed and aperture settings; usually has a wide aperture at wide-angle end of the zoom; good secondary camera for DSLR owners; good learning tool for novice shooters

Weaknesses: More expensive than a basic point-and-shoot; can be more complicated to use than a basic point-and-shoot; limited optical zoom range

How to buy a digital camera
Not all point-and-shoot digital cameras can live up to the scrutiny of a DSLR-toting pro, but a premium compact camera or an advanced point-and-shoot often gets the nod as a pro shooter's secondary, more portable camera. These cameras usually have larger sensors than your average fixed-lens camera. They also always have manual controls for setting the aperture, shutter, and ISO, enabling you to fine-tune your shot more granularly than you can with a basic point-and-shoot. Some advanced point-and-shoots also have accessory shoes to accommodate external flashes and microphones.

These cameras' lenses tend to have wider maximum apertures than most fixed-lens cameras, meaning that you can shoot at faster shutter speeds, get good shots in low light, and achieve shallow depth-of-field effects to give macro shots and portraits a more artistic look. The latest crop of premium compact cameras, such as the Panasonic Lumix LX7 and the Samsung EX2F, offer F1.4 apertures at the wide-angle end of the zoom. Though you don't get the zoom range of a pocket megazoom, image quality is often better; you rarely encounter the distortion you sometimes see with a high-zoom lens.

While a pocket megazoom–type camera is our pick for any casual shooter looking for a camera that offers zoom-range versatility, an advanced point-and-shoot camera is our pick for anyone who normally takes wide-angle, portrait, and macro shots, as well as for anyone who wants a non-DSLR camera that can help them get the hang of manual controls.

Related: Pick the perfect premium compact camera, Top 10 point-and-shoot cameras with manual controls

Megazoom (fixed-lens high-zoom) camera

Strengths: Very high optical zoom range; manual controls; normally has excellent image stabilization; better lenses than standard point-and-shoot cameras have

Weaknesses: Bulkier than a point-and-shoot camera; narrow maximum aperture; expensive for a fixed-lens camera; not much smaller than an interchangeable-lens camera

How to Buy a Digital Camera
Megazooms don't give you the lens-swapping versatility of a DSLR or a compact interchangeable-lens camera, but they are the most versatile fixed-lens cameras available in terms of zoom range. They're called "megazooms" because their lenses serve up a whopping amount of optical zoom (up to 42X), providing impressive wide-angle coverage and telephoto reach.

Most megazooms also offer DSLR-like manual controls for aperture and shutter, as well as excellent image stabilization to help steady full-zoom shots. Because of their lenses' versatility, they're good cameras for landscape photography (they can capture both wide-angle vistas and faraway details), sports photography (you can sit in the cheap seats and still get tight shots of in-game action), and animal photography (because you really shouldn't get too close to that bear).

A typical megazoom camera is smaller than a DSLR, but it's about the same size as the larger interchangeable-lens compact cameras we've seen, and it won't slip into a pocket or purse. You'll probably need a backpack or camera bag to tote it along with you.

Pocket megazoom (compact high-zoom) camera

Strengths: Very high optical zoom range for a pocketable camera; portable but versatile; normally has excellent image stabilization; many have manual controls

Weaknesses: Some are a bit bulky; more expensive than basic point-and-shoot cameras; some lack manual controls; narrower aperture than an advanced point-and-shoot has

How to Buy a Digital Camera
If you're attracted by the long reach of a megazoom camera's zoom lens but want something a bit more portable, a pocket megazoom is your best option. In fact, for most users who want a "one size fits all" camera that delivers a lot of versatility in a pocketable package, we'd recommend a pocket megazoom.

This is a hot-selling type of camera at the moment, largely because the combination of small size and optical power represents a significant advantage over your average smartphone camera. These compact cameras feature optical zoom ranges around 20X, and many of them are small enough to slip into a pants pocket.

These are great cameras for vacation photos or for everyday use, thanks to their versatile zoom range and portability. In fact, many newer pocket megazooms feature built-in GPS capabilities, which is a testament to the fact that many people use them while traveling. They're small enough to take anywhere, and their optical zoom range can cover anything from wide-angle scenery to individual portrait shots to faraway shots of sporting events or wildlife.

Not all pocket megazoom cameras have manual controls such as aperture and shutter priority, so be sure to check the specs if you'd like those features. These cameras normally have very good optical image stabilization to bolster their high-zoom lenses.

Related: Top 10 pocket megazoom cameras

Ruggedized point-and-shoot camera

Strengths: Immune to drops, water, freezing, and sand

Weaknesses: Usually has fewer features than a standard point-and-shoot camera; sometimes has subpar image quality

How to Buy a Digital Camera
These are the ultimate cameras for extreme-sports enthusiasts, mountaineers, snorkelers, and the just-plain-clumsy. Quite a few waterproof, freezeproof, drop-proof, and dustproof cameras are available, and they're great for taking underwater shots of fish, lugging to the beach, or taking on a snowboarding trip.

Due to their unique appearance and sometimes-barren feature sets, these rugged cameras aren't the first choice for everyday, on-the-go use. There are a couple of very notable exceptions: the Olympus Tough TG-1 iHS has an F2.0 aperture and great features for a rugged camera, and the Sony Cyber-shot TX20 looks like a fashionable everyday camera, but it's water/shock/freezeproof.

With these cameras, image quality can be hit-or-miss: The cameras are rugged, but they usually don't have the best optics or biggest sensors. On the other hand, they're durable, and that's sometimes a more important trait to have.

Basic point-and-shoot camera

Strengths: Very easy to use; inexpensive; small enough to fit in a pants pocket; usually has a large number of scene modes that select the right in-camera settings for your shot

Weaknesses: Usually doesn't have any manual controls; image quality is typically mediocre, especially in low light; inflated megapixel counts

How to Buy a Digital Camera
A basic point-and-shoot camera is a no-brainer pick for anyone who just wants an affordable camera to keep on hand at all times; all of the newer ones shoot high-definition video, and their scene mode selections cover a lot of bases.

In-camera automation is getting better and better, meaning that these cameras basically drive themselves; you don't get manual controls that help you fine-tune your photos, but basic point-and-shoots normally have very good Auto modes and scene selections that choose the appropriate in-camera settings for your shot.

This is one area in which the megapixel war continues to rage: You'll see a lot of entry-level cameras with sub-$200 prices and 16-megapixel sensors. Unfortunately, these cameras usually have small sensors, so don't fall into the trap of buying an inexpensive camera with a very high megapixel count. Packing more megapixels into a small sensor usually leads to image noise, especially when you shoot at higher ISO settings.

Though they won't offer the same optical zoom reach as a more expensive camera, some basic point-and-shoot cameras do provide wide-angle coverage (ideally around 28mm on the wide-angle end). That extra wide-angle coverage comes in very handy for group shots, arm's length self-portraits, and landscape shots. If you want a low-priced camera that has more features than a typical smartphone camera can offer, look for a basic point-and-shoot with a 5X-or-higher optical zoom lens, a fast burst-shooting mode (3 images per second or greater), and optical image stabilization.

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