What to look for when buying a digital camera

Carlton Boyce / 05 April 2016

Is pixel count really the most important thing to look for when buying a camera? We debunk the techno-jargon you'll come across when looking to buy a new digital camera.



Choosing and buying a new camera should be an exercise in sheer indulgence. However, a lot of manufacturers ruin what should be a pleasurable experience by using too much jargon in order to try and sell you a camera you don’t really need.

We’ve covered the various different types of camera in another article, and now that you understand the basic different types (i.e. DSLR, Compact, Bridge, and Compact System), now is a good time to narrow your choices down to just two or three different models.

Luckily, cutting through the waffle is much, much simpler than you might think: here’s our guide to debunking camera techno-jargon.

Pixel count

Each pixel is a tiny square that, when combined with many, many others, forms a picture. Do you remember Ceefax and Oracle? Their graphics had a clunky, squared-off appearance that was entirely due to the fact that they used a limited number of pixels, each of which was relatively large. (A similar effect can be seen in the modern computer game Minecraft.) So you can see that generally the more pixels you have, the better the image quality is going to be as it will look smoother and more rounded; more natural, in fact.

A mega-pixel, which is the accepted way of measuring and marketing the number of pixels a camera has, is one million pixels and an iPhone 6 has, for example, 8 megapixels. This is plenty for just about any non-professional purpose, which might lead you to ask why some camera manufacturers are unveiling models with up to 50 megapixels. The answer, of course, is marketing, pure and simple.

The only time that pixel count might be a factor is if you print your photographs in a large size. However, even then it isn’t too much of an issue as even a 12 megapixel camera will produce high-quality prints of at least 14” x 10”.

Sensor size

The size of a camera’s sensor is generally more important that the number pixels it has and, as with so many things in life, bigger is better; all things being equal, a camera with 12 megapixels and a large sensor will produce better images than a camera with the same number of megapixels crammed into a smaller sensor.

A ‘full-frame’ camera has a sensor measuring 36mm x 24mm. The sensor on APS-C (Advanced Photo System Type-C) cameras measures approximately 24mm x 16mm, while that of a Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds camera is 18mm x 13.5mm.

However, like pixels, you shouldn’t get too hung up on sensor size unless your only priority is ultimate image quality on large prints.

Optical and digital zoom

Two zooms are available: optical and digital. An optical zoom is the better of the two, as the lens physically zooms into the subject in the same way as a pair of binoculars does, giving a crisp, high-quality image.

A digital zoom, on the other hand, crops away the outer part of the image, spreading what’s left across the full pixel count. This is a much cheaper way of zooming in but it does degrades the images to a greater or lesser degree.

If you can afford it, an optical zoom is always going to give the best results.

Fixed or changeable lens

Some cameras, notably the cheaper ones, come with a fixed lens that cannot be removed. This is fine if portability is important as the lens will generally retract into the camera body.

However, if you are a keen photographer being able to change the lens at a later date will be a real benefit. As the saying goes: ‘a camera body is for Christmas but glass (the lens) is for life’.

Stabilisation

Camera stabilisation helps give you pin-sharp images even if your camera wobbles a little bit as you are taking the shot. This is a real benefit in low-light conditions when the shutter speed will be relatively slow.

There are two sorts of stabilisation: on the camera and on the lens. The former means that you don’t need to buy expensive stabilised lenses, but they are equally effective.

The physical size

Finally, it’s important to consider the physical size of the camera. If image quality is the be all and end all then a full-size DSLR will be your camera of choice, but it’ll be heavy and awkward and you will be tempted to leave it at home.

A smaller, lighter camera that you can slip into a pocket, on the other hand, will be a constant companion and will be there when you want to capture a moment – and while the quality might not be technically as good, at least you’ll have the image.

Summary

As in life, the key to buying a camera is compromise and only you can balance your priorities regarding cost, size, and usability. Decide what sort of camera best suits your needs (and it’s important to be honest and buy the camera that suits your actual needs rather than the needs you’d to need address…) and then go and try a few in a decent camera shop.

Oh, and don’t worry about the number of pixels. Ever.

Visit our photography section for more on buying and using cameras.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.