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Digital cameras

Digital camera buying guide

Last updated: November 2013

Getting started

Buying a digital camera can be disorienting. There are hundreds of cameras available at many different types of retail outlets (online and in traditional stores), with prices ranging from $75 to several thousand dollars. Some cameras are small enough to fit in a shirt pocket. Others are large and can weigh up to two pounds. Some are easy to use. Others look like you need an engineering degree to operate them. And almost all are advertised with abbreviations that can be cryptic and confusing for the novice. In this digital camera guide, we aim to help you overcome some of this confusion.

What is a digital camera?

The first step is to understand what a digital camera is. With a film camera, an image is formed by collecting light from a particular scene or subject and focusing on film, which reacts chemically when struck by light and is said to "capture" the image. What makes a camera "digital" is that, instead of film, it has an image sensor that reacts to light by sending out electrical signals.

The camera takes the information from the image sensor and processes and stores it as a collection of pixels in a digital file, usually on a memory card inside the camera. Although the actual process is more complex than that, in essence it is how a digital photo image is made. It's essentially made up of thousands and thousands of tiny dots, or pixels.

What are megapixels?

When you collect a million pixels, you have a megapixel. The number of megapixels tells you how many pixels the image file has. A camera that captures 8 million pixels, for example, is called an 8-megapixel camera. The number of megapixels a camera features can also help to determine the size photos you can print or the amount of cropping you can do. For example, a 6-megapixel camera may be enough for snapshots, but if you want to print poster-size images or crop heavily, 8 megapixels (or greater) is more suitable.

A 6-megapixel camera might be all you'll need because higher resolution doesn't necessarily produce better prints. Lenses and other factors affect quality too. But most cameras today have at least 10-megapixel sensors. The size of the sensor, and the size of each individual image sensor element, which corresponds to pixels, can affect photo quality. But remember, the number of megapixels alone doesn't determine the quality of a digital camera's images.

Types of digital cameras

Our Ratings are divided into two main categories: Basic cameras, which are simple point-and-shoots with just the features needed for routine shots, and advanced cameras, which are feature-laden cameras that include sophisticated point-and-shoot and models that let you change lenses. Note that all point-and-shoots, whether basic or advanced, include cameras with lenses built into the camera (that is, non-removable).

Our basic camera category is divided into four subcategories: subcompacts, rugged & waterproof models, compacts and superzooms.

Subcompacts fit in a pocket, are lightweight but generally have few manual controls. A few include nontelescoping zoom lenses, and others have zooms as high as 14x. Compacts are a bit larger, and often have more manual controls than subcompacts. They can also be among the most inexpensive cameras available.

Rugged & waterproof models claim to resist moisture and withstand falls. All have non-telescoping zoom lenses.

Superzooms offer 15x or greater zoom, with some recent models including optical zooms as great as 60x. Like compacts, superzooms often, though not always, include manual controls. They're also among the more expensive basic cameras.

Our advanced camera category is also divided into three subcategories: advanced point-and-shoots, SLR-like models and SLRs.

Advanced point-and-shoots have a nondetachable lens but differ from basic models because they have lots of manual controls, a hot shoe for an external flash, and support for RAW files. It's the lightest advanced type. SLR-like models have interchangeable lenses, but they lack a through-the-lens viewfinder. They're smaller and lighter than an SLR but are usually larger than a point-and-shoot. SLRs have the most features, with interchangeable lenses and the largest sensors for the best image quality in low light, and a through-the lens viewfinder. Controls are extensive. They're also the heaviest, most expensive cameras.

There are two new kinds of cameras that are becoming more common in the market place. First, more cameras, from inexpensive subcompacts to high-end SLRs, are including wireless features, which allow you to connect to Wi-Fi hot spots and to mobile devices and to upload your photos and video to social networking websites. Some also include NFC (near-field communication), which makes connecting to mobile device quick and easy.

Second, camera manufacturers are churning out more advanced cameras with full-frame sensors for around $2000 or less. These types of sensors, which are the size of one frame of 35mm film and significantly larger than sensors found in point-and-shoot digital cameras, allow the camera to handle a wider variety of lighting situations more accurately. They also limit the amount of visual noise that can distort and degrade an image. (Although we don't yet rate these models, we do plan to include them in our Ratings in the near future as prices continue to drop.)

Next steps

After you consider the type of camera you want and the number of megapixels you need, but before you dive into specific models, be sure to check out our brand profiles, which outline many of the most popular camera product lines and their respective character traits.

Next, look to our Ratings and Recommendations (available to subscribers) for the models that have the best performance and image quality, including scores for how models capture regular and flash photos. If you're interested in how well a camera captures video, consider the video quality score. And to see which models respond the quickest, consider the ease of use score, which is an overall speed judgment, including start-up time and the shutter delay for the first and later shots. In most cases, our Ratings found that point-and-shoot cameras take decent snapshots. So, look through our Ratings for specific features that are important to you. For example, if you want a point-and-shoot that has a better LCD than others, look for a model with a Very Good LCD quality score. Or, if you want a model that includes a touch-screen LCD, look for that in our Ratings.

What you'll spend

For many, price is a major factor when buying a camera. In general, look to pay the following for the type of camera you're looking to buy:

  • For basic point-and-shoots (subcompacts, compacts, rugged & waterproof models, and superzooms), expect to spend $75 to $500.
  • For advanced point-and-shoots, expect to spend $350 to $1,100.
  • For SLR-likes, expect to spend $450 to $1,200.
  • For SLRs, expect to spend $500 to $2,000.

When you're ready to buy, consider where you will make your purchase. Although some walk-in stores, such as photo-specialty camera shops, might have knowledgeable salespeople, you can't rely entirely on the staff of walk-in stores to assist you in your purchase. Use the Internet and our Ratings for information before buying. Also, if you decide to purchase at a traditional retail store, forgo the extended warranty because digital cameras have been among the most reliable products in our surveys.

Many respondents in our surveys found online shopping to be a more satisfying shopping experience than walk-in-store shopping. Most walk-in retailers offer either low prices or wide selection. But some online retailers offer both. But be cautious of very low prices and verify that the camera isn't refurbished or gray market (diverted from other retailers or not meant for sale in the U.S.).

For more information

For more on retail outlets, check out our where to buy electronics article.

Types

In our Ratings, we divide models into two main types: basic cameras, which are simple point-and-shoots with just the features needed for routine shots, and advanced cameras, which are feature-laden models that include sophisticated point-and-shoots and models that let you change lenses. These can be further divided into several subcategories.

Basic cameras

Compacts


Mainstream compacts are too big for pockets but small enough for most handbags. Many are simple to use and best for everyday events such as family gatherings. Some don't have manual controls for exposure and composition, limiting you to the camera's assortment of preset scene modes, as with subcompacts.

Rugged & waterproof models

These models are claimed to resist moisture and withstand falls. All have non-telescoping lenses that range between 3x and 5x optical zoom. Most also include GPS features.

Subcompacts


Among the many types of digital cameras, the most expansive category is subcompacts--small cameras that fit in a pocket, weigh a few ounces, and can be carried everywhere. Most don't have manual controls or viewfinders, but some include a variety of useful features, such as touch-screen LCDs. Some have zoom lenses as long as 14x.

Superzooms


Superzoom cameras are characterized by a very long zoom range--15x or greater, which is good for sports, travel, or nature shooting. They're generally bulkier and heavier than compacts and subcompacts. Some models have zooms as great as 60x.

Advanced cameras

Advanced point-and-shoots

These cameras have a nondetachable lens but differ from basic models in that they have lots of manual controls, a hot shoe for an external flash, and support for RAW files. It's the lightest advanced type.

SLR-likes

These cameras, which include Micro four-thirds models, accept interchangeable lenses, but they lack a through-the-lens viewfinder (in fact, some have no viewfinder). They're smaller and lighter than an SLR but usually larger than a point-and-shoot.

SLRs


SLRs have the most features, with interchangeable lenses and the largest sensors for the best image quality in low light, and a through-the lens viewfinder. Controls are extensive. They're also the heaviest, most expensive cameras. Most SLRs are now able to capture HD-resolution video.

Features


Digital camera features vary greatly from model to model. Some might be essential to you, while others might be of use only for highly specialized applications. Before you buy, consider the following features, which are included on most digital cameras.

Exposure modes

Most digital cameras, including SLRs, are highly automated, with features such as automatic exposure control, which manages the shutter speed and aperture according to the available light. In that mode, the camera generally handles setting ISO and autofocus too. But there are other program modes that allow you to control specific settings, including shutter priority, aperture priority, and special scene modes. Some cameras include full manual controls, which let you set shutter speed and aperture.

Zoom lenses


This type of lens, which is actually made up of several different lenses or lens elements, allows you to vary the focal length. That provides you with flexibility in framing shots and closes the distance between you and your subject, which is ideal if you want to quickly switch to a close shot. The typical 3x zoom on mainstream cameras goes from a moderately wide-angle view (35mm) to moderate telephoto (105mm). You can find cameras with extended zoom ranges between 5x and 60x, giving you added versatility. If you want a greater viewing angle for more panoramic landscapes or group portraits, look for cameras with a wide-angle end of the zoom range as low as 28 or 24mm.

One common feature of zoom lenses is that they generally protrude from the camera when you turn it on. But some subcompacts and a few compacts and superzooms have nontelescoping lenses. On larger compacts or superzooms, you might also find a manual focus ring similar to the one on an SLR lens, although manual focusing on a point-and-shoot works differently than that on an SLR.

Optical zooms are much better than digital zooms, which merely magnify the center of the frame without actually increasing picture detail. Almost all point-and-shoot digital cameras include zoom lenses. SLRs, which can use interchangeable lenses, often ship with a zoom lens, but also accept prime or nonzoom lenses.

Image stabilization


Nearly all cameras, including many with powerful lenses, now come with an image stabilizer, a device that compensates for handheld camera shake. Often, the IS device lets you shoot with a slower shutter speed than you otherwise could without producing blur due to hand shake (although it won't compensate for a subject's motion). Optical (in the lens) and mechanical (in the camera body) image stabilizers are the best types to use, although some cameras include simulated stabilization.

In SLRs, some brands include mechanical stabilizers, which can use IS with every lens. But some SLR brands only include optical IS in telephoto or long zoom lenses, which are the ones that need it most. The optical-based IS generally produces better results than mechanical-based IS. But you won't have IS on every lens because it's not built into the camera body. Image stabilization is a feature you should look for, especially if the camera has an optical zoom greater than 3x.

Face detection & ‘Smart Camera' features

This digital camera feature attempts to find a face in the image to set focus, exposure, and color balance so that faces appear in focus and well exposed. When we've tried it, we found that it usually worked well. In some cameras, you have to turn on the feature. In others, it's enabled at the factory, but can be turned off. Other types or variants of face detection are beginning to appear in newer cameras too, such as a smile shutter mode, which shoots a photo of the subject when a subject smiles. Other types include blink warning, which alerts you to shots in which a subject might have blinked, and intelligent ISO.

Focus


In addition to being able to automatically set exposure, digital cameras automatically adjust the focus of the lens with autofocus features. But more advanced cameras include additional focusing functions. Be sure to look carefully at the types of additional features available on your camera, including manual focus. On SLRs, look for the number of AF points they have and what types of AF modes are available. SLRs include additional types of AF (often called dynamic AF) that groups focus points into a field to more accurately track moving subjects.

Shooting modes

Most cameras have three options for shooting still images: single image, burst mode, and self-timer. The burst mode allows you fire off a series of shots quickly, for several, dozens, and sometimes scores of shots. Some SLRs can shoot more than a hundred shots in a burst, and do so very quickly (measured in frames per second, or fps). Some newer advanced point-and-shoots are also able to capture many shots per second. As the name implies, the self-timer mode provides a delay between the moment the shutter button is pressed and the photo is captured. Some cameras let you set how long this delay is and the number of shots you can take.

Playback modes

All digital cameras can review images on the LCD, along with exposure and other information embedded in the image file. So, you can quickly see what the image actually looks like, and delete it if you don't like it. Many cameras have automatic orientation features that turn the photo vertically or horizontally to correspond to how you shot the photo. When reviewing, you can use the zoom control to magnify portions of the image file. The LCD screen is also where you would access the camera's menu system in order to change various settings and access features. A few types of digital cameras include either touch-screen LCDs or LCDs that swivel. The best LCDs also don't change in color or tone (often called solarizing) when viewed at an angle, although we don't test for that. Selected models include slideshow features, and some even let you play music or create a multimedia slideshow.

ISO

This setting expresses how sensitive the sensor is to light. Many cameras allow you to set various ISO settings (anywhere from ISO 100 to ISO 12,800, although some ranges can be even greater, particularly on SLRs). The advantage in being able to set a higher ISO is that you can then have more flexibility in adjusting either the aperture or shutter speed. For example, if you need to shoot an image at 1/250 of a second in order to "freeze" the action, but you have only enough light for a shutter speed of a 1/125 of a second, one option is to change the aperture to let more light in. But if you're already at the widest aperture, you can instead increase the ISO from 100 ISO to 400 ISO, and you should be able to set the higher shutter speed.

But high ISO settings on point-and-shoot cameras, which have smaller sensors than SLRs, often suffer from image noise, which will make your photos look grainy and degrade image quality. So, even though point-and-shoots include ISOs up to 6400 or higher, you may be disappointed in the results. There is also concern about the relationship between high megapixel counts and sensor sizes. The more megapixels manufacturers cram onto the same-sized sensor, the more visual flaws can appear in the images.

LCD viewers/viewfinder

Although optical viewfinders were once ubiquitous on cameras, hardly any subcompacts or compacts include them anymore. The reason is that they've been replaced by larger, sharper color LCD viewers. Some are now as large as 3.5 inches. These displays are accurate in framing the actual image you get--better than most optical viewfinders--but they might be hard to see in bright sunlight. This live-view functionality, available in point-and-shoot for years, is also on nearly all SLRs, which have traditionally used the LCDs for only playing back or reviewing images. A camera with an optical and an LCD viewfinder is more versatile, especially when you shoot in bright light or need to conserve battery power. Also, select point-and-shoots and SLRs include swiveling displays, which are helpful for taking hard-to-reach shots. Some cameras, including a few Sony NEX models, use an OLED (organic light-emitting diode) electronic viewfinder. Unlike an LCD viewer, this type works without a backlight, so it can produce deeper blacks.

Flash

Available on almost every digital camera, a flash (or strobe) allows you to illuminate subjects by using a short burst of light. Nearly all have auto-flash modes, a setting that will automatically fire a flash whenever the camera senses there isn't enough illumination for a correct exposure. Most include other flash modes, including red-eye reduction mode, which minimizes a common flash camera problem (although you can also fix this in an image-editing program when the image is stored on your computer). There are primarily two types of flashes associated with consumer-level cameras: A built-in (onboard or, in some cases, pop up) strobe is generally positioned directly above or diagonally above the lens. An external strobe, sold separately as an accessory, fits into a camera's hot shoe, which lets you attach this accessory on to an advanced point-and-shoot, SLR-like model, or SLR. Many cameras include a number of flash modes that allow you to alter the type of flash or the strength of the illumination.

Image file formats

The most commonly used file format is the JPEG, a compressed image format that allows you to use the file for a number of different applications, such as printing photos, but also for using on Web pages and emailing as attachments. Advanced point-and-shoots and all SLR-likes and SLRs can also capture images in a file format commonly known as RAW. This format is most often uncompressed and the image isn't processed inside the camera, as with JPEG files. RAW files can yield the best quality images and give you the most flexibility when manipulating the photos with software.

Memory cards


Instead of film, nearly all digital cameras record their shots and store them on flash-memory cards, although occasional models also have had onboard flash-memory capacities greater than 1 GB. SecureDigital (SD) is the most widely used format. Other memory cards used include Compact Flash (CF), mostly on SLRs, and Memory Stick Duo. Some cameras store photos on microSD memory cards, which are often used in smart phones. Although those storage cards were once quite expensive, they have recently dropped significantly in price. New cameras can also accept special, higher capacity versions of SD cards, such as SDHC and the latest, SDXC, a format that allows memory-card manufacturers to produce cards with capacities as high as 2 terabytes.

Connections


To save images, you transfer them to a computer, typically by connecting the camera to the computer's USB or FireWire port, or inserting the memory card into a special reader. (Many computers now have built-in card readers.) Cameras can also be connected to printers, or you can insert the memory cards directly into select printers. Both options allow you to print photos without the need to transfer them to a computer. Most cameras also include a video output that lets you view images on your TV. Some even include an HDMI output (on the camera body or camera dock) that can be attached to an HDTV. But the cords and docks might cost extra. As digital cameras face increased competition from smart phones with improved camera optics, expect more digital cameras to offer wireless Internet connectivity, which lets you transfer images to the Web through a Wi-Fi router, via a smart phone or both.

Video

Basic point-and-shoots have been able to capture video for many years, but SLRs have only recently included this feature. Most cameras include HD-resolution video, although some still capture in standard definition, which may not look as sharp on an HDTV. Some models with HD video quality are good enough to avoid the cost and inconvenience of a separate camcorder. One convenient video feature many cameras now include is a dedicated video button, which lets you quickly record video when you're shooting still images. Also, if you're buying a basic or advanced point-and-shoot, check to see whether the camera can zoom while capturing video. Not all models can.

3D capability

Some cameras can capture 3D photos or 3D video, or both. In order to do this, the camera may capture two different images (or use software to create them), representing the different perspectives of the left and right eye. The differences between those two images create a sense of depth. Your brain combines the two images into one seamless 3D image when you wear special glasses, which are capable of presenting each eye with its own separate view, or when you view them on a special 3D LCD.

Projecting point-and-shoots

A feature unique to just a few models in our Ratings is a tiny built-in projector, often called a pico projector, that can project an image or video onto just about any flat surface.

Onscreen help

Some cameras, like some Sony NEX models, take hand-holding to the next level with onscreen tutorials. They're nicely designed, and the text is easy on the eyes, thanks to the 921,000-dot LCD. A graphic or sample photos illustrate the point. For example, a tutorial on how to position a subject for better composition uses text and actual photos to teach you how to do so. Tips cover basic shooting techniques as well as portraits, landscapes, close-ups, and action shots. Some cover unusual modes, such as Sony's Sweep Panorama and auto High Dynamic Range (HDR).

Wi-Fi

Although it's still a niche market, the number of cameras with Wi-Fi capability is growing. These wireless features can be found on both advanced and basic cameras and let you wirelessly transfer photos or video to your computer, quickly back them up on a hard drive, or upload them to a social networking website. Some also include NFC (near-field communication), which makes connecting to mobile devices quick and easy.

Brands

Canon arrow  |  Casio arrow  |  Fujifilm arrow  |  GE arrow  |  Kodak arrow  |  Leica arrow  |  Nikon arrow  |  Olympus arrow  |  Panasonic arrow  |  Pentax arrow  |  Samsung arrow  |  Sigma arrow  |  Sony arrow

These are the major camera brands. Most have several product lines. If you don't see a model in our Ratings (available to subscribers), these profiles can help you learn about the manufacturer's lineup. (Listed in alphabetic order).

Canon

Canon is the market leader in point-and-shoots, with an extensive line of models, which are known as PowerShots. Its budget line, the A series, is made up of compacts and subcompacts.  Canon's subcompacts are known as SD ELPHs. Its SX-series are mostly super zooms and come in various sizes and include smaller or larger feature sets. Canon has the D-series compact, which it claims are waterproof and shockproof. Its high-end series, the S and G lines, include special modes and manual features, such as the ability to shoot RAW files and to focus manually. The EOS Rebel series helped to define budget SLRs. Other SLRs include a host of pro and more-advanced consumer models, including models that have very large, full-frame sensors. Canon also offers a wider selection of lenses than most brands.

Casio

Casio produces point-and-shoots known as Exilims. Most are subcompacts, although Casio also makes higher-end, full-featured models that have longer zooms and more robust video capabilities. The company also offers the G-series, which it claims is waterproof and shockproof. Casio doesn't offer SLRs.

Fujifilm

The budget FinePix J and A series are the lowest priced. A step up is the F series cameras, which offer more advanced features. The Z series models are the subcompacts. Fujifilm claims that the XP series is waterproof.  The T series has a moderately long zoom in a small body. Some models in the super zoom S series are large and include long zoom lenses. The HS series has the longest zooms.  Select EXR models include special modes that let the sensor adapt to the subject you're shooting. The X series cameras include advanced point & shoot and SLR-like models. Fujifilm has a Real 3D W series of point-and-shoots, which captures 3D photographs for display on special 3D frames and prints.

GE

General Imaging holds an exclusive licensing agreement with General Electric to produce cameras under the GE name. It has produced a variety of compacts and subcompacts, some of which are very inexpensive. GE doesn't offer SLRs.

Kodak

Kodak's EasyShare line focuses on ease of use, as indicated by its brand tagline. The budget C series includes some of the least-expensive point-and-shoots available. The M series compacts and subcompacts offer slightly more sophisticated features in a more stylishly designed camera body. Most of the higher-end Z series models are super zooms. Kodak doesn't offer SLRs.

Leica

This innovative camera company produces cameras that serve a niche audience, mostly due to the cameras' high prices. Most of its cameras (D-LUX, C-LUX, and V-LUX series) are essentially the same models produced under the Panasonic brand, although the Leica versions are more expensive. Leica has a high-end, very expensive X-series point-and-shoot that includes a large APS-C sized sensor, similar to those found on SLRs, although it has a fixed lens instead of using interchangeable lenses. Leica's most celebrated line is its very expensive M series of digital rangefinder cameras, which has a small but very loyal following of photographers.

Nikon

Nikon has a fairly extensive line of point-and-shoot models, known as Coolpix cameras. Its subcompacts, compacts, and super zooms are divided into four series, the budget L, step-up S, high-end P series, and AW series, which Nikon claims is waterproof and shockproof. Nikon also has an innovative S series camera that includes a built-in projector that lets you beam images or video clips onto any surface. Like Canon's SLR lineup, Nikon's D series offers cameras for every SLR user and budget and a wide range of lenses. High-end SLRs include large, full-frame sensors, which offer better quality in low light.  Nikon also offers a new SLR-like series, the Nikon One, which has large sensors and accepts interchangeable lenses but has no through-the-lens viewfinder.

Olympus

Olympus budget series compacts emphasize simple operation. High-end SP models have featured very long zooms.  Select "Tough" subcompacts claim to be water-resistant, waterproof, shockproof, and crushproof. Olympus has Pen series models that are based on micro four-thirds sensor technology. This type of camera combines key SLR features—a large image sensor and interchangeable lenses—with the smaller size and weight of a point-and-shoot. Olympus produces several E-series SLRs, and offers a wide range of lenses.

Panasonic

Every Panasonic Lumix, from pricey super zooms to budget models, has optical stabilization. Many models offer great value when they combine optical image stabilization with innovations such as intelligent ISO, which automatically raises the camera sensor's sensitivity when it detects motion, allowing faster shutter speed.  Panasonic has several G-series Lumix models that are based on micro four-thirds sensor technology. This type of camera combines key SLR features—a large image sensor and interchangeable lenses—with the smaller size and weight of a point-and-shoot. It has a G Series camera that accepts a 3D lens to shoot 3D video and photos and has one 3D subcompact with two lenses.

Pentax

The company produces some innovative point-and-shoots, known as Optio cameras, especially its waterproof W series. The X series super zooms include models with relatively long zoom lenses. Pentax has had a long tradition of producing high-quality SLRs. Its most recent K series SLRs are competitively priced and include some unique features such as its High Dynamic Range (HDR) feature.  Pentax also offers a line of SLR lenses. Pentax also offers some SLR-like models.

Samsung

Samsung has produced some very inexpensive compact digital cameras and some innovative models, including "dual view" cameras that have LCDs on the front and back of the camera body and several Wi-Fi models. The company has introduced some cameras similar to a micro four-thirds model, but with a larger, APS-C sensor.  The NX-series camera includes key SLR features, including interchangeable lenses, but has the small size and weight of a point-and-shoot.

Sigma

This company is primarily a lens manufacturer, offering third-party lenses for most of the major SLR camera lines that are often less expensive than those from the SLR camera manufacturers. But it also produces select cameras, including an SD series SLR and several high-end DP series compacts, which capture images on uniquely designed Foveon sensors.

Sony

Sony offers innovations at relatively high prices. Cyber-shot compacts and subcompacts offer distinctions such as touch screens and sleek bodies. The W series are budget lines. High-end H series compacts, and premium T series subcompacts tend to be priced higher than other brands.  Sony has expanded its SLR Alpha series significantly and offers cameras for every advanced camera user and budget, including models that have very large, full-frame sensors and special features, such as a High Dynamic Range (HDR) feature. It also has a wide range of lenses. Its SLR-like NEX series models include key SLR features, such as interchangeable lenses, but will have the small size and weight of a point-and-shoot. Sony has 3D technology on select basic and advanced cameras but it is limited to its special panorama models.

Shopping tips

Beware the sales pitch

You can't always depend on sales staff to help you to choose the right camera. Readers indicate that the quality of in-store help is all over the map. Indeed, when our reporter shopped at mass merchandisers, as many consumers do, a member of the sales staff told him that there was no difference between digital and optical zoom (optical is far more useful). Another couldn't explain the differences among mechanical, optical, and simulated image stabilization (optical and mechanical are superior).

Also, despite the prevalence of 16-, 18- and 20-megapixel cameras, 10 megapixels is all the resolution most people need. But if you often crop or drastically enlarge your images, consider a higher megapixel camera. Higher resolution doesn't necessarily produce better prints, so don't let a saleswoman push a camera solely based on its megapixel count.

Shop by brand

Before diving into specific models, consider some characteristics by brand, culled from our years of digital-camera tests. For example, Fujifilm offers image sensors with proprietary technology that produce high image quality at high ISO settings. Canon, Nikon, and Olympus offer full lineups for every type of user. Samsung offers cameras with high styling and multimedia features. Panasonic uses image stabilizers and Leica lenses throughout its line. Sony often uses Zeiss lenses, a brand well known in the camera world.

Try it out

The smallest, lightest models aren't necessarily inexpensive cameras. And the biggest and heaviest aren't necessarily found at the high end. If possible, try cameras at a store before you buy. That way, you'll know which one fits your hands best. In our tests, some of the smallest didn't leave much room even for small fingers.

Keep your other cameras in mind

If you own a film camera with interchangeable lenses, you can often use the lenses on digital SLRs of the same brand. But there are exceptions. For example, some new Nikon bodies only operate autofocus on its AF-S or AF-I lenses.

Forgo the extended warranty

Overall, digital cameras have been among the most reliable products in our subscriber surveys. About 4 percent of those bought from 2008 through 2012 have been repaired or had a serious problem. Yet in our latest survey, 60 percent of camera buyers were pitched an extended warranty in stores, and 16 percent of those bought one. We don't think it pays for most consumers.

   

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