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 16 million pixels, for example, is called a 16-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, 16 megapixels (or greater) is more suitable.
Although a 6-megapixel camera might be all you'll need, since higher resolution doesn't necessarily produce better prints, most cameras on the market have sensors that are 16 megapixels or greater.
Lenses and other factors affect quality too. The size of the sensor, and the size of each individual image sensor element, which corresponds to pixels, can affect photo quality as well.
But remember, the number of megapixels alone doesn't determine the quality of a digital camera's images.
Types of digital cameras
Our digital camera Ratings (available to subscribers) are divided into six categories: point-and-shoots, superzoom point-and-shoots, waterproof point-and-shoots, advanced point-and-shoots, mirrorless cameras, and SLRs. Note that all point-and-shoots, whether basic or advanced, include cameras with lenses built into the camera (that is, non-removable).
For more details, read About digital camera types.
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 basic 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.
Also, one feature that's becoming very common on every type of camera is wireless, which lets you 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. Again, look in our Ratings for info on built-in Wi-Fi, if that's important to you.
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 point-and-shoots, expect to spend $80 to $450.
- For superzoom point-and-shoots, expect to spend $160 to $400.
- For waterproof point-and-shoots, expect to spend $110 to $350.
- For advanced point-and-shoots, expect to spend $350 to $1,400.
- For mirrorless cameras, expect to spend $300 to $2,700.
- For SLRs, expect to spend $500 to $3,100.
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 helpful advice, check out our guide to the best places to buy electronics and our digital camera shopping tips.