Should I care about megapixels?
A digital camera stores the information from its image sensor as a collection of thousands of pixels, or tiny dots, in a digital file. (The file normally resides on a memory card inside the camera.) A collection of a million pixels is called a megapixel, and megapixel counts are often used as a camera spec. For instance, a 16-megapixel camera is one that captures 16 million pixels in every image. People shopping for cameras often want as many megapixels as they can afford because the number is widely referenced in ads, on camera packaging, and in reviews.
The megapixel count matters most for people who want to produce big prints. For example, a 6-megapixel camera may be fine for printing high-quality snapshots, but if you want to print poster-size images (or crop a shot severely, printing a small corner of the original image at 4x6 inches), you'll do better with 16 or more megapixels.
But don't get sucked into megapixel comparisons. Other factors are at least as important. The quality of the lenses will have a great effect on what kind of images you capture. And the size of the sensor matters, as well. A bigger sensor will capture more detail than a smaller one, even if they both record the same number of megapixels. Finally, settings and ergonomics may matter just as much in determining how much you enjoy a camera.
Types of digital cameras
Our digital camera Ratings are divided into six categories: point-and-shoots, superzoom point-and-shoots, waterproof point-and-shoots, advanced point-and-shoots, mirrorless cameras, and SLRs. All point-and-shoots, whether basic or advanced, are defined as having their lenses built into the camera—they can't be switched out. Mirrorless cameras and SLRs have interchangeable lenses.
After you consider the type of camera you want and the number of megapixels you need, but before you dive into specific models, you can 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 for the models that have the best performance and image quality. And if you're planning to shoot video with the camera, consider the video quality score. Finally, to see which models respond the quickest when you depress the shutter button, consider the ease-of-use score, which includes start-up time and shutter delay for the first and subsequent shots. You can also use the Ratings charts to learn about specific features, such as the quality of the LCDs on various point-and-shoots.
What you'll spend
In general, you can expect to pay the following for each type of camera.
- For point-and-shoots, expect to spend $100 to $450.
- For superzoom point-and-shoots, expect to spend $150 to $400.
- For waterproof point-and-shoots, expect to spend $100 to $350.
- For advanced point-and-shoots, expect to spend $350 to $1,500.
- For mirrorless cameras, expect to spend $300 to $2,700.
- For SLRs, expect to spend $500 to more than $3,000.
When you're ready to buy, consider where you will make your purchase. Although some walk-in stores, such as photo-specialty camera shops, have knowledgeable salespeople, many other retailers do not. So do your own research before buying. Also, if you decide to purchase at a traditional retail store, forgo the extended warranty—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. But be cautious of very low prices and verify that the camera isn't refurbished or a product of the 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.