The Best Digital Camera: A Buying Guide

Lumix-ZS20Buying a camera is one of the toughest purchase decisions to make due to incredible competition and an overwhelming number of features to consider. One way to approach buying a new camera is to consider six broad criteria:

  1. Size and type of camera
    Are you looking for a subcompact, compact, ultra-zoom compact, waterproof, bridge, DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) or some hybrid (alternatively known as Electronic Viewfinder with Interchangeable Lens (EVIL), Digital Single Lens Mirrorless (DSLM), Compact System Cameras (CSC), or Mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera (MILC))?
  2. Price
    What’s your budget? It seems obvious that more money usually equals better camera, but these days that is not always true as there is overlap in pricing between different market segments and features or compromises you are willing to accept.
  3. Picture quality
    Most modern cameras take good pictures in good light but the real difference comes in low light and backlighting situations, which really tests the quality of the sensor being used. I suggest you don’t focus much on number of megapixels as these days most cameras have plenty and sometimes a higher pixel camera actually has a worse sensor. In fact, the first rule in choosing a digital camera should be to place sensor size (as well as density and layout) over pixel count. For a very good overview of this topic, read the interesting Economist article, Difference Engine: Point, shoot, discard. Finally, though few point-and-shoot cameras offer the ability to store pictures in a raw image format, a few do and that feature may be worth considering.
  4. Optics/lens
    The quality of lens used, along with the sensor discussed above, is a key determinant in picture quality. You will also want to consider how much optical zoom is delivered. Forget digital zoom, as it is often useless. Besides just how much zoom is offered, consider if the camera offers a wide angle photos or not (e.g., 28mm is common and not very wide, 24mm is very good; this is also a function of the sensor).
  5. Video quality and features
    Things to consider are whether you can shoot HD video; whether you can zoom while shooting (most lower-end models cannot) and if there is noticeable noise from zooming during recording; the maximum resolution and frame rate; and output format (AVI, MP4, etc.). You might also be interested in a camera that can take still photos while recording video.
  6. Other features
    There are so many other features that manufacturers use to try and differentiate their cameras. Some include: battery life and type (rechargeable or not), speed to startup, speed between shots, image stabilization, GPS, number of preset settings, the ability to manually configure settings, the size and resolution of the back LCD display, an optical view finder, macro, panorama, 3D, etc.

For most of my shopping needs I rely on the reviews found at Amazon.com and this holds true for cameras. But, my number one source for camera reviews—when they have what I am interested in—is expert reviews. I find their well-written, concise reviews cover the features and performance I actually care about. I also like how they tend to compare a model to its predecessor and/or its siblings. The site is great for narrowing down choices as well since you can select by type of camera and by features and then sort results by price or ratings. You can even select up to 12 models to compare. Finally, I find it helpful to compare a review by a true expert to those of a retail site like Amazon. Many times they concur but sometimes, like in the case of the Pentax Optio VS20, they are worlds apart. If you are a true photography enthusiast I don’t know if this site and its reviews will provide the level of detail you need or not, but for regular travelers like me it is great. Two alternative sites which also offer very good—perhaps more detailed—reviews are Digital Photography Review and the Digital Camera Resource Page.

Personally, I am not ready for a DSLR and I have used many disappointing basic point-and-shoots, so I recently decided to upgrade to something in between. My decision wasn’t made easily as I went back and forth many times. Finally, I found the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20 and its combination of features, glowing reviews (it’s also what Wandering Earl calls “the perfect travel camera”) and pricing made it the winner for me, though for slightly less money and a few less features (GPS, stereo video, and 4x less zoom) you could also consider the excellent little brother DMC-ZS15.

Of course, any discussion of specific models will quickly be outdated. Having said that, one thing to consider in your own research is that different manufacturers tend to keep some consistency in their model nomenclature. So, for example, my Lumix ZS20 is an update to the previous ZS10 model and the Sony DSC-HX10V replaced the DSC-HX9V. As a general rule, the latest models will be better, but don’t automatically assume that without verifying. For example, expert reviews says the Nikon S9300 is worse than the S9100. Also, even if a newer model is better, the improved quality may or may not be worth the increased price (though sometimes the old models stop being discounted and thus are much more expensive than their newer siblings). The broader point is, do your own research and get a feel for which brands and model lines you like. If you choose a winner, the next time you want to upgrade you can just check out the latest line in your series. If you are unhappy with what you purchased, at least you will have an idea of what competition you already are interested in considering.

One thing to note is that certain manufacturers brand their lines differently in different countries. For example, my Lumix ZS20 is also called the TZ30 in some countries. Thus, if you use the expert reviews site, which is based in the UK, you might have a hard time finding a review for a specific U.S. model you are interested in (though they often mention when a model is marketed differently). Likewise, if you get a recommendation from a fellow traveler who is from a different region of the world you might not be getting the model name and number applicable to your home territory.

To get started on your shopping research, I recommend compiling a list of 5-10 models you are interested in and then comparing them. Here is a list I compiled of what seem to be considered the best ultra-zoom compacts, which is what I was searching for (listed in alphabetical order and based on prices in US$ in November 2012). Naturally, you can make a similar list for other camera types using Amazon (they have great selection features on the left sidebar), CNET’s Best Digital Cameras list, expert reviews, or your personal favorite website. For this list, note that x is a variable number that changes as models get updated.

You will notice that basically I have included the powerhouse manufacturing brands in this list. I have met fellow travelers who have been satisfied with each of these brands (depending on the model and personal experiences, naturally). That doesn’t mean you should ignore others like Casio, Samsung, Ricoh, Pentax, etc., but this list was long enough for my attention span.

Of course, if you already have a limited list of brands you want to consider, then a completely different approach would be to take a detailed look at each brand’s current models. Again, you can use a site like Amazon, or it might be just as good to start on the manufacturers’ product description page. For example, though I know many people are very loyal to Canon, I find their product marketing incredibly confusing. While all of their models carry the PowerShot brand, it gets cloudy after that. So, I went to the Canon website and from that it appears that their A series (Axxx – Axxxx, Axxxx IS) is their low-end line and the prices reflect that. Next up the ladder are the more stylish ELPH models (xxxHS). The Dxx series covers their waterproof line. Finally, the company offers what it calls “high-end” models (Sxx – Sxxx, SXxx HS – SXxxx HS, SXxxx IS, and Gxx). Based on suggested retail price, the A series flows nicely into the ELPH series, but then it gets complicated. The lowest high-end SX model is priced on the low end of the ELPH line and the highest-priced ELPH is well into the high-end line’s price range. Still, by seeing the photos along with the model numbers you can start to get a feel for what their product range consists of and maybe use that to start your search.

As I already mentioned, I was unhappy with my low-end point-and-shoot so I didn’t do a serious investigation into buying another one, but I know many reading this may want exactly that, so I did enough research to at least offer up a beginner list of 16 models from 7 manufacturers that you can expand on if interested. Note that prices are given in US$ as of this writing (November 2012).

I should say that this entire discussion assumes that a mobile phone camera isn’t sufficient for your needs. However, these days the cameras in the latest phones are getting pretty close to the quality of the lower end point-and-shoots. If your needs aren’t too demanding you might consider saving the money you would spend on a compact camera and use it to help upgrade to the latest generation of smartphone.

Did I miss anything important? If so, let me know in the comments or feel free to praise or criticize the model you chose.

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5 Comments

  1. This review is useful. Thanks for posting.

    I am thinking of buying a new camera before I leave for Oz. I was thinking of getting a Lumix too. My Olympus tough is great for outdoors but has crappy night and low light photo-taking capabilities.

    1. Night or low light as well as backlit situations really are the conditions that separate the winners from losers in digital cameras IMO. I still haven't given my new purchase a good test in those conditions, but I am hopeful. Anything should be better than my last one! Good luck and let me know what you decide to get.

  2. Had I known some of these tips before a few months I could have got a better camera for myself. Anyways Thank you! 🙂

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