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Buying a digital compact at Christmas

Buying a digital compact at Christmas - Those three wise men have got a lot to answer for. If they had not taken gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh, we wouldn't have the stress of buying presents for all our ungrateful relatives. For those of you who don't know how, buying a camera can be a little easier now with the Beginners Guide to Buying a Digital Camera...

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So it's nearly Christmas and you've decided to buy a digital compact for someone, but you don't have a clue what to look for or what any of these pixels and memory whatsits do. This guide is a proverbial knight in shining armour, galloping to your rescue on a white charger.

Walking into a shop and looking at the cameras available can be a daunting task if you haven't a clue what the jargon means.

All digital compacts work in the same way. The image goes through the lens, records onto the sensor, goes through the processor and stores onto the memory card. Some cameras do it in different ways than others, but the principle of how they work is the same.

Olympus Build qualityThe Olympus Mju 790SW is waterproof and shockproof.
Read the review here.
Buy the camera here.

From the lens, the image records onto the sensor. The sensor may be called different names such as CCD, CMOS or chip. It is a light sensitive plate that sits where film of a normal camera used to be. The sensor is where the Pixels are found and there are 1,000,000 pixels in a megapixel. The more pixels on the sensor, the bigger the picture can be enlarged.

Once the pixels have recorded the image, it is converted to an electric impulse and sent through the processor to boost the colours and convert the image to a JPEG before storing it to the memory card.

What do you need the camera for?
This is the question you will get asked by the person behind the counter so they can match your needs. It's probable that you haven't a clue as the camera is for someone else, but try to give some idea even if it's just for taking it out on town as that will determine the size, zoom, flash capability, resolution and features of the camera.

Features that you need
The main components to look at when buying a camera are:

  • Lens
  • Resolution
  • Zoom
  • Build
Panasonic Lens qualityLens quality is important to Panasonic so they outsource their lenses to Leica on cameras such as the FX55.
Buy the camera here.

The lens is what forms the picture, so it's a very important part of the camera. In a recent ePHOTOzine poll, 60% of our readers agreed that it is the most important part of the camera.

Some manufacturers release two separate ranges of camera. One will be a budget range with a standard quality lens like the Nikon L range or the Olympus FEs. They will also have a range with better quality glass like the Nikon S range with ED glass or Olympus Mju that uses the renowned Zuiko glass.

Some manufacturers outsource their lenses to specialist optical makers. These include companies like Samsung who have Schneider lenses fitted, Panasonic who have teamed up with Leica and Sony who have the privilege of fitting Carl Zeiss lenses to their cameras.

Canon IXUS resolutionThe Canon IXUS 960 IS is one of the few compacts with a large 12Mp resolution.
Read the review here.
Buy the camera here.

The resolution determines how finely detailed the image will be. Digital cameras use a light sensitive sensor where the film used to be. The sensor is covered in Pixels. There are a million pixels to a Megapixel. The higher the resolution, the better the picture will be at larger sizes.

At 6x4 which is the standard print size, anything from 3 Megapixels and above will give a good quality result. Most cameras offer a minimum of 7 Megapixels, which means that enlargements will also look good.

Bigger is not necessarily better, though. The higher the resolution, the more memory is needed to store all the information, so the memory card will get used up quicker.

This means that a larger memory card is needed to store more pictures which means more outlay. To quote Canon, it's a "chicken and the egg situation". What they mean is that a large resolution is unnecessary, but most consumers think it is, so the manufacturers pander to those requirements for fear of loss of sales.

15% of ePHOTOzine readers think that the resolution is the most important part of the camera. A little controversial, but makes sense. Do you need 10Mp if your pictures will be no bigger than 6x4? The large resolution just takes unnecessary space up on the card.

The zoom of a digital camera is broken down into two factions which are Optical zoom and Digital zoom. The Optical zoom moves the lens elements to magnify the image and bring it closer to you, whereas the Digital zoom merely takes a portion of the image, crops into it and enlarges it. This means that the same size picture has a lower amount of pixels being used which are enlarged so become more visible. This problem is called pixelation and is a similar effect to putting a magnifying glass over a television screen. It breaks down into hundreds of dots and the picture quality is reduced.

Only 5% of our readers feel that a bigger zoom is the most important part of the camera when purchasing a digital compact. The priority of an optical zoom still remains, however.

Pentax optio zoom rangePentax are great at putting a big zoom on a compact, such as the Optio Z10 with a 7x optical. That's a 38-266mm equivalent.
Read the review here.

Like with anything, you get what you pay for. The more expensive models will be a metal build and metal chassis and this can be felt when holding it. Mid range models may have a metal body, but can be plastic inside and the lower models are usually plastic throughout.

Whilst build quality is important as you don't want it broken by Boxing day, only 35% of our intrepid ePHOTOzine readers considered it the most important part of a camera.

Some models will be weatherproof or waterproof and some are shock absorbent. Be aware of the plastic bodies that are coated in a textured paint to feel like metal.

Built in features:
Compact cameras offer more and more features every time a new one is released and this battle that seems to be waged between development departments of manufacturers can be of enormous benefit to the customer.

In days gone by, you could look forward to having a Landscape Macro and Portrait mode on your compact. However, in these modern times, usual features are Kids, Pets, Indoors, Backlit for people who insist on standing in a doorway, Fireworks and Candlelight, to name a few. Some cameras even have more detailed modes, such as Text, Food and Auction for those of you who spend a lot of time buying and selling on online marketplaces.

There can be as many as 40 different settings on a camera which are all designed to make your life easier. Some features will double up and some companies add things such as the Image stabiliser as a feature to bulk out the list, so look out for that.

Nikon Compacts Image stabiliserSome modern compacts have an image stabiliser. As with the zoom, an optical stabiliser such as the one on the Nikon S500 here is important.
Read the review here.
Buy the camera here.

Image Stabiliser:
It's fair to say that 99% of new digital compacts are being fitted with Image stabilisers. These can be confusing though. You want to get the best possible camera for your money, so you may want to know the difference between an optical image stabiliser and a digital stabiliser.

The Optical version stabilises the image using the lens so the image is steady before it gets to the sensor. Most cameras use the sensor to stabilise the image. They do this by fitting small maneuverable clamps to the sensor and when the camera moves up, down, left or right, the sensor moves in the opposite direction to compensate.

The digital image stabiliser usually uses a technique similar to the digital zoom. It zooms in slightly on the image and uses the extra space that is excluded to bleed into with any movement.

What the manufacturers think:
I contacted some camera companies and asked them for their views on what they believe consumers look for as the most important aspects of a digital compact.

Jerome Demare, Olympus' PR executive said that they consider lens quality most important and this is prevalent on the Mju series of cameras. Following this is build quality which can, again, be seen in the Mju range and finally, the benefits of the features for the customer. What that last bit means is which of the preset modes do they include and what do they leave out and how easy are they to use.

Stephanie Jell, PR assistant for Panasonic said they also look for ease of use in their models and they have introduced a new intelligent system for easy picture taking. They say that lens quality is also important. This isn't something they have to worry about as they get their glass from lens gurus, Leica. Panasonic also consider looks to be a vital part of a compacts creation, which is a fair point as we live in a materialistic world.

Vic Solomon from the CCI Product Intelligence team at Canon told me the focal length of the lens is important. He said that if you are going to be using the camera to take pictures on days out, holidays and nights out taking pictures of groups of people, how wide the lens goes is essential. Most lenses start at 35-38mm, but some can go as wide as 28mm so get more in the picture. They then consider the optical Image stabiliser to be important, followed by build quality and resolution.

John Dickens, the Product Manager for Pentax says that they think that picture quality is the most important thing to look for and that envelopes both resolution and lens quality. He says that secondly, the camera should be easy to use and also look good. The design and styling can then be backed up by the brand name.

Pentax and Canon agree that resolution is becoming less of an issue as a lot of consumers are realising that a sensor with 7 or 8Mp can give just as good quality images at A4 than a 10Mp camera.

What sticks in my mind is the manufacturers still have the end result as the main priority which is a good thing to know.

So, it seems that resolution is not the be all and end all of what to look for in a camera. Neither is a huge zoom unless the person you buy it for will use it.

Are they going to use it for group photos on a night out? On holiday? A wide lens is something to look for. Do they like to print up pictures of the kids and stick enlargements on the wall? Get a high resolution camera. Do they have the butteriest of fingers? Look at a good build quality.

With all this in mind, your journey to the photographic retailers should be that little bit easier. So when, on Christmas day, your beloved looks upon their present with a big smile and pockets of tears forming in the corners of their eyes, give a little thought to me as I try to double my body weight in yorkshire puddings.

Good luck.

Take a look around the digital compacts in the ePHOTOzine shop here.



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