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Page last updated at 16:46 GMT, Friday, 28 April 2006 17:46 UK

How to choose a digital camera

Richard Taylor
By Richard Taylor
Click editor

There was a time was when photography was regarded as a specialist hobby, but the digital revolution is promising to make professionals of us all. With so many digital cameras to choose from, how on earth do you make sense of it all?

Digital cameras: do you know what to look for?

For the uninitiated, photography trade shows can be intimidating environments: all the pros looking as if they really do know what they are doing with zoom lenses, tutorials in techno-babble about the virtues of reflected soft lighting.

And then there are the technological advances: where waterproof point-and-shoots once turned heads, now we have the lager-resistant variety, presumably useful when your own resistance to the amber fluid is a little on the weak side.

But when sobriety returns, what features do you really need?

Pixel power

The starting point for the industry sales pitch is megapixels - how many millions of pixels the sensor inside a camera which captures the image is capable of reproducing.

The word pixels is short for picture elements - the little bits that make up an image.

Fewer mega pixels mean less detail; more pixels mean more detail, or what is known as "higher resolution".

The amount of megapixels you actually need really depends on how you are going to be viewing and editing your photos.

These days you will be hard-pushed to find a digital stills camera with less than three megapixels, which is ample for viewing on a computer monitor or for making a small, six-by-four inch print.

Number of megapixels
Lens quality
Battery power

It is generally accepted that five megapixels will be enough to print out an A4 image with about the same detail as an equivalent 35mm film camera.

Any more than six and you will be able to print out small posters. Or else you will be able to take a small area of an image and blow it up without losing clarity, as long as the print is small.

But the bottom line is: don't get hung up over megapixels. There are other important factors in producing good photos.

One key factor is the lens. Lens optics are at the heart of photography and they matter a great deal.

A bad lens will give you "barrelling", when it converges the verticals, as well as soft focusing and distortion at the edges.

Lens quality, even on cheap cameras, varies widely so going for an established name should give you some confidence.

Zoom in

Almost all compact cameras have zoom lenses. But there is a fundamental distinction between optical and digital zoom.

An optical zoom physically changes the distance between the lens and image sensor. So you are getting a true optical close-up, with little noticeable loss of quality.

A digital zoom, on the other hand, is pretty crude. It simply takes the same image and enlarges a central section to make it fill the same area, so you lose resolution.

Digital zoom amounts to little more than a marketing ruse, and you can achieve the same effect simply enough after you have taken the shot. The optical zoom is the one which really matters.

It is no good having a great camera if you are constantly running out of juice. AA batteries are undeniably useful if you are on the road, but tend to be less efficient than camera-specific rechargeables. Look for a camera which takes both and you are sorted.

If you are a budding photographer but do not have the stomach for a PC, there is a growing number of cameras which have features to enhance your photos within the camera itself - like stitching together photos to print out a panorama.

In fact printing directly from the camera is also possible. Just look for a function called PictBridge. Simply configure options within the camera and you are away.

While such bells and whistles can be undeniably useful, do not let it fool you into thinking a computer is not desirable.

There is a huge amount that you can do with a PC to make your photos far better than even the most advanced in-camera processing can achieve by itself.

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