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Page last updated at 16:08 GMT, Friday, 4 February 2011

How to pick a digital camera

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Dan Simmons looks at some of the cameras and shortcuts to help amateur photographers make money by selling their pictures

There was a time when photography was regarded as a specialist hobby, but the digital revolution is promising to make (semi) professionals of us all.

Compact digital cameras have become the preferred device for a large proportion of snap-happy consumers, principally due to their portability and ease of use.

As prices have dropped the features these cameras sport have increased, with many now featuring face recognition software, LCD touch screens and even smile detection.

But for the uninitiated, choosing what camera to buy can still be a daunting experience.

Here is our guide to help you make a photographic purchase with confidence.

THE ESSENTIALS

Lens - Do you need a big zoom lens? People are often attracted to long zoom lenses, but they tend not to use them as much as they think they might. In some cases a lens capable of capturing a wider field of view can be more useful than one with a greater degree of zoom.

A wide-angle lets you get more in shot. Good for landscapes, group shots and interiors. Long zooms are good for candid shots of children and animals, as well as wildlife and sports. So think carefully which is best for you.

MORE BUYERS' GUIDES

Zoom type - The question of whether to go for an optical or digital zoom is crucial. A digital zoom works by simply magnifying a part of a captured image, so when you zoom in you are actually decreasing the quality of the photograph.

An optical zoom, however, actually zooms in and therefore doesn't have such an affect on image quality.

An up to 20X optical zoom should be adequate for most users.

LCD screen - The size of the screen is only one factor to consider. Look at the brightness, colour and sharpness; the angle from which it can be viewed clearly and the quality of the anti-reflective coating.

Some cameras have touch screens but these can sometimes come at the expense of screen quality. A few cameras are starting to introduce high-resolution LCD screens which improve viewing, both when shooting and reviewing photos.

Viewfinder - Some people struggle with LCD screens. Long-sighted people and those with generally poor eyesight may find it difficult to see the picture clearly on an LCD, especially in bright sunlight. These buyers should look for a camera with a viewfinder that they can bring close to their eye.

Image Stabilisation - This helps produce sharper pictures by reducing camera shake, especially when shooting in low light or using zoom lenses. A useful addition.

Digital camera screen
Look at the brightness, colour and sharpness of an LCD screen

High ISO - This alters the light sensitivity of the camera's sensor. Some cameras feature high ISO settings and modes for taking pictures in low light without a flash. Useful for those who use their camera at parties, live venues and after the sun sets.

Battery Type - Cheaper cameras use AA batteries rather than rechargeable Lithium Ion types.

This can be a good thing, since you can buy AAs anywhere, but it does tend to make the camera a bit bigger and heavier, and also more expensive to run unless you invest in rechargeable AAs.

ALSO CONSIDER

Mega pixels - Not as important as many people think. A large proportion of contemporary digital cameras can now capture more than enough pixels for prints up to A3 size. And in many cases, adding more pixels can actually degrade image quality.

The camera's sensor is more important than its megapixel count. Image quality is mainly determined by the physical size of this sensor. In most compact cameras they are fairly small. So larger sensors tend to mean larger cameras.

Manual Controls - The ability to override the camera if its automatic settings get things wrong. Manual controls allow the user to override auto settings, they can however often be buried inside complicated menus.

Shutter lag - Some cameras suffer a long delay between pressing the shutter and an actual picture being captured, as well as a significant delay between shots (while the camera saves the previous image to its memory). It's a good idea to play with the camera you intend to buy in a shop to check this before handing over any cash.

Video capture - Many digital cameras now come with video mode, as do most phones. If this is a priority, then invest in a digital SLR. Some of the biggest brands such as Canon, Nikon and Olympus have released particularly good but expensive cameras - with some recording video in HD.

THE EXTRAS

Intelligent Auto - Detects the type of subject you're photographing and sets the image parameters accordingly. Works well and is better than straight point and shoot modes.

Girl smiling
Camera technology recognises a smile and then takes a picture

Face Detection - Not a make or break feature, but a lot of cameras now have it. It can be useful in some circumstances, when the camera detects a human face it can ensure that it sets the focus, exposure and colour for that face correctly, rather than the background.

Tagging - With face recognition the camera not only recognises a face but can identify who it belongs to.

Some cameras can be pre-programmed to recognise certain faces. These recognised faces can then be prioritised over other faces in a shot. They can also be tagged to make them easier to find when trawling though photo albums.

Smile Detection - This allows the camera to recognize smiles (by the widening of the mouth - teeth not essential), taking a picture when the camera sees one. This is more of a gimmick than a genuinely useful feature.

Blink Detection - Similar, but the camera sees when the subject (or one of several subjects) has blinked and provides a warning to take another shot.



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