Digital Camera Buying Guide 2012
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See our Digital Camera Buying Guide 2013 for our most recent recommendations.
Smartphone cameras are now capable of taking good photos—certainly good enough for everyday shots. When it comes to trickier shots, such as low light, fast action and portraits, having a high-quality digital camera will vastly improve your photos.
Thankfully, there are tons of great options that won’t bust your budget. We'll help you understand what’s really important for you to consider when buying, and which options are just an excuse to charge you more money.
In this Guide
Our Picks: Point-and-shoot Cameras
Prices valid as of 4/29/2012
Budget: Under $100
Today’s budget digital cameras have all the basics you’ll need for taking great pictures. In bright environments, they'll be better than a good cell phone camera. But you'll really notice the difference in low light and fast action shooting scenarios, thanks to optical image stabilization. And across the board, you'll get better quality video, even if it's shot at 720p. Our picks have been highly rated by both consumers and professionals.
✔ Editor's Choice: Panasonic Lumix DMC-S2
A basic camera with good image quality and simple controls, the 14.1-megapixel Lumix DMC-S2 has a wide-angle 4X optical zoom lens (28-112mm equivalent) with Mega OIS (optical image stabilization) and a 2.7-inch display. It takes high-def 720p video and has panorama and auto retouch modes. Comes in violet, pink and black.
Price: $99.99 on Amazon.com
GE Smart J1470S
GE manages to squeeze a few higher-end features into its Smart J1470S, including HDR (mode that combines 3 exposures in difficult light situations to create better exposed image), a 7X zoom (34-230mm equivalent) with optical image stabilization and a 3-inch display. Plus, you'll get good quality photos and a built-in USB connector, so you don't have to worry about traveling with a cord. Video capture is high-def 720p. Comes in red, black and silver.
Price: $99.99 on Amazon.com
Entry Level: Under $200
Today’s entry-level digital cameras have much more than just the basics you’ll need for taking great pictures. You’ll find superzoom and fast lenses for good low-light photos, built-in Wi-Fi and better image quality across the board. In most cases you’re giving up manual controls and the ability to take Full HD 1080p video, and you'll also find more noise at high ISO settings than with more expensive cameras.
✔ Editor's Choice: Olympus SZ-12
Its 24x lens (25-600mm equivalent) with optical image stabilization makes this 14MP superzoom camera an excellent value, especially for travelers. Plus, you'll get 12 art filters and special effects for your photos and HD 720p movies, 3D image capture and HDMI out. The display is 3 inches and the camera comes in silver, red and black.
Price: $149.99 on Amazon.com
Canon PowerShot A2400 IS
The specs for Canon's 16MP PowerShot A2400 IS won't impress, but the image quality will. That's because the 5x (28-140mm equivalent) f 2.8 lens with optical image stabilization is sharper than most entry level cameras and relatively fast. You'll get a 2.7-inch display and HD 720p video recording. Available in black, blue, pink and silver.
Price: $139.95 on Amazon.com
The 14MP Samsung WB150F is a great value with its 18x lens (24-432mm equivalent) with optical image stabilization, HDR (mode that combines 3 exposures in difficult light situations to create better exposed image) and enough manual controls to make you feel like a photographer. However the built-in Wi-Fi makes it a standout. Not only can it automatically back up photos to your home computer, email photos or share them via Facebook, Picasa, YouTube and PhotoBucket, you can also operate the camera remotely with an Android phone or iPhone. You'll get a 3-inch display and above-average 720p HD video recording.
Price: $199.99 on Amazon.com
Mid-range: $200 - $350
As camera prices have fallen in recent years, mid-range cameras have gained increasingly impressive features, including longer zooms, high-sensitivity MOS sensors, HDR (mode that combines 3 exposures in difficult light situations to create better exposed image), rugged weatherproof designs, GPS for geotagging, Full HD 1080p video recording and sophisticated auto modes. And, image quality is impressive in the best models.
✔ Editor's Choice: Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20
Big zoom, small package is the story for the Lumix DMC-ZS20, with an 20x 24-480mm equivalent lens on a body that’s just 1.1 inches thick. It's also packed with a 14.1 MOS sensor, 3D still capture, GPS with maps, intelligent auto and Power O.I.S optical image stabilization, which is a big help at extreme telephoto. And when the video bug bites, the Lumix DMC-ZS20 is ready with full 1080p HD capture. Available in silver and black.
Price: $329.00 on Amazon.com
Nikon Coolpix AW100
A rugged 16MP MOS camera that’s waterproof down to 33 feet, freeze-proof down to 14 degrees F, shock-proof from 5 feet, dust-proof – in a word, family-proof. You get a 5x zoom lens (28-140mm equivalent) with optical image stabilization, Full HD 1080p video, a 3-inch display, a digital compass and built-in GPS with maps, so you can pinpoint the spots chronicled in photos. Comes in orange, blue and black.
Price: $291.01 on Amazon.com
High End: $350 plus
As you’d expect, the highest-priced point-and-shoot cameras are fine photographic performers, but in this top tier you can expect something more, whether that’s exceptional low-light performance, a sleek waterproof design or a megazoom wide-angle-to-telephoto lens.
✔ Editor's Choice: Canon PowerShot S100
Like the S95 before it, the Canon PowerShot S100 is a sophisticated camera that is king of the pocket point-and-shoots. Like other Canon products, it's the quality of the components, not the specs that impress. The S100's particularly suited for low-light photography: the 5x zoom lens (28-105mm equivalent) has a maximum aperture of f/2, and Canon stuck with a reasonable 12.1-megapixel resolution CMOS sensor to keep image noise to a minimum. The high-res LCD is beautiful, the manual controls are nicely designed, and image quality for both stills and Full HD 1080p video are exceptional. Comes in black and silver.
Price: $395 on Amazon.com
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-TX200V
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-TX200V manages top pack a ton of features into a sleek, waterproof body rated to operate down to 16 feet and still maintain high image quality. You'll get an 18.2MP Exmor R CMOS sensor, a 3.3-inch OLED touchscreen, GPS, a compass, Full HD 1080p video recording, 10 frames per second burst mode, Intelligent Scene Recognition for 36 scenes plus Superior Auto mode and a 5x (28-140mm equivalent) lens with optical image stabilization. In addition, there are a bunch of people friendly technologies like Smile Shutter, Blink Detection and background defocus, which makes people pop in a photo. Comes in violet, red and silver trim.
$498.00 on Amazon.com
Our Picks: Entry-Level Interchangeable Lens Cameras
You don’t have to be an experienced photographer to use an interchangeable lens camera. Auto mode is always available to make the decisions, and even point-and-shooters benefit from the responsiveness and superior image quality these higher-end cameras offer. If you start to feel a bit more adventurous, manual adjustments are available to tailor the camera settings precisely to the situation at hand.
All of our picks in this category comes with a lens, and include optical image stabilization either built into the body or the lens. Prices are valid as of 4/29/2012.
✔ Editor's Choice: Panasonic Lumix GX1
When bundled with the 14-42mm Premium Power Zoom Lens, the Panasonic Lumix GX1 delivers an impressive amount of shooting flexibility in a very small package. As its name suggests, the power zoom lens has a rocker that enables you to easily zoom in and out with one finger. The motorized lens is also much flatter than other lenses in its class, making the overall package tiny. Image quality is excellent from is 16MP Live MOS sensor. You'll get 4.2 frames per second, a 3-inch touch screen, which delivers touch to focus and touch to shoot, a hotshoe for accessories and Full HD 1080p video.
Price: $849 with 14-42mm F3.5-5.6 Premium Power Zoom Lens on Amazon.com
Sony Alpha NEX-7
A great step-up option from the super-compact GX1, the Sony Alpha NEX-7 with its larger 24.3MP APS-C-size sensor edges out the GX1 in image quality, but is bigger and more expensive. It sports a beautiful 3-inch OLED display, 10 frames per second shooting (fixed exposure and focus), manual control while shooting Full HD 1080p video, 3D stills and iAuto mode.
Price: $1,349 with an 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 lens on Amazon.com
✔ Editor's Choice: Sony Alpha a65
Sony's unconventional translucent mirror design for the 24.3MP a65 enables lightning-fast autofocus, a blazing 10-frames-per-second burst mode, and continuous autofocus when shooting Full HD 1080p video. The unusual innards mean you don’t get an optical viewfinder, but the OLED electronic eye-level version is first-rate, and the rear LCD is beautifully sharp and pivots for off-angle viewing and glare avoidance.
Price: $998.00 with a DT 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 zoom lens on Amazon.com
Canon EOS Rebel T3i
While missing some of the technological bells and whistles of our other picks, the 18MP Canon EOS Rebel T3i with an EF-S 18-55 f/3.5-5.6 IS lens provides excellent image quality at a lower cost. Like the Sony Alpha a65 and NEX-7 it has an APS-C-size sensor, Full-HD 1080p video and HDMI out. Plus it features a super high resolution 1040K 3-inch LCD.
Price: $749 with an 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 lens on Amazon.com
There are basically two types of digital cameras: compact and interchangeable-lens. Compact cameras are less expensive and more pocket-size portable. They range in features from point-and-shoot simplicity to photographically sophisticated. Interchangeable lens cameras, on the other hand, offer superior image quality, more creative freedom, faster performance, and a higher price tag.
It’s worth noting that while it used to be “interchangeable-lens camera” was synonymous with “digital SLR,” that’s not true anymore. In the past few years, we’ve seen new models that use a simpler internal design to deliver a camera that’s smaller than an SLR, but still lets you swap lenses. These include the Micro Four Thirds cameras made by Olympus and Panasonic, the NEX line from Sony and the NX series from Samsung. Pricewise, they’re closer to SLRs than point-and-shoots, starting at about $600. Image quality is close to SLR levels, too.
There are two key trade-offs to consider when choosing between SLRs and compact interchangeable-lens cameras (CILCs). First is the optical viewfinder that lets you hold the camera up to your eye when shooting. That’s a real benefit on a sunny day, when LCDs can be hard to see, and also helps keep the camera steady. Some of the new breed of CILCs offer eye-level viewing with an optional electronic viewfinder – basically a tiny LCD screen – but they’re the exception rather than the rule, don’t work as well as a true optical viewfinder, and are usually pricey (i.e., around $300 as an add-on accessory).
The other key difference is speedy operation, particularly when it comes to autofocus. True SLRs have an edge here, though it must be said that the latest CILCs are closing the gap. Still, if you’re shooting your soccer-playing kids charging down the field, you’ll have better luck with an SLR.
How Many Megapixels?
A camera’s resolution is measured in megapixels. But, like many things in life, bigger isn’t necessarily better. Every camera on the market today has plenty of resolution for normal picture taking. And when you start upping the megapixel count in a compact camera, you’re squeezing an awful lot of light sensors into a very small space, which can actually translate to a lower-quality picture, most notably in the speckled, noisy appearance you’ll see in solid-color areas. Unfortunately, choosing one camera over another simply based on a higher megapixel count is a losing strategy.
Selecting the Right Lens
Your camera’s lens will have the largest impact on the quality of your images (outside of the skill of the photographer, that is). Nikon and Canon are known for their lens quality, but other manufacturers often include equally high-quality lenses from respected lens makers such as Leica, Carl Zeiss or Schneider-Kreuznach. Look for these names while shopping.
The lens also provides zoom power for those close-ups of smiling faces or far-away action. In this case, bigger really can be better, with some caveats. You’ll find basic compact cameras offer zooms in the 3x to 5x range, which is fine for routine shooting. Cameras that are nearly as small but priced a bit higher now come with lenses in the 12x to 18x zoom range, which gives you more freedom to frame a shot from a distance – a scene in a school play, for example. Finally there are the megazooms, offering paparazzi-style close-ups at 30x and beyond. These zoom lengths require a larger, less portable camera, though.
The trade-offs as zoom gets longer, beyond price, are required light levels and wide-angle coverage, which is true whether you;’re shooting with a compact or an interchangeable lens camera,. The number to keep an eye on for low-light photography is the maximum aperture, which is listed as f/something. A typical camera with a modest zoom will have a maximum aperture around f/3.5. A more expensive lens gets you down to f/2.0 or even lower, making it much easier to shoot non-blurry photos without a flash. A longer zoom translates into a higher maximum aperture. And when you start getting into the f/4.5 range, handheld indoor shooting without a flash becomes very difficult.
The other key lens spec, which affects how many people you can fit in a group shot, and how wide your landscape photos can stretch, is the low end of the focal length spectrum. Look for manufacturer specifications under “focal length” for the "35mm equivalent." The lower the number of mm, the wider the shot. 28mm is perfect for wide group shots and landscapes, while 35mm-38mm is fine for regular photos.
One final note: you can largely ignore anything you read about digital zoom. In most cases it simply enlarges the photo by blowing it up, something you can easily do at home on your computer. There are some new enhance digital zoom technologies, like Panasonic's Intelligent Zoom or Sony's Clear Image Zoom, which can improve picture quality if you can't get the image otherwise. In fact, we usually recommend you turn off the digital zoom on your camera when taking pictures.
At this point, both compact and interchangeable lens cameras have LCDs on the back that let you see what you’re aiming at before pressing the shutter. These vary widely in quality. Resolution is one distinguishing characteristic – here, higher numbers are consistently better, presenting a clearer representation of your photo both when shooting and when playing it back. Brightness is another challenge, since a dim LCD screen is hard to see on a sunny day. Some manufacturers use coatings to try and tame mid-day glare, with varying degrees of success.
Another potential display advantage is a screen that’s hinged so it can be pivoted to different angles. This not only lets you shoot comfortably with the camera held overhead or down low, it can also be a good way to defeat glare.
Why You Need Image stabilization and High ISO Speed
Unless you’re a robot, your hands will have some level of shake while holding your camera. This can become a serious issue in low light situations, when the shutter speed has to slow down to create a proper exposure. It can also be magnified by high-zoom lenses. Optical image stabilization reduces or eliminates this blur. If you’re looking at a camera with a 5x zoom or higher, you’ll definitely want this feature.
ISO is a technical way of measuring how sensitive your camera’s sensor is to light. The higher the ISO, the faster the shutter speed will be. The faster the shutter speed, the less blur in your photo. Most cameras have a top ISO rating of at least 800, which is fine for normal indoor and outdoor use. For better low-light shots, ISO 1600 or higher will help, though at these levels you may start to see a lot of image noise (stray bits of color) introduced--so don’t expect miracles when you take “a shot in the dark”.
Picture Taking Speed
A photo is a permanent record of a split second in time – and if your camera’s too slow, the split second you capture won’t be the one you wanted. There are two considerations here. One is the time that elapses between the moment you press the shutter and the moment the camera takes the picture. This is called shutter lag.. This used to be a major differentiating factor between different camera models, but in recent years shutter lag has grown shorter and the gap between cameras has narrowed.
The second camera delay problem is the time the camera needs to get ready between shots. If you have kids, a slow camera will guarantee missed shots (See 6 Ways to Speed up a Slow Camera). These speeds can vary significantly from camera to camera and , annoyingly, they’re not included in the manufacturers’ performance specs. Ideally, you can get a few moments of hands-on time to fire off some test shots in the store – if the camera’s slow, you’ll know it quickly. A good camera reviewer will also point out problems if they exist.
One last speed bump – the camera’s “burst” or “continuous shooting” mode. This tells you the maximum number of shots the camera can take per second, without flash. A high burst rate can be a lifesaver if you’re trying to catch a baby’s fleeting expression, or just the right moment when little Casey is at bat. These figures are available for most cameras, and while you’ll have to take the specific number with a grain of salt, they’re a reasonable basis for comparison.
Taking Good Videos
Nearly all digital cameras today, of both the compact and interchangeable-lens variety, can also take movies. The quality won’t equal a standalone camcorder, but it’s often surprisingly good. You’ll find both high-def video standards represented: the very sharp 720p that’s used in HD broadcasts all the way up to Blu-ray disc quality Full HD, at 1080p. It’s worth noting that even if a camera can shoot at higher definition levels, you can almost always shoot lower-res as well, which makes uploading much easier.
And make sure you follow our 10 Ways to Improve Your Home Movies.
Face detection: If you’ve ever taken a photo with the background in beautiful focus and your spouse’s face an unrecognizable blur, you’ll understand why you need face detection. Cameras with this option are smart enough to recognize faces and focus on them, even if they’re not in the center of the frame or the closest object to the camera. Some cameras do this automatically, others have special modes. In a higher-end model, you can even select your subject or differentiate between kids and adults. And with touch-screen cameras, you can generally tap on the face you want in focus to select it.
Autofocus Tracking: With this feature, once you select your subject, the camera will automatically keep it in focus until you take your picture. When paired with face detection, cameras can also "remember" the person you're tracking, reacquiring a lock even if he or she leaves the frame for a few seconds.
HDR: HDR, or high dynamic range, refers to a mode in which the camera takes three images—one over-exposed, one under-exposed and one at regular exposure—and merges them together to reveal more detail in all areas of the image. It's great for images where there is very little or no movement, like landscapes or posed portraits.
Wi-Fi : Cameras with built-in Wi-Fi can automatically download your photos to your computer, email them or upload them to web services like Facebook, Picasa or YouTube. It's a convenient feature for travelers.
GPS: When a GPS receiver is built into your digital camera, the coordinates of the spot where you press the shutter are saved with each picture. Called “geotagging,” this obviously isn’t a necessity, but can be fun for your vacation images. Some cameras and photo sharing Web sites, such as Flickr, let you view your photos as icons attached to a map.
HD Output: Every camera lets you view your images on your TV. But only some have the output jack (HDMI) that enables you to take advantage of an HDTV’s full resolution. Surprisingly, even some cameras that shoot in HD won’t let you play back the results directly from the camera, a major oversight. If you plan on viewing your images regularly on your HDTV, this feature should be on your checklist.
Touchscreen: Some digital cameras with 3-inch or larger displays let you navigate menus with a touchscreen instead of buttons. Whether or not this is an advantage is a matter of personal preference. Some of us love the smartphone-like control scheme, some are more fingerprint-phobic and find physical buttons easier to handle quickly. If possible, try out a touchscreen model you’re considering to see if the screen reacts quickly and easily to your finger movements, and the on-screen menu system makes sense.