Digital camera reviews: Features explained

Woman holding a digital camera

Best digital camera features to look for

When you're looking for the best digital camera for you, you might be bewildered by the huge variety of different features, from image stabilisation to face detection. While some of us just want a basic point-and-shoot digital camera for taking holiday snaps, others want a digital camera with more advanced features.

You can trial Which? today for £1 to find out which Best Buy cameras will deliver the features you need.

Camera alternatives

If you're a keen photographer, you may want to consider a DSLR camera, which can give better-quality images than ordinary digital cameras.

Check out our guide to buying the best DSLR camera.

If you're not keen on the bulkiness and expense of a DSLR, then a good alternative option is a bridge camera. Bridge cameras lie in between compact models and DSLRs. They offer larger zoom lenses and full manual controls, but they're smaller and cheaper than DSLRs.

Read our expert Which? reviews of the best bridge cameras

For an overview of all cameras and finding the right one for you read the Which? guide to choosing and buying a digital camera

Digital camera resolution

The quality of a digital photograph depends heavily on the digital camera's resolution – the amount of detail it records. Resolution is defined in megapixels (Mp). More megapixels mean more detail, so you can create bigger prints without noticing blockiness on the picture.

Digital resolution required for print
Image size for printDigital resolution required (megapixels)
6x4 inches2.2Mp
7x5 inches3.2Mp
10x8 inches7.2Mp

Bear in mind cropping photos with photo editing software loses resolution further. Megapixels aren't the be-all and end-all though – the digital camera's lens quality, sensor quality and sensor size play a big role in how sharp and colour-accurate your pictures are.

For example, an 8Mp digital camera with a great lens and a large sensor could provide better image quality overall than a 10Mp digital camera with a great lens but small sensor (as long as you don't print huge print sizes). 

See the Which? digital camera reviews to compare how different models performed in our tests and find the best digital camera for you.

Many digital cameras have different quality settings so you can shoot at lower resolutions. This creates smaller file sizes, making photos easier to edit or email, and means you can fit more on a memory card, for example if you're on a long holiday. 

Pictures at lower quality settings are fine for emailing or just viewing on a computer. The number of image-quality settings on digital cameras varies from just two up to 30 or so.

Digital camera optical zoom function

Most digital cameras have zoom lenses

Optical zoom on digital cameras

Nearly all digital cameras have zoom lenses. In our digital camera reviews for each model, we show the zoom range as it would be on a film camera, for easy comparison.

For example, a digital camera might have a zoom range of 35-105mm.

The first figure refers to the lens at its shortest setting. The lower this number, the wider the angle of view the digital camera can manage – useful for taking landscape shots, for example, or indoor shots in cramped conditions.

The second figure indicates how far the digital camera's zoom extends.The higher this number, the closer you can zoom in on distant objects. 

On a typical compact digital camera, this figure is around 105mm, though some digital cameras go as high as 420mm. For close-ups of distant wildlife, aim for a high second number. 

The maximum optical zoom on a compact digital camera is around 10x, but superzoom or bridge cameras can go up to 18x or 24x optical zoom.

Digital camera short shutter delay

The best digital cameras have short shutter delay

Digital camera shutter delay

With some digital cameras, the photo is taken more than a second after you press the shutter release – making it easy to miss the instant your child blows out the birthday candles. Choose a digital camera that scores highly for this in our digital camera reviews to avoid this.

A tip is to half-press the shutter button as you compose a shot. This sets off the digital camera's autofocus system. When the camera finds the focus, it will beep or a light will come on to show it's ready.

Make sure you're happy with the composition of the picture, using the digital camera's LCD screen or viewfinder, while keeping the button half pressed. Finally, press it down all the way to take the picture.

Batteries for your digital camera

The best digital cameras often have built-in rechargeable lithium ion batteries and come with a charger. These are worth having because digital cameras use batteries so quickly, it saves money and means you can always keep the battery topped up and ready to go.

If your digital camera doesn't come with a charger and rechargeable batteries, it's definitely worth buying them separately. Normally, around £12 to £20 should cover it.

Digital camera viewfinder

Virtually all digital cameras have an LCD screen for composing shots. Some (especially bigger digital cameras) have a viewfinder too, which is a useful alternative as it's easier to use in bright sunlight when the LCD screen is hard to view because of reflection.

You can steady a shot more easily with a viewfinder, because you hold the digital camera up to your eye. Using the viewfinder instead of the LCD screen also saves a bit of battery life. Check out the specifications in our digital camera reviews to see which models have a viewfinder.

An optical viewfinder on a digital camera other than a DSLR isn't 100% accurate. What you see when you look through it will differ from what the lens sees because it is in a different position. 

An electronic viewfinder is a miniature LCD and is more accurate. However, electronic viewfinders are only typically found on bridge cameras. See our advice on how to buy the best bridge camera if you're keen on these larger models.

Digital camera size and weight

Digital cameras can vary greatly in size and weight. If a genuinely pocket-sized model is the best digital camera for you, check the weight and dimension details in our digital camera reviews

Larger digital cameras tend to have more features, and usually, though not always, take better quality pictures.

A manual focus button on a digital camera

Manual focus is a helpful feature

Manual focusing on digital cameras

Nearly all digital cameras have auto-focusing but only some have manual focusing (MF).

A digital camera with MF is useful for close-ups as it lets you focus on exactly what you want (the centre of a flower instead of the petals, for example). It's also handy for special effects, such as shooting a street light out of focus for a dreamy, romantic effect.

Digital cameras with face detection

If you take a lot of portrait shots, the best digital camera for you could be one with a face-detection feature. When this is turned on, it can help you take good photos of people.

Face detection can usually detect up to eight or nine faces in a frame, or in other words on your digital camera's LCD screen or in your viewfinder, as you're composing a shot. 

The digital camera then focuses on those faces so they're sharp. It also makes sure they're not too bright or dark. 

Read Which? digital camera reviews to see which models have this feature.

Digital camera ISO

The ISO setting on a digital camera tells you how sensitive the camera's sensor is to light. You can change the ISO setting manually on most digital cameras.

Using a higher ISO setting (like 400, 800 or 1600 for example) means it can be easier to take good photos in dim conditions without flash. It can also mean action photos will have less movement blur in them.

Though having a high maximum ISO setting on your digital camera is a benefit, using a higher ISO setting can introduce more noise into your pictures, ie the random speckles of colour that can detract from picture quality. 

Some digital cameras have a restriction on the highest ISO setting. For example, a 12Mp digital camera may only be able to take pictures at the 5Mp if the highest ISO setting is set. The camera should notify you when the resolution is limited by the ISO setting. 

If this is a problem, just choose a lower ISO setting. Remember, if you're just intending to view your photos on a computer or print small sizes, you don't need to shoot at a super-high megapixel setting like 12Mp.

Video and sound recording on digital cameras

Most digital cameras can produce not only still shots, but also short videos with sound. 

But even the best digital cameras we've tested can't produce videos of a quality comparable to a digital camcorder. See Which? camcorder reviews and Which? HD camcorder reviews for current Best Buys.

Image stabilisation (OIS)

Though the digital camera might be perfectly focused, your photos might still be blurry, especially in dim conditions or if you've zoomed in a lot.

This is the curse of camera shake – sometimes even the smallest hand movements affect the picture.

Putting the digital camera on a tripod is one good solution, but not always practical. The best digital cameras now have image stabilisation technology to help create sharper images. 

Typically this involves the lens or digital sensor moving ever so slightly to compensate for hand movements. 

Check out Which? digital camera reviews to see which models have image stabilisation. Keep it turned on at all times unless your digital camera is on a tripod.

Digital camera anti-blur feature

Sometimes, digital camera manufacturers might advertise their anti-blur features, but these aren't real image stabilisation systems. Even though anti-blur features can increase noise in your photos, they're still useful to have as blur is usually a bigger problem than noise.

However, nothing beats a proper image stabilisation system. Good digital camera image stabilisation reduces blur – with no drawbacks.

The mode settings dial on a digital camera

Mode settings dial on a digital camera

Scene modes on digital cameras

These pre-set modes are quick to select and help you take good pictures in various situations. Some of the best digital cameras have over 20.

‘Sports’ mode, for example, makes it easier to take pictures of a moving ball, and ‘portrait’ helps to create better people shots, perhaps by blurring the background.

Image quality on digital cameras

Apart from resolution, three other key aspects that make a good digital image are colour reproduction, the absence of noise, and the absence of distortion. The Which? digital camera reviews test for all of them.

  • Colour reproduction is the ability of a digital camera to record colours that are true to life.
  • Noise is random speckles seen especially in areas of even colour like the sky. When a higher sensitivity (eg ISO 400 and above) is used, these get more prominent.
  • Distortion sometimes occurs when you've zoomed right in or right out. Straight lines near the edge of the image might look slightly bent.

Digital cameras: white balance

All digital cameras have automatic white balance. This feature goes some way to ensure your photos' colours are as accurate as possible. 

Often though, you do get slight colour casts – this is most often seen when you take a photo indoors under a normal household lightbulb. Here, your photo may be tinged with yellow. 

Nearly all digital cameras have manually selectable white balance settings, to help you achieve accurate colours under different light conditions – 'indoor lightbulb', 'daylight' and 'cloudy' are three common settings. 

Most digital cameras also have a custom white balance mode – this ensures the most accurate colours of all, but requires a bit of setting up in advance. See your digital camera's manual for more details.

Viewing digital camera images on a TV screen

A picture showing a digital camera connected to a TV

It's easy to connect a digital camera to a TV

You can view your pictures on a TV screen, a great way of sharing them with many people at once. Nearly all the best digital cameras come with a video cable that lets you plug your camera into a television's video-in socket.

Put your digital camera into playback mode, indicated by a small arrow on most cameras, switch through the AV channels on the TV and when the photos appear on screen, use your digital camera's arrow pads to scroll through and impress your friends.

You can also use a DVD player to view your pictures on-screen, if you have one that plays Jpeg files (most players do). After you've transferred your photos to your computer, record them onto a CD or DVD, put the disc in your DVD player and play.

A few DVD players also have SD card slots – useful if your digital camera records on an SD card (see our digital camera reviews to find out which models do this).

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