Digital camera reviews: Features explained

10 essential digital camera features - explained

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

1) Megapixels and digital camera resolution

Megapixels

 

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

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.

2) Colour reproduction, noise and distortion

Apart from resolution, there are three other key aspects that make a good digital image. Naturally, our digital camera reviews account for all of them...

  • Colour reproduction is the ability of a digital camera to record colours that are true to life.
  • Noise refers to the random speckles seen in images. It occurs particularly when photographing areas of even colour, such as the sky. When a higher sensitivity (eg ISO 400 and above) is used, noise becomes 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.

3) Optical vs digital zoom

Zoom

Nearly all digital cameras have zoom lenses. Nearly all smartphones don't. 

In our digital camera reviews for each model, we show the zoom range as it would be on a film camera - so 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.

4) 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. 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 and then you can take the snap.

5) Viewfinder vs LCD screen

Virtually all digital cameras have an LCD screen for composing shots. Most bridge cameras and DSLRs 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.

6) Manual focusing

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.

7) Image stabilisation

Image stabilisation

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. Best Buy digital cameras now have effective optical image stabilisation technology, which typically involves the lens or digital sensor moving ever so slightly to compensate for hand movements.

8) ISO

The ISO setting on a digital camera tells you how sensitive the camera's sensor is to light. Using a higher ISO setting (such as 400, 800 or 1600) 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.

9) 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 and your photo takes on a yellow tint. Thankfully, nearly all digital cameras have manually selectable white balance settings (indoor, daylight, cloudy) to help you achieve accurate colours under different light conditions.

10) Battery life

Most digital cameras have built-in rechargeable lithium ion batteries and come with a charger. These are a clear money-saving upgrade from having to rely on on AA batteries, and they last for a good while too. We had to drop our testing of camera battery life a few years ago, simply because models would take too long to run out of charge.

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

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