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Compact Camera Buying Guide

Compact digital cameras have come a long way over the past few years. The features keep getting better and better while the prices get less and less expensive. Manufacturers also seem to be refreshing their cameras at a very rapid pace, with replacement models coming out as many as two to three times in a year.

Just in time for this year’s new crop of spring cameras, Photography Savvy has some things to look out for when purchasing your next compact camera.

More Pixels Are Not Always Better

A common digital camera myth is that a camera with more megapixels takes a better picture. Generally speaking, this is definitely not the case. Even though the pixel count keeps getting higher and higher, this doesn’t directly translate into better pictures. Other features, such as the camera’s processing, the optics, how it handles color and its performance at high ISOs, have a far greater impact than the number of pixels. Unfortunately for us, most manufacturers are content improving the quantity of pixels over the quality of pixels.

Since most compact cameras are using a small sensor, even the highest resolution point and shoot won’t match the quality of a digital SLR. Unless you plan to do a lot of cropping or enlargements bigger than 14″ wide, anything with around 8 megapixels should be more than adequate.

All Zooms Are Not Created Equal

You always want to look for optical zoom in a camera over digital zoom, especially in cameras with a large zoom range. Optical zoom uses the lens to bring the subject closer to you while digital zoom magnifies or crops the image, resulting in a loss of clarity and resolution.

Most manufacturers are much better about not advertising the digital zoom, but it is still something to watch out for. When you do make your camera purchase, you might want to consider disabling the digital zoom so you don’t accidentally use it.

Another thing to watch for is the range that the optical zoom covers. Manufacturers usually designate their zooms with numbers like “3x,” but 3x zoom is not standardized among different models. What this means is that you could have two cameras with a 3x zoom, and they may have different focal lengths.

To differentiate between cameras, try to look for their 35mm equivalent zoom. Typically most compact cameras start at about 35mm, but there are models out there that will go as low as 24mm for a wider field of view. Cameras with a wider field of view will be a little limited on the telephoto side and vice versa.

Image Stabilization

Most of today’s cameras have some form of image stabilization – a function that will allow you to get pictures at shutter speeds slower than normal without camera shake. An important thing to keep in mind is image stabilization will stop your motion, not your subject’s motion.

Another thing to watch out for is the type of image stabilization that the camera has. Cameras have three different types of stabilization: optical, sensor-shifting or electronic. The stabilization is built into the lens or image sensor for optical or sensor-shifting, respectively.

These forms of stabilization are both very effective and will help you reduce camera shake. Electronic stabilization is when the camera boosts the ISO sensitivity up higher in order to reduce camera shake – something most cameras already do anyways. Electronic stabilization should usually be avoided because it is not as effective and results in a grainy picture.

Types of Batteries

Today’s cameras either use AA-type batteries or lithium ion rechargeable batteries. Each type has its advantages and disadvantages. AA-type batteries are extremely convenient in the sense that if your batteries die, you can get replacements just about anywhere you go. Their biggest drawback is they don’t last nearly as long as their lithium ion counterparts and are consumable, meaning you might be using a lot of batteries.

Lithium ion batteries are more and more prevalent in today’s compact cameras. Their biggest benefit is they last a long time on each charge and don’t need to be replaced frequently. Their biggest drawback is once they die, you’re stuck unless you have a backup (which is a must!). Also, they can be very expensive (sometimes as much as $60).

Don’t Skimp on Quality

No matter what type of camera you’re shooting, always shoot on the highest possible resolution. I know I’d mentioned earlier in the article that megapixels are not everything, but there’s no point in buying a 12 megapixel camera if you’re going to lower the resolution down to 3 megapixels.

Memory prices are ridiculously cheap these days so shoot at a high resolution; you never know when that once-in-a-lifetime shot is going to come. The important thing to remember is you can always scale an image down, but you can never add more pixels to an image.


Hopefully these pointers will help you when selecting your new compact camera. Once you get your camera, be sure to take a lot of pictures!

Interested in buying a Digital SLR? Check out our Digital SLR Buying Guide.