At BestReviews, we photographed hundreds of smiles, scores of lattes, countless sunsets, and at least a few unsuspecting pets — all so that we could tell you everything you need to know about choosing a digital camera, from shutter speed to optical zoom. When you’re ready to make a selection, please see the matrix above for our top product recommendations.
If you want to shoot beautiful landscapes, capture great video footage, or improve your Instagram portfolio, consider upgrading your cell phone camera to a quality digital camera.
Often boasting sharper images and features your cell phone camera doesn’t have, a digital camera can significantly expand your photography capabilities. Consumer-level digital cameras run from inexpensive point-and-shoot styles to semi-pro models that cost several hundred dollars.
As technology marches on, it’s easier than ever to find quality digital cameras that offer sharp digital imagery, impressive zoom, HD video, and other impressive features at an affordable price.
To avoid product bias, we never accept free gifts from manufacturers. We visit stores and pay cash to buy them, just like you do. Our goal is to arm you with honest and reliable product advice that you can turn to again and again.
While the image quality of cameras has improved, a vast difference exists between the point-and-shoot cameras we considered for this shopping guide and the DSLR (digital single lens reflex) cameras professional photographers use. To be sure, DSLR cameras create sharper images and offer more versatility than their point-and-shoot counterparts. But with their high-end parts — image sensors, interchangeable lenses, and so on — they also cost a lot more.
Nevertheless, you can still find a consumer-level digital camera of exceptional quality. Today, we even see billboards featuring photos taken on a cell phone. If you enjoy photography and want to create short video clips, great Instagram posts, and photos you can print (or even sell), consider one of the top five digital cameras in our product matrix. These cameras offer range, quality, and extra features that far exceed those of a simple cell phone camera.
How comfortable are you with technology? What’s your budget like? And what types of photos would you like to shoot? These factors will most certainly impact your camera choice. But no matter which camera you choose, there are certain “universal” features that affect its quality and performance.
Does camera size matter? In a word, yes.
Pro-grade cameras include all sorts of hefty bells and whistles. Heavy yet delicate, these pieces are bothersome to lug around all day. We suggest you choose a camera that’s light enough to hold in your hand and compact enough to safely stash when not in use.
Resolution refers to the number of pixels used to create an image. Cameras generally sport enough megapixels (12 to 16) to render a sharp picture on a computer screen or paper printout.
The more megapixels, the larger the file size. This could affect your camera’s processing speed and how many images fit on your memory card. As such, a higher number of megapixels isn’t always the better choice.
Most consumer-level digital cameras sport zoom lenses, which allow you to focus at a range of lengths. A camera’s optical zoom spec addresses the ratio between the shortest and longest focal length. For example, a camera with a minimum focal length of 24mm and a maximum length of 288 has a 12x optical zoom. While some cameras boast incredible zoom specs, however, you probably don’t need more than 20x.
Some consumer-level cameras (and all professional cameras) have interchangeable lenses, giving you versatility in your photography. For example, wide-angle lenses are ideal for group shots, indoor photography, and selfies, and telephoto lenses lend themselves to amazing sports, wildlife, and portrait shots.
A camera’s aperture is measured by its f-stop, referring to the size of the opening that lets in light. A “fast” lens — which is preferred — has a wider aperture, allowing you to shoot at faster shutter speeds in lower light. A fast lens is typically f2.8.
As aperture size increases, your depth of field (the sharpness in front of and behind your subject) increases. Often used for portraits and macro shooting, a wide aperture furnishes better control over your depth of field, allowing you to create interesting effects by playing with focal points.
A camera’s sensor affects the color depth and rendition of its images. Results vary from one digital camera to the next.
Bigger sensors typically yield better photo quality, but they cost more — and size is not the only factor to consider. How the image sensor reproduces color can vary. If you have a 16-megapixel camera with a low-quality sensor, your picture suffers (hello, grainy photos).
Cheap digital cameras often incorporate cheap sensors (such as APSC sensors). CCD sensors can vary; high-quality CCD sensors produce superior image quality and better noise control, but low-quality CCD sensors could be terrible for video. It's important to remember that file size isn't everything. We suggest you study reviews of your sensor and test in different light conditions to see if the camera produces vibrant color and sharp images.
Anyone who’s ever tried to catch a photo op on the fly knows about blurry images and shaky video. A camera’s image stabilization feature adjusts shutter speed and ISO sensitivities to control for blur and produce better-looking photos and video. This feature is great for photographers who shoot in low-light environments. It’s also helpful for those with shaky hands.
Whether you use your camera's electronic viewfinder or lift the camera manually to your eye, you want a good coverage percentage. (Coverage measures the amount of your scene that appears in the viewfinder display.) Some viewfinders crop coverage, leaving you to guess what the full frame will look like. One hundred percent coverage is ideal.
Some viewfinders offer different focusing systems. For example, a tracking focus system moves the focal point to follow moving subjects. A toggling system allows you to change focus between subjects or between the foreground and background.
While electronic viewfinders (often located on the back of the camera) are handy for recording video, potential buyers should know that they might have a lower resolution and are often slow to update. This is especially true after a photo is taken, which means you might “see” the action after it’s happened, missing the moment.
The days of having to carry extra AA batteries is likely behind you, as most digital cameras use long-lasting lithium ion rechargeable battery packs. These packs are typically designed for your specific camera and include a charger. If you plan to tote your camera on long trips, check first to see how many shots the battery has been rated for. And remember that everything from using the flash to activating the viewfinder affects battery power.
If you want to shoot video on vacation or upload files to YouTube, you shouldn’t need more than Full HD 1080/30p video. 4K video is quickly becoming the norm in digital cameras, but not all professional photographers consider it a necessity.
When shooting video, image stabilization and a quality microphone are also important. Sound quality contributes to a video’s success (or failure) just as much as image quality.
Do you want a camera with a splash-proof body? Burst mode? GPS? WiFi sharing capabilities?
Some of these features could be fun in certain situations, but they might be rarely used. What’s more, they could bump of the price of the camera. It’s up to you to decide which features are deal-makers or deal-breakers. Be sure you’re not paying for more than you need.
Before you dive into the technological specs of digital cameras, consider why you want a camera in the first place. Are you hoping to capture candid family moments? Vacation memories? Wildlife or landscape scenery? Perhaps it’s a little of everything.
Your photography goals should shape your camera-buying decisions. To that end, we recommend you ask yourself the following questions:
Will I be shooting fast-moving objects?
Animals, athletes, and young children: they all move quickly. To avoid fuzzy imagery, you need a camera with a fast shutter speed.
Pro-level cameras have an almost immediate shutter lag time (the response time between when you click the button and when the camera’s shutter click). Digital cameras, on the other hand, tend to have a problematic lag. The longer the lag time, the more likely you are to miss a picture-perfect moment. Find out how fast a camera’s response is before you buy it. Less than one second is ideal.
Cameras that allow you to shoot several frames in a row (burst mode) can also help you capture life’s speedier moments.
Do I want to capture beautiful landscapes with my camera?
If so, consider buying a lightweight, compact camera that travels well. For many landscape fanatics, a point-and-shoot with a built-in lens, waterproof capabilities, and a long battery life fits the bill.
Will I be shooting mostly video?
If you’re planning to shoot lots of video, examine the camera’s video specs before buying. Full HD video is a must. Image stabilization, weight, and battery life also figure prominently into the equation.