Snap decisions: Award-winning Guardian photographer Dan Chung explains how to choose the right camera and recommends 10 of the latest models: In the frame: top 10 cameras
(Guardian (UK) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) There's almost no such thing as a bad digital camera these days, but the choice can be bewildering. Even a few years ago it was a relatively simple choice between a compact and a digital SLR. Now there are smartphone cameras, compact system cameras, retro-style cameras, video cameras that shoot stills and cameras so tough you can take them swimming.
So, with all these to choose from, how do you find the right camera for you First it helps if you understand some of the jargon . . .
Compact cameras offer you reasonable image quality at a price as low as pounds 50. For more money you can get full creative control - manual overrides - and better sensors and lenses. At the top end you could pay around pounds 2,600, which buys terrific image quality, great design and the convenience of a compact.
Superzoom cameras are hugely popular now because they offer all-in-one convenience. Modern sensors and lens design have meant that for many users, one camera with a huge zoom lens in a very small package will be more than sufficient.
Compact system cameras with interchangeable lenses were born a few years ago. Smaller than a digital SLR (because they do away with the mirror) but with a much larger sensor than most compacts, they give you some of the image-quality benefits of a digital SLR with, in most cases, a more straightforward user experience. The larger sensors tend to give good performance in low light and greater control over the depth of field.
Digital SLRs still offer the best choice of lenses and the top-end models have better sensors than the other cameras I've chosen here. You've probably got the best chance of capturing fast action with a digital SLR and a good lens. Plus, high-end features are starting to find their way into the mid- to low-end models as manufacturers try to keep the format popular.
With this in mind, ask yourself the following questions before reaching for your wallet . . .
How much do you want to spend
Factor in the cost of accessories: extra batteries, memory cards and cases. Bear in mind that there's no point buying a camera with interchangeable lenses if you only buy one lens, and your extra lenses need to be of sufficient quality to make full use of the camera's potential.
How portable do you want your camera to be
For some people it's essential to have something they can carrywith them at all times, such as a smartphone camera. Improved sensor technology now means small cameras can do great things: they're better in low light, can shoot in fast bursts, capture colour well, and even shoot videos.
What will you be shooting
Think about what you want to shoot before you buy. If you plan to shoot fast-moving objects you probably need an interchangeable lens camera with better autofocus tracking and high burst rates. Ditto if you want the shallow depth of field aesthetic.
Do you need to upload images online instantly
The huge popularity of services such as Instagram, Facebook and YouTube means many users want a camera that can directly upload stills and video. Smartphones are the obvious answer, with the bonus of GPS allowing you to geotag your imagery, so people can see where it was taken. The iPhone currently dominates, thanks to its range of apps, but Samsung has just launched a compact camera running the Android operating system and with 3G/4G and Wi-Fi connectivity. Increasingly, cameras will run image-processing apps, just as smartphones do.
Do you want to print your images
If you want a giant fine art print, you should probably be looking at a high-end digital SLR. If your maximum print is going to be 10x8 inches for a photo album, what matters more is good colour and the correct aesthetic. Even an iPhone shot can be printed fairly large if taken in good enough light.
Do you need multiple lenses
Most photography enthusiasts do. But don't think you need an interchangeable lens camera to get great images. Sony has just launched the compact Cyber-shot RX1, which has a fixed lens, but should have great image quality thanks to its full-frame sensor - albeit for an eye-watering pounds 2,600. Bear in mind that lenses hold their value longer than cameras.
Do you need to shoot video
Although most stills cameras now come with a video mode, they use a variety of formats - some of which are easier to work with than others - and almost all are trumped by dedicated video cameras when it comes to audio. At the budget end, you can get compacts with good audio but no manual override, which is fine for capturing random moments. Some compacts and smartphones also make it easy to upload clips.
At the top end, there are digital SLRs such as the Canon EOS 5D mark III and the Panasonic GH3, which have a full range of manual controls and produce video so good some broadcasters use them for television. Both have a large sensor, which means they produce a more cinematic aesthetic than most video cameras.
Do you need to shoot continuously
One of the major differentiators between models is still their battery life. If you're a heavy user, opt for something that won't require you to buy and carry too many extra batteries.
Lastly, use online reviews and photography magazines to help you draw up a shortlist, but then go in to a camera shop and try those models out side by side for look and feel. And don't rule out buying secondhand; last year's models can often be found at bargain prices, leaving you more cash for added accessories - or even a trip away to try out your new toy.
Apple iPhone 5
The iPhone 5 is an incremental improvement over its predecessor, but still represents a near-perfect fusion of camera and apps. Other smartphones may have better technical specifications, but it's the huge number of photography-related apps available that ensures its dominance. The best camera is the one you have with you, and for those who would prefer not to carry a dedicated camera, the iPhone is the ultimate tool.
Nikon Coolpix L25
This diminutive 10 megapixel, 5x optical zoom digital compact comes with vibration reduction and a range of automatic shooting modes, such as portrait or night landscape. It has a nice three-inch LCD screen. Like the Canon, it offers 720p HD video. It runs off two AA batteries and can be found for under pounds 50 online. Although it has recently been replaced by the Coolpix L26, it still currently represents good value.
Canon PowerShot A4000 IS
Unthinkable a few years ago, you can now pick up a 16 megapixel 8x optical zoom compact for less than pounds 100. The Canon PowerShot A4000 IS is easy to use and quite responsive, making it a nice little vacation camera that's ideal for those who just want to point and shoot. The slim, elegantly simple design comes in a range of colours and weighs a mere 145g. It is also capable of shooting 720p HD video.
Panasonic Lumix TZ30
Panasonic was one of the first companies to make compact superzoom cameras and this, its latest model, does not disappoint. Packing a 20x zoom Leica lens with image stabilisation and a 14.1 megapixel sensor in a sleek body that is easily pocketable, it does pretty much everything you would expect as well. There's an HD video mode and it can also shoot stills at up to 10 frames a second, when the autofocus is switched off. As with most compacts, don't expect too much in low light. Available online for around pounds 235.
Sony NEX-5R (centre
The latest update to Sony's popular NEX-5 features great image quality, interchangeable lenses and snappy focus. This is a camera that will grow with you - it can be fully automatic or fully manual, so as you gain confidence you can take more control. It has an articulated LCD touchscreen that can be adjusted to suit your viewing angle and an optional electronic viewfinder can also be added. It can send images straight to Facebook via Wi-Fi, or push them to an iPhone or Android smartphone, and there's also a range of proprietary in-camera apps. Available from pounds 659.
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 (left
This is the compact for serious photographers: it has truly excellent image quality, thanks to its relatively large one-inch 20-megapixel sensor. Images are of surprisingly high quality in lowish light, it is very responsive and has a great lens, equivalent to 28-100mm on a 35mm camera. It also offers excellent video, lots of manual overrides and a continuous shooting speed of 10 frames a second. All this, and it will still fit in your pocket. That's why it will cost you around pounds 500.
Nikon's entry-level digital SLR has all the features you would expect plus a few extras, such as an optional wireless adaptor. This camera is all about image quality, because it allows you to combine its 24-megapixel CMOS sensor with the company's fantastic range of high-quality lenses. It's got a solid build and is relatively straightforward to use. HD video is thrown in too. It may not have some of the latest bells and whistles that rival models from Sony or Panasonic offer, but it does what it does with aplomb - and all for around pounds 449.
Olympus OM-D E-M5
This is a beautifully retro-styled compact system camera that looks like one of the film cameras of yesteryear, but uses the Micro Four Thirds interchangeable lens system. It has great image quality, a weather-sealed body, in-camera image stabilisation and a good, clear electronic viewfinder. Handling is a dream. It's an object of desire as much as a tool. Available from online retailers for around pounds 1,149.
Packing an astounding 36.3 megapixels into a standard-sized professional digital SLR, this Nikon is designed more for studios and landscapes than the sports field, although it's still well built. Ergonomically, it's a pleasure to use. It also has an excellent video mode. At the time of writing, it's the ultimate digital SLR in terms of image quality. One thing to note: to take full advantage of this, you really will need the best lenses the company has to offer. The body alone will cost you around pounds 2,000.
Canon EOS-1D X
I'm a long-time user of the Canon EOS system and this is its flagship model. Seen in large numbers at the 2012 Olympic Games, this is the default choice for many major news organisations. It's built to withstand the rigours of daily professional use and built for speed, taking up to 14 pictures a second. It also has a full-frame sensor with phenomenal low-light performance and the most accurate autofocus I've ever used. The video is the best I've seen out of a digital SLR, except perhaps for its cinema-oriented sister, the forthcoming EOS-1D C. However, these qualities don't come cheaply; expect to pay around pounds 4,500 for the body alone.
(c) 2012 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
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