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Buyers' guide: Super-zoom compact cameras

What to look for in a compact digital camera

With summer just about here, it’s a great time to dig out your camera and take advantage of the extra hours of sunlight (if not actual sunshine) to shoot some photos. If the sunshine months also include a holiday, you’ll want to ensure you end up with some photos – and perhaps video – by way of a memento of your travels. If so, a compact camera that takes up little luggage space, and isn’t so heavy it gets left in the hotel room rather than accompanying you on your expeditions, is likely to be preferable. But what model should you buy?

Optical vs digital zoom

Three years ago, you might find a camera with a 5x or 10x zoom; now you can expect anything up to 30x. When choosing a camera, consider only the optical zoom – the part of the camera that physically zooms in and out. The other type of zoom, known as a digital zoom, uses software to artificially bring objects closer, losing definition in the process.

A large sensor on a lens is also preferable. And look out for glassware from respected lens manufacturers such as Carl Zeiss and Leica.

Group test: What's the best compact digital camera

Pixels and memory

If video capture is of interest, note that some ‘HD’ cameras support a ‘full-HD’ resolution of 1920x1080 pixels, while others max out at 720p video footage. The down side of the higher resolution is that it results in larger files and takes longer to ‘write’ the image information to the camera’s memory. You can partially compensate for this by investing in a faster memory card. If you want better sound capture, look for stereo microphones. A dedicated button for instant video recording makes filming easier.

Back on the photo front, file sizes and writing times also rise as you increase the number of megapixels. If you attempt to take 14Mp photos of a sports event, for example, and you might miss action shots as result. However, almost every digital camera comes with a dedicated sport mode that drops the resolution a little but can keep up with the game. It’s also important to look for a fast shutter speed.

Photo Advisor

Shooting modes

Modes are a useful feature on a compact camera. You have a single lens to cover every type of photo you want to take manually, so adjusting the depth of field, shutter speed and light levels for each shot is both tricky and time-consuming. Instead, let the camera choose depending on the prevailing light conditions, or select from a menu of indoor, outdoor, daytime and night-time scene modes.

For the holidaying photographer who wants to truly take in the sights, the ability to shoot at maximum wide-angle to shoehorn a mountain range into frame, plus, seconds later, zoom in on the craggy, weathered features of the local goat herder – and get stunningly sharp results at both extremes – is a real boon. You can also frame the photo more easily if you can get everything in shot without having to move back several paces, so you’re more likely to get the shot you want before the moment passes.

Digital camera reviews

Panoramic scene modes and in-camera photo stitching are also useful, although such features vary in effectiveness between camera models. However, we welcome the inclusion of GPS support in cameras: it allows you to take a shot and automatically have a record of where and when it was captured stored as part of the image information. This is handy for posting digital photos online, since the photos will be pinpointed on Google Maps, but it can also help you discern which one of many wildernesses you visited a particular shot depicts.

Build quality

Finally, looks aren’t everything, but they do come into the equation when choosing a digital camera. More important, however, is the camera construction. How well it fits in your hand, how easy it is to grip and hold steady when videoing or composing a shot, as well as how accessible you find the controls and menus. It’s always a good idea to try out a camera in a shop, even if you eventually buy it online.

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