How to Buy a Digital Camera

Updated May 31, 2014

What the best digital camera has

  • Image stabilizer. Shaky hands can blur your photos, but the best digital cameras have optical image stabilizers to ensure a steady shot. Some cheaper cameras use a digital stabilizer that doesn't work as well.
  • LCD screen. A good LCD is bright and crisp, so you can frame your shot and see your photos accurately even in strong sunlight. A 3-inch LCD screen is a necessity, even on cheaper cameras.
  • Manual settings. In the above-budget price range (over $200), even basic digital cameras allow you at least some manual control -- and high-end models offer full manual control over focus, aperture, shutter speed and more.
  • Strong optical zoom. Most digital cameras have a more-than-adequate optical zoom capacity, though the budget models often top out at a 5x zoom.
  • HD video. While most digital cameras in this report can record full HD video, some do it significantly better than others. If you're a budding moviemaker, search out the cameras that excel at this.
  • Self-timer. All digital cameras let you set a time-delay, so you can set the camera and then join the group photo.

Know before you go

What's your budget? For less than $500, you can get a pocket-sized digital camera with full manual controls, impressive photo quality, full HD video and a versatile zoom lens. For less than $200, you can have a tiny, point-and-shoot camera for quick shots. If you want interchangeable lenses and even better image quality, expect to pay $800 or more.

Do you want a pocket-sized camera? Some advanced digital cameras can actually slip into a jeans pocket, while others will fit in a jacket pocket. Interchangeable-lens compacts usually won't fit into a pocket.

Do you need a rugged camera? Higher-end digital cameras (more than $1,000) are usually -- but not always -- made from tough, lightweight metal instead of plastic. The best interchangeable-lens compacts ($1,000 or more) are usually weather-sealed to keep out dust and rain.

Do you want a viewfinder? All digital cameras have an LCD screen on the back. Some also have a viewfinder so you can hold the camera up to your eye to frame your shot, which feels more natural to some users. Be aware that the cheaper cameras in this report don't have viewfinders.

How many megapixels do you really need? Some of the top-rated digital cameras have a 12-megapixel image sensor. Some offer 20 megapixels or more, which can translate to sharper detail if you blow up really big prints. Tests show that it doesn't always work that way, though, so don't judge by megapixels alone.

Do you shoot fast action? The speediest digital cameras can rattle off 10 full-resolution frames per second or more. Again, don't judge by the numbers alone: The best cameras have fast processors that can keep up with your trigger finger, but others leave testers twiddling their thumbs while the camera sluggishly records the images.

Will you use extras like 3D shooting and kooky photo effects? Even the cheap cameras in this report give you at least a few nifty features to play with -- like turning your photo a nostalgic sepia tone, or making it look like a miniature scale model. Some cameras go way beyond these basics, loading down with 3D shooting (which you need a 3D TV to view), sweep panorama and more.

Do you want to shoot RAW files? Most cameras under $400 or so shoot only JPEG image files, which are pre-processed in the camera (edges are sharpened, grainy image noise is smoothed away, etc.). Some advanced photographers prefer to shoot RAW files and custom-process later on a computer, giving them total editing control. Digital cameras over $400 can generally shoot both RAW and JPEG.

Value expectations: The dollars and cents of it

Lenses cost extra, if you choose an interchangeable-lens camera. Usually, a versatile kit lens comes bundled with the camera (often a mid-quality 18 mm to 55 mm zoom). But the main advantage of these cameras is the swappable lenses -- you can attach a super-wide-angle lens, a long telephoto or a macro lens for close-ups. Expect to pay $200 to $1,500 per lens, depending on quality. The good news is that you can keep using your lenses even if you buy a new camera in the future, as long as you don't switch brands or platforms (both Olympus and Panasonic fit the same Micro Four Thirds lenses, for example).