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Digital Camera Buying Guide

By: Tara Tuckwiller on September 13, 2017

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 standard. Some tiny pocket cameras use a 2.7-inch LCD.
  • 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. Some allow users to customize functions to suit their personal preferences.
  • Strong optical zoom. Most digital cameras have a more-than-adequate optical zoom capacity, though some top out at a 3x zoom.
  • HD video. Most digital cameras in this report can record full HD video. Some lower end cameras only offer 720p resolution, however. Higher-end cameras (over $400) can usually record in Ultra HD (4K).
  • Self-timer. All digital cameras let you set a time-delay, so you can set the camera and then join the group photo.
  • Wi-Fi compatibility. If you want an easy way to backup or transfer your photos, look for a digital camera that offers Wi-Fi compatibility for seamlessly transferring image files to your smartphone or tablet. Some models also enable connected smartphones to function as a camera remote control.
  • Auto-focus. Most digital cameras have auto-focus, meaning they automatically focus on the perceived subject.

Know before you go

What's your budget? For less than $200, you can have a compact, easy-to-use point-and-shoot camera for quick shots and only limited creative control. If you want better image quality, more creative control, a longer zoom or interchangeable lenses, expect to pay $250 or more -- and much more in the case of the best mirrorless digital cameras.

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. Compact digital cameras weigh as little as 5 ounces, so they won't weigh down a backpack or jacket for outdoor adventures.

Do you need a rugged camera? High-end digital cameras (more than $1,000) are usually -- but not always -- made from tough, lightweight metal instead of plastic. The very best are weather-sealed to keep out dust and rain. However, you can find some surprisingly rugged cameras -- even waterproof ones -- for less than $500. Photo quality won't be professional, but more than good enough to please most.

How many megapixels do you really need? Some of the top-rated digital cameras have a 12-megapixel image sensor. Some offer 24 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 16 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 special effects and modes? 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.

Do you want to shoot RAW files? Most basic, point-and-shoot digital cameras only record 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. Advanced digital cameras can generally shoot both RAW and JPEG.

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