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Ask Gadget Grant: which digital camera should I put on my Christmas shopping list?

Q: The camera on my mobile phone is really handy, but sometimes I’d like to take better quality photographs. What kind of camera would you recommend?

A: Image quality from digital cameras has improved exponentially over the past few years, while prices continue to fall daily.  A plethora of new shapes, sizes and camera formats in recent years has made choosing a new camera more difficult than ever.

In order to narrow your selection there are a couple of fundamental rules to consider.

First, megapixel counts are irrelevant. Entry level cameras now come with sensors of 10 megapixels (MP) or more, while high-end cameras push that figure to 24 or even 36 MP. But even a 10MP camera is capable of producing glossy prints up to 20” across. Switch to a more forgiving medium like canvas and you can get a perfect 4ft-wide print from a 10MP camera.

A benefit of lower pixel counts is that you need less space to store the files, so you can fit more pictures on your memory card and hard drive at home.

The second rule is that, for any given budget, a bigger camera will produce better pictures than a small one.  The flip side of that argument is convenience – a big camera is worthless if you can’t stand lugging it around.

For budgets under £300, my advice is to choose a “point and shoot” (aka compact) camera based on the zoom range you’re likely to need.  Longer zoom ranges like 10x or 18x are great if you’re planning to take pictures of the kids playing sports but, if you’re able to get up close to your subject, a similarly priced camera with a shorter zoom range (3x or less) will always produce brighter, sharper images.

For budgets over £300 there are three main types of camera to choose from:

Compact Cameras

These pocket-sized cameras typically have retracting lenses that make them as svelte as possible and always have fully automatic modes that you can’t go wrong with.

Pros: Compact, lightweight and easy to use.
Cons: Can be slow to focus.  Not great for capturing fast-moving sports... or children.

Mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras (MILC), aka Compact System Cameras

MILCs typically have small bodies like compact cameras but are characterised by their protruding lenses which can be swapped to give different angles of view. The most compact lenses give a very wide angle of view, while lenses with a good zoom range are often bigger than the camera itself.

Pros: Faster focussing, higher image quality and better at capturing action shots than their compact cousins.
Cons: Relatively bulky. Extra lenses are expensive and can be awkward to carry.

Digital SLR Cameras

These cameras are big, bulky and featured packed, just like the models used by professional photographers. 

Pros: Ultra-fast focussing and fast shutter speeds make these cameras ideal for snapping sports or rampaging children. Large image sensor makes it easy to get attractive, out of focus backgrounds typically found in professional shots. Clever automatic modes make Digital SLRs as easy to use as a compact.
Cons: Big and heavy, these cameras require a lot of commitment.

Recommendations

As outlined above, the main considerations in buying a camera are budget and the size of camera you’re prepared to carry. Here are my top picks by budget and size:

Compact:

Around £300:

Ricoh CX6: Clever ultra-fast hybrid focus system makes this model stand out from the crowd (£269).

Around £500:

Sony Cyber-shot RX100: Amazing image quality in a compact chassis (£479).

MILC:

Around £300:

Nikon 1 V1 with 10-30 lens: Great low light performance and the option of full manual control (£299).

Around £500:

Sony NEX-5R with 18-55 lens: Ultra-thin body, fast focusing and built-in Wi-Fi (£599).

D-SLR:

Around £300:

Nikon D3100 with 18-55 lens: Great budget D-SLR with endless future upgrade options (£299).

Around £500:

Canon 650D with 18-55 lens: Variable angle-touch screen makes this one of the simplest D-SLRs on the market (£530).

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