Todays digital camera market is moving in leaps and bounds. The worst thing happening is the megapixel race! Please do NOT fall into this trap. The amount of megapixels honestly do not play a large part in camera quality anymore. Megapixels are more so there for a selling point because many consumers honestly think that the more megapixels the better the camera. With the current cameras on the market the quality of the megapixels is far more important then the amount of them. More is NOT always better ;) With the P&S (point and shoot) digital cameras the sensor is so small and to be honest 5MP is about the max that is efficient in my opinion. Above these 5MPs the quality tends to take a hit in order to cram all those MPs on the small sensor. Now, with dSLRs (atleast the APS-C cropped sensor cameras) I would venture to say that around 8MPs is the happy amount, above that the quality starts taking a small hit.
What about prints you ask!? Well, lets see, if all you plan on printing is 4×6″ or smaller then any 3.1MP camera or smaller will do more then enough, even upto 5×7″ would be fine. Any of the current 5MP cameras will easily print upto an 8×10″ and possible upto an 11×14″ if the image is great to start with. If you want larger then you honestly should consider a dSLR.
There are alot of abbreviations out there, like IS, OIS, AS, OS, etc. These all pretty much stand for image stabilization, which basically translates simply to anti-shake. This is one of the more important features to look for in your camera. This feature can be very helpful in lower light or for those who are not so steady. Now be careful though when choosing your camera! Some companies anti-shake isn’t really image stabilization but instead is a feature that automatically raises the camera’s ISO setting higher and higher until a proper shutter speed is accomplished. With P&S cameras this is a very very bad idea! Higher ISO means much more noise and far less details. What you want is to make sure the image stabilization is real, like Canon and Panasonic, and not just an automatic raising of the ISO, like Fuji.
Another key feature to look at is your Zoom. Now do not be fooled with the 10x, 5x, 2x numbers though; instead look at the actual focal ranges covered. For example a 5-50mm lens would be a 10x zoom, but so would a 100-1000mm. The “x” focal length designation is actually the amount of range between the lenses widest point and its longest point. So, you are better off looking at the specifications and looking at the actual focal ranges. Also, do NOT be fooled by large zooms that include “digital zooms”!! I ca not stress this enough, Turn off digital zooms!!! First thing to do when you get your batteries charged is to go into the cameras menu and turn off digital zoom. Digital zooms degrade image quality far too much to be useful. What is important is your Optical Zoom.
The last thing to keep in ind is actually a two part deal. Firstly you must make sure the camera is comfortable in your hands. If the camera is not comfortable then it is a bad choice! You wouldn’t buy pants that don’t fit would you!? So don’t buy a camera that doesn’t fit in your hands ;) Secondly, check your features. Some P&S cameras offer advanced settings for those who know about photography or would like to learn. These advanced settings allow you the user to set things like ISO, Aperture, Shutter Speed, etc. all by hand instead of letting it upto the camera. This is important to some but not to others.
Below you will find a few Categories and a list to go with each of which cameras are your best bang for the buck at the time of this writing. As you will notice many of the models I chose are Panasonic, this is because of the greater fine details.. accurate color reproduction... superb features/lenses.. and overall image quality they provide.
1. Panasonic FZ50 is a superb camera with all the features and functions of a nice Professional dSLR, but in a P&S fixed lens camera. or the Panasonic FZ8.. the FZ8 is especially great for close-up and macro work!
2. Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7
3. Canon S3 IS
4. Sony H-5/7 or H-2
Medium Sized P&S
1. Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ3. Really the only medium sized camera I would even think of buying. The camera boasts image stabilization, top end lens, large zoom, excellent image quality.
1. Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX2, hard to beat this camera. Even has every option to keep an experienced user content & happy! It has all the features of the big boys but in a small tidy little package.
2. Panasonic LZ3 or LZ5/6/7
3. Fuji F31. Great for higher ISO and low light work.
4. Canon SD800 IS or A640
5. Sony S600/700
1. Fuji Z3
Best Price and Easy to Use
1. Panasonic LZ3/LZ5/6/7. This camera really can not be beat for the money nor for ease of use. This is a camera for anyone who doesn’t want to spend much but wants the best image quality they can get. As long as you aren’t after a bunch of manual settings the LZ3 or LZ5/6/7 will work just fine for you. They really are remarkable cameras when it comes to image quality. They also boast image stabilization as well as top notch optics.
What About dSLRs?
Now this opens up an entirely new way of thinking. When you are buying a dSLR you are investing into a system. You need to look at what accessories and lenses are available for the dSLR you are considering and make sure everything you may need or want is offered by the Company or 3rd Party Manufacturers. In fact, 3rd Party Manufacturers like Sigma, Tamron, and Tokina are some of your best outlets for top quality lenses at a more affordable price instead of the over priced OEM products; And 9/10 times the 3rd Party product will do everything the OEM product will and it will do it just as well or possibly even better!
Which one to choose!? That is the question of the century! You really need to go handle the models you are considering. This is very important, because if a camera is not comfortable in your hands you will never get great shots with it. You really can not go wrong with any of the dSLRs on the market right now. They are all pretty darn nice cameras. The only ones I wouldn’t recommend are the Olympus E series and the Sony A series dSLRs, they are far to noisy and their accessories are just too darn expensive. The competition really blows them out of the water. I would say the most popular dSLRs are Canon and coming in at a close 2nd is Nikon. I personally find the Canon Rebel series (aside from the older 300D) entirely too small and unbalanced when a larger/longer lens is placed on them, if you have smaller hands this may not be an issue for you. The Canon 20D/30D cameras are very nice and both are built far better then the Rebel series. With Nikon you have the D50, D70, and the D80 at the starting end. All are decent cameras but the D80 really shines through. The next step up is the D200 which is designed more around the Professional.
Let us talk about a hot new/old competitor in the market right now, Pentax. Pentax is making leaps ahead of the competition right now, especially with the release of their K10D. One benefit of the Pentax, and a big one, is you can use virtually any lens ever made for Pentax cameras and most importantly… every single one of them becomes image stabilized when used on the K10D!!! The K10D also offers anti-dust and a nice weather sealed body too! The image quality on the K10D is more competitive with the competition as well. Pentax also offers the K100D and K110D which are both nice cameras at an excellent price!
So yet again we arrive at the main question, Which one should I buy? To be honest, only you can answer that question!! But below you will find my list:
1. Pentax K10D
2. Nikon D80
3. Canon 20D or 30D
4. Pentax K100D
5. Canon 350XT
6. Pentax K110D or Nikon D70
I know I left out Fuji’s dSLR, Sigma’s dSLR, as well as the upper end models from Canon and Nikon. I did this because these are really specialty cameras and if you are looking at any of them then you already know what they are for and how they work and shouldn’t need help ;)
Edit: I do have to make a small addition here. I need to address the “noise” issues that seem to run rampant around the Internet about Panasonic cameras. This is mostly exaggeration. They do have noise, but not much more then any other P&S camera. The difference is that the type of noise that the Panasonic cameras have is very easily removed without destroying the finer details as much, unlike other cameras where removing the noise destroys the details. I personally prefer Neat Image to do this... It is an excellent program at a very reasonable price and no digital camera owner should be without it!! Also if you set your Panasonic to "Natural" in the menu the noise becomes even less yet.