20 Things You Must Know Before Buying a Compact Camera

Your guide to finding the right digital compact or EVF.

If you’re shopping for a digital camera, odds are it’s not your first. But, admit it: Even with thousands of snapshots saved to your hard drive, the camera specs, features, and marketing hype on the latest cameras can still be downright confusing.

Don’t worry. We can help you sort it out. After testing hundreds of digicams in the Pop Photo Lab, we have strong notions of what works, what doesn’t, what’s worth getting, and what’s baloney. Here are 20 choices you’ll face when buying a digital compact or electronic viewfinder (EVF) camera and what you should know about each.

1. MEGAPIXELS

Less may be more
More megapixels mean bigger image files — great for poster prints. But if you won’t top 8×10 inches, 12MP may be overkill. And adding megapixels can slow the burst rate as the camera must crunch more data. Plus, compacts’ sensors are crammed with smaller photosites, which can produce more visible noise, particularly at higher ISOs. So if you’re likely to crop or zoom in significantly, stick with a 7 or 8MP model with a 6-10X optical zoom.

2. ZOOM

Optical vs. digital
Optical zoom is what counts. This is the focal range of the lens, usually expressed in 35mm equivalency (what it would be if the digital sensor were as big as a frame of 35mm film). A 10X zoom will have an equivalent focal length of, say, 28-280mm; a 3X zoom could be 35-105mm or 38-114mm.

“Digital zoom” simply enlarges the image’s center area, reducing resolution or interpolating data to make it seem as if you’ve zoomed in. Image quality suffers severely. We don’t even mention digital zoom in Pop Photo Lab tests and reviews.

3. VIEWFINDERS

LCD vs. optical vs. electronic
Even as cameras get smaller, their LCD screens keep getting bigger — but not always brighter or better. Pay attention not only to the LCD size (measured on the diagonal), but its pixel count and brightness. High resolution (e.g., 230,000 pixels) makes menus and image detail easier. Look for nonglare coatings and the ability to adjust to lighting conditions, along with a wide viewing angle (at least 130 degrees).

On most compacts, LCDs are the only way to frame your shot — optical viewfinders are now rare. You’ll find them on a few advanced models, such as the new Canon PowerShot G9 ($500, street) and Nikon Coolpix P5100 ($400, street), as well as some more economical models.

Then there’s the electronic viewfinder on cameras such as the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ18 ($400, street) and Olympus SP-560 UZ ($500, street). Since an EVF shows you the image as seen through the lens, the shooting experience is similar to a DSLR. Particularly for telephoto shots, using the EVF instead of the LCD to compose can reduce camera shake significantly, since you’re holding the camera up to your eye. You get an okay view of still scenes, and you can readily view exposure information. But even the best EVF is prone to smearing and redraw lag when tracking a moving subject.

4. AUTO MODES

The easy option
Many compacts have an “easy” point-and-shoot mode — great for children and carefree snapshooters — as well as normal program mode. Shutter-priority and aperture-priority program modes allow you to select the shutter speed or f-stop, but they still determine the proper exposure for you. For a long time, these were the four standard program modes, but they are being joined by more and more image-optimizing auto modes. Face detection, which identifies and exposes for faces in the scene, is gaining popularity, along with other auto modes to make picture-taking easier and more satisfying.5. Scene modes

The more the merrier
Scene modes can be a great help for the beginner — these specialized program modes set the camera to good settings for challenging scenes. So you don’t have to be a pro to make a nice sunset portrait, or know that it’s best to add an EV or two in exposure compensation for beach and winter scenes, due to the high reflectivity of sand and snow. Some cameras only have a few scene modes, but some have 30 or more. For the casual photographer, they help get rid of the guesswork and let you concentrate more on framing your memories than on nailing a dodgy exposure.

6. CREATIVE CONTROL

Full manual operations
Despite all the scene modes and exposure compensation, advanced photographers may still crave the ability to choose the shutter speed and aperture manually. Pricier models, such as Fujifilm’s FinePix S9100 ($430, street), usually offer full manual control, letting you select the shutter speed and aperture simultaneously. Only a few affordable models, such as the Canon PowerShot A640 ($260, street) and Kodak EasyShare Z885 ($256, street) do. Others may have either a shutter- or aperture-program mode, but lack full manual. For the beginner and casual snapshooter, this might not be a big deal, but on a pocket cam for many hardcore enthusiasts, it’s a must-have, even if they don’t use it nearly as often as they think they will.

7. ISO RANGE

Sensor sensibility
This is the sensitivity range of the camera: The higher the ISO, the less light you need to capture an image at a given shutter speed and aperture. However, as ISO increases, noise (similar in appearance to film grain, but much less uniform) also increases. Noise can be minimized in the camera or in the digital darkroom by blurring the image, but this robs the image of resolution and fine detail. Some compacts offer extremely high ISOs, but to reach them the camera reduces the number of megapixels, also reducing image detail. The trade-off is sometimes worth it. Still, it helps to learn a camera’s full-megapixel ISO range and noise processing: We test noise results for many models in the Pop Photo Lab, and you can search our website for the results.

8. IMAGE STABILIZATION

Optical vs. mechanical vs. digital
Image stabilization, vibration reduction, anti-shake — every camera maker has a slightly different name for its method of reducing the effect of camera movement when a camera is handheld during relatively long exposures (1/30 sec or longer). Adding to the confusion, there are three flavors of stabilization: optical (lens-based), mechanical (sensor-shift), and digital (image processing and ISO boost).

Both lens-based and sensor-shift stabilization use motion sensors to counteract your inevitable movement when shooting at slower shutter speeds, often allowing up to 3 extra stops when handholding the camera. That means you can shoot at slower speeds, a smaller aperture, or lower ISO — or all three at once — without your movement blurring the shot or using a tripod or flash.

In contrast, digital stabilization at its simplest is little more than an ISO boost combined with a wide aperture to yield a fast-enough shutter speed to overcome camera shake. More complex versions may use software to try to clean up the motion trails in the image. But cranking up the ISO means more noise and less resolution — so image quality can suffer.

9. USER INTERFACE

Buttons, dials, sliders, and touchscreens
Generally speaking, the smaller the camera, the more dependent it is on screen menus and the fewer the dedicated buttons for camera settings and playback features. If you’ll mostly shoot auto-everything, this is no big deal, but for the more experienced photographer, having image-quality adjustments at your fingertips is usually better than having to navigate a maze of submenus. Some compacts use a touchscreen — they take getting used to, but can be fun. There are also slider-based navigation systems, which make perfect sense to the iPod generation, but can frustrate some photographers.

10. VARIABLE-APERTURE ZOOMS

Slower at telephoto
We can’t think of a single compact or EVF that has a constant-aperture, rather than variable, zoom lens. You’ll need to boost the ISO or slow the shutter speed at the maximum focal length to maintain the same exposure you had at the widest angle.

For example, a 35-105mm f/2.8-4 lens zoomed to 105mm will require twice as much light (1 stop) to get the same exposure as a photo at the widest setting. So, you must either boost your ISO a full stop (say, to 800 from 400) or halve your shutter speed (to 1/30 sec from 1/60) to keep the subject properly exposed as you zoom in. An f/2.8-5.6 zoom requires 2 full stops of compensation (to ISO 1600 from 400, or 1/15 sec from 1/60). So if there are a lot of low-light, long-reach photos in your future, look for a zoom that doesn’t lose much more than a stop over its range.

11. INTERNAL MEMORY

Less than meets the eye
Only a handful of cameras have a truly usable amount of built-in memory — enough for a whole day of shooting stills and video. Although capacity has increased, so have file sizes. Unless it’s a once-in-a-lifetime moment, or you’re using one of the few compacts with more than 1GB of memory (such as the $500, street, Sony Cyber-shot DSC-G1, with 2GB of internal memory, or Sony’s just-announced Cyber-shot DSC-T2, with a whopping 4GB of internal memory ), we recommend shooting on the removable memory card. Use internal memory only for copies of your favorite images, to look at whenever you want.

12. MEMORY CARDS

Format? Forget it.
With capacity climbing and price per megabyte dropping all the time, memory card format isn’t the issue it was a few years ago. SD and SDHC cards are extremely popular, but you’ll find compacts and EVFs that accept xD, Memory Stick, and CompactFlash cards. Avoid retailers’ bundled-card upsell, as the cards included in package deals are often either low-speed, small-capacity, or both — and you can probably get a bigger, faster card that will let you shoot and store more photos for less than the price of the bundle.

13. BATTERY STANDARDS

What battery standards?
Most ultraslim cameras use proprietary batteries (usually lithium ion) that must be recharged using a dedicated charger and electrical outlet. Larger compacts and EVFs may use higher-capacity proprietary batteries, which also require a dedicated charger, or they may be powered by standard AA-sized cells. Proprietary batteries generally last longer between charges, but disposable (alkaline) AA batteries are readily available worldwide, so you don’t need to pack a charger when you travel. Long-life, high-capacity, rechargeable, NiMH AAs are also available.

14. BATTERY LIFE

CIPA estimates
Buried in a camera’s technical specs is the CIPA battery-life estimate. (CIPA stands for Camera & Imaging Products Association; almost every camera maker belongs.) So while batteries aren’t standardized, the formula for determining how long they last is. The CIPA rating is usually based on the life of the battery if the flash is used half the time and the LCD is used often for looking at pictures after they’re shot. So your battery may last longer than the rating indicates if you don’t use your flash or review your photos a lot.

15. MOVIE MODE

An extra that DSLRs lack
Almost every camcorder can snap stills, and almost every compact and EVF camera can shoot video — but it’s the rare beast that excels at both. Of course, you’ll get a better video with a dedicated camcorder than with a still camera. But if you just want the occasional snippet, video is a great add-on that even pro-level DSLRs generally don’t include.

For smooth playback and video bigger than a YouTube window, you need at least VGA performance (640×480 pixels at 30 frames per second). If you’ve got a widescreen TV or computer monitor, look for 16:9 video (848×480 pixels). We also like cameras that don’t limit clips to 30 seconds, but instead write until the card is full or the batteries dry up — the Casio Exilim EX-S770 ($250, street) and the Pentax Optio A30 ($250, street), for example.

Make sure your camera records sound. But beware: On compacts, the proximity of the zoom motor to the microphone mean that you rarely can zoom while shooting video. On those models that let you, such as the Canon PowerShot S5 IS ($350, street), you’ll likely hear the low buzz of the motor.

16. PLAYBACK MODE

Show off and fix photos
Part of the fun of digital is the instant gratification of sharing the moment (or checking your shot) right after you shoot the picture. Depending on the model, playback can be rudimentary, with just a handful of review options, a basic slide show, and a printing menu. On some cameras, though, playback mode is a world all of its own, with advanced image tweaking, redeye fix, artistic filtering, black-and-white conversions, slideshows with spiffy transitions and music, and all sorts of other fun, functional, and frivolous extras that hardcore enthusiasts may never touch. After all, image editing is what your computer is for.

17. BUILT-IN FLASH

Use with care
Every compact and EVF camera has a built-in flash. It will throw light a few feet, but when you’re at a rock concert or school play, it’s simply not powerful enough to reach the stage — all it does is blast the back of the heads of the people seated or standing in front of you. Turn the built-in flash off for better pictures of the distant action.

Still, the built-in flash can usually light subjects within 10 feet in dark conditions. In bright daylight, you can alsouse it to fill in harsh shadows and correct backlit exposures. At evening, combine it with Slow-sync or Night Portrait mode to capture distant scenery while illuminating the foreground subject.

18. ACCESSORY FLASH

An occasional option
Some compacts and EVFs can be fitted with bigger, more powerful strobes, triggered either by a hot-shoe connector or by the built-in flash. Accessory flashes can throw light farther than the built-in, but they still won’t help that shot of a performer on stage from the upper deck. Their real advantages: You can move your light source off to the side or bounce it from another direction, instead of using the harshly frontal built-in position. And they have their own power supply, so they recycle faster between shots and won’t drain the camera’s battery.

19. OTHER ACCESSORIES

Pile on what you can
Some compacts and most EVFs can be outfitted with accessories, including filters, wide-angle and telephoto converters, and even underwater housings. A high-quality compact or EVF with such extras isn’t so much a camera as a camera system. Such accessories increase your versatility, allowing for more creative photography while still taking up significantly less space than a DSLR, lenses, and strobes.

20. SPECIAL FEATURES

Know your style
There are too many to name, but we’ve seen compacts that double as MP3 players, capture stop-action and time-lapse video, use Wi-Fi for photo sharing, work underwater, and on and on. For some shooters, the unique feature matters most.

So, if your tween wants the Samsung L74 Wide ($240, street) because it has a built-in tour guide, get it! If your extreme sports fan wants the weathertight, shockproof Olympus Stylus 770 SW ($325, street), get it! You can argue that one camera performed better in our tests than another, but at the end of the day, if there’s a specific camera someone on your gift list wants, get it — then go buy yourself the camera you think they should want.