Buying your digital compact camera

Dr Nicholas Posner explains the features worth considering

1. Exterior
A svelte and beautifully designed high-tech wonder may look good as a fashion accessory, but are the buttons actually too small and fiddly to use?

The screen on the back of the camera is used for framing pics, reviewing and reading menus; 2.5 inches should be the minimum.

As screens can be difficult to see in bright sunlight, a viewfinder is useful, but by no means essential.

2. Megapixels
Relates to the resolution of the camera sensor and is a rough measure of picture quality. It used to be a key selling point of digital cameras, but now even the most basic cameras allow excellent prints at A4 size (from 4 megapixels).

3. Shutter lag
The time between pressing the button and the picture being taken, was an early digital camera problem, but has improved in mid- to high-range cameras now. If you plan to photograph moving objects, including children, try in the shop to photograph someone walking across your line of vision - if they are out of shot by the time it has been taken, reconsider your purchase.

4. Stability
Cameras above £200 now have an anti-shake or image stabilisation system, which allows lower shutter speeds in low light without using flash, and compensating  for camera movement. Moving objects are still likely to be unsharp at low shutter speeds. A high ISO rating, which allows faster shutter speeds in low light, improves stability, but comes with the disadvantage of lower picture quality. Most digital compacts do not take adequate pictures above 400 ISO.

5. Zoom
Optical zoom is the zoom to consider; digital zoom is the electronic enlargement of the centre of the digital image, and quality is affected. Sticking to the range 35-115mm will cover most picture-taking situations.

6. Price
You can get superb value with top-class results from cameras costing as little as £120. Plenty of models cheaper than this are perfectly adequate. My top recommendations, priced at, are: Sony DSC-W55, at £139 - beautifully made, high quality; Panasonic FX12, at £159 - feature-packed; and the Canon G7, £299, the king of compacts.

- Dr Posner is a GP in Newcastle

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