Here are some simple guidelines how to look for the best affordable digital snap shot camera that will give you best quality pictures for the money. There are several sites dealing with this topic with much more detail.
I assume, that before the shopping, at least you already know the price range and the approximate size of the camera. You may shoot for quality and not care a lot for the camera size or you may search for a tiny, credit card- size camera. The main specifications that jump at you immediately when you look at the cameras in a store is the pixel resolution, and the pricing usually goes up with the number of available pixels. Unfortunately, it is not necessarily the case with the picture quality. A 6 meg pixel camera can sometimes make nicer pictures than a 10 meg bargain. Here's why.
The image sharpness and quality depends on a number of factors, but the lens quality and matching it the light sensitive element (CMOS or CCD sensor) are the keys. If the sensor has its pixels very densely packed, the lens sharpness must be awesome. Otherwise adjacent pixels will receive the same blurred 'point of light'. In other words, a lower quality lens would function acceptably well only with larger sensors with low density pixel distribution (such as in DSLRs, with below 10MP/cm2; point&shoot cameras have sensors with pixel density higher). The problem is that the cheaper the camera the smaller the sensor is (small sensors are cheaper). Small sensors give also more noise, less sensitivity and make blurred photos at low apertures (diffraction effect), but give great depth of field. Another problem is that the manufacturers usually hide the sensor size data unless it is unusually large. What's the solution?
It is always a good idea to read camera reviews, but you need to read a few on a given model because the reviewers may have quite a different opinion. Consumer reviews sound good but are quite chaotic and very subjective and you need to read more of them. Phrases 'razor sharp' or 'excellent picture quality' mean little (especially if expressed from a novice camera owner) unless the data is backed up with numeric analysis or test images. Numbers are easier to interpret and harder to cheat on, but many professional reviewers prefer 'natural' image displays, such as landscapes, portraits and so on, because it's less time consuming, more subjective, it's easy to cheat and get away with it. They call it 'real field tests' and present many arguments why charts are a bad choice for comparison, but let's face it - a camera or lens that passes well resolution chart tests will perform accordingly well in the field. So, you've read the reviews or not and you are in a photo store and lots of unfamiliar cameras are presented to you.
For small snap-shot cameras, the easiest thing is to look at the lens physical size. Don't buy cameras with the smallest lenses among their class and high pixel count. It is simply not a good match. There are few exceptions. Some pricey cameras have lenses of good quality despite their small size. Most 2M pixel cameras (like in cell phones) have adequate lens size/quality. If you see exactly the same lens in a higher pixel model, it is a cause for concern, unless the price is low. This approach usually works well with the brand name cameras, where manufacturers have good reputation in optics quality (although I start seeing some risky moves to impress potential customers with a low price and high pixel count cameras).
Important thing, not related to lens quality is responsiveness. If a camera makes a picture a second or two after you depress the shutter, you may miss lots of action shots. Battery life is yet another concern worth asking.
Once you purchase a camera, you can make a test, described on this page, and if you should find a large mismatch in expectations and reality, you may still return such a lemon even the same day. The test takes only minutes, provided that you have your test chart ready. Photos of the circular charts can be shipped to you at $1 per pair. An example of point-and-shoot camera (Canon PowerShot A590 IS) is given. The main purpose to use this chart is to determine whether the pixel count on the sensor matches the line count on an image recorded by it. It doesn't have to match it exactly, but a 25% discrepancy I find unacceptable. This is equivalent of selling de facto a 4M pix (resolving power) camera and claiming 8M pix resolution on it.
A different chart should be used for printing. Quality of services varry significantly and sometimes it doesn't reach 300 lines per inch, which is the publisher's standard. Click on the thumbnail to download this 5Mb chart that can be printed on a small 4x6" format by your favorite photo service. When you order such a print or print it on your home printer, look for the grey scale tones, colors and lines resolution (the numbers are valid only if the one inch bar is in fact 1" long).
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