Digital cameras have revolutionised the way we take photos. Gone are the days of stuffing in rolls of film and waiting hours to get the pictures developed at Boots. Today, photos can be looked at instantly – and, without too much extra effort, you can download them onto the computer and then upload them onto the internet.
As a result, amateur photography tends to stretch much further than a few holiday snaps. Every trip, every unexpected snowfall, every new family birth is now recorded with hundreds of photos.
But the boom in digital photography has also brought with it an explosion in the amount of choice. You can pay anything between £15 and £3,000 for a digital camera, and between the cheapest and most expensive there is plenty of difference in terms of functionality, picture quality and battery life.
The first choice you need to make is whether you want to go for a SLR (single-lens reflex) or a more straightforward camera. SLR devices offer more control over, but they're bigger and much more expensive. These are only worth buying if you are serious about photography.
Smaller digital cameras, however, can take very good pictures these days – and you can get a decent device for well under £100. "Digital SLRs give the very best picture quality, but if you're a casual photographer then a standard 'point and shoot' camera will probably suffice – and it will be cheaper and easier to carry around too," says Martyn Hocking, the editor of the consumer magazine Which?.
"You can get a decent compact model for around £100 now, and some come with the kind of technology that used to be the preserve of more expensive models – like image stabilisation and face detection. More megapixels mean greater detail, but it's not the be-all and end-all. The camera's lens quality, sensor quality and sensor size also play a big role in producing sharp and colour-accurate pictures."
When Which? carried out its latest survey of digital cameras, the Canon PowerShot E1 (pictured) was rated best for casual photographers, costing around £140 and receiving a rating of 70 per cent from Which?'s team of testers. It was praised for its good image quality, great battery life, good flash and range of features.
At the bottom of the heap was the Kodak Easyshare Z1085IS. It may cost £20 less than the Canon, but it scored just 16 per cent in Which?'s tests, scoring particularly badly on battery life and movie functionality.
Aside from the main factors such as image quality and battery life, it's important to check how well your digital camera focuses and what the shutter delay is. Some cameras are very slow at taking pictures once you hit the button.
Where to buy
If you know which model you're looking for, you'll find the best prices online, using sites such as froogle.co.uk, pricerunner.co.uk and whichcompare.co.uk. If you prefer to browse, go to sites such as argos.co.uk, currys.co.uk and jessops.com – which all have a wide range to choose from. Argos, Jessops and Currys Digital can all be found on the high street too – you could also consider picking up a second hand camera at a Jessops outlet.
If you're out and about and want to check which cameras are the best, try downloading Which?'s digital camera application for the iPhone, priced at £1.79. Users can view test results on over 300 rigorously-tested cameras and can navigate the report by brand, model, features and price. You can also rotate the iPhone to see images of the cameras from every angle.
The Insider is written in conjunction with the consumer group Which?. For more information visit www.which.co.uk/cameras or download the Digital Cameras application on your iPhone. To get three issues of Which? magazine for £3, call 01992 822800 and quote INADVICE.
Five questions to ask
Do I want an SLR? If you're a more advanced photographer and want precise control over aperture and exposure settings, go for an SLR. But be prepared to spend upwards of £300.
What's the battery life like? Some cameras have a rechargeable battery, others require them to be regularly replaced. Either way, you want a camera that can keep going for several hours before it needs a top-up.
How many megapixels does it have? The more megapixels, the better the quality of picture. But if you're only using your camera for casual holiday snaps, 3 or 4 MPs is enough.
What's the zoom? Even compact cameras can now have incredible zoom capability. But the quality isn't always that good on long distance shots. If a big zoom is a priority, test it first.
What extra features does it have? If you want a camera that can take a burst of photos or has a face detection feature, you'll need to take a closer look when you're shopping. Features and functionality vary considerably.