If you're looking to improve the quality of your photographs and want something beyond a basic point-and-shoot model, a digital SLR (dSLR) camera could be the right choice of kit.
Whereas once such models - and their accompanying lenses - were bulky and unwieldy, they now boast relatively light bodies and optics and are beginning to acquire some of the user-friendliness and usability found in compact cameras. They're also markedly cheaper than they used to be. It's no surprise, then, that dSLRs are defying the economic gloom with rising sales.
They're not the only choice of quality digital camera, though. Compact models are also much improved, with partial or even full manual control. Many pocket cameras also now include intelligent features that take into account camera shake, automatically identify people and recognise when they are blinking when they should be beaming. These are all features that have yet to make their way on to most dSLRs.
A dust-reduction system (in which the camera's sensor vibrates at high speed to dislodge any detritus) and some form of weather-proofing are also desirable features that you find on some but not all dSLRs. Compacts tend to be sufficiently feature-laden not to require separate lenses and are generally more durable and forgiving of the elements. Waterproof cladding options are available for most compacts, however - a more economical option than choosing a pricey magnesium alloy-clad model.
Another must-have for many dSLR owners is Live View. Here, you can use the rear LCD screen to compose an image when the angle of the shot or the conditions at the time make it tricky to get your eye level with the optical viewfinder. This is a feature found in some of the compacts we've reviewed here, too.
Another feature that's caught on with dSLRs is the addition of video capture - something that makes sense as the photographer can use an almost limitless array of swappable lenses to film with.
Megazoom: best of both worlds
If you want a more capable compact rather than the costly option of a dSLR (with inevitable further expenditure on extra lenses and accessories), there's plenty to be said for choosing one of the megazoom models we've reviewed here.
These offer lenses with optical zooms of up to 26x, allowing you to capture usable shots from quite a distance. These translate into focal lengths between 24-28mm at the widest angle setting, and up to 676mm at the longest telephoto distance.
Their high-quality lenses are just as capable of coping with traditional portrait or landscape shots - and even macro shots as close as 1cm away - delivering photos that are much better than those you'd get from a pocket-sized compact. This is why camera makers also call them 'bridge' cameras, a clunky but accurate term: they bridge the gap between compacts and dSLRs.
You won't get the image quality or level of control of a dSLR, but even a modestly equipped dSLR will cost twice the price of a bridge compact when coupled with standard and telephoto lenses. Another advantage is that megazoom cameras are usually much lighter than dSLRs.
Although many of these megazoom cameras use the same 1/2.3in sensors as high-end compact models, the better-quality glassware strapped to the front of them allows them to capture much less noisy images - particularly in imperfect lighting as you move up the ISO settings. This means that shots from a megazoom camera will be usable at much larger sizes without noise becoming apparent.
Megazoom cameras offer mechanical stabilisation to avoid camera shake, rather than using less effective electronic 'antiblur' systems. Mechanical systems either smooth out shake on the lens (known as optical image stabilisation), or on the sensor (CCD shift). In the past, optical image stabilisation was better than CCD shift but, these days, there's little between them.
Such cameras tend to be larger and less pocketable than a standard point-and-shoot compact, but their additional heft lends itself to better stabilisation and ergonomics, meaning they're more comfortable to use. As well as a large LCD, you also get a proper viewfinder on which to compose your shot.
Top 10 digital camera reviews
This story, "Group test: Top 10 digital cameras" was originally published by PC Advisor (UK).
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