Guide to buying a cheap camera

We don't encourage buying a camera by specs alone, but there are a few things to look for that can help keep it out of the return pile.

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Smartphone adoption has seemingly killed off interest in picking up a cheap point-and-shoot camera for holiday gifting. Unlike in past years, there aren't a lot of compacts at ridiculously low prices.

There are some out there worth considering, though, especially if you know what to look for. Understanding a few key specs could make the difference between picking out an inexpensive camera you'll want to take with you everywhere or something that ends up back at the store.

Megapixels
To paraphrase CNET's camera buying guide, having more megapixels does not necessarily mean better photo quality. This is especially true for inexpensive pocket cameras, where it's cheaper and easier for manufacturers to ratchet up the resolution to sell cameras than to improve image quality in other ways. So if you're trying to decide between a 16-megapixel camera and a 12-megapixel one, don't let the extra resolution sway you, because it's not a guarantee of better-looking photos.

What you can look for is the type of image sensor it uses. Most point-and-shoots are capable of taking good snapshots outside in good lighting. Head indoors or under darker skies, though, and things can get nasty really fast.

If low-light shots are super-important to you, you'll want a camera with a BSI (backside-illuminated) CMOS sensor such as the Samsung WB250F in the video above. They're designed for better image quality when you have less light and also have the side benefit of speeding up shooting speeds. It'll cost a little extra in most cases, but it can make a big difference. (For movie capture, a CMOS sensor usually means full HD video, too.) A quick check of a camera's specs on the manufacturer's Web site will confirm if the model you're interested in has this type of sensor.

You'll want to skip inexpensive cameras using CCD sensors, though, unless you're doing all of your shooting in daylight outdoors or under a lot of light indoors and don't mind slow shot-to-shot times. The one exception I make for this is Canon's A-series models. Shooting performance will still be slow, but Canon's high-ISO image processing (needed for low-light photos) is typically better than you get from similar cameras from other manufacturers.

Zoom lens
One of the big reasons to get an inexpensive pocket camera is for its zoom lens. Even sub-$100 models have some optical zoom, but there is more to a lens than just the number next to the big "X." You'll want to look at two other specs: focal length and aperture range.

The focal length is basically the range of the lens, from wide to telephoto. Wide lenses capture more of a scene, which makes them nice for group shots and landscapes. Look for a starting point of 30mm or wider (which for focal length would be a lower number, such as 28mm). Multiply this number by whatever the zoom factor is for the camera and you'll get the telephoto focal length; for example, a 30-300mm lens is a 10x zoom.

As for aperture range on a point-and-shoot, I'm not going to get into a full explanation here (feel free to hit Wikipedia for that). What you should look for, though, is a set of two numbers designated with an f and presented as a range, such as f2.8-5.9. The first number is the maximum aperture at the wide end of the lens, the second number is the maximum aperture at the telephoto end. Basically, the lower these numbers are, the better off you'll be. In the example I gave, an f2.8 aperture is very good, but the f5.9 -- though typical of point-and-shoots -- is not. Overall, though, that's not as bad a range as f3.2-6.5.

Another thing to look for is what type of image stabilization (IS) a camera uses. Cheaper cameras generally have electronic image stabilization only, which affects performance and photo quality. This is the case of the Canon PowerShot A2500 currently being blown out for the holidays for around $70 to $80. Instead of digital IS, look for optical or mechanical (also called sensor shift) stabilization, which can be found on the PowerShot A3500 IS, which is selling for $20 more than the A2500. (By the way, these are identical to last year's A2400 IS and A2300, save for an Eco mode for better battery life.)

Screen
Retailers pretty much stick to one spec when it comes to screens: size. The standard size on lower-end cameras is 2.7 inches. Anything larger than that sweetens the deal. You'll also want to check resolution, which should be at least 230,000 dots. Higher than that, again, is a bonus.

You will find cameras with smaller, lower-resolution screens, and you can tell the difference. And, of course, not all LCDs are created equal, so if possible you'll want to test out viewing angles and brightness before you buy. This goes double for touch-screen models because responsiveness tends to be an issue on budget cameras.

Lastly, many models use wide-screen displays, which sounds OK, until you realize you won't have use of the entire screen when framing your shots unless you're shooting in a wide aspect ratio like 16:9; a 4:3 aspect ratio is usually the default. That can quickly turn a 3-inch screen into one barely more than 2 inches.

Canon's SX280 HS is an excellent camera for less than $200 and has built-in Wi-Fi. Sarah Tew/CNET

A note on Wi-Fi
Years ago there wasn't much of a point of getting a camera with built-in Wi-Fi simply because you couldn't do anything with the wireless that couldn't be done faster with a USB cable. Current Wi-Fi cameras, however, use the wireless to do much more than back up photos to your computer.

Mostly, you'll want it for creating a wireless connection to a smartphone or tablet so that you can view your shots on a larger screen, transfer them to your device for mobile sharing, or even remotely control the camera for better selfies and group shots. If you're still not sure you need that feature, you can always get an Eye-Fi Mobi SD card that adds Wi-Fi to any camera.

 

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