Which of the flash new features on digital cameras are just hype, and which will make a difference to your photography? Here’s our guide to buying your next digital camera.

When you bought your digital camera a couple of years ago, it was a marvel of engineering. Then the next generation came out. And the next. Now your revolutionary camera feels more like an antique. But with so many choices on the shelves, how do you choose the right replacement?

Beneath those sleek exteriors are features and capabilities that will make the difference between having a camera that you love and having one that collects dust on a shelf. The trick to finding your perfect match is knowing which features are most important to you before you step foot in the store.

Which type of camera do you need?

Compact cameras

If you need a good camera while on-the-go, look at compact models. A compact camera typically has a resolution of 2 to 5 megapixels -- enough for online photo galleries and most standard print sizes. However, they don’t usually offer the array of features and controls that larger models do. For example, you’re often limited to using programmed exposure modes, so you may have trouble with tricky lighting or in situations with lots of action. Most compact cameras also have relatively limited zoom lenses – typically around 3x.

Prosumer cameras

Compact cameras are great for point-&-shoot photographers who want to immortalize life’s surprises. But they don’t offer a lot of flexibility. If you’d like more control over your photos, or if you want to explore some of the creative possibilities of digital photography, then the ‘prosumer’ bracket might be for you. Although one of these cameras probably won’t fit in your shirt pocket, it won’t put too much of a strain on your shoulder, either. And these cameras often include an impressive array of features that rival those of professional models, such as hot-shoes for external flashes, manual aperture and shutter-speed controls, and faster response times. Some even offer a 10x optical zoom. All of this can make a huge difference.

One downside to prosumer cameras (and compact cameras) is that they don’t offer interchangeable lenses, so your optical options are somewhat limited. Although you may be able to add a few accessory lenses over the camera’s existing optics, these add-ons can’t really compete with the range of lenses available for professional cameras – for example, telephoto or fish-eye lenses.

Prosumer models typically offer resolutions of between 3 and 8 megapixels – plenty for most printing

Professional cameras

For the greatest flexibility and creative control, most professional photographers rely on single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras. These cameras use the same lens for viewing and capturing a picture, giving you a greater sense of visual control. And the interchangeable lenses on SLRs let you quickly switch from a telephoto shot of a faraway bird to a wide-angle shot of a meadow. Resolutions on digital SLRs can range from 6mp to 13mp or more. And their internal electronics are often optimized to produce less image noise and faster response times. In the right hands, digital SLRs can capture stunning photos that would be all but impossible with other digital cameras.

Of course, all of this flexibility comes at a significant cost, but prices are falling, and you can now pick one up for less than £1,000.

How many megapixels do you need?

For many years digital photographers were consumed with the quest for megapixels. A 1.3mp camera was the greatest thing in the world until the 2mp models arrived. Now consumer cameras offer as many as 8mp. But why are megapixels so important? You certainly don’t want to splash out extra money (and use up valuable hard-drive space) just for bragging rights.

Megapixels are important for two reasons. First, they determine what size your prints can be. Second, they determine how much of the image you can crop away and still produce a good print.

There is an advantage to having slightly more megapixels than you think you may need – doing so can compensate for a weak zoom by giving you room to crop.

Which features do you need?

Once you’ve settled on a type of camera and on the number of megapixels you need, you should have narrowed your search to a more manageable number of cameras. From this point on, you should base your decision on features and performance.

One of the joys of digital photography is instant gratification – you see your picture as soon as you’ve captured it. So you know you have the photo you want before it’s too late to take a second shot. But all LCDs are not created equal.

Since the LCD is such an important part of the digital camera, be sure to spend some time in the store comparing the LCDs on your leading contenders. The image should be sharp and saturated. As you pan the camera, make sure that the LCD’s image is able to keep up with the motion; it shouldn’t be jerky or delayed. Check whether you can rotate the LCD so the screen faces the back of the camera when not in use. This will help protect it from scratches. Such screens can also be great for composing shots at unusual angles.

Then try to test the camera in bright light – next to a window, for example. Many cameras present a good image in subdued light but become almost unreadable in bright sunshine. Others, such as the Kyocera Finecam SL400R (www.kyoceraimaging.com), include special technology that improves the LCD image in bright light.

Digital-camera LCD screens are generally between 1.5 inches and 2.5 inches across (measured diagonally). If you tend to rely on the LCD as your viewfinder, get a camera with at least a 2-inch screen. Larger screens also make it easier to share your pictures with others without first uploading them to your computer.

Whatever screen size you choose, make sure the camera offers magnification controls that let you quickly zoom in on the pictures you’ve captured. It can be almost impossible to tell whether a full-screen image is slightly blurry. By taking a closer look at a photo while there’s still time to try again, you’ll prevent unpleasant surprises later. But be on the lookout for poor implementation. A good magnification tool is easily accessible and lets you quickly navigate to all areas of an image.

A camera that lets you view image data while looking at pictures in playback mode helps you quickly troubleshoot problematic photos by giving you access to the photo’s settings – such as white balance, exposure, and ISO. You should make sure that you can easily hide this information when you don’t need it.

Shooting modes

Some shots are harder to capture than others, so you’ll want a camera with specialized shooting modes. A continuous-shooting (or burst) mode will make a huge difference in your photography. This mode lets you hold down the shutter button to shoot multiple photos in rapid succession. The number of pictures you can record in one burst is determined by your camera’s electronics – and in some cases by the type of memory card you have.

A burst mode can also help you compensate for shutter lag – the delay between the moment you press the shutter button and when the picture is actually recorded. This is a particular problem with compact cameras. By initiating the burst mode just before the action begins, you’ll greatly increase your chances of capturing the right moment.

If you need to get up close to your subject – for example, when shooting plants or bugs – pay close attention to the camera’s macro-mode specifications. The macro mode allows the camera to focus on objects that are very near. Macro modes can vary widely from camera to camera. Nikon’s cameras, for example, are well known for their ability to focus on subjects only inches away, while other brands require a foot or more of distance.

White-balance settings

Different light sources produce light at different colour temperatures. As a result, a colour doesn’t look quite the same under artificial light as it does outdoors. Your brain compensates for these variations in colour, but cameras need a little help. When they get it wrong, photos can take on a bluish or reddish cast. Your camera’s white-balance setting lets you compensate for these problems by telling the camera what type of lighting you’re in.

In many cases, a camera’s automatic white balance does a good job of adjusting to different lighting situations. But if it messes up, you need easy access to additional white-balance options. Almost all digital cameras include at least five essential white-balance settings – typically called Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten (for standard light bulbs), Fluorescent (for fluorescent tubes), and Fluorescent H (for daylight fluorescent tubes). Ideally, you should be able to get to these settings from a button or a top-level menu item. You shouldn’t have to scour your camera’s menus each time the lighting changes.

If you often shoot without a flash to better capture ambient light, you should also make sure that your camera offers a custom white-balance setting. With this mode, you simply point your camera at a white surface; the camera then measures the light and applies the appropriate colour correction. This takes the guesswork out of choosing the correct colour temperature.

If you find yourself in tricky lighting situations on a regular basis, look for a camera that shoots in RAW mode. The RAW file format lets you delay your decision about white balance until you’re working at the computer.

Manual exposure modes

If you want to stretch your shooting technique to capture creative, artistic photos, you’ll need a camera with advanced exposure controls, such as Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual. These are typically found on prosumer and digital SLR cameras.

The Aperture Priority mode lets you control the camera’s depth of field by setting its f-stop – higher numbers create greater depth of field. This lets you determine how much of the photo is in focus.

The Shutter Priority mode controls the camera’s shutter speed. Faster shutter speeds can stop fast-paced action in its tracks. Longer shutter speeds will capture the effect of motion over time.

Seasoned photography veterans who want complete control of their camera settings need a camera that offers a full Manual mode, which lets you set both the shutter speed and the f-stop. If you’re thinking of taking up photography as a hobby, these three modes are must-haves for creating photos that really stand out.

JPEG versus RAW

One of the ongoing debates among advanced digital photographers is which format – JPEG or RAW – to use for recording images. Both formats can produce high-quality images. But when you shoot in JPEG mode, the camera processes the image for you – adjusting for white balance, applying sharpening, and so on.

When you shoot in RAW mode, the camera records only the raw image data – leaving you to make the proper adjustments when you’re at your computer.

This process is more like taking a negative into a darkroom and adjusting white balance and exposure until you get the perfect image. Sure, you can make the same adjustments in postproduction with JPEGs, but you’re then fixing incorrectly applied effects. With RAW files, you’re actually mapping the original bits of information.

For example, finding the right white balance can be difficult at the moment of exposure – especially under fluorescent or mixed lighting. When you shoot in JPEG mode, you have to make an immediate decision, and if you’re wrong, you have to figure out how to correct it later. In RAW mode, it doesn’t matter which white-balance setting you have when you shoot the picture. The camera records the raw data and lets you fill in the blanks later.

One downside to RAW files is their size. They’re usually several times larger than a camera’s best-quality JPEG files. And RAW mode often limits the speed at which you can take photos.