If you look closely at the cameras in recent weekend retail circulars, you might be surprised. A lot boast 14 or even 16 megapixels. Camera makers appear to have injected new life into an old marketing scheme: More megapixels mean a better camera.
Our camera tests have shown for years that cameras with more megapixels don't necessarily produce better images than those with fewer. Under the best of circumstances models with more megapixels can produce images with greater detail, but that's not very important unless you need giant enlargements.
A case in point: Cameras with just 10 megapixels are often ranked at or near the top of Consumer Reports' Ratings (available to subscribers) for models with built-in lenses,beating cameras with more megapixels. To achieve such ranking, they had to produce very good images for regular, low-light, and flash photos.
One reason some of those 10-megapixel models performed so well is that they have very good lenses. For the best image quality, a high-quality lens is essential. (Tip: Look at the lens' maximum aperture setting. Those with a setting of f/2 or f/1.8 tend to be of better quality.)
There's another reason not to jump for the camera with the most megapixels. If you use an older computer to store and edit your images, the huge files such a camera produces might be harder to work with and will fill up a memory card faster than files from a camera with modest resolution. Consider a camera with 14 or 16 megapixels if it is rated highly in our tests and you want to make very large prints or do a lot of cropping.
Here's what else our tests have found:
LCD displays on basic cameras continue to improve, which is why you'll find that most recommended models have at least a 3-inch display with good or very good quality. That's important, because none of the subcompacts or compacts has an optical or electronic viewfinder. You don't have to pay a lot for a very good LCD. The Canon PowerShot SD4000 IS ELPH, $220, has one, though the display on the Leica V-Lux 20, $650, is just OK. If you must have a viewfinder in a basic camera, look for one of the three superzooms that include electronic viewfinders: the Nikon Coolpix P100, Canon PowerShot SX30 IS, or the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ40.
Useful features usually trickle down from advanced cameras to basic ones, but some are actually moving in the opposite direction. For example, the swiveling LCD has moved up to the advanced Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3K and Nikon D5100. That feature, which originated on basic cameras, can be useful for self-portraits, hard-to-reach shots, or photographing children. The same advanced Panasonic Lumix includes a touch screen that lets you control exposure settings on the screen. You can also tap its LCD to set a focus point or snap a photo.
Greater zoom on small cameras
Manufacturers are putting impressive zoom lenses on subcompacts without adding much weight or bulk. The Nikon Coolpix S8000 has a 10x zoom and weighs only 6 ounces.
Powerful zooms on bigger models
Camera makers are putting very powerful zoom lenses on the larger, bulkier models we call superzooms. The Canon PowerShot SX30 IS has one of the widest zoom ranges we've seen, 35x, which is the 35-mm equivalent of 24 to 840 mm. To get that kind of shooting versatility with an SLR or SLR-like camera, you'd have to buy two or more interchangeable lenses. In the past, superzooms sacrificed image quality for versatility. But that's no longer the case. All the superzooms in the Select Ratings (available to subscribers) have very good image quality, though not quite comparable to an SLR's.
New lens designs
Most models that accept interchangeable lenses still come with the usual 18- to 55-mm zoom. But camera and lens makers do offer more versatile zooms. For instance, Panasonic recently introduced a 45- to 175-mm f/4.0-5.6 telephoto zoom (the 35-mm equivalent of 90 to 350 mm), which has a power-zoom switch on the lens barrel that you can use to zoom smoothly.
Cameras with 3D
As more electronics manufacturers add a 3D feature to HDTVs, you might expect to find it on many cameras. But 3D is making only modest inroads, mostly in basic cameras. Olympus, Sony and Panasonic have been the most aggressive in adding it to their models. In our Ratings (available to subscribers), just two basic models, Olympus SP-610UZ and Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX9V, and two advanced ones, Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF2K and Lumix DMC-G3K, include 3D. The two advanced models require a special lens for 3D that costs $200.
If you have a 3D-capable TV and would like to try out the budding technology without spending a bundle, consider a basic model first to see if you like it.
Mirrorless advanced cameras
A big development in cameras this year has been the rise of the SLR-like model, a smaller, lighter competitor that also uses interchangeable lenses.
Sony recently introduced six such models, and Nikon finally joined most other major SLR makers by unveiling two 10-megapixel SLR-like cameras: the Nikon V1 ($900 with kit lens) and Nikon J1 ($650 with kit lens). We haven't tested them yet.
Most of the new SLR-like cameras are more compact than SLRs and include sensors larger than those of basic cameras. As we went to press, Canon didn't offer this type of camera.
Copyright © 2006-2011 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction, in whole or in part, without written permission.