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This is going to be a buying guide with a bit of a difference. I'm not particularly concerned here with giving advice on how to buy a posh, £200-plus compact camera or a DSLR. Instead, I will try to show that it is possible to obtain a very solid camera outfit that will give you very satisfying results for a surprisingly small outlay. The lower you want to go in terms of cost, the more patience you are likely to need, but the rewards in terms of money saving can be very substantial indeed.
So, what budget do I need?
A very good question, with the annoying answer: "It depends." The cheapest new cameras worth buying tend to come in around the £50-60 mark; although it's perfectly possible to pick up a camera from the Argos catalogue for considerably less than that, it's most unlikely to be a good camera. You also need to bear in mind that, unless there is a special promotion on, this price is unlikely to include batteries, memory cards, cases and so on. Realistically, £100 is a fair budget to set for getting a new camera outfit from scratch.
So, if you want to spend less than that, you're looking at the second-hand market - and yes, that is likely to mean eBay. This guide is not about how to use the behemoth auction site, but suffice it to say that while you should always keep your wits about you, there are not too many scammers selling cheap cameras there. The problems come with the add-ons: the site is absolutely plagued with fake SanDisk memory cards, for example. For that reason, it's actually worth considering buying the camera itself second-hand but splashing out for cards new.
That still doesn't answer the main question, of course, so here we go. Buying second-hand, it is quite possible to pick up a good quality compact digicam, a reasonably capacious memory card, a set of good batteries, a charger, a card reader for your PC and a soft case for about £50. If you already have some of those accessories, then you can reduce that figure substantially: in particular, if you already possess the charger and batteries than it shouldn't be that hard to lop another £20 off that price. If you have all the extras, and are only buying the bare camera, then you can get down to about £15 without undue difficulty. Not bad, is it?
The megapixel myth
Resolution is actually a much less important factor than many people believe. You do not need a double-figure megapixel (mp) count on any compact camera, whatever the manufacturers may want you to believe. As an example, my trusty Canon PowerShot A710 is a 7mp camera dating back to 2007. Put it beside the 8mp Vivitar V8018, which is a nearly current model, and the results aren't even close: the Canon absolutely annihilates the Vivitar in just about every aspect of photo quality. Why? Because the Canon's optics are hugely superior. A camera with a poor quality lens will never produce great photos, no matter how high its resolution.
In fact, beyond a certain limit a very high resolution can actually be a bad thing in some circumstances. The reason for this is that the small size of compacts (as opposed to DSLRs) means that their light sensors are very small, and the more pixels you try to squeeze onto them, the higher the potential for interference. This causes the dreaded "image noise", the speckly appearance that shows up most often in photos taken in low light with a high ISO setting. Consider that about the best low-light compacts were Fujifilm's F10/20/30 range, which had only 6mp but have still not been surpassed in that area.
All that said, you do need to pay some attention to resolution if you are buying right at the bottom of the market, since below a certain level photos are going to lack sharpness at more than minimal size anyway. I would suggest 2mp as being really the
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bare minimum for simple snapshots or standard size prints (meaning about the same size as old-fashioned film prints), though you'll need slightly more resolution if you want to do any enlarging and cropping. Before I bought my A710, I used an earlier PowerShot, the A510, and because of its good optics, its 3.2mp resolution was perfectly adequate for its role as a general-purpose leisure camera.
This isn't the easiest question to answer, since as is the case with most consumer products, pretty much all the main manufacturers have in their time produced both utter gems and complete stinkers. However, it is generally best to stick with a "famous name" brand rather than some strange Chinese make you've never heard of. If you're on a very tight budget, then you will need to balance this against cost: for example, Panasonic cameras are consistently excellent, but also command a hefty mark-up on the second-hand market, while Leicas are... well, let's just say that if you can afford a Leica then you have no need of this guide anyway!
You might find it surprising that I generally recommend against two of the best-known names in the camera business, Nikon and Kodak. Although the cachet of owning a Nikon is undeniable, their compacts have often been lacklustre at best, and lack one particular setting that I consider to be vital - user ISO control. At least they take decent photos, though, which can't always be said about Kodak. It is truly bizarre that the company which invented the idea of the cheap snapshot camera seems unable to come to terms with the digital era, and so many of their models are not up to scratch that you might as well ignore Kodak altogether. Don't even think of buying a cheap Vivitar or Polaroid camera, as they're almost uniformly awful.
Pentax is another established brand that has often produced disappointing digicams, as is Olympus - though both have had some interesting models in their ranges, they are generally not the general-purpose cameras that I am concentrating on here. The Sony Cyber-shot range is of pretty good quality, but Sony's insistence on a proprietary memory card format is a major minus when you are trying to keep costs under control. Samsung and maybe Casio are worth a look, but I would be inclined to look quite hard at Fujifilm and Canon cameras. The former brand is probably more suitable if you want simplicity and ease of use; the latter if you would like a camera with more features and settings.
Unless this is to be a camera bought specifically for a fairly young child, in which case the fewer moving parts the better, I would strongly recommend against buying a camera without at least a 3x optical zoom. Even though such cameras can be amazingly cheap - it's not at all unusual for working examples to sell for under a fiver - you really will miss it sooner or later if you don't have one. Don't be tempted by anything advertised as having a "slight fault" if the problem is anywhere near the lens; unless you know exactly what you're doing, trying to repair it can render the camera permanently useless. At these rock-bottom prices you're unlikely to get image stabilisation, unfortunately.
The LCD screen is one area where you will certainly notice the difference with an older second-hand model. Up until a few years ago, it was standard for digicams to retain an optical viewfinder, which meant less space for the screen, and 1.5" remained the most common size for a long while. It's perfectly possible to compose a picture on a screen that size, though. It's also worth looking at the layout of the buttons; if the eBay listing doesn't show a photo, then you should be able to find one elsewhere online. (If a camera doesn't seem ever to have been reviewed anywhere, then that's probably not a good sign!)
If you want a camera with full manual controls (shutter- and aperture-priority, for example) then in my view the best choice is the Canon A-series from the A60 up to the A720; after that model Canon's philosophy changed and the A-series ceased to offer such comprehensive settings. These cameras also have some scene modes, though not as many as on current models and you won't have access to modern innovations such as face detection. Conversely, Fujifilm's own A-series cameras have a cut-down feature set but are consistently very easy to use. The best value here is probably in the A3xx series, especially the A350; the slightly later A400 and A500 are superficially attractive but have no better (and maybe even worse) photo quality for a higher price.
A hugely important consideration, this, but one which many people don't really think about until it's too late. Most digital cameras use either ordinary AA batteries or proprietary Li-ion units. Although there's a case for the latter with new cameras, when buying second-hand I strongly recommend the former, since it removes the worry of finding that your shiny new (well, old, but you know what I mean) camera has a dead battery and will require an unexpected extra outlay. Avoid cameras which take AAA batteries, though; with only a few exceptions, they're cheap and nasty.
Digital cameras are notorious for their heavy battery drain, so although they will work with Duracells or the like, it's far better - and much cheaper in the long run - to use rechargeables. These should be of the NiMH type, and should have a rating of at least 2000 mAh. You'll also need a charger, and ideally this should be one which can replenish four batteries at once in no more than an hour. Most cameras also have a button-type backup battery for keeping track of the time and date when the main batteries are being changed; it's not always easy to get at.
Battery compartments are a bit of a pain, and have been on most cameras I've used. In the old days, the memory card tended to live in a separate compartment, but these days it tends to share space with the batteries, which is annoying as every time you change the card you have to watch that the batteries don't fall out! Loose battery covers can either be a disaster or only a minor inconvenience, depending on the camera: if you really don't care at all about looks, you can occasionally pick up ludicrously cheap cameras simply because they have their battery covers held on with tape!
Although some cameras have an internal memory, it is usually tiny and so you will certainly want at least one fair-sized memory card. What constitutes "fair-sized" varies according to the resolution of the camera, since more megapixels tends to translate into more megabytes, but in general there isn't much point in going below 256 MB. The exception to this is those cameras which take SmartMedia format cards, since those only go up to 128 MB anyway - but unless you know what you're doing, I would suggest avoiding those models, since SM cards are expensive to buy and require a bit more care in handling than the other common formats.
Fujifilm cameras of the vintage discussed here will generally accept only xD cards, whereas older Canons will take CompactFlash and newer Canons SD. It is important to note that in the case of xD and SD cameras, you cannot count on very high-capacity cards being compatible. In particular, SDHC cards will generally not work in older SD-compatible cameras; for those you will need the plain SD sort, no larger than 2 GB in capacity. It's best to have a look at the manufacturer's website (most of them still maintain useful information about their older models) to discover details of compatibility.
Many second-hand cameras sold on eBay do not come complete with a USB lead. These listings are often good places to find bargains, since many buyers are put off - but you don't need to be! Your computer may already have a card reader for the appropriate format built in, and even if not you can buy them for a matter of a few pounds. They are so much more convenient than direct USB transfer (and also don't drain your digicam's batteries!) that I have cameras I bought several years ago that still have their USB cables completely unused! Really, a card reader should be considered as vital a part of your kit as a charger.
It can be a bit of a pain finding a case that will fit your older camera snugly, but that doesn't mean it's impossible. I like Lowepro's soft pouch-style cases, which I find to be consistently hard-wearing and of good quality yet not stupidly expensive. When looking for a case, it's a good idea to consider whether it has an internal pocket; these are extremely useful for stashing an extra memory card or a couple of spare batteries. A neck strap comes in very handy with the heavier cameras, too, though you probably won't need one with a smaller compact.
But I hate eBay!
Well, that's going to severely limit your choice, especially at the bottom of the market, but I can't entirely blame you for holding that view. Although I am generally happy using the site, I won't deny that it has its share of problems, especially when you add the (now more or less compulsory) use of PayPal to the mix. If you can possibly use eBay, though, then I really would encourage you to do so, since there really is nowhere else that you are likely to be able to find the same range of cheap-but-working second-hand cameras. However, there are a few alternatives, and not just the infamous car boot sales!
Charity shops (at least in my part of the world) still seem mostly to stock only film cameras, but you never know. Newspaper small ads are not usually good, as sellers tend to over-value their cameras. There's the Amazon Marketplace, but there are few absolute bargains there either, and some absurd asking prices. (£70 for a 2mp Canon A60? It's a good camera for its age, but not that good!) One other place to look is on the manufacturers' own sites, as a few will sell refurbished models at substantially discounted prices; Fujifilm in particular are worth a look in this regard. You're talking £40 and upwards here, though.
There's no substitute for research when it comes to buying a camera. Although I hope that this guide has given you some ideas, I would certainly recommend searching out reviews of the specific model(s) you are looking for, both here on Ciao (of course!) and elsewhere. British specialist camera review sites worth checking are cameras.co.uk (this site is notably clear) and Trusted Reviews. Camera specifications don't tend to vary much between here and the US, so American sites such as Steve's Digicams and Imaging Resource are helpful too. Finally, DPReview specialises in extremely detailed reviews which are generally very reliable.
A really good place to find real photos taken with the camera you're thinking of buying is Flickr's Camera Finder. It's not particularly well laid out, but it can be enormously useful as the images you will see there are not taken by professional reviewers in controlled laboratory conditions, but by ordinary users in the same sorts of situations that you are likely to encounter. You should bear in mind that many, perhaps most, of the photos will have been touched up on computer before uploading, but of course you may well want to do that as well.
And there you have it. I hope this guide has, at least, given you some ideas about where to look for a real bargain buy. It's not quite as simple as just walking into Argos or Jessops and flashing the plastic, but you can save so much cash this way that I really do think it is worth a little time and trouble. As a real-life example: I bought a 5mp camera (a Samsung Digimax V5) a little while ago that is so good that I have taken it out with me on long trips several times this summer. It cost me the grand total of £14, in its original box and including the postage. It really can be done; if I can manage it then you can do it too!