Looking for a digital camera, but not quite sure what to choose? Make sure you run through these camera considerations before spending your hard-earned cash

[Read more: Quiz - can you tell real photos from fake photos?]

Which digital camera brand is best?

If only there were a simple answer to this question – but honestly, there isn’t. There are a dozen or so high quality digital camera brands, including Canon, Nikon, Leica, Sony, Panasonic, Olympus, Pentax, Fujifilm, Hasselblad and Ricoh; every one produces some excellent cameras.

Your personal preferences for design and performance, and your budget requirements, might dictate that some are more suitable than others, but it’s impossible to objectively declare any of the above brands the best. The key to buying the best camera for you is knowing what it is you want to get out of photography.

What is a camera sensor, and does size matter?

A camera sensor is a rectangular array containing millions of tiny micro-sensors. When light hits the sensor via the camera’s lens, each of these sensors records one pixel of image data. The greater the number of these sensors (i.e. the greater the sensor’s megapixel count), the higher the potential detail in any image.

Camera sensor

However, megapixel count isn’t the only thing to consider when choosing a camera. In fact, it’s not even the most important thing. A sensor’s physical size, for example, has arguably a larger bearing on image quality than the number of megapixels, because the bigger the sensor, the more light it can take in in that split-second the shutter is open; lower shutter speeds mean sharper images.

Cramming 20 megapixels into a sensor only a few millimetres across won’t yield much sharp detail unless the lighting conditions are perfect, but putting 12 physically larger megapixels on a 35mm full-frame sensor will produce good or better quality shots in almost any situation. So yes, size matters when it comes to sensors, particularly if you’re going to be shooting a lot in low light.

Do I need a digital camera with manual controls?

That depends. Do you want a full measure of mastery over shutter speed, aperture, focus, sensitivity, white balance and more? Or are you going to simply be pointing and shooting, happy to rely on the camera’s autofocus, sensors and software to do the heavy lifting?

There’s no shame in falling into the latter category, and almost all modern digital cameras have excellent automatic settings (or a suite of semi-automatic ‘scene’ modes), making them smartly adapt to almost any shooting situation. But if you’re keen to learn more able the mechanics of photography, then use that knowledge to wield more creative control over your photos (and possibly your videos), you’ll want a camera equipped with proper manual controls.

Read more: Discover what camera shooting modes mean

Which digital camera is best for low-light shooting?

High-end interchangeable lens cameras like the Sony A7S II, Nikon D7200 and Canon 5D Mark III, paired with a fast, high-aperture lens, are all superb at getting sharp, clean and blur-free images in challenging low-light situations. With large sensors, effective noise reduction software and the ability to be equipped with suitable lenses, they’ll allow you to produce fantastic results, even shooting handheld without a flash.

Photographer shooting at night

They’re expensive, however – even more so once you factor in the cost of a suitable lens or two. Thankfully, digital cameras have come on in leaps and bounds with features like noise reduction and image stabilisation in recent years, and with knowledge of their limitations, judicious use of available light sources and a steady hand, it’s possible to achieve good, usable results with all but the very cheapest models.

What do I need for action photography?

To get great shots of fast-moving subjects requires quick shutter speeds and fast, accurate autofocus – and it helps to have an autofocus system that’s able to successfully track a moving target. It’s also helpful if the camera can shoot high-speed bursts or continuous shots at a consistently high speed.

DSLRs are the chosen tools of professional sports and wildlife photographers because they’re the cameras that best combine the above features, but if you’re looking for something a bit more portable and lightweight, there are plenty of Compact System Cameras (CSCs such as the Panasonic GH5), bridge cameras (like the Sony RX10 III) and even a few compacts (such as the Sony RX100 V) with the necessary shooting speed and focus abilities to capture great action shots.

Should I stick with my smartphone, or buy a compact?

Chances are, you already have a capable camera in your pocket: your phone. It might not have a zoom lens or be bristling with buttons, but a smartphone has the advantage of convenience – it’s always there when you need it. It also makes it a piece of cake to share your images right away, thanks to an always-on built-in internet connection.

Compact cameras offer superior image quality, flexibility (like a proper optical zoom lens and an ability to shoot objects very close to the lens through a macro mode) and creative control to smartphones, and are generally more comfortable to hold and have longer battery life. You need to actually have one with you to use it, though, so it requires some degree of forward planning.

Read more: Smartphones Vs compacts – is it still worth buying a compact camera?

Compact cameras in row

Should I buy a compact or a CSC/DSLR?

The biggest difference here is that DSLR and Compact System Cameras let you interchange lenses, while compact cameras are stuck with a single built-in lens. That gives DSLR and CSC owners great flexibility, as they can carry lenses to suit different jobs (be warned, though: camera lenses are expensive; often more so than the camera bodies themselves).

DSLR and CSCs also have large sensors and manual controls across the board – features possessed by a minority of compacts.

On the other hand, DSLRs and CSCs tend to be large and heavy, while compact cameras are, well, compact. If portability is a major concern, you should probably be looking at a compact camera.

Should I choose a CSC or a DSLR?

Compact System Cameras and DSLRs are similar at first glance, but DSLRs have a pentaprism and moveable mirror inside (it switches position to either direct light to the sensor or the optical viewfinder) while CSCs capture images without one (light is always directed to the sensor).

This means CSCs can be smaller and lighter than DSLRs, but can’t have through-the-lens optical viewfinders; that used to be a big downside until manufacturers developed OLED electronic viewfinders that give an incredibly detailed live view of what the camera’s pointed at.

Nowadays, there’s not much difference between the two types of camera in terms of image quality, although (with CSCs being a relatively new category of camera) DSLRs still have the wider choice of lenses, particularly Nikon and Canon models.

Read more: Do you really need a DSLR?

What about video recording?

Video capture is now a standard feature on digital cameras, with most able to record footage at at least 720p HD quality. Increasingly, mid- and high-end cameras are offering the ability to record 4K Ultra HD footage.

If you’re planning on using your prospective camera’s video mode a lot, consider one that features manual video controls, and take note of things like the available frame rates and the time limitations on clips.

Do I need optical zoom?

You probably want it, for convenience and flexibility’s sake – but some compact cameras have fixed focal length (i.e. non-zooming) lenses, and many DSLR and CSC users prefer to use fixed focal length lenses too.

DSLR connected to computer

Why? Because these ‘prime’ lenses tend to have wider maximum apertures, meaning better low-light shooting, as well as the ability to shoot with a shallower depth of field – that attractive out-of-focus background effect. Prime lenses are also engineered for shooting at one particular focal length, and tend to be smaller and optically sharper.

So not having a zoom isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a camera, but many will prefer the versatility of being able to take a wide-angle landscape shot one moment, then zoom in and snap a bird or animal in close-up detail – all without having to take a single step.

What about wi-fi and connectivity?

More and more cameras now come with built-in wi-fi, allowing you to link them up to your phone for  on-the-go social media sharing and backup purposes, or to add GPS geotagging to your photos.

While many won’t use these features, if you’re the sort who wants to share that selfie ASAP, make sure you choose a camera with wi-fi. A lot also come with near-field communication (NFC), which makes pairing them with a suitably-equipped Android phone much simpler.

Read more: How to choose a DSLR - from budget models to professional lenses.