Everyone raves about their phone's photos, but for the same price as a couple of months' contract charges, you can now get a proper digital camera with a large colour screen, actual zoom lens, real flash and decent movie mode. Whether you're looking for an affordable first camera or a back-up snapper for adventures, cheap is the new black.
Actually, metallic blue is the new black. Most budget cameras arrive in a range of eye-watering colours. You can expect a variety of resolutions, too. The most common sensor size is around 10 megapixels but you'll find chips from 5 megapixels up to 14 megapixels or higher. Be wary of really high resolutions on cheap cameras. More pixels mean larger files, slower shot-to-shot times and grainier digital 'noise' in low-light images.
Higher resolution can also reveal distortion and colour fringing in budget lenses. Look for a nice wide-angle setting (anything less than 35mm equivalent) and a 3x to 5x zoom for flexibility. You won't find the largest 8x and 10x lenses on cheap cameras, so if you're heading off on safari (or to gigs or sporting events), keep saving for an ultrazoom -- they don't cost much more these days.
Forget about fancy touchscreens or optical viewfinders as you'll be stuck with a plain old LCD. Its size isn't that important but its brightness is. There's nothing worse than finding yourself waving your camera around blindly because the screen is washed out by sunlight. Read a CNET UK review or road-test the camera before buying.
The good news is you can expect a host of impressive digital features on board. Tracking autofocus, face detection and smile shutter are now standard on all but the very cheapest cameras, and intelligent auto modes mean less fiddling with scene modes than in years gone by. Macro focus is great for close-ups and a low-light mode or high sensitivity (1600 and above) lets you shoot moody night-time snaps.
Speaking of which, a powerful flash is the one advantage even the cheapest stand-alone camera has over the fanciest mobile phone. Slow-synch or 'natural flash' features are better still, helping you take professional-looking night portraits.
Movie modes range from the good (720p, 30 frames per second) to the bad (VGA, 15fps) to the positively ugly (potentially either of the above). You're unlikely to get bonus features like stereo sound, HDMI output or slow-motion video clips, and even burst modes can be on the sluggish side.
These cameras might be cheap but none are cheap enough to be disposable, so pay attention to build quality. One or two budget action cameras are toughened to be waterproof and shock-resistant. Generally, though, cheap cameras veer towards the plasticky side -- which, at least, means they're nice and light. Battery life is much better than it used to be. Expect to get at least a couple of hundred shots per charge.
CNET UK's penny-pinching experts have scraped the photographic barrel to find the cheapest cameras money can buy. Here's a selection of the best bargains out there right now.