1 | What are you going to use the camera for?
Before you ask yourself, "Which camera should I buy?" ask yourself, "What do I want a camera for?" Think about when you would use it and what you'd be prepared to carry around. "There's no point buying something huge and expensive that you leave at home," says Simon Emmett, the award-winning photographer of this month's Esquire cover, among others. Get it in your hands and try it out in the shop. Check for hand grips and how easy it is to hold steady, usability of the dials and how quickly you can access the menus. "Make sure it feels comfortable," says Nigel Atherton, editor of Amateur Photographer magazine. "Size is important."
2 | Choosing the right one
There are three types: compact cameras, the smallest "point-and-shoot" types, which do everything for you and have the lens built into the body; compact system cameras, similar to compacts but with interchangeable lenses for manual control; and DSLRs (digital single-lens reflex), big boys with loads of lenses that let you control almost everything about how a picture is taken – focus, brightness, colours, and so on. "The question is: what do you want your camera to do that your phone can't?" Atherton says.
3 | Manual controls and zoom
A keen amateur photographer will want as much manual control as possible."Compacts either have autofocus or what they call manual focus, but it isn't really manual in the traditional sense," Emmett says. "There are no distance marks on the lens, you're turning a dial and watching the picture go blurry, not setting the distance." Zoom is another point of difference. Cameras may claim "15x zoom" so you might think it means you can "see" 15x further. It just means the longest setting is 15 times that of the widest.
4 | Forget about megapixels
Ignore the fuss over pixels and focus on the sensor. "It's the first thing to look for," says Louise Angell, photo buyer at John Lewis. The sensor is what film used to be; it "sees" light and records images. "Larger sensors render a more detailed image," says Emmett. They also allow "depth of field", so you can focus on a face in a crowd, for example. For compact system and DSLR cameras look for between 12 and 38 megapixels. In a compact, aim for 10 to 14.
5 | The future
To compete with hi-tech phones, cameras are now often Android-enabled and let you upload pictures to social media. Others allow remote control by smart device. "4K video cameras are also selling well," Angell says. "Panasonic's LUMIX G Camera DMC-GH4, for instance, has a feature where you can pull off a still from a 4K film." All nice tricks, but will they make you a better photographer? "The best camera is always the one you can be bothered to take with you," says Emmett.
6 | You don't have to buy new
"Cameras have become like cars," says Emmett. "In the old days of film cameras you could often sell a camera for not much less than you've paid for it." While the lens will retain value, chances are the body won't. Think outside the reviews: the latest and greatest might not be the best investment.