Usage. The first question that needs answering is what do you intend to use it for? Most of us just want to take happy snaps and are not too bothered about camera functions, as long as you get an in focus photo most, if not all of the time? Like me, do you want some flexibility with zoom control, resolution and maybe HD video production?
Price. In all fairness, the price tag is one of the more important factors when choosing a camera and there’s a large range of prices out there. Decide what suits your pocket and go from there. You might want o consider getting last year’s model as it will be significantly cheaper that the up to date model.
Size/style/ergonomics. Have a look at some cameras in the stores and handle as many as possible. I say handle because most of the time it’s how a camera feels to the user that’s an important factor. Does it fit comfortably in the hand? It should be the right size for your hand. It should look and feel well made, rugged even, so that a knock or minor accident doesn’t wreck it. Is it shock proof or even water proof? How does it look? I like black for a camera colour, being conservative, and it does go with my Nikon cameras. Some of you will like the more distinctive colours, the reds, blues or even pinks! Have a look at the grouping of the controls. Can you handle the camera with one hand and still use most of the controls? If you are right handed, then the controls should on the right hand side of the top and back of the camera. Your left hand should only be used to steady the camera. In fact, I find that if I grip the camera with both hands and twist slightly in opposite directions, this provides a good stable feel without camera shake.
Flash. Does it have flash capability? Can it be switched off when not needed? A built in flash on most point and shoot cameras doesn’t have much range but it can be used to effectively fill in shadows. It’s much better to have a camera that works well in low light levels without flash. Take a photo in the store if you can and check out the result. Some stores are switched on enough to have demo models available for customer use.
Megapixels. Every body seems to think that the more megapixels the camera has, then the better the photo that can be taken. Generally that’s true if the sensor is large enough and the lens is good quality one… Most compact cameras have a sensor size of 1/2.3″ which really isn’t enough in low light conditions, The higher end cameras, costing quite a bit more, have sensors that are 1/1.7″. They invariably don’t have the zoom capability some of the smaller sensor cameras have, but they do perform better in low light conditions and you can achieve some depth of field with them.
Lens. Talking about lens, this is the most important aspect of a camera that I look for. Without a good lens, the camera really won’t perform very well. A standard compact camera can offer 35mm to perhaps 150mm focal length range. That’s fine for portrait shots but if you want to take landscapes then find a camera offering a wide angle capability of 24mm and an upper range of 200mm so you capture long range wildlife or sports action shots. There are cameras out there that offer a super zoom of 400mm. Another aspect of lens quality is the aperture range. Lower f values like f1.8, i.e. larger apertures, work better in low light conditions. A rule of thumb to gauge lens quality is to check how much glass you can see. The larger glass area suggests a better quality lens.
LCD screen. You should look for a camera with at least a 2.5-inch display, although 3 inches is preferable. The reason is that you will be using the screen to frame your shots and then review them afterwards. Larger is better in this case. However, linked to the size of the screen is its resolution display component. Some 3 inch screens offer a 230k dot display which is just about OK for that size screen. If you want really sharp images, then go for a camera offering 460k or 921k dot displays. Finally, some cameras offer rotating and tilting screens which can be handy in sunlight glare or when you want to take a photo at an unusual angle or close to the ground.