How we test digital cameras

Canon PowerShot G3 X
Jessica Lee Star/Digital Trends

Don’t get us wrong—doing camera reviews is a lot of fun but there’s a lot more to it than charging the battery, going for a walk–digital camera in hand–and snapping away. Here’s how we do it.

At Digital Trends, we want our product reviews to provide readers with insight into a product’s technical performance–and its usability. To that end, we go beyond specs and measurements by placing emphasis on the user experience. For cameras, that means taking a close look at all the little touches that, taken together, make the difference between an ordinary camera and one you’ll want to buy and carry around with you at all times.

Also check out our picks for the best digital cameras as picked by our reviewers.

Opening The Box

We do not test prototypes or any camera that is not ready for primetime. We get full production models so the camera we test is the same as the one you’ll pick up at the store or delivered by UPS/FedEx. When it arrives, we unpack the camera and all of the supplied accessories. At that point, the battery gets charged which typically takes 2-3 hours.

Build Quality and Styling

When the battery is charged and placed in the camera, we turn it on, following the same instructions as you would for setting the time and date. Amazingly, we read the supplied owner’s manual. Yes, it’s heresy to admit, but no matter how many cameras we test, all are different and have their own nuances. At this point we begin walking through the menu system. This gives us a strong indication as to the camera’s overall engineering and design. A clunky or obtuse menu system usually means the company really hasn’t thought through the entire user experience. Fortunately, most top makers have improved their user interfaces dramatically over the years. They’re not iPhones or iPads, but good progress has been made. However, some companies bury important features deeply in the menu system and we point this out in our reviews, hoping beyond hope they take the hint and make positive changes for the next generation.

olympus-om-d-e-m10-top-settings-dial-1500x1000

Next, we closely examine every camera, noting the position of the many buttons, levers and keys. Again, like the menu system, properly identified and logically placed controls are strong indicators a camera will be a winner or loser—at least ergonomically—picture and video quality is another story. What makes a pleasing industrial design is as individual as your favorite food or car. That doesn’t stop us from giving our opinion and it’s one that’s been honed by handling hundreds of cameras over the years. Again personal preferences are just that but we know a clunker when we see/handle one and will share our thoughts, no matter how touchy company ego.

Performance Testing

Once we’ve set the date/time and generally given the camera a careful examination, it’s time to load a memory card. Typically we use Class 6 or 10 SDHC or high-speed CompactFlash media. We always do a deep formatting of the card before we start shooting. Quality settings are adjusted to maximum levels for stills and movie clips. If a camera offers a RAW option, we’ll shoot RAW+JPEG as well as straight JPEGs. Continuous (burst) modes will be engaged whenever possible. Movies will also be set to top resolution. At this point, it’s time to start taking photographs and videos.

We’ll readily admit it’s a lot of fun taking new cameras with us wherever and whenever. Depending on the time of year, of course, subject matter will change dramatically as will location. If we’re testing an interchangeable lens camera, we’ll bring all the lenses supplied by the manufacturer in a sturdy backpack. We like taking our review samples to various locales, using them just as you would. That means we typically start off in auto mode. Again depending on the model, we’ll then move through all the options on the mode dial such as aperture- and shutter-priority as well as the various Scene modes. Increasingly, more cameras have art and special effects filters and we’ll capture our share of these shots as well. We’ll shoot videos but not nearly as many compared to stills. In the course of weeks-long shoots, we’ll take many hundreds of images and dozens of movie clips.

Checking Them Out

When we’re done, we review our efforts in a variety of ways—directly on a 50-inch HDTV via HDMI and via card readers on a PC. The large display gives a great indication of video quality as any compression artifacts will easily make themselves apparent as will any colors shifts and rolling shutter “jelly” effects. We don’t perform audiophile-level tests just let our years-long experience let us know if sound is pleasing or not. Scrolling through hundreds of images using a TV remote is not the most pleasant thing so we use the computer for that task.

fuji-x-t1-camera-review-top-dials-1500x1000

Our Samsung monitors are calibrated using the supplied software and then we settle in for “pixel peeping.” When we find an interesting photo we proceed to enlarge it 100% or more in order to closely examine it. This gives us a real indication of color quality and the impact of digital noise. Besides our “real world” photos, we also take a series of shots of a test subject—a multi-colored beaded lampshade–with the flash off, of course. This not only shows when noise starts to kick in and degrade the photos but how well a camera’s image stabilization system functions.

As we’re doing the pixel-peeping, we’ll note which image we want to print. We do not make any changes to the file, such as Auto Fix—we want to see what the camera captures without any software fixes. At this point, we’ll make 8.5x11full-bleed prints on photo glossy inkjet paper with a 5-color Canon Pixma all-in-one printer using pigment-based ink (4800×1200 DPI). This gives us a proverbial hard copy to closely examine.

And The Envelope, Please

Once our testing and review process is complete, we take into consideration a camera’s overall performance, its cost and the competition it faces with similarly priced and featured models. Although prices of mainstream digital cameras have dropped as megapixel counts have risen, more pixels doesn’t mean better photos/videos. Cameras are much more than their imaging sensors and sometimes you really have to spend more for the best results. That’s why we do extensive hands-on reviews rather than merely recite speeds and feeds.

We want readers to walk away from our reviews with a solid idea of what it would be like to own any particular model, and whether the camera in question might be a good fit for your needs.

As always, we value reader feedback and will take comments, requests and questions into consideration as we refine our testing processes to reflect the needs of our readers.

Computing

Nose cam no more. How Dell avoided a notch and fixed the XPS 13’s biggest flaw

The new Dell XPS 13 moves the webcam from the below the screen to the top, finally vanquishing the one obstacle facing thin, sleek laptop displays. We have the exclusive story on how it was done.
Home Theater

These awesome A/V receivers will swarm you with surround sound at any budget

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to shopping for a receiver, so we assembled our favorites for 2018, at multiple price points and all loaded with features, from Dolby Atmos to 4K HDR, and much more.
Mobile

On a budget? We found the best affordable smartphones you can buy

Here are the best cheap phones for anyone working with a tight budget, whether you're a fan of stock Android or marathon battery life. Find out what you can get for under $500 or far, far less as we round up the best budget smartphones.
Product Review

One breath into this device could change what you eat forever

Anyone living with a food intolerance knows the pain — literally and figuratively — of dealing with it, and even identifying what the cause of the problem is. The FoodMarble Aire wants to solve this, and we took a closer look at CES…
Photography

See ya, CFast: 1TB CFexpress card transfers photos at 1,400MB per second

The latest trend in professional removable storage media is fast approaching. At CES 2019, ProgradeDigital revealed its first CFexpress card, featuring a 1-terabyte capacity and bewildering 1,400 megabyte-per-second transfer rate.
Photography

From 11K to just OK: The biggest photo gear announcements at CES 2019

From 11K cameras to 1 TB media cards, CES 2019 brought a peek at new gear for photographers and videographers. But what photography gear grabbed our attention the most? Here are the biggest photo gear announcements from CES 2019.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: heat-powered watches, phone cases with reflexes

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Photography

What to look for and what to avoid when buying a camera

Looking to buy a new camera? Our comprehensive camera guide for 2016 has answers to any camera or photography questions you might ask, whether in regards to pricing, image quality, or weatherproofing.
Social Media

No yolk! A photo of an egg has become the most-liked post on Instagram

Until this weekend, the most-liked post on Instagram was of Kylie Jenner's baby daughter, which has around 18 million likes. It's now been knocked off the top spot not by a stunning sunset or even a cute cat, but by an egg.
Photography

Going somewhere? Capture more than your phone can with the best travel cams

Hitting the road or doing some globetrotting this year? Bring along the right camera to capture those once-in-a-lifetime vacation memories. Here's a list of some of our current favorites.
Photography

From 4K powerhouses to tiny action cams, here are the best video cameras

Although not as popular as they once were, dedicated video cameras still have their benefits. From travel vlogging to home movies to recording your kid's little league game, here are the best video cameras you can buy right now.
Photography

Starting your very own vlog? Here are the best cameras to buy

Any camera that shoots video can be used to vlog, but a few models stand out from the crowd thanks to superior image quality, ergonomics, and usability. When it comes to putting your life on YouTube, here are the best cameras for the job.
Photography

Authentic, holistic, retro photography is in: Here are 2019’s predicted trends

What types of imagery are we most drawn to? According to recent stock photography data from Adobe, StoryBlocks, and Shutterstock, authentic, holistic, and humanitarian content will be in high demand in 2019.