In the first of a new series, AUTOFOCUS will be bringing into focus issues and hot topics from the digital camera world every month. This month, Mark Goldstein looks at how digital cameras are more accessible than ever before.

Digital photographers have never had it so good. Fact. Go back in time just 3 years, and who would have believed that you would be able to buy a 5 megapixel camera for £100, a 7 megapixel model for £200, and a DSLR with a lens for £450 in 2005?

All of these prices are from a single, world-renowned online retailer beginning with a capital “A”, and all of them are from established and respected camera manufacturers (Olympus, Sony and Nikon respectively).

This isn't just a seasonal promotion; the main driving force is the fierce competition between the various camera companies, who have to offer more features for less money in order to come out on top in what has become a saturated market.

The consumer is the ultimate winner, with more choice and value on offer than ever before, but be warned - this could just be a passing phase. After a tough financial year, most of the big players have recently declared that they are shifting their focus to more expensive digital SLR cameras, which typically give a much higher profit margin than low-end compacts. DSLRs will undoubtedly become cheaper with better specifications than today, but this may be at the expense of the compact digicam.

So now is the time to act for all you casual snappers. There has never been so much choice. Walking into your local camera shop can be a bewildering experience, and without any prior research you will probably leave with the camera that the retailer wanted to sell to you, rather than the one that most suited you.

Take some time to sit down and decide on the key things that you want your camera to do. For example, the size of prints that you make will determine how many megapixels the camera should have - if you're only going to order 6x4 inch prints at your local store, then a 4 or 5 megapixel camera is more than sufficient.

You should also budget for additional accessories, as most digital camera kits don't provide everything that you need. Top of your list should be some large capacity memory cards, as the one supplied in the box is usually so small that it can only store a few images.

Next are spare batteries and a case to stop your shiny new purchase from becoming scratched and dog-eared. All of this can add up to around an extra 25% of the cost of the camera, but hey, it's inexpensive in the first place, and at least you can choose exactly which accessories you want.

Buying on the Internet is almost always the cheapest route, but not necessarily the best for first-time buyers. Trying out a range of different models in your local shop will give you a great idea of what you like and dislike, and is always my first piece of advice for any would-be digicam owner.

So if you bear all of this in mind, you should grab yourself a bargain that will capture more than a few Christmas memories.

Mark Goldstein is the editor of PhotographyBLOG(), a popular digital camera website which supplies a daily dose of photography news, articles, reviews and debate.