Each post in this series builds on information discussed in previous posts. See the Photography for Beginners page on the menu for links to all the posts.
In the previous two posts we discussed some questions to help you decide if you should upgrade your camera. If you’re not sure, I suggest reading those posts first.
In this post I assume you have definitely decided to buy a new camera but aren’t sure which type of camera is best for you or maybe you’re overwhelmed by all the different models available. The info in this post applies whether you’re buying your first real digital camera or are upgrading from a more basic camera.
If you’re not familiar with a lot of photography jargon you might want to open the glossary in another browser tab for quick reference because I don’t want to explain each term as I go.
Also, if you don’t know much about lenses and focal lengths, you might want to read this post before you do any serious camera shopping.
I will not be recommending specific camera models. My intent is to provide information about what is available out there so that you have a solid base of knowledge and can shop with confidence.
The first thing to understand is that there is no such thing as the best camera. When comparing between several roughly equivalent models what is best for one person won’t be best for another. The best camera for you depends on the size of your wallet, personal preferences, and the types of photography you do.
The next thing to understand is that there is no such thing as a perfect camera. The camera I’m using is the perfect choice for me. But the camera itself isn’t perfect. There are a few little things that bug me or features I wish it had. No matter which camera you get that will be true. Even the most expensive cameras on the market aren’t perfect.
Lastly, this is a repeat but it bears repeating, better gear can’t make you a better photographer. Only practice can do that.
Don’t get hung up on brand.
Many bloggers and YouTubers are so devoted to a brand that they lose sight of the fact no single brand is the best at everything. When researching cameras look for people and websites that recommend different brands and models for different types of users. Their advice is the most useful.
Remember that your camera is only a tool. It’s not a status symbol and it doesn’t make a statement about your abilities as a photographer. Ignore that kind of noise and stay focused on your specific needs.
All of the established brands make good cameras, but there is variance. The top brands for one type of camera might offer weaker products in a different category.
Decide what kind of camera you’re going to get and which features you want, and then look at the models that are closest to what you are looking for, regardless of which company makes them.
The biggest exception to this is if you own an ILC and have invested extra money in quality lenses. In that case you have a strong financial incentive to stick with the same brand so that you can continue using those lenses.
Before we get to the main topic let’s get money out of the way. The good news here is that a smaller budget isn’t as restrictive as it was as recently as three years ago.
Advanced technology trickling down to less expensive cameras and pressure from better phone cameras have brought prices down. There are good cameras of all types available in the $400-1000 price range. If you can spend at least $800 your options and the quality of the cameras increases considerably.
I can’t tell you how much you should spend, but the one piece of price advice I will give is to ignore cameras under $400. (That’s a rough guideline, not a strict price point.)
While cameras selling for under $400 can take nice photos in ideal conditions, they are mostly intended to be used in Auto Mode for snapshots. You can accomplish the same thing with a high-end phone camera these days. You need a camera you can grow into, that has a better sensor, and that doesn’t make it difficult to access advanced features.
If you’re buying an ILC the best money advice is: don’t spend your budget on the body. If your budget is $900, don’t be looking at $850 bodies.
Lenses are more important than the body. If you buy a great body with a sub-par lens you’re wasting part of what you spent on the body because it can’t perform up to its potential. Maximize what you spend on a body by putting good glass in front of it. Either buy a less expensive body and a better lens at the start, or go ahead and get a cheap kit lens as long as you know you’ll have money to upgrade and/or add more lenses within a year.
Buying used is the best way to get more camera for your money for any kind of camera. A model that was released four years ago won’t have the latest tech, but if it produced quality images back then it will still produce quality images now. If you buy a used camera in excellent condition the chances of something malfunctioning are only slightly higher than when buying new.
Buying used lenses is even safer than buying used bodies. This is a feasible way to get quality glass on your budget destroying body.
Open box cameras (and lenses) are another way to save some cash. They are new cameras, but were used as display models in the store or returned by a customer because they didn’t like it for some reason, not because it didn’t work. Refurbished is also a good option.
Another tip for saving money is to wait until the next generation of the model you’re interested in is released. If the current camera is very appealing you may not have any real need for new features in the upcoming release. If you wait until after the new one is on the market, prices (both new and used) will drop significantly on the old version.
Doing the reverse can also be beneficial, but often slightly more costly. If you’re seeing strong indicators that the next generation will be released within a few months and there’s a good likelihood you’ll be happier with the improvements, it’s worth waiting to see. This is especially true if the current camera is a first generation model. A second generation works out a lot of the kinks from the first.
Lastly, when planning your budget don’t forget about the cost of camera bags. If you get a compact camera you can do without one or get a small zippered pouch style case for around $10-30. Bag prices go steeply up from there. The shoulder/cross body bags for my bridge camera and current camera were in the $40-50 range. There were very few cheaper options but a lot that were more expensive. Bags like messengers, slings, and backpacks start at around $60 and go up to over $200.
Even if you have a full kit of a body and three lenses you don’t have to buy a bag designed for cameras. There are padded inserts you can buy in a variety of sizes that turn a messenger bag or backpack you already own into a camera bag.
The best place to start is deciding both what type of camera you want and which sensor size you should get. These two things are interrelated and have to be decided together. Not all sensor sizes are available in all types of cameras. Once those decisions are made you can start thinking about the details of specs and features to narrow down which models to choose from.
In this post we discuss camera types. In the next post we’ll cover sensor sizes.
There’s a photography saying that goes, “The best camera is the one you have with you.”
It’s a great saying because it’s not only true, it helps with deciding what type of camera to buy. Spending thousands on a full frame DSLR doesn’t make it the best camera if it’s always sitting at home.
Think about the factors that determine whether you’ll have your camera with you at the times and in the places you most like to take photos. This includes how fun the camera is to use. The more a camera frustrates you the more often you’ll leave it behind.
Size and weight are obvious considerations. How big and heavy is too big and heavy, or do you like big? How small is too small for your comfort, or do you prefer small? What style and size of bag are you willing to carry and what kind of gear can fit in it?
There’s also a triangle of decision factors. Which of these are most important to you: variety of focal lengths, great IQ, or convenience? You can have any two of these things, but usually not all three.
* With a fixed lens superzoom camera you have a very wide range of focal lengths and the convenience of not carrying around extra lenses and having to swap them, but not great IQ.
* If you’re okay with the limitations of a fixed focal length you can buy a large sensor P&S so you have convenience and great IQ.
* With an ILC you have IQ and your pick of focal lengths, but the inconvenience of carrying and swapping lenses to take different kinds of photos. (The exception is that if there is a zoom lens that fits the focal range you use, and you’ll never want anything wider or longer, you can attach the zoom as if it’s permanent and you hit the jackpot of having all three.)
Think about what you want most from a camera. Look at the advantages and disadvantages of each type of camera below (and sensors in the next post). What’s the closest fit for your personal quirks, needs, and photography interests?
Compact Point and Shoots
Compact P&S cameras have a fixed zoom lens, a tiny 1/2.3 or 1″ sensor, and very few buttons and dials. Their only advantages are small size, light weight, and convenience.
This type of camera is best as a backup or secondary, take-everywhere camera because they fit in any day bag/purse or a large pocket. For someone getting serious about photography they don’t make a good primary camera because they have way too many limitations. A compact mirrorless camera is a vastly better choice if small size is your main concern.
If you decide to get one anyway then definitely buy a model with a 1″ sensor. The slightly larger sensor will help counterbalance some of the other limitations.
Brands: Canon, Leica, Nikon, Panasonic, Sony. (Nikon doesn’t make 1″ sensor models.)
Bridge cameras are also point and shoots with small sensors, but they have bodies styled like a DSLR and have some to a lot of advanced features. They “bridge the gap” between a compact P&S and an ILC.
Bridge cameras usually have more buttons and dials than compacts, making it easier to change settings without diving into menus.
They have a fixed superzoom lens, so you get the convenience of a wide range of focal lengths without having to change lenses.
Bridge cameras are bulky (some are as large as small DSLRs), but they’re usually relatively light weight for their size. Most have a pretty good grip.
The drawbacks are that 1″ is the largest sensor size and the lenses are lacking in some way (or several ways) when it comes to quality. Though a few high-end models have a better than average lens for a small sensor P&S.
With bridge cameras there’s an uncomfortable balancing act when it comes to prices. There are quite a few inexpensive models, but they have the smallest 1/2.3″ sensor size and are more limited in features. This makes them undesirable for anyone getting more serious about photography.
The 1″ sensor models are very nice cameras, but are priced as high as entry level ILCs that have larger sensors and the option of acquiring better lenses. You’re paying a premium for the convenience of a fixed superzoom lens. For some that convenience is worth the price tag.
Bridge cameras are best suited to those who are serious about improving their photography skills and experimenting with different types of photography, but who don’t want to carry around extra lenses and don’t need the best IQ because they mostly just share photos online. (When photos are viewed at a small size it’s difficult to detect small differences in IQ.)
Brands: Canon, Leica, Nikon, Panasonic, Sony. (No 1″ models from Nikon.)
Large Sensor Point and Shoots
These are a niche type of camera. They are compact cameras, but unlike the two P&S categories above the lens is usually a fixed focal length, not a zoom, and the lens is of a better quality. They also have a larger sensor, either micro 4/3, APS-C, or full frame, like an ILC.
The advantage of these cameras that is you get very good to excellent IQ in a small package. The disadvantages are that many models aren’t as full-featured as an ILC and you have to be content with no telephoto capability.
These cameras are best suited to hiking, and street and travel photography. Photographers wanting a small size and only a single good lens, who also demand the dynamic range and low light properties of a larger sensor, might consider this type.
Brands FF: Leica, Sony
APS-C: Canon, Fujifilm, Ricoh
Four Thirds: Leica, Panasonic
DSLRs are the digital version of the old standard 35mm film SLR cameras and they are ILCs.
Their key design feature is that you “see through the lens” when you look in the viewfinder. Light enters the lens and a mirror in the camera body bounces it up to a prism which bounces it to the viewfinder.
DSLRs have an optical VF for this to work. Many photographers prefer the clarity of OVFs, but others find them more difficult to work with, especially when manually focusing.
DSLRs tend to be rugged and durable, especially cameras from Canon and Nikon. They often have better weather sealing on the models with that feature. A single battery charge lasts a really long time. With two decades of development behind them they are very reliable.
They also tend to have more buttons on the body than other types of cameras, which provides easy access to a lot of frequently used settings and functions.
Their main drawback is size and weight. Some aren’t much bigger than the largest mirrorless cameras, but some are rather massive. DSLRs only have mechanical shutters, and electronic shutters are a big benefit in some situations.
Entry level DSLRs are available for under $1000. DSLRs are sold with APS-C or full frame sensors.
DSLRs are a good choice for anyone who wants an ILC with a large sensor and an optical viewfinder. They are especially good for people who need their durability for rough conditions or professional work.
Brands: Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Sony.
All cameras other than DSLRs are mirrorless, but when mirrorless cameras are discussed as a specific category it means an ILC with a larger sensor.
This category did not compare well to DSLRs initially. But a lot has changed and there are quite a few mirrorless cameras that match or come very close to the performance of DSLRs. Mirrorless cameras often have features not found in DSLRs or that are implemented better than they are in DSLRs.
Cameras in this category have micro 4/3, APS-C, or full frame sensors.
Mirrorless cameras tend to be smaller and lighter than their DSLR counterparts. This alone has prompted many people to switch from a DSLR to mirrorless.
However, it’s important to note that in FF cameras the differences are negligible, and in some cases FF mirrorles lenses are larger than FF DSLR lenses due to physics.
With APS-C cameras the smaller size is most noticeable with standard and wide-angle prime lenses. Zoom and telephoto lenses don’t have as much of a size advantage over DSLR lenses. It varies a lot with bodies. Some are very small and compact and some are as large as a small DSLR.
Most mirrorless cameras have more AF points than DSLRs, going from edge to edge of the frame in some models.
Most mirrorless cameras have an EVF instead of an OVF, which displays a full featured live view in the viewfinder.
Mirrorless cameras have both mechanical and electronic shutters. An electronic shutter is completely silent. This helps street photographers be more stealthy and is invaluable when shooting in quiet situations like cathedrals, museums, and during events and ceremonies. Electronic shutters usually allow faster shutter speeds than mechanical shutters.
A drawback of mirrorless cameras is that a battery charge doesn’t last as long as it does for a DSLR. In a mirrorless camera the sensor is always on when the camera is turned on so it can supply the data to the EVF and this draws down power faster. Plus the batteries are usually small to fit the smaller bodies.
Because mirrorless bodies are smaller, most models don’t have big grips (or even much of a grip at all on some.) The lack of a grip is especially noticeable if a heavy lens is attached. For some a small grip isn’t that important, but for others it’s a deal-breaker.
Entry level mirrorless ILCs are available for under $1000. (I’ll cover brands in the sensor post.)
Mirrorless cameras are a good choice for anyone who wants an ILC, but are especially good for people who want an EVF, or a lighter and smaller kit because they are getting older or for things like hiking and travel.
When buying an ILC you shouldn’t choose a type or brand based only on the body. You have to also look at the available lenses.
A native lens is one that has the correct mount to fit the body and is made by the same brand. Looking at the native lens lineup can tell you a lot about the wisdom of your purchase because in general (there are always exceptions) native lenses perform best.
But you’re not limited to native lenses. Third party brands also make lenses with the right mounts, and there are adapters so that you can use lenses with a different type of mount. Adapters usually reduce performance at least a little, and some provide no electronics so the lens becomes manual focus only.
Canon and Nikon full frame DSLRs are the clear winners out of the entire ILC category when it comes to lenses. Their years-long head start means there are native lenses of every focal length, quality, and price range. There are also large selections of third-party lenses. The bad news is that full frame cameras are very expensive.
Pentax and Sony both have decent to good lineups of native and 3rd party FF DSLR lenses, but nothing to match Canon and Nikon.
Canon and Nikon only released their full frame mirrorless cameras this year (2018) so there are almost no native lenses for them yet. Reviews indicate the adapters to use DSLR lenses work very well, but not quite as good as native mounts.
Sony has been working hard on their FF mirrorless cameras the last few years and while they don’t have a lineup comparable to DSLRs they do offer some high quality glass.
Panasonic will be releasing their first full frame mirrorless models in spring 2019 and have announced a 10 lens lineup within the first three years, which is promising for a new system. Plus, Panasonic has partnered with Leica and Sigma to produce additional lenses.
APS-C mirrorless cameras haven’t been around as long as DSLRs, so the lineups of native lenses are sparse by comparison. Sparse doesn’t mean lacking in good lenses though. It means there’s often only one choice for each focal length and there may be a few gaps.
Fujifilm and Sony are the main brands in APS-C mirrorless.
Fujifilm has the edge in native lenses. Only 2 or 3 of the XF line are average, the rest are of superior quality. They are also pricey. Third-party lenses were almost non-existent, but several have been released in the last two years. They are very affordable, but manual focus only.
The native Sony line-up is inconsistent, ranging from so-so to excellent, and there is some question as to how much more effort they will put into their APS-C lenses now that they are concentrating so heavily on FF. But Sony does have more third-party and adapted options, and also the advantage of IBIS in some of their bodies which helps with non-stabilized lenses.
Micro 4/3 cameras have a lens advantage because all brands use the same mount, so you can mix and match the brands of lenses and bodies with no adapters needed. These cameras have been around long enough that there are plenty of good to excellent lenses to choose from, both native and third-party.
Whichever camera model you’re considering make sure lenses are available for it in the focal lengths you want and that those specific lenses are of a good to excellent quality.