When it comes to shopping for electronics, digital cameras are among the more difficult products to purchase. Not only are there hundreds of models to choose from, you have a number of different types ranging from simple compact point-and-shoot cameras to advanced D-SLRs with interchangeable lenses. Figuring out the type you want is the first order of business, so you need to ask yourself a few questions: Are you more interested in a camera that requires minimum effort, or is superlative image quality your top priority? What level of zoom do you need? If you’re interested in an interchangeable lens model, are you married to the idea of a bright optical viewfinder, or would you be willing to consider a smaller camera that can change lenses, but handles more like a point-and-shoot?
There are five main classes of cameras to consider when shopping, and we’ll break them down below to help you decide which type of camera will best suit your needs and your budget.
For Novices and Light Travelers: The Compact Point-and-Shoot
Point-and-shoot cameras are the smallest models you’ll find—and often the easiest to use. Though even the most advanced D-SLRs have fully automatic modes, novices may feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of physical controls. Your average point-and-shoot camera, on the other hand, typically has a few buttons on the back, so you adjust shooting settings as necessary. Casual snapshooters can benefit from learning just a bit about photography, but the point-and-shoot camera was designed so you don’t have to think too much about what camera settings to use.
When selecting a compact camera, you should pay attention to a few things. The first thing on most minds is the number of megapixels. This isn’t as important a concern as it once was since pretty much every camera you can buy these days packs enough megapixels to make large prints. Also a small camera with a high resolution may not give you the best images. A tiny camera packed with 18 megapixels is probably going to suffer in low-light shooting situations where you need to use higher ISO settings—so you shouldn’t automatically rule out that 12-megapixel camera like our Editors’ Choice Canon PowerShot Elph 330 HS because of its sensor resolution. Your best bet is to look at some reviews to see how a particular model performs. We test the image sharpness and the high ISO performance of every camera that comes through the PC Labs.
The next thing you’ll want to look at is the zoom ratio, and the focal lengths that the lens covers. Two cameras may each have a 5x zoom lens, but if the first covers a 24-120mm range and the second covers a 35-175mm range, the former will be better for wide-angle shots and the latter will have a bit of telephoto reach. I generally recommend that point-and-shoot users go for a camera with a lens that is at least 28mm wide, like our Editors’ Choice premium compact Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100, as they allow for more dynamic photos when shooting family snapshots and group portraits. You can always crop a photo to make a distant object appear a bit larger in the frame, but you can’t add information around the edges after a photo has been shot.
There are a few other things to consider. You’ll want to get a model with a good quality LCD, as it’ll serve as your viewfinder. All but the lowest-end models now support image stabilization and HD video, but they are must-haves in today’s world. If you think a point-and-shoot is the way to go, check out our buying guide and The Best Point-and-Shoot Cameras.
For Those Who Want to Get Close to the Action: Superzoom Cameras
Superzoom cameras come in two flavors—compact and standard. For the compact models, you’ll basically want to handle your research just as you would a point-and-shoot. Models like the Samsung WB250F offer an 18x zoom factor, but if you need something longer than that, a larger camera like the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ200 is in order. Big superzooms often look like miniature D-SLRs, and generally include an electronic viewfinder in addition to the rear LCD.
You’ll want to pay special attention to the quality of this EVF, as it is much easier to hold the camera steady at your eye than it is at arm’s length. When you’ve zoomed all the way in—some models go as far as 1000mm—you’ll need all the help you can get to get a steady shot. The general rule of thumb is that you need a shutter speed of 1/1000 of a second to get a sharp photo at 1000mm, although good image stabilization will let you get away with longer speed. You’ll still want to look for a model that does well at high ISO settings—the lenses on these cameras don’t let in a ton of light when zoomed in all the way, so upping the ISO to 1600 or 3200 may be necessary to get a sharp telephoto shot in less-than-ideal light.
A large superzoom can be the perfect travel camera. It won’t offer the image quality of an SLR, but it should beat smaller point-and-shoots and compact superzoom models on photo quality. Not having to carry extra lenses will cut the weight, and a lens with such a large zoom factor like the 42x Fujifilm FinePix HS50EXR will ensure that you’re always able to get your shot.
Big Sensor, No Zoom
Over the past few years we’ve seen a bit of a throwback market emerge in the digital camera realm. Back in the days of film, serious shooters who made their living with a D-SLR would often keep a high-quality pocket camera round. These small shooters generally had a prime lens with a fairly wide aperture. Cameras like the Olympus XA, Rollei 35, Leica CM, and Ricoh GR were all about packing the best image quality into the smallest package.
Now you can get the same type of camera with a digital sensor. The choices are still a little slim, but they seem to be expanding with decent speed. Our favorite so far has been the Ricoh GR, which packs a 28mm-equivalent lens and an APS-C image sensor, but is slim enough to slip into the pockets of your jeans. If 28mm is too wide you can consider the Fujifilm X100s, which sports an f/2 lens with a 35mm field of view and a hybrid viewfinder, or break the bank and splurge on the full-frame Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1. It’s $2,800, but its lens is an impeccably sharp design by Carl Zeiss.
If you’re the type of photographer who is willing to forgo a zoom lens, and you can find a model that matches your preferred focal length, one of these cameras might be right up your alley. Pros that normally lug around a heavy D-SLR should also take note, as the image quality you can get from these fixed-lens compacts are quite impressive and can save you from some back pain when you’re shooting for fun.
For SLR-Quality Images Without the Bulk: Mirrorless Compact Interchangeable Lens Cameras
The 2008 launch of the Micro Four Thirds system introduced a new player onto the digital camera field—the compact interchangeable lens (or mirrorless compact) camera. It’s a concept that wasn’t exactly new to photography—rangefinder cameras like the Leica M Monochrom, a digital camera based on a 35mm system that has had very few changes in design since the 1950s, offer fixed optical viewfinders and a complicated mechanism for focusing based on the distance from your subject. But the initial Olympus and Panasonic Micro Four Thirds cameras were the first mirrorless interchangeable lens bodies to show you the exact view through the lens—this time via the rear LCD.
The mirrorless market has grown by leaps and bounds, and there are now several lens mount systems to consider. Cameras like the Canon EOS M, Sony Alpha NEX-3N and Samsung NX300 use APS-C sensors, the same size found in consumer D-SLRs, but lenses aren’t compatible between the two systems. Nikon offers smaller sensors for its 1 mirrorless camera line (including the J3), which makes it possible to have lenses that are even smaller than Micro Four Thirds. Pentax put a sensor that is the same size as a point-and-shoot in its Q10 camera, a unique approach in this category.
When looking for a mirrorless camera, you should ask yourself how many lenses you plan to buy. At this point, Micro Four Thirds is the most complete system in terms of available lenses, but Samsung and Sony are actively adding glass to the NX and NEX systems. The Canon EOS M, Nikon 1, and Pentax Q systems have the fewest lenses available. But many mirrorless cameras allow you to mount legacy lenses via adapters—you’ll just have to live with manual focus and aperture control.
Once you’ve settled into a system, the camera should come a bit easier. Entry-level models generally handle just like a point-and-shoot—you frame images with the rear LCD, which is hinged on some models, so you can focus with the camera above your head or at waist level. Most zoom lenses are manual, so you’ll have to adjust the focal length by hand, but some operate electronically, just like a compact camera. If you want an eye-level electronic viewfinder, look for a model that supports one via an accessory port—like the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX1—or a model that has the finder built-in, like our Editors’ Choice Olympus O-MD E-M5. You’ll also want to take a look to see if the physical controls suit your needs—lower-end models tend to be designed more like point-and-shoots, while the upper echelon of cameras handle more like D-SLRs with plenty of control buttons.
As mentioned above, some mirrorless cameras have sensors that are smaller than D-SLRs, so you’ll want to check and see how a particular model performs at higher ISO settings. Some can keep up with larger cameras, but others cannot. You’ll also want to take a look at the camera’s speed—most deliver decent burst shooting of around 3 frames per second, but autofocus speed can be a concern. Lower end models use contrast detect focus. That technology is getting faster as the image processors that run cameras do, but it’s not as fast as phase detect focus. We’re starting to see phase detection built into image sensors, like it is on the Sony Alpha NEX-6, which is helping to close the gap between mirrorless and D-SLR focus performance.
For more, take a look at The Best Compact Interchangeable Lens Cameras
For Traditionalists Who Want The Ultimate in Shooting Control and Image Quality: Digital SLRs
And so we arrive at the top of the heap: the Digital SLR. These cameras are bigger, heavier, and more expensive than others—but also offer the largest image sensors, fastest focus speeds, and the widest variety of lenses. Like a compact interchangeable lens camera, you’ll have to stick to lenses that are compatible with a specific camera. Canon and Nikon have the most complete selections. Sony and Pentax have a good library of legacy lenses, but each company has some gaps in its current lineup. Chances are that, as a first time D-SLR buyer, your camera will come with a kit lens from the manufacturer—but if you have a very specific optic in mind, it’s best to make sure that it’s available in the lens mount you desire, and at a price you’re willing to pay.
Sensors come in two sizes; if you’re looking at a camera that’s priced at less than $2,000 it will have an APS-C sensor, which has less than half the surface area of a 35mm film frame. High-end enthusiast and pro models use full-frame sensors, which closely match the 24 by 36mm dimensions of the Kodachrome of days gone by. Each system has its strengths: APS-C wins on price, can use lighter lenses that don’t offer enough coverage to be used with a full-frame camera, and photographers who often shoot at extreme telephoto distances appreciate the cropped field of view that appears to give legacy lenses longer reach.
If you can get your hands on the camera before buying it, you should. Each manufacturer has a slightly different way of doing things—so, for example, you may find yourself comfortable with the controls on a Canon, but not on a Nikon, or vice versa. Another aspect to check out in person is the camera’s viewfinder. Entry-level like our Editors’ Choice Nikon D5200 generally use pentamirror finders, which are not as large or bright as the pentaprisms installed in pricier D-SLRs like the Canon EOS 7D. The Pentax K-30 is the only inexpensive SLR that sports a pentaprism finder—it’s also the only one that you’ll find for less than $1,000 that boasts full weather sealing.
Sony is the odd man out when talking about viewfinders—all of its D-SLRs, including the top-end APS-C Alpha 77 and the full-frame Alpha 99, use electronic viewfinders. This is because they have fixed mirrors that don’t move while shooting—it speeds up autofocus and burst shooting speed, but precludes the use of an optical finder. Whether or not you’ll be happy with an EVF is a personal preference—some shooters are very happy with them, others will settle for nothing less than an optical finder.
Most APS-C D-SLRs ship with an 18-55mm kit lens with a zoom factor that’s roughly equivalent to the 28-80mm models that shipped with consumer film SLRs of days past. Some midrange models ships with an 18-135mm (28-200mm equivalent), which gives you a longer zoom ratio. A good second lens to consider is a “fast normal”—a fixed focal length lens that isn’t too wide, isn’t too long, and can let in enough light to blur the background and shoot in poorer light. On an APS-C camera, a 35mm f/2 lens is just about perfect for this.
Full-frame cameras are heavier and more expensive, but they make up for it with big image sensors and viewfinders to match. They’re capable of capturing photos with extremely shallow depth of field—which blurs the background behind your subject—and if you have lenses from an old 35mm film SLR they’ll cover the same field of view as they do with film.
If you buy a higher-end APS-C camera or a full-frame D-SLR you’ll have the option of buying it as a body only—that is, without a lens. This lets you choose which lens best suits your style. Some full-frame cameras are available with a bundled zoom lens, but it’s of much higher quality than the low-end 18-55mm kit zoom. You’ll be able to save a few hundred dollars by buying a Canon EOS 6D with a 24-105mm or a Nikon D600 with a 24-85mm when compared with purchasing them separately. Pro bodies like the Nikon D4 and Canon EOS-1D X are not available with bundled lenses.
If you think a D-SLR is the right type of camera for you, read more in How to Buy a Digital SLR, and if you want to set your sights high on a full-frame SLR you can find reviews of the top models we’ve tested in our full-frame roundup.
By Jim Fisher, PCMag