So you're in the market for a new camera, possibly your first serious camera, but you can't decide what to plump for. Look no further: in a bid to help connect you with your ideal camera, we look at what factors you need to consider when identifying your own photographic needs, and then break down the different types of camera on offer.
Things to consider
First off, there is no single best camera. There is, however, the best camera for you, and that's going to be based on things such as what subjects you want to shoot, whether you prioritize image quality or portability, if you are willing to learn how to get the most out of a camera, and how much you want to spend.
We'll start off with the factors which are probably going to influence your decision the most: how much you're happy to shell out, and what you'll be willing to carry around. Yes, that top-of-the-range Fujifilm X-Pro 2 camera might look perfect, but if you can't afford it, you need to consider which specifications you are willing to sacrifice to come in on budget.
Equally, there's no point buying a fantastic (but large) camera like the Canon 1D X II only to leave it at home all the time because it's too big and heavy to carry. Also, remember that as you add more, or bigger, lenses to an interchangeable lens system, it will get considerably heavier, and more expensive. We're all too aware of the phenomenon which sees camera kits get inexplicably bigger after late-night eBay sessions.
Your next big consideration should probably be what you want to take photos of. It might sound silly, but you could easily end up spending hundreds of dollars on gear you don't really need, by not giving this sufficient thought. Your subject will often determine what aperture or focal length lenses you need, what focusing systems will give you the most keepers, and how fast you need to be able to take photos.
Think about it this way: if you want to zoom in on distant subjects, there's no point having a camera with a fixed prime lens like the Ricoh GR II or Sony RX1R II. Equally, if you are planning on shooting a fast moving subject, whether professional sports or your kids running around in your garden, you'll need fast focusing which could come in the form of cameras like the Nikon D5, or the Sony A6300.
Image quality will obviously also be something to consider. As we've said before, one of the biggest factors controlling this is the size of image sensor used in a camera. A bigger sensor gives better quality images, especially in lower light. But that's not to say the small sensor of the Samsung Galaxy S7, or the one-inch-type of the Nikon 1 system, can't deliver great images in the right conditions and with the right lenses, so again you need to think about exactly how you will use it.
While the old marker of camera quality was its megapixel count, most cameras will now take images with enough resolution to keep most people happy most of the time. The majority fall in the 14 to 24-megapixel range which is plenty for large prints, and (probably more relevant today) viewing on high resolution screens. If you need more resolution there are cameras like the Canon 5DS or Sony A7R II.
There are also other considerations you wouldn't have had to give a second thought to a couple of years ago. Many cameras can now shoot high quality video at up to 4K and make buying a dedicated camcorder feel redundant for most people. Built-in wireless connectivity also gives users the ability to share photos on Instagram seconds after they were taken, and even control a camera remotely. This means no more setting the timer and trying to run back to the rest of the family in time for a group portrait.
What we are saying is that there are lots of things to consider before choosing a camera. Once you've done this you'll probably have a list of characteristics and features you can't live without, and another list of things you'd ideally like in your new camera.
The chances are you already have a very capable camera sitting in your pocket. Smartphone cameras have improved so much in recent years, gaining features including optical image stabilization and wide aperture lenses, that they are often now better than many compact point-and-shoots from a couple of years ago.
Smartphone cameras are great for users who want to travel light and are unwilling to carry a dedicated camera. They are perfect for snapping everyday photos, and sharing instantly. While in the right hands they are capable of turning out amazing images, you are still going to get better quality images from a dedicated camera, especially in lower light conditions.
The best thing about smartphone cameras is how portable they are and the fact you've probably got one with you when you see something you want to photograph. The ability to edit your images on them and share them instantly is also a massive benefit for the social media generation. However most only feature a fixed focal length lens, meaning you are left zooming with your feet (the digital zooming you do on your phone is basically pre-shot cropping).
Compact cameras come in a number of shapes and sizes including the classic point-and-shoot, enthusiast-friendly models, bridge cameras with massive zooms, and large-sensored cameras with a prime lens. What they have in common is permanently attached lenses, which means you don't get to swap the glass to suit your subject. That said, a handful of compacts like the Fujifilm X100T or Ricoh GR II do have the option of wide-angle or telephoto convertor lens add-ons.
This sort of camera is often good for users who prioritize portability and simplicity, and you don't have to make the same sacrifice in image quality you would have just a few years ago. Pocketable compacts like the Panasonic ZS100 or Sony RX100 IV now pack larger sensors and fast zoom lenses making them good everyday or travel cameras. Meanwhile devices like the Sony RX1R II can genuinely offer the same image quality as much bigger cameras, for those willing to make do with a fixed prime lenses.
Unlike traditional point-and-shoot cameras which have been all but made redundant by smartphones, the new breed of quality compacts still have a lot to offer over your iPhone 6S or Huawei P9. This increasingly includes big sensors, fast autofocus, and physical access to manual controls. Meanwhile built-in Wi-Fi means images can be shared almost as fast as those shot with a smartphone. If you can find space for a compact in your bag or jacket, you will end up with better quality images than simply whipping out your phone. However, what compacts can't do is offer the combination of versatility and quality of interchangeable lens cameras.
Action-cam / Tough
Sometimes you need a camera which can survive in adverse conditions, or take the odd knock. Action and tough cameras are designed to take a bashing. While action cameras are often used to shoot videos of extreme exploits, tough cameras are more traditional compact cameras which can still cope with being submerged in water or dropped on the floor.
Action cameras are best suited for people who want to record video footage of their activities, though can also be use to snap still images. Like the ubiquitous GoPro offerings, they tend to feature very wide-angle lenses which give an immersive perspective. As such, they are not suited to everyday photography. Editing footage can also be labor intensive, though newer cameras like the TomTom Bandit now make editing easier.
Tough cameras can offer equivalent ruggedness, but are designed for more traditional photography. Cameras like the Olympus TG-4 or Ricoh WG-4 GPS, are essentially compact cameras in protective armor. With the exception of the odd camera like the (very expensive) Leica X-U, action and tough camera are focused on this ruggedness at the cost of image quality, so unless your camera is going to take a bashing, you probably don't need one.
Unlike the cameras we've looked at so far, mirrorless cameras are interchangeable lens cameras. This means lenses can be swapped allowing you to select the best one for your subjects. This instantly makes mirrorless cameras (at least potentially) much more versatile than a camera with a fixed lens. They also tend to have much more capable performance than most fixed lens cameras.
The main difference between mirrorless cameras and the DSLRs we'll come to next, is that mirrorless cameras, as the name suggests, lack the mirror which features in traditional DSLRs. This allows mirrorless cameras to be significantly smaller. Some, like the Canon EOS M3, are not much bigger than a compact, while others like the Leica SL are as big as some DSLRs. However, this also means these cameras lack the optical viewfinder of DSLRs. That said, the electronic viewfinders on some mirrorless cameras (not all have one) are much better than they were a few years ago.
The performance of mirrorless cameras ranges from that which will keep beginners happy, to that demanded by professionals. Sensor size and image quality also varies, with most mirrorless cameras using sensors from the one-inch-types used in the Nikon 1 series, to the full frame sensors of the Sony A7 line. As such there's a mirrorless camera out there for the needs of anyone whether you want pocketable or ultimate quality.
Mirrorless cameras are almost certainly the future of photography and have many benefits over DSLRs, such as their size (and that of accompanying lenses) and generally better video capabilities, they also tend to have more mod cons such as sensor shift image stabilization, and built-in wireless capabilities. However, there are still some drawbacks to them. These include the more limited battery life, and that there are generally not as many compatible lenses for them.
DSLRs look like the sort of camera you have probably seen enthusiast and professional photographers using for decades. They are generally black and quite bulky, and are indeed the digital offspring of the SLR cameras you might remember from the film days.
Because they're based on previous generations of camera, DSLRs are often compatible with a great number of lenses and use either APS-C or full frame image sensors. This means they offer an image quality only equaled by compact or mirrorless cameras with the same size sensor. Auto-focus and general photography performance is also normally up there – either equaling or bettering mirrorless cameras at the same price point.
While DSLRs might be beginning to feel dated, there are still a number of reasons they might be right for you. Firstly, if you already have a selection of compatible lenses, they are going to be more affordable than buying into new systems. DSLRs can also offer a compelling level of performance and quality given their cost.
However, the film-based heritage of DSLRs also means they have a few disadvantages over mirrorless cameras. The big one is size, the use of a mirror instantly makes DSLRs significantly larger. It also limits burst shooting speeds (with the mirror generally moving between shots) and means video functions do not feel as integrated.
While the aforementioned camera types will make up the majority of new camera purchases, there are plenty of other more specialist devices out there. These include new 360 degree cameras like the Ricoh Theta S and the upcoming Nikon KeyMission 360 as well as film cameras, and instant cameras like the Impossible Project I-1 and Fujifilm Instax offerings. There are also smartphone add-on cameras like the DxO One, and family-friendly shooters like the Nikon S33. Given the varied but more specialist nature of this category, the sort of people who are buying these cameras generally already know what they can do, along with their relative positives and negatives.
What will you opt for?
Hopefully this guide has given you an idea about what type of camera will suit your needs best. You may have come to the conclusion that you're best off with a smartphone, or maybe that a fixed prime lens compact camera is right for you.
If you are opting for an interchangeable lens camera to achieve your photographic ambitions, you'll not only have to decide between mirrorless and DSLR, but also which brand. This is important because lenses can't generally be used across different brands easily. Brands use specific lens mounts, so if you buy into one system, you'll have an investment in it, and will probably be less inclined to switch to something else in the future.
While we've tried to highlight a few of our favorite cameras in each category as we've gone along, there are (as we've said once or twice) loads more vying for your attention. Whatever camera you end up opting for, we hope you enjoy getting out there and using it.
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