When Eastman Kodak unveiled the Brownie camera in 1900, it was a cardboard box with a lens and a roll of film. As basic as it was, it was revolutionary in democratizing photography. In those days, buying a camera was simple.
Fast-forward more than a century later, and modern cameras are so diverse and so advanced that buying one is definitely not a one-model-fits-all kind of decision.
Making matters worse, most of us already own a pretty decent camera in the form of a smartphone, and knowing when a dedicated camera provides a real benefit can be difficult to determine. Prices for new cameras range from a couple hundred to a few thousand dollars, with numerous brands and models at each tier along the way. Do you need an expensive interchangeable lens model, or will a simple point and shoot be enough to outshine your phone?
This guide is designed to get first-time camera buyers pointed in the right direction to answer such questions. You may also find it helpful if you haven’t purchased a camera in many years and are looking to finally upgrade. This article will make reference to different sensor sizes — it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with those first, or scroll down to the “megapixel myth” section below for a brief overview on why bigger sensors take bigger pictures.
Cameras come in all shapes and sizes and no one is objectively better — which camera works for you depends entirely on your specific needs. The first step is to identify the overall type of camera you want.
There are three basic categories: compact/point-and-shoot, mirrorless interchangeable lens, and digital SLRs (DSLRs). Within each, there are many different variations — some point-and-shoots look like DSLRs, some mirrorless cameras are incredibly compact while others are much bigger, etc.
These run a wide gamut. They can be compact pocket shooters that are affordable and easy to use, or robust advanced models with long zooms, large sensors, and full manual controls. The one constant is a non-interchangeable lens.
You’re probably aware that the point-and-shoots’ popularity has waned considerably as phone cameras have gotten so good. Basic point-and-shoot cameras are no longer attractive to the masses, and manufacturers have responded by shifting efforts into higher-end models.
While some entry-level point-and-shoots can be found in the $100-$200 range, these typically won’t offer image quality that’s noticeably better than a modern smartphone. They will, however, offer features phones usually don’t have. Look for zoom lenses, large sensors, and any other features that stand out.
For better quality, an advanced compact is the way to go. Look to cameras that use a 1-inch-type sensor, which start around $500 but can cost as much as $1,500 or so. These bigger sensors produce higher quality images. The downside is that a larger sensor makes everything else about the camera, from the body to the lens, also larger. For this reason, you won’t often find long zooms and large sensors together in a compact body, although the engineers behind the Sony RX100 VIhave done an impressive job, fitting a one-inch sensor and 24-200mm zoom into a pocketable camera.
Another type of point-and-shoot is the considerably less compact “superzoom,” so named for its extremely long zoom lens. The Nikon P1000 currently holds the record for longest zoom, with a power of 125x or equivalent focal length of 24-3,000mm. Such a camera gives you a lot of shooting flexibility in a relatively compact package.
Note, though, that while superzooms look like beefy DSLRs, they still have the limited photo quality of a compact camera, due to their small sensors. A few higher-end models, like the Sony RX10 IV, have larger one-inch sensors. Image quality will likewise be better on such models, but they can’t match the ultimate zoom range of a small-sensor superzoom.
Splitting the difference between compact and superzoom is the travel zoom subcategory. These cameras have zoom lenses in the 20x to 50x range, but they are also easier to lug around because the body style is more compact than the DSLR-like body of superzooms. These are versatile travel companions when you want flexibility without being weighed down.
Waterproof point-and-shoots are a niche subcategory built to handle a day at the beach or survive a drop in the pool. They tend to have inferior quality and much shorter zooms compared to other point-and-shoots, but they do offer peace of mind while snapping photos in places where you wouldn’t dream of bringing an expensive camera or smartphone. The Olympus Tough TG-5 is one of our favorite such models.
This category offers superior image quality, more creative options, and faster performance than point-and-shoots, without all the bulk of a DSLR — sort of. The name “mirrorless” comes from the fact that these cameras don’t have the mirror found in a DSLR, and likewise, also don’t have an optical viewfinder. Instead, mirrorless cameras are always in live view mode, whether you’re looking at the LCD screen or through an electronic viewfinder (EVF). Mirrorless cameras tend to be pricier than compact cameras, but the entry-level models are often cheaper than premium point-and-shoots.
There are different formats of mirrorless camera employed by different brands. Panasonic and Olympus share the Micro Four Thirds (MFT) format, meaning you can use Panasonic lenses on an Olympus camera and vice versa. Fujifilm uses the larger APS-C sensor for its X Series models and Sony makes mirrorless cameras with both APS-C and larger full-frame (35mm) sensors. Canon and Nikon introduced full-frame mirrorless cameras in 2018 that finally give Sony some real competition, and Canon also maintains its EOS M line which uses the APS-C format.
Prices for mirrorless models start at around $500 and can go up to several thousand (Hasselblad introduced its first mirrorless medium-format camera, which can cost more than $10,000). Typically, models with larger sensors are more expensive, although this is not always the case. As with compact cameras, the larger the sensor, the larger the camera.
DSLRs cover the same price range as mirrorless cameras and run the same gamut from consumer to professional. An entry-level consumer DSLR will offer much better image quality compared to a compact camera because of its larger sensor, but won’t offer the speed and extras of a professional DSLR. If the size doesn’t bother you, $500 on a basic DSLR will go farther than a $500 compact, at least in terms of image quality.
DSLRs don’t necessarily offer better image quality or more versatility than a mirrorless model, but they do have some other benefits. Many professional photographers still prefer the optical viewfinder of a DSLR, which doesn’t suffer from lag or pixelation and draws much less power leading to better battery life. A midrange DSLR can easily get well over a thousand exposures on a single battery.
DSLRs also maintain an advantage for action and sports photography, as their continuous and tracking autofocus modes tend to be more reliable, even as mirrorless cameras are beginning to catch up.
The biggest downside of a DSLR is the bulk. Compared to mirrorless cameras, DSLRs are bigger and heavier (although, depending on the lens used, mirrorless cameras can get up there in weight, too). They also tend to perform slower in live view mode (where the image is framed on the LCD screen instead of through the optical viewfinder). This can make them worse off for video shooting compared to a mirrorless camera, although certain models, like Canon’s EOS 80D, are quite good in this regard.