Estimated reading time: 12 minutes
Do you want to know about the many types of cameras on the market? Are you interested in a rundown of every camera type, from DSLRs to mirrorless to medium format cameras?
Because that’s what this article is all about. It’s dedicated to explaining the difference between nearly a dozen camera types. When you’ve finished, you’ll be an expert on the many camera types out there.
And you’ll also have a sense of which camera type is best for you.
1. Point and Shoot Cameras (AKA Compact Cameras)
Up until the last decade, point and shoot cameras were the most popular cameras out there, and for good reason:
Point and shoot cameras are designed for beginner photographers. They’re small, they’re light, and they’re extremely easy to use. You’ve probably used one yourself.
Point and shoot cameras look like this:
Notice the compact design. That’s why point and shoots are sometimes referred to as compact cameras. They’re great for travel and any type of casual photography.
In fact, the motivation of point and shoot manufacturers was to produce a camera that pretty much anybody could use. You simply turn the camera on, let it do its thing, and it’ll get you pretty good images.
No, point and shoot cameras aren’t meant for professionals. But they satisfy beginners, and that’s what they’re meant to do!
Point and shoot cameras are built around automatic modes. While some point and shoots possess more advanced features, their default is always an auto mode. This auto mode will choose all your main settings for you: Shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.
Another thing to note about point and shoots is that they don’t take multiple lenses. A compact camera has a built-in lens, and it cannot be replaced. Whatever the zoom of the lens, you’re stuck with it.
The lack of interchangeable lenses makes point and shoot cameras far less flexible than some of the other cameras on this list. But they’re also much smaller, and much easier to carry. If you want to go out shooting, you don’t need a bag full of lenses. You just need your camera, and you’re off.
One more key fact about point and shoot cameras is that they tend to have small sensors. This is important for a few reasons.
First, small sensors perform poorly in low light. The smaller the sensor, the more noise it produces with a high ISO. So compact cameras are consistently bad with low light photography.
Second, the smaller the sensor, the deeper your depth of field. Depth of field refers to the amount of the photo that’s sharp. A photo that’s sharp from foreground to background has a deep depth of field. For instance, this intimate landscape has an ultra-deep depth of field:
Whereas a photo that has a very blurry background has a shallow depth of field:
Do you see how only the petal edges are in focus? That’s because I’ve used a shallow depth of field.
Now, there is no best depth of field. If you’re shooting landscapes, you’ll probably want a deep depth of field, because you want the whole image to be sharp. But if you’re shooting portraits, a shallow depth of field can be a good thing. The blurry background can make your main subject stand out.
So if you enjoy shooting landscapes, you’ll appreciate how compact cameras have deeper depth of field effects. Whereas those who really admire the blur that’s produced by DSLRs and mirrorless cameras will be a lot less impressed by compact cameras.
DSLRs are one of the most popular types of cameras among professional photographers. They have a distinctive look, so it’s pretty easy to know when you’ve seen one. Here is a DSLR:
What makes DSLRs special?
First, DSLRs use multiple lenses. You can mount a wide-angle lens on your DSLR for shooting landscapes. Then you can switch to an ultra-long lens and take photos of birds. In other words, DSLRs are extremely flexible.
DSLRs also have very high-quality optics. Companies such as Nikon and Canon have poured money into DSLR lens development, which means that there are some amazing lenses out there. You can capture huge amounts of detail and beautiful colors. Unfortunately, this quality often comes with a sizable cost, but for the serious photographer, it’s worth it.
Another advantage of DSLRs is that they’re well-built. They tend to be very durable and they last for years. The best DSLRs have weather sealing, which allows you to use them even in the worst conditions.
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Note that most DSLRs also sport relatively large sensors. The largest sensors on DSLRs are referred to as 35mm sensors, and are notably larger than most compact camera sensors. This makes for very high-quality photos in low-light situations.
Budget DSLRs have smaller sensors (either APS-C sensors or Micro 4/3rds sensors), but these are still larger than most compact camera sensors, and they still provide good low-light image quality.
Now, large sensors and good build quality come with a tradeoff: DSLRs are very big and very heavy. That’s the main drawback to DSLRs, along with higher prices; DSLRs aren’t easy to store. You have a DSLR and a few lenses, and you’ll need a dedicated camera backpack for traveling.
This is why DSLRs are steadily being replaced by mirrorless cameras. Mirrorless cameras are smaller. And it’s to mirrorless cameras that we now turn:
In many ways, mirrorless cameras are just smaller DSLRs.
They accept multiple lenses, making them highly flexible, just like DSLRs. Mirrorless models use 35mm, APS-C, and Micro 4/3rds sensors, just like DSLRs. And mirrorless cameras have ultra-high quality optics, just like DSLRs.
But there are a few important distinctions between mirrorless cameras and DSLRs. First, mirrorless cameras are, on average, far more compact than DSLRs. While they still feature the professional-level build-quality found on DSLRs, they’re smaller and lighter.
Second, DSLRs have mirrors that sit in front of the camera sensor. The mirror is what you see when you look into a DSLR viewfinder. And when you press the shutter button on a DSLR, the mirror flips up, exposing the sensor to the external world.
Mirrorless cameras, on the other hand, don’t have mirrors. This is what allows them to be so compact; they don’t include a large mirror inside the camera body.
Instead, mirrorless sensors are always absorbing light. As a consequence, some mirrorless cameras don’t have viewfinders. Others have electronic viewfinders, which are essentially tiny LCD screens that display the sensor’s output.
Mirrorless cameras commonly have a few other features that DSLRs lack:
- They often offer in-body image stabilization (IBIS), whereas DSLRs usually have image stabilization built into lenses
- They sometimes feature focus peaking, which allows you to see which areas of the frame are in focus before taking the shot
Bridge cameras look like DSLRs. But they’re not.
Instead, they’re designed to bridge the gap between point-and-shoot cameras and DSLR cameras. That’s why bridge cameras have a mix of point-and-shoot and DSLR features.
Bridge cameras tend to be fairly large and robust. They can handle a bang or two, and you don’t feel like they need to be babied.
But unlike DSLRs, bridge cameras don’t accept interchangeable lenses. Instead, they come with built-in zoom lenses. These lenses don’t offer the same optical quality as high-end DSLR lenses, but more expensive bridge cameras will do an impressive job.
Note that bridge cameras tend to have ultra-large zooms. You’ll be able to shoot wide-angle scenics, then zoom out for a portrait shot, then keep zooming to photograph distant wildlife. In some ways, this makes up for the lack of interchangeable lenses.
Bridge cameras also offer DSLR-like controls. You’ll be able to easily change the aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and more. You won’t be stuck on Auto mode. But don’t worry: For those who prefer Auto mode, bridge cameras have that, too.
One last benefit of bridge cameras over compact cameras is that higher-end bridge cameras have larger sensors. This makes for better high-ISO performance, and therefore allows you to capture better shots in low light.
In recent years, smartphone cameras have rapidly come to dominate camera markets, with companies such as Nikon and Canon seeing huge declines in DSLR sales as a consequence.
But what’s so special about smartphone cameras? What makes them so attractive to consumers?
First, smartphone cameras are ultra-compact, and you probably never leave the house without one. This means that you have your smartphone camera with you whenever you go. You rarely miss a photo opportunity, because you’ve always got your camera on hand.
Second, smartphone cameras are extremely easy to use. You look at your phone screen, you do a bit of swiping, and you tap to take a photo. That’s it.
Third, smartphones come loaded with apps, many of which will allow you to create high-quality photo edits. These cost far less than a subscription to Adobe Creative Cloud, and so they’re the editing applications of choice for many smartphone photographers.
While smartphone cameras are advancing each year, smartphones do come with several serious drawbacks.
First and foremost, smartphone camera sensors are much smaller than full-frame DSLR/mirrorless sensors. This means that high-ISO performance leaves a lot to be desired. When viewed at 100%, many smartphone images suffer from serious noise, especially those photos taken in low light (e.g., indoors).
Second, smartphone camera optics aren’t at the quality of DSLR or mirrorless optics. Smartphone images rarely look stunningly sharp, and you just can’t achieve the same background blur (i.e., bokeh) that you can achieve with a large-sensor camera.
Finally, smartphones don’t offer much flexibility. The built-in camera app is much like Auto mode on a DSLR: it makes most of the choices for you. If you want to switch to RAW files or want to lower your ISO, you have to use a special smartphone camera app.
Plus, while there are some companies that produce interchangeable smartphone lenses, smartphone lenses are still fairly limited in terms of focal lengths.
6. Medium Format Cameras
In many ways, medium format cameras are like popular DSLR and mirrorless options. They take interchangeable lenses, some of which are of the highest caliber. And they offer complete control over your images. With a medium format camera, you can change your aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and more, just as you would with a DSLR.
Medium format cameras have one main drawback: They’re big and bulky. They’re difficult to travel with, and they’re not the type of camera you’d want to lug around all day.
Why are medium format cameras so unwieldy? Because they pack a huge sensor. In fact, the name medium format comes from sensor size.
Medium format cameras have sensors larger than APS-C and even full-frame DSLR or mirrorless cameras. Digital medium format cameras are defined by their larger sensor size. This means that medium format cameras do extremely well with high-ISO shooting, producing noise levels far lower than the average DSLR. They also produce files that have larger dynamic ranges and huge megapixel counts, sometimes upwards of 100 MP.
Unfortunately, medium format cameras, while very high quality, come with a huge price tag. It’s not unusual for a medium format camera to push $10,000. Therefore, medium format cameras are used almost exclusively by professional photographers who require the best-of-the-best image quality.
7. Film Cameras
These days, film cameras are a bit of a rare breed. However, you can still purchase them from companies such as Fujifilm and Kodak, both of whom offer 35mm film bodies for decent prices. And you can buy plenty of film cameras for cheap at used markets.
Now, film cameras work by exposing the film to the outside world. When you press the shutter button, a mirror flips up, the light comes in contact with the film, and an image is exposed. Once you’ve finished exposing a roll of film (which usually includes 36 shots), you must then develop it in a darkroom.
Film cameras come in many of the forms that digital cameras now inhabit. SLRs use 35mm film and take multiple lenses; medium format film cameras use medium-format film. There are also beginner options, similar to point-and-shoot film cameras, as well as disposable film cameras that you can pick up at your local drugstore.
Even though film photography was thoroughly ousted by digital photography, some photographers continue to use film because it comes with a certain look, an aesthetic, that certain photographers are drawn to.
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If you’re looking to get into film photography, an SLR is a good option. You should be able to purchase 35mm film for cheap, though developing it without a darkroom of your own can be costly. Moreso if you plan to digitize your work. This is why many photographers have left film for digital; the cost of film and development add up.
Plus, film affords less flexibility than modern-day digital cameras. Film comes with an intrinsic ISO value. So you must choose your film in advance based on its purpose. While there are ways of compensating for a low-ISO film, these are difficult and not easy for beginners.
That’s why I recommend you stick to digital when starting out. If you decide you’re looking for a film aesthetic, then start exploring film, but not before.
Types of Cameras: Next Steps
You should now know all about the different types of cameras out there. And you should have a sense of which camera is right for you.
If you’re a beginner, a point-and-shoot camera or a smartphone should do the trick.
If you’re more experienced, check out DSLRs and mirrorless options.
And if you’re a professional, DSLRs, mirrorless cameras, medium format cameras, or even film are all options to be considered!