What camera should I buy?
It’s a common question, and one that doesn’t have an easy answer.
Because there is no single best camera; instead, there are many great cameras, all suited to different photography genres, purposes, and levels of photography.
That’s what this article covers.
I’m going to take you through the key features of different cameras. I’m going to explain why they matter.
And, by the end of this article, you’ll have a good understanding of the camera that you need–the one that’s going to help you capture gorgeous photos.
Let’s dive right in.
Table of contents
- The Best Camera Is the One You Have
- Choosing the Right Camera: The Six Big Options
- Choosing a Camera: The Features That Matter
- How to Pick a Camera: Start By Identifying What You Want to Shoot
- Why Buy a DSLR?
- Why Buy a Mirrorless Camera?
- Why Buy a Point and Shoot Camera?
- Why Buy a Smartphone Camera?
- Why Buy a Film Camera?
- Why Buy a Medium Format Camera?
- What Camera Should I Buy?
The Best Camera Is the One You Have
Before I get into the nitty-gritty of choosing a camera, it’s important to emphasize:
If you already own a camera, then you can capture great photos with it.
There are amazing photographers working with polaroid cameras. There are amazing photographers working with smartphone cameras.
In other words:
It doesn’t take a top-notch camera to succeed at photography.
Your camera choice does matter, which is why, if the camera you own doesn’t feel right, or you’re not getting good results, then you may want to consider other options.
It’s also why professionals spend thousands of dollars on the best cameras available.
But what camera is right for your needs? What camera is going to ensure that you become the best photographer you can be?
That’s what I address in the next section.
Choosing the Right Camera: The Six Big Options
There are six types of cameras that you should be aware of, all of which are sold on the market today:
DSLRs, or Digital Single Lens Reflex cameras, are popular among consumers and professionals alike.
They tend to be large, durable, and very customizable. DSLRs also allow you to work with different lenses (i.e., the lenses are interchangeable), so you’re able to purchase a single DSLR and do a lot with it. DSLRs also offer fast autofocusing and high continuous shooting speeds (which I discuss more below).
While DSLRs may seem like top-of-the-line cameras that only a high-end photographer could afford, there are plenty of low-cost DSLRs marketed toward hobbyists.
And, if you’re interested in purchasing a DSLR but you don’t feel you can afford it, the used market is full of excellent DSLRs offered at ultra-low prices.
Mirrorless cameras are the latest fad in the professional and intermediate photography world.
In the last few years, Canon and Nikon–the two biggest camera manufacturers of the twenty-first century–have pivoted away from DSLRs toward mirrorless systems, thanks to an explosion in consumer demand.
Mirrorless cameras are much like DSLRs, except they don’t include a mirror in front of the sensor (hence the mirrorless title). This cuts down on size, which is why mirrorless cameras can go toe-to-toe with DSLRs while remaining relatively compact.
And because mirrorless cameras also use interchangeable lenses, you gain a similar level of flexibility to what you’d get from a DSLR.
That said, mirrorless cameras don’t have the same well-developed lens or camera lineups as DSLRs, so you do have fewer options (which come at a higher price).
Point and Shoot Cameras
Point and shoot cameras are extremely easy to use.
They work just as the name says:
And you shoot.
In truth, many point and shoot cameras offer more flexibility than this, but they’re designed with beginners in mind. So while you can change various camera settings on most models, you’ll also be just fine if you never want to think about words like aperture, shutter speed, autofocus area modes, and ISO.
Point and shoot cameras don’t offer interchangeable lenses, which reduces their flexibility somewhat. Instead, they come with fixed zoom lenses. And point and shoot cameras feature small sensors, which (as discussed below) hurts image quality.
But point and shoot cameras are also very compact, which means that you can easily carry one in your pocket, backpack, or purse without feeling weighed down by gear.
If mirrorless cameras are the fad in the serious photography world, smartphone cameras are an even more intense fad in the amateur photography world.
Folks who would once have considered purchasing a point and shoot camera or a low-end DSLR have now started shooting with their smartphone.
And it makes sense:
Smartphones are compact, they do a decent job, and you always have one with you.
Are they limited in their flexibility?
Sure. You cannot easily change your camera settings on a smartphone, and there’s no optical zoom (in other words, you can’t do any zooming unless you’re willing to lose some resolution). Plus, the small sensor size makes for noisy images, especially in low light.
That said, smartphone manufacturers keep making their cameras more elaborate and more capable.
Which is why smartphone photography continues to explode, even in the face of tremendous advances by digital camera manufacturers.
Film photography may seem like a thing of the past, but it’s not.
Not completely, anyway.
There are photographers out there who stick with film–and there are others who decide to go with film after shooting digital.
For one thing, film cameras require a level of technical expertise far beyond that required by digital cameras. And this gives serious photographers a fun–and inspiring–challenge.
Plus, nice film cameras are relatively cheap, whereas capable digital cameras tend to cost a lot more.
And some photographers just prefer the film look, which can come off as more wholesome and timeless than digital images.
Medium Format Cameras
Medium format photography refers to photography done with large sensors–larger, even, than the full-frame sensors offered in class-leading DSLRs and mirrorless models.
Which means that medium format cameras offer unparalleled detail and high-ISO performance, among other things.
Unfortunately, medium format cameras are also expensive.
Prohibitively so, for most photographers.
Which is why, unless you’re absolutely sure that medium format is what you need, I recommend you focus on the other camera options, instead.
Choosing a Camera: The Features That Matter
Now that you’re familiar with the different types of cameras and a few of their pros and cons, let’s take a look at the different features that matter when choosing a camera.
Because when it comes to picking the right camera for your needs, you’re going to need to figure out what’s actually important to you before you spend a bunch of money on the flashiest cameras out there.
Size and Weight
Do you want a camera that you can take with you everywhere? Do you want a camera that can easily fit in a backpack or a purse or even a pocket?
Or are you comfortable with a big, bulky camera with long, hefty lenses, which you need to carry in a specialized camera backpack?
This is a key question, and one that many photographers fail to ask before making a purchase.
Now, looking at your different camera options, it’s important to know:
DSLRs tend to be very big and bulky. They’re not especially travel-ready, and while some of the DSLRs on offer can fit in a medium-sized handbag, you’re not going to be able to stuff one in your pocket.
Mirrorless cameras tend to be smaller than DSLRs–and APS-C mirrorless cameras, in particular, are a great camera for travel photographers.
Of course, point and shoot cameras will be even smaller (in most cases, anyways). And smartphone cameras will be smaller still.
Cameras are expensive, which means that you certainly don’t want your brand-new camera to fall to pieces in your hands.
And depending on your shooting style, your camera may need to withstand rain storms, blowing sand, and more.
That’s where durability becomes important.
In my experience, DSLRs tend to be the most durable. Even the low-end, plastic DSLRs tend to feel solid. And the high-end, professional DSLRs can handle a lot of abuse.
Mirrorless cameras can be more hit and miss when it comes to durability. Some of them can withstand storms and drops without a problem, whereas others are more likely to break.
As for point and shoot cameras: I certainly wouldn’t subject one to a rainstorm, unless it’s specially designed to handle inclement weather (e.g., a point and shoot action camera).
And smartphone cameras are as durable as the smartphones they’re housed in, which can range from decently durable to instantly crackable, depending on the model you have.
If you’re looking to photograph a number of different subjects, you’ll need a camera system that offers a broad range of lenses.
You see, lenses are what’ll ensure you can get close enough or wide enough to capture the images you’re after.
For instance, a DSLR can work with a wide-angle lens for sweeping landscapes, then switch to a supertelephoto lens for distant birds, then switch to a true macro lens for flower close-ups.
The same is true of mirrorless cameras, though the lens selection tends to be a bit more limited, especially for the newer mirrorless systems (i.e., Canon and Nikon). Though these newer systems also offer adapters that allow you to mount older DSLR lenses onto the mirrorless cameras, which–while inconvenient–can be a quick way of rounding out your lens lineup.
Point and shoot cameras, on the other hand, only offer the lens that’s built into the camera. And while the zoom range is often sizable, it just doesn’t compare to the flexibility you get from a DSLR or mirrorless model.
Smartphones are even more limited than point and shoot cameras, thanks to their inability to zoom. When you use a smartphone camera, you’re mostly restricted to the lenses that are built into the smartphone itself–which means that you can shoot at only a few focal lengths at maximum, none of which are especially long.
So, if you’re looking to photograph birds, a smartphone isn’t really going to do the trick.
That said, there are third-party manufacturers that sell clip-on smartphone lenses. These allow you to get close to your subject (for macro shots), or go ultra-wide (for sweeping landscape shots).
Resolution refers to the number of pixels that a camera offers.
This is directly tied to the amount of detail that a camera can capture (though this is also influenced by other factors, such as lens selection and high-ISO performance).
More resolution will allow you to print wall-sized images. It’ll also allow you to crop in on different features in a photo.
If you photograph a distant bird, a high-resolution camera allows you to magnify the bird and discard the rest of the shot–without sacrificing much in terms of image quality.
Whereas a low-resolution camera will produce images that look fine with no cropping applied, but will produce pixelated, blurry images the more you zoom in.
Note that resolution isn’t always good. Higher resolution requires smaller pixels on similarly-sized sensors, which reduces low-light performance (and causes noise).
And high resolution cameras produce huge file sizes that will overwhelm your hard drive, fast.
In terms of resolution, there are plenty of high-resolution smartphone cameras out there, but they’re often going to be limited by other factors, such as noise and lens capabilities.
(In other words: Grabbing a smartphone camera with 40+ megapixels is mostly pointless.)
If you really need lots of resolution while retaining optimal image quality, then a medium-format camera is the way to go.
Full-frame DSLRs and mirrorless cameras also offer a lot of resolution while keeping images looking good, which is why plenty of professionals that produce large prints work with the latest high-resolution bodies from Sony and Nikon.
As for point and shoot cameras:
They’re similar to smartphones, in that you can find high-resolution options–but, at the end of the day, they’re just not going to give great results when printing large or cropping substantially.
Sensor size refers to the size of the sensor in the camera.
Why does sensor size matter?
The bigger the sensor, the better the dynamic range (which is the ability to render very bright areas and very dark areas in the same photo, and is key for landscape photographers).
Bigger sensors also produce better results at high ISOs, which is important for low-light shooters (such as sports and event photographers).
Medium format cameras offer the largest sensors, but–as discussed previously–they tend to be ridiculously expensive.
DSLRs and mirrorless models come with a few standard sensor sizes:
Full-frame sensors are the largest option, and are the go-to for professional photographers.
APS-C sensors are slightly smaller, and offer a nice compromise of size and image quality.
Four-Thirds sensors are more compact, but sacrifice image quality.
Finally, point and shoot cameras, as well as smartphone cameras, offer tiny sensors. And this causes a serious image quality hit.
Autofocus and Continuous Shooting
If you want to shoot any sort of action, these two features are essential:
You need fast autofocus.
And you need fast continuous shooting.
Cameras with speedy autofocus capabilities can track subjects on the move (such as birds in flight or a sports player racing toward a goal). They can gain focus in a near-instant, and can capture sharp photo after sharp photo.
How do you know whether a camera offers good autofocus?
One way is to check the number of autofocus points (where more points generally makes for faster autofocus), as well as the autofocus coverage (because more coverage makes for better tracking).
But you can also read camera reviews for hands-on autofocus tests.
As for continuous shooting:
Cameras that can shoot bursts of eight frames-per-second or more can generally be considered suitable for action photography.
Though note that there are some cameras that can shoot at 20 fps, 30 fps, or even 60 fps.
If you’re after a fast-focusing and high-speed shooting camera, I’d recommend looking at the latest DSLRs and mirrorless models, which offer class-leading speed at decent prices.
Ease of Use and Accessories
These days, many cameras offer useful features such as fully-articulating screens, optical or electronic viewfinders, and touch functionality.
But some cameras include more options than others, which is why you should be aware of the relative pros and cons of the camera you’re considering.
Smartphones tend to be the least feature rich; they offer no viewfinder, and while they do include touchscreen functionality, there’s no articulating screen of any type.
Point and shoot cameras are a bit more advanced. But if you’re after lots of features, mirrorless is the way to go. Mirrorless cameras include the most advanced touchscreens, as well as beautiful electronic viewfinders that are packed full of cool effects (such as the ability to “see” in black and white).
If you only shoot photos, then you can skip this section.
But for those photographers out there who also might want to do some video recording, you’ll want to pay attention to the video features offered on camera models.
For serious videography, you’ll want a camera that can shoot in 4K at 24 or 30 fps (and 4K at 60 fps is even better). You’ll also want the option to use Log formats, as well as the ability to listen and record via mic and headphone jacks.
Once again, mirrorless cameras are probably going to be your best bet here. Sony has designed some of its cameras with vloggers in mind, which means that you can capture beautiful stills and videos without switching setups.
How to Pick a Camera: Start By Identifying What You Want to Shoot
You should now be familiar with the different types of cameras, as well as the different features you’ll need to pay attention to when choosing a camera.
But, before you proceed with the actual purchasing, you should ask yourself a key question:
What do I want to shoot?
As I’ve emphasized in the sections above, the camera you buy should be defined by your needs.
So if you want to shoot portraits, you should grab a camera that offers decent autofocus (especially if you’ll need to do moving portraits) and excellent image quality (high resolution and large sensor size).
If you want to shoot wildlife, you’ll need a camera that includes a nice selection of lenses, fast autofocus and continuous shooting, and the ability to crop in tight.
If you want to shoot events, you’ll need exceptional low-light capabilities (which comes from a large sensor), good autofocus, and good image quality.
If you want to shoot landscapes, you’ll need a camera with class-leading dynamic range, durability, and great image quality.
Here’s the bottom line:
By determining in advance what you’re after, you can narrow down your options.
And you can quickly hit on the camera that’s best for you.
Why Buy a DSLR?
I recommend you purchase a DSLR if you’re after a rugged camera with top-notch image quality.
Here, size shouldn’t be an issue; you should be comfortable carrying a heavy load while traveling or while walking.
DSLRs are great for action photography, because they offer fast autofocus and high continuous shooting speeds, but they’re not plagued by the viewfinder issues that come with mirrorless cameras.
They also offer great image quality at reasonable prices, especially on the used market.
Why Buy a Mirrorless Camera?
If you have the money to spend and you require a compact camera that produces exceptional images, then mirrorless is your best bet.
But before buying, you’ll want to be aware of the problems with mirrorless viewfinders, and how they can impact your photography.
Mirrorless cameras also offer lots of fantastic effects, so if you’re the artsy type, you’ll love working with a mirrorless system.
Unfortunately, many mirrorless systems lack the lens diversity that you can get from DSLR lineups, so you’ll need to be careful there.
Why Buy a Point and Shoot Camera?
Point and shoot cameras are compact, which makes them easy to slip into a pocket while traveling or walking.
And they offer some flexibility, both in terms of camera settings and lens focal length.
If you’re serious about photography but you’re not ready to use a DSLR or a mirrorless model, then a point and shoot camera is a good way to start.
Why Buy a Smartphone Camera?
Smartphone cameras are very convenient, and they offer decent image quality right off the bat.
They’re also very intuitive.
If you’re not looking to print your images or shoot at night, and you’re looking for a camera that’s with you at all times, then a smartphone will get the job done.
Why Buy a Film Camera?
Film cameras are very niche.
They require technical skills that make most photographers back away. But if you’re up for the challenge, shooting with film can be very rewarding.
Because most film cameras don’t utilize the latest autofocus or low-light technologies, I’d recommend staying away from film if you plan to shoot fast-moving subjects (such as wildlife), as well as low-light subjects (such as sports).
And if you plan to shoot for clients in time-sensitive, one-shot-only situations, then I’d really suggest using a digital camera, because it’s much easier to get it right on your first try.
Otherwise, if film cameras appeal to you, then go ahead!
Why Buy a Medium Format Camera?
Honestly, if you’re wondering whether you should buy a medium format camera, then it’s probably not right for you.
Medium format cameras come with one main benefit:
And they’re basically terrible at everything else.
Medium format cameras are heavy. They don’t offer exceptional autofocus. They offer slow continuous shooting speeds.
Oh, and they’re ridiculously, unbelievably, eye-wateringly expensive.
So unless image quality is your only concern (e.g., you’re a high-end landscape photographer, a commercial photographer, or a high-end portrait photographer), then I’d recommend going with one of the other options discussed above.
What Camera Should I Buy?
Now that you’ve finished this article, you should have a sense of the perfect camera for your needs.
Pretty much every camera is capable of greatness.
But by choosing the right camera, you’ll ensure that getting gorgeous photos is as easy and painless as possible!
There really is no single best camera for beginners. Instead, there are cameras offering different characteristics, a few of which will fit your particular needs. You have many great options: DSLRs, mirrorless cameras, point and shoot cameras, film cameras, and more, but you can narrow down your choices by identifying the type of images you want to shoot. If you’re looking to capture casual family portraits, for instance, you might want a point and shoot camera, which will do a good job while not requiring you to do much at all. But if you’re looking to get a camera capable of pro-level images, then I’d recommend a mirrorless camera or a DSLR, both of which are relatively simple to learn but will allow you to take control when you’re ready.
To choose a camera, first determine the type of subject you want to shoot. Do you want to photography landscapes? People in the city? Portraits? Birds? Mammals? Then take a look at the different camera characteristics I discuss in this article, and figure out what you need for the subject you’re after. Finally, once you’ve identified the characteristics you’re after, pick a camera! You can always read individual reviews to get a sense of how any particular model performs in the field.
DSLRs are less popular than they once were, thanks to the rise of smartphone and mirrorless cameras. But DSLRs are still powerful pieces of kit, and are perfectly capable of capturing stunning images. In fact, many professionals still use their DSLRs, because a) the quality is satisfying and b) they don’t want to shell out lots of cash for an upgrade. Plus, DSLRs are sometimes better than the alternatives, thanks to their optical viewfinders and their expansive lens lineups.
Mirrorless cameras are great, but they do tend to be pricey, so you’ll want to keep an eye on your budget. Mirrorless cameras also have a steep learning curve (if you’ve never used an interchangeable lens camera before). On the other hand, a mirrorless camera will generally offer superb image quality, as well as tons of useful technology–such as electronic viewfinders that feature exposure simulations, as well as in-body image stabilization and fully-articulating touchscreens. So while mirrorless cameras aren’t the best option for everyone, they’re pretty darn great!
Medium format cameras offer superb image quality, but they’re ridiculously expensive. They’re also limited by their size and weight, plus they produce giant file sizes that are difficult to manage. I would recommend avoiding a medium format camera unless you’re absolutely certain it’s what you need. Many professionals don’t even use medium format cameras, due to the limitations I’ve described above; they stick to full-frame DSLRs and mirrorless cameras.
Smartphone cameras can get the job done, but they don’t fare well when up against other, larger-sensor alternatives, such as DSLRs and mirrorless models. The fact is that smartphones pack tiny sensors, which limit high-ISO performance substantially. It’s also difficult to shoot smartphone images in a RAW file format (you generally need a non-native camera app to do this), so you’re going to be stuck with the post-processing effects applied just after the moment of capture; this will limit you compared to RAW shooting, where you can adjust pretty much everything during post-processing.
Jaymes Dempsey is a professional macro and nature photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan; his work is published across the web, from Digital Photography School to PetaPixel.
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