If you're thinking of buying a new camera, how do you make the right choice? There are dozens of different cameras on store shelves today, everything from the most basic point-and-shoot to the most high-end professional digital SLR. Most people are best suited with some compromise between the two, but there's an art to picking the right one, so here's a guide to choosing between the different kinds of cameras.
Some General Rules To Follow
There are three main categories of digital cameras that you can wander into your local camera store and buy. You can pick up a 'compact' (a point-and-shoot digital camera with a collapsible lens), a digital SLR (a relatively large and bulky body with the ability to switch and attach different lenses), or a mirrorless camera (a small camera body with a large photo sensor and the ability to switch lenses). Within each of those categories, you'll be able to find a basic entry-level model, an intermediate and an advanced option, each with a differing set of inbuilt features and external add-ons.
Even basic cameras these days are loaded with features, but you do get a few nifty extras like Wi-Fi as you move up within any category or class of camera. Alongside those extras, what you get is more advanced controls for manual shooting, more powerful imaging sensors and picture processing, and better and more rugged construction. You'll have to choose which of these features you want and need when you're making your choice before buying, but in our humble opinion the middle ground is usually the best point to start from.
What Do You Need, And What Do You Want?
When you're buying a camera, it's best to start from a base level of working out exactly what you need in a new device. What are your most basic requirements -- does it need to be especially small, does it need to focus extremely closely, does it need to have the best image quality possible? Once you've worked out what your needs are, that's your cue to find a range of cameras that suit that niche. In our example, a small camera that still has excellent image quality would be a mirrorless one, like the Sony e5000.
From that point, you can start asking yourself what you want. Beyond those most basic needs, are there any extra add-ons that you might find convenient? Something like an integrated or external viewfinder can help you compose your photos, a flip-up screen is handy for handheld filming or selfies, and a collapsible lens will make your camera more compact. Once you've done your research and found the variety of features available in the range of digital cameras suited to your needs, pick and choose any and all of your favourites and see what you can get.
What To Choose: Compact Cameras
'Compact' digital cameras, as the name suggests, are especially small digital cameras designed to fit in a jeans or jacket pocket. They almost always have entirely collapsible lenses that telescope away into the camera's body, leaving the switched-off compact as a relatively thin and consistent shape (not unlike a touchscreen smartphone). They're usually reasonably straightforward devices, with a lens at the front and a LCD screen around three inches in size at the back, sometimes a larger touchscreen or sometimes with an array of buttons and dials.
Basic compact cameras really offer nothing more complex than a power button, zoom toggle, shutter and a few basic playback and video mode controls. As you step up into the intermediate range, you'll see more manual shooting controls, slightly superior build quality, more powerful and versatile lenses, and generally slightly larger bodies. At the top end of compact cameras, you'll see big and sometimes non-collapsible lenses, a complete set of manual buttons and dials, the best possible small-form-factor imaging sensors, and ruggedised weatherproof construction.
What To Choose: Mirrorless Cameras
Mirrorless cameras are the latest and greatest thing in digital photography. They have the same full-sized digital imaging sensors as mid-range and top-of-the-line digital SLRs, but are much, much smaller -- in some cases as small as an advanced compact. They are, in most cases, a great compromise between the image quality of a DSLR and the portability of a compact. You have the ability to pick and choose which lens you want to use, too, so you can carry multiples to shoot a variety of scenes.
Basic mirrorless cameras can be just as straightforward as compacts -- a lens, a screen, a few shooting buttons -- while offering excellent image quality and versatility. The more powerful middle-range mirrorless cameras generally add an articulated screen and/or an electronic viewfinder, as well as add-ons like integrated Wi-Fi picture sharing and more pro-level controls. Top-end mirrorless cameras like the Sony a7 have amazing quality full-frame digital sensors, every add-on feature you could want, while still remaining relatively thin and small and portable.
What To Choose: Digital SLR Cameras
Digital SLRs are the longest running variety of digital camera, and the design hasn't evolved too much since the models of the 1980s and '90s. Interchangeable lenses, a flip-up internal mirror and an optical viewfinder are the key elements of a DLSR, along with a rear LCD screen for reviewing images and an ergonomically friendly hand-grip. You know exactly what you're getting with a digital SLR, even if they're not exactly the most svelte or attractive pieces of technology.
You can usually split digital SLRs into two groups: those with 'crop' image sensors and those with 'full-frame'. Crop (also known as 'APS-C') sensors are still relatively large, giving image quality equivalent to most of the mirrorless models out there, although generally you'll find crop sensors in entry-level and intermediate cameras. Pro-level cameras have larger full-frame sensors, equal to the size of a piece of 35mm film (remember that stuff?), and offer the best image quality possible, on par with top-end mirrorless cameras.
A basic entry-level digital SLR is still a powerful tool, and offers a wide range of manual control, but extra features like Wi-Fi and picture editing are usually missing and build quality is inferior to more expensive variants. As you move up to intermediate DSLRs you'll get better design and ergonomics as well as superior image quality through better sensors. Although bulky and heavy, professional advanced DSLRs are still the choice of many working photographers for their mix of excellent image quality, versatile manual control and ruggedised design.