What camera should I buy? Your options explained
10th Dec 2012 | 00:00
Advice to help you choose which camera to buy
Compact and bridge cameras
Answering the question 'what digital camera should I buy?' has become much more difficult over the last couple of years, because there there are more types of camera available, with the introduction of compact system cameras (CSC), also known as mirrorless cameras.
These cameras reap the benefits of digital technology and exclude the mirror found in a DSLR to enable them to be made smaller and lighter while still accepting interchangeable lenses. A key advantage that most CSCs have over most compact cameras is that the sensors are larger so that they can deliver better image quality, while still having a relatively small body.
But perhaps an even smaller compact camera with a fixed rather than an interchangeable lens is what you are looking for?
The video below explains the basic differences between the different types of camera - compact, compact system, DSLR and bridge or superzoom - to help you decide which is the most appropriate choice for you and your photography.
Alternatively, a bridge or superzoom camera may be up your street. Bridge cameras are so called because they bridge the gap between a DSLR and a compact camera by having a mini-DSLR shape but with a fixed lens that usually has a huge zoom range.
For many photography enthusiasts, a full DSLR is still the only way to go. Yes they are big and heavy, but they have optical viewfinders, larger sensors and, in the right hands, produce top-rate images.
Each camera type has its appeal, but which is the right one for you? Read on to find out.
Compact and bridge cameras
Compact cameras are traditionally aimed at the general public and occasional users who wouldn't call themselves photographers. Stuffed with 'smart' and 'intelligent' technology such as Wi-Fi, many compact cameras are ideal for those happy to leave all the decision making to the camera rather than select settings themselves.
There are, however, advanced models that enable a similar level of control over aspects such as exposure and colour as a DSLR.
Since there are hundreds of compact camera models from many manufacturers, it is often very difficult to choose the right one, but here are a few pointers to put you on the right path.
Models priced below £250/AU$400/US$350 all share a similar size of sensor, which today incorporates around 12-16 million pixels (MP). This comfortably meets and exceeds the requirements of most users.
While a greater number of pixels can be beneficial in good light, this can otherwise have a detrimental effect on image quality, particularly when you venture up a camera's sensitivity range to its four-figure ISO settings.
This doesn't mean you should actively avoid digital cameras with the most megapixels, but that your decision making should involve a number of other factors.
If you do plan on buying a simple compact camera, and you're likely to be using it in a range of lighting conditions, look out for those which use a backlit sensor, as these tend to capture images with less grainy and destructive noise, and with a wider dynamic range. It's possible to find these at a range of prices, from entry-level models to more advanced cameras twice as expensive, and the use of this technology is rapidly proliferating.
Other things to look out for include the range of the camera's lens, since this will determine how suitable it is for different subjects.
A wideangle lens which begins at the equivalent of around 24 or 28mm, for example, is an excellent choice for indoor shots and landscapes, and those which extend to 250mm (equivalent) and beyond are ideal for nature and wherever you need to focus on far-off details.
It's a good idea to look for cameras with either lens- or sensor-based image stabilisation systems, particularly if you're looking to buy a camera with a relatively long zoom. These help maintain a higher standard of image quality than sensitivity- and processing-based technologies.
These are linked to the optical zooms of the cameras so that they move in tandem with the lens, and can be useful for shooting in bright light when LCD screens become hard to view.
Pushing the boat out
So, what if you have a little more money to spend - what camera should you be looking for then? And what are their benefits?
A more expensive compact camera may provide a larger sensor and a better quality lens, which together help improve all aspects of image quality. Many also offer manual control over exposure for when you want to get creative, and you may also get a raw shooting mode which will give you a better starting point for any post-capture processing you may wish to carry out.
Furthermore, such models are likely to have a superior LCD screen to those on cheaper cameras, which will not only resolve details with greater clarity but will also be easier to view in harsh and sunny conditions.
Alternatively, if it's a large zoom range you're after, you may want to consider a bridge or superzoom camera. These combine expansive optical zooms with manual exposure options, which together provide control similar (but not equivalent) to that of a DSLR.
Alongside their LCD screens, bridge cameras tend to incorporate electronic viewfinders (EVFs) with around 230,000 dots. The performance of these varies wildly between models, so it's worth investigating this before deciding on any particular model.
Electronic viewfinders also have the benefit of displaying much of the information found on the camera's LCD screen, which enables you to view and change settings without you needing to pull the camera away from your eye.
While the results from a bridge camera generally fall short of DSLR quality, what you lose in quality you make up for with portability and the convenience of such a wide zoom range in a small and inexpensive body. Many now offer articulated LCD screens and HD video recording, and some even go on to offer a raw shooting mode.
Compact and bridge camera summary
In summary, if you have about £300-£400 (AU/US$400-$500) to spend, and you want something pocketable yet capable, look out for a camera with a healthy range of manual control, an LCD screen with at least 460,000 dots and ideally a backlit sensor.
But before you do that, consider whether you'd be better off with a compact system camera instead.
Compact system cameras
Compact system cameras (CSCs) sit between the advanced compacts described earlier and the more professional DSLR cameras. Their key advantages are that they use the same kinds of sensors and processors found in DSLRs, and that they are compatible with a range of high quality, newly developed lenses, designed for specific tasks.
So, unlike with compact cameras, where you have a fixed, all-purpose optic, you can alternate between a standard kit lens for everyday shooting, a macro lens for detailed close-up shots, and a telephoto lens for nature and sports photography, among other options.
Manufacturers are targeting several different users for this new breed of camera, from first-time users demanding an inexpensive way of attaining high-quality results, right through to enthusiasts and professionals who need a smaller alternative to their DSLR body and lenses. This means there's quite a bit of choice.
Best compact system camera
Suitability for all users
The CSC format has only been in existence since September 2008 when Panasonic announced the G1, but it has been widely deemed a great success. For the novice user, such cameras provide the ease of use of compacts and fun-orientated functionality such as special filters and effects, while for the more advanced photographer they add manual control, raw shooting and image quality of a standard equal to similarly-priced DSLRs.
With no moving mirrors they are also more discreet than DSLRs, and what operational sounds there are can often be quietened or almost completely silenced if required.
It doesn't stop there though. Their LCD screens typically match the quality of those found on professional DSLRs, with many offering touchscreen control. The electronic viewfinders on certain models are far more detailed than those on bridge cameras, which is particularly useful for judging focus.
The CSC's mirrorless construction also allows for particularly fast burst speeds, while HD video recording is now commonplace.
Furthermore, a vast assortment of adaptors enable older optics from entirely different and defunct mounts to be used with little hassle, making them particularly appealing to seasoned photographers with a collection of legacy lenses.
Which camera is right for your needs will depend largely on whether you'd prefer a DSLR-like body or something more compact, as well as your preference with regards to operation.
Many newer CSCs make use of innovative touchscreen operation rather than physical controls and buttons, and this is likely to polarise opinion. In poor lighting conditions it can help to have virtual buttons located on a screen rather than physical buttons whose purpose may not be clearly seen. Some touchscreen models enable you to focus and capture images simply by pressing the screen.
On the other hand, many photographers are used to using buttons and dials, rather than poking at and swiping through menu systems.
So what are the downsides of a compact system camera (CSC)?
With the format still in its infancy, the sector is still in the midst of being fully established, and that applies to its lenses and accessories as much as it does to its cameras. That said, the Micro Four Thirds system employed by Panasonic and Olympus has a very healthy array of lenses and accessories, with more optics being produced by third party manufacturers such as Sigma.
Regardless of what camera you go for, you should ask yourself: does the manufacturer have - or is it planning to have - a more advanced model to which I could upgrade? Are the lenses and any accessories I want available and affordable?
Portability and speed
Above: The compact Panasonic LX5 has a fixed lens (left) while the GF3 (right) accepts interchangeable lenses.
You should also bear in mind that while CSCs may be more portable than DSLRs, you generally can't slip them into your pocket with a lens attached as you can with entry-level and mid-range compact cameras. The exception to this is when using certain CSC bodies with pancake lenses, the combination of which is similar in size to that of a compact model.
The lenses of advanced compacts often retract into their bodies, or generally only add a few millimetres to the overall profile.
Above: The port just below the Olympus E-PL5's hotshoe accepts an optional external viewfinder.
As compact system cameras in part owe their small size and weight to the lack of a mirror that reflects light into a DSLR's viewfinder, they also lack an optical viewfinder. Some offer an electronic alternative, but not everyone likes them, even though their quality has improved recently.
While some cameras don't have a viewfinder, others have a port that enables an optional viewfinder to be attached. The electronic viewfinder (EVF) shows the image as it will be captured, taking into account the focal length of the lens as well as exposure and white balance settings.
In some cases it's possible to mount an external optical viewfinder on the hotshoe, however, these are fixed to one focal length, which isn't particularly helpful when using a zoom lens.
Another consequence of CSC's construction is that they don't offer the fast phase-detection focusing systems which DSLR photographers take for granted. The speed of the contrast-detection and hybrid (contrast and phase detection combined) systems used in their place is constantly improving, and in some recent models it's impressively prompt. However, in terms of flexibility, the DSLR still has the overall advantage.
Digital SLR cameras evolved from their film forebears, and many manufacturers chose to continue supporting the mounts they were already using - conveniently so for those with a few lenses. Until the recent arrival of CSCs, DSLRs represented the only serious consumer-oriented option for high-quality imaging, but even today they remain the weapon of choice for the professional and enthusiast user.
Best DSLR: top cameras by price and brand
Sensors - size matters
There are many reasons why DSLRs are popular with keen and professional photographers. Of course, some of this is down to what a photographer is accustomed to using, and, should they already own a collection of lenses, the idea of trading everything in holds little appeal.
For many professionals, though, it's the size of the sensor which is an important factor. Full-frame sensors such as the Nikon D600, Nikon D800, Canon 6D and Canon 5D Mark III have three major benefits: first, they allow for larger photosites (aka pixels) than smaller sensors. Not only does this make them better equipped for capturing low-light scenes with minimal noise, it also helps to preserve a wide dynamic range.
Second, they can fit a greater number of pixels than APS-C and other smaller types, assuming the pixels are the same size. This is an important factor in relation to the level of detail which may be resolved, and may even be crucial depending on how the images will ultimately be used.
Finally, because they apply no crop factor to lenses, full-frame DSLRs are far more suitable for wideangle work, such as for landscapes, architecture and reportage.
The large variety of lenses developed for the more common systems also helps to ensure that the pro is never lacking, and here CSCs still have some way to go.
For press and wedding photographers in particular, the ability to use full-frame models for video shooting is also a bonus, particularly when the combined effects of large sensors and specialist lenses is considered. The DSLR video sector in particular is seeing a lot of development, not just from camera manufacturers, but also third parties who produce microphones, supports and other accessories commonly used by the DSLR videographer.
Professional-level DSLRs also have large pentaprism viewfinders; these make use of glass prisms and superior optics which display a scene with clarity and brightness. Cheaper DSLRs also use optical viewfinders, but they often contain mirrors rather than glass.
Called pentamirror viewfinders, these help to keep a camera's overall weight and price down. But they can't quite compete with pentaprism viewfinders for brightness, and often only show around 95% of the scene.
Build and functionality
It's true that DSLRs priced under £1,000/AU/US$1,500 face considerably more competition from the CSC market than pro-level models, given the similarities of pricing and specification between the two camps.
Regardless of the category under which a DSLR falls, though, their build quality and ergonomics make them ideal for more professional use, particularly in situations where they may encounter adverse conditions or where they may face being bashed around.
Some photographers simply find CSCs too small, and prefer the larger build of a DSLR. The current trend for CSCs to offer much of their operation through touchscreens rather than physical controls, combined with the different methods of achieving focus, means that for action and sports photography in particular the DSLR still holds an advantage.
Many DSLR users are used to shooting with an optical viewfinder and are understandably reluctant to switch to a camera which can only render an electronic facsimile of the scene in front of them - however detailed it may be.
However, it's worth bearing in mind that EVFs are improving all the time, and they show the image as it will be captured, taking into account the colour, white balance and exposure settings.
So what camera should you buy?
Still undecided about what camera to buy?
The first step is to ask yourself what you want to do with your new camera.
For everyday shooting, look at getting a compact camera. They're usually the cheapest and also the least intimidating - and they offer automatic features for those with little photography experience. There are also models that provide a bit more in the way of control for experienced users who want to travel light.
For next-level photography, try a bridge camera. These fill the gap between point-and-shoot compacts and DSLRs. They've got loads of manual features, but the lens (which usually has a huge focal length range) is fixed.
If you want to get really serious, then a digital SLR is the one for you. These single lens reflex cameras enable you to choose your own lenses and take full manual control - but they also have lots of automated features.
If you're scared off by the size of a DSLR, then look for a compact system camera. You get almost the same functionality, but in a much smaller chassis.
If you buy a DSLR or a compact system camera you will need to buy a great lens as well. Many cameras come bundled with one or two as a kit, which is a good starting point, but you may want to look at alternatives.
Try our buying guides for a start:
You can't change lenses with bridge and compact cameras, so look for a decent optical zoom. This enables you to get closer to the action without reducing picture quality. Try to ignore digital zooms, because they just crop into the image.