Best camera 2014: what camera type should you buy?
29th May 2014 | 13:57
Advice to help you choose which type of camera to buy
Introduction and compact and bridge cameras
When it comes to buying a camera, you're really spoiled for choice. The range is massive, stretching from cheap and cheerful compact models competing with your smartphone, right through to professional-spec SLRs that cost as much as a decent used car.
In this jargon-free overview, we'll discuss the main types of camera out there, to help you make a wise buying decision. You don't want to pay top dollar for features you won't need, but you also don't want to be stuck with a frustratingly basic camera you'll soon outgrow.
We're going to concentrate on three main types of camera in this overview – compact, compact system (or mirrorless) camera and SLR.
Once you know what type of camera you want, follow the links below to find out which model is best for you:
- Best compact camera 2014
- Best high-end compact camera
- Best cheap camera
- Best SLR: which type of SLR should you buy?
- Best compact system camera 2014
- Which lens? Choose the best lens for your DSLR
Compact and bridge cameras
Put simply, compact cameras are cameras with fixed lenses that you can't remove or swap around. It's this end of the camera market that is facing the most competition from camera phones, though the compact sector is actually very diverse.
Many compacts now include advanced features, such as large, sophisticated sensors (the technology inside digital cameras that records light), built-in zoom lenses, even Wi-Fi and GPS technology.
Compact cameras with advanced features are often called power compacts, while those with built-in long lenses and SLR-style designs are traditionally called 'bridge' cameras, owing to the idea that they bridge the gap between compacts and SLRs.
Meanwhile rectangular-style compact cameras with impressive lens focal lengths are usually called 'superzoom' cameras. Bridge cameras are a type of superzoom. Here are some of the key considerations to help you choose the right compact.
Sensor size and resolution
When digital cameras first appeared there was something of a megapixel 'arms race', but consumers now appreciate that there is more to a good camera than lots of pixels on the sensor. Sensor size is actually often more important, as physically bigger sensors mean that the pixels can be larger and this is usually good news for image quality.
A relatively simple camera like the Canon Ixus 150, for example has a 1/2.3-inch sensor with 16 million pixels, the same number as the Fuji X100S. However, the Fuji X100S has an APS-C format sensor, the same size same as many SLRs. You can read more about sensor size here.
Pixel counts can be misleading. For example, the basic Nikon Coolpix S2800, which you can buy for £80, comes with a 20.1 megapixel 1/2.3-inch sensor, while the more expensive Canon PowerShot SX280, 'only' has a 12.1 megapixel 1/2.3-inch sensor. The Canon is the better optical performer, though, thanks to its more powerful lens, better image processing and other factors.
Remember, too, that although more megapixels come in handy in good light, your images can also suffer from more degradation or 'noise' when you use higher light sensitivity settings (ISO). Try to buy a camera with a backlit, or backside illuminated, sensor to reduce the risk of this.
To help you choose the right compact for your needs, think about what kind of photos you like to take. If you do a lot of landscapes or indoor shots, get a camera with a 'wide angle' lens, equivalent to 24-28mm.
If you like to shoot a lot of portraits, go for a lens with a fixed wide aperture (eg f/2.8) so you can blur the background a little more while keeping the subject sharp, although this isn't always obvious with cameras with small sensors.
Large apertures (small f/number) are also useful if you like to shoot in low light. A bridge camera with a built-in long telephoto lens (20x optical zoom or higher, for example) will be great for photographing subjects from a distance, or for sport and wildlife fans; just make sure the camera has some kind of image stabilizer, either built into the camera or via the lens, to keep shots sharp when you're zoomed right in.
A camera that combines all three is the Panasonic FZ200, whose lens goes from 24mm to 600m equivalent with a constant f/2.8 aperture.
Viewfinder and LCD
Most compact cameras now enable you to compose pictures on the rear screen rather than in a traditional optical viewfinder. Ensure you get a screen that is large and bright and that has at least 460k dots.
Being able to flip and adjust the screen is useful for composition, and many rear screens now offer touch-control functionality to make photography even easier. Rear sceens can be hard to read in sunlight, so try and get one that moves in tandem with the lens if you're interested in a bridge compact.
Size and handling
Simpler compacts are designed to slip in a bag or pocket, and while bridge cameras or superzoom compact cameras are much more compact than they used to be, they tend to be bulkier.
This is an important consideration for young families and travellers, who often don't want to be weighed down with kit, or be seen with protruding lenses that attract the wrong kind of attention.
Manufacturers are always shoehorning in new features to differentiate their cameras and justify higher prices, but don't dismiss every advanced feature as irrelevant.
Built-in Wi-Fi connectivity makes it easier to transfer and share images quickly, while if you are getting more serious about creative photography, being able to shoot in Manual mode will give you more flexibility.
The Canon PowerShot S120 offers Manual shooting and Wi-Fi, along with fast and responsive autofocus.
How much should I spend?
A basic, easier-to-carry, point-and-shoot compact with a better lens and more shooting options than your smartphone can easily be picked up for under £100 / US$100 / AU$150. The next step up is a compact camera with 12-20 megapixels for under £250 / US$250 / AU$300, which is more than enough for everyday photography and printing at normal sizes.
A more powerful mid-range compact, usually offering bigger sensors, better quality zoom lenses and advanced shooting options, will set you back around £350 / US$350 / AU$400, while a power compact that rivals an SLR, such as the Canon G16, can be found for around £500 / US$500 / AU$515.
If you're feeling flush, you can get the Sony RX-1, the first compact camera with a high resolution, full-frame sensor, for £2,500/US$2,800/AU$3000. A full-frame sensor is the same size as a 35mm film negative, measuring 36x24mm.
Anything else I should know?
The pressure from smartphones and interchangeable-lens cameras means you can get some great deals on fixed-lens compacts, so you should be able to find one that also shoots HD video and is within your budget. If you're an adventurous type, or have a young family, a tough and waterproof camera makes sense – try the Panasonic FT5.
Compact system cameras
Want the portability and convenience of a compact as well as the ability to attach different types of lenses? Then you should think about an interchangeable-lens compact system – or mirrorless – camera.
As the name suggests, these eschew the traditional mirror arrangement found in SLRs, but many now include the same kind of quality sensors and processors found in their mirrored peers.
They're more compact than SLRs, too, and some wonderfully dainty – but still high-performing – lenses have been developed to slim things down further. As with compacts, the CSC sector now caters for every type of photographer, from non-techy types to jobbing pros. If you're considering a CSC, here are some key considerations to help your buying decision.
While you can change lenses on a CSC, it's important to remember that you can't swap CSC with SLR lenses unless you buy a special adapter – the lens mounts are quite different.
Panasonic pioneered CSCs with the release of the G1 in September 2008, and together with Olympus, developed the popular Micro Four Thirds format for lenses. But here's the thing: Micro Four Thirds lenses won't work on a CSC from Canon, Nikon, Fujifilm and others, as these makers have their own mounts (though, again, you can buy special adapters).
Once you've got your head around this, there's a reasonable choice of lenses for your CSC. CSC lenses have tended to cost more than SLR equivalents, but prices are falling.
Viewfinders and screens
Cheaper CSCs lack a built-in viewfinder, requiring you to compose images on the rear screen.
Electronic viewfinders (EVFs) prevail on higher-end CSCs, and these can be fixed, tilting or even an electronic/optical hybrid, as on the Fujifilm X-Pro1.
Touchscreen features are often available, which is handy for quickly setting the focus point or changing settings. Most screens and EVFs boost image brightness in poorer light, making it easy to compose shots. In addition, EVFs are useful in bright light when the main screen image can be hard to see.
We recommend choosing a high resolution EVF of between 1,440,000 and 2,765,000 pixels and a main screen of at least 3-inches and 920,000 dots.
Although Micro Four Thirds sensors are physically smaller than the APS-C and full-frame sensors used in SLRs, there's an increasing number of CSCs with APS-C format sensors.
It's even possible to get full-frame CSC in the shape of the Sony A7 and A7R. So by all means consider CSCs with bigger sensors if you want large, high-resolution images, but don't be put off by the smaller sensors inside Micro Four Thirds cameras.
There's more to CSC performance than pixel count and sensor size – access to a range of high-quality lenses is just as important. Smaller sensors also tend to mean smaller lenses!
Put simply, the mirrorless design of CSCs mean they mainly (but not exclusively) rely on contrast-detection AF, as opposed to the phase-detection system commonly used in SLRs.
Today's CSCs offer faster autofocus than their predecessors, though contrast-detection systems can struggle to keep up with very rapid action, which is one reason most sports photographers still use SLRs.
Higher end CSCs, such as the Olympus E-M1, now offer a hybrid phase/contrast detection system.
Consider a CSC with a fast maximum shutter speed and continuous shooting mode if you take a lot of action shots, but it's not really this camera type's forte.
Carefully check these before buying. While many higher CSCs now feature built-in Wi-Fi connectivity, not all of them come with a built-in flash (though they usually have a hotshoe for adding one). Not all rear screens are touchscreen and vari-angled, either, though the Panasonic G6 ticks both boxes.
How much should I spend?
Around £420 / US$700 / AU$670 gets you a well-regarded mid-range model, such as the Panasonic G6, while the top-end Olympus OM-D E-M1 and full-frame Sony Alpha 7R cost £1,300 / US$1,400 / AU$1,570 and £1,700 / US$3850 / AU$2,400 respectively.
Anything else I should know?
As mentioned earlier, be careful to check out the choice of lenses available for any CSC you're interested in. There are significantly more Micro Four Thirds lenses than there are lenses for Canon and Nikon CSCs, as the two biggest camera makers are still more committed to the CSC market.
SLR, or single lens reflex, cameras remain the most popular type of interchangeable-lens camera, having been around since the 1940s.
The digital versions pick up from the tried and tested design of SLR film cameras, and digital SLRs remain hugely popular with enthusiast photographers and pros. As with the other camera types discussed here, there are different types of SLR for different market segments – from entry-level models aimed at people wanting to progress beyond point and shoot, to pro-spec warhorses.
Entry-level models, notably the Canon EOS 100D, are compact too, so it's not always an obvious choice between an SLR and CSC. Here are some things to consider...
SLR sensors are usually either APS-C (the same as some CSCs) or full-frame format.
As mentioned, a full frame sensor is the same size as 35mm film negative 'frame.' This means that its light sensitive pixels (photosites) can be larger than those on APS-C format sensors. So, more light can enter these larger photosites, which can mean better dynamic range and less noise compared to cameras with APS-C chips.
Also APS-C sensors, being smaller, only capture a portion of a scene compared to full-frame – the so-called 'crop factor'.
This is particularly good for wide-angle images, such as landscapes. However, this isn't to say that APS-C sensors are 'worse' than full frame, just different. Some photographers prefer the way the crop factor gives you more 'reach;' SLRs with APS-C sensors, and compatible lenses, are usually cheaper too!
If you prefer a traditional optical viewfinder for composing images, rather than an Electronic Viewfinder or LCD, then it's SLRs all the way.
Bear in mind that cheaper SLRs have optical viewfinders that contain mirrors rather than the glass prisms and superior optics found in the viewfinders of higher-end SLRs.
Another big advantage of SLRs over the CSCs is the much wider choice of keenly priced lenses – you're plugging in to a whole photographic 'system.' Plus, some old Canon and Nikon lenses for film SLRs will also work on digital SLRs (though check for the particular SLR you are thinking about buying). There's also a much bigger used market for SLR lenses.
Build and handling
SLRs tend be sturdy – even Nikon's entry level D3300 has a tough monocoque body – so they may be a better choice than a CSC if they're going to get some rough handling, but top-end CSCs also have a tough build and some, such as the Fuji X-T1 and Olympus OM-D E-M1, are weatherproof.
Just remember that higher-end SLRs tend to be much bigger and heavier than higher-end CSCs. Nikon's full-frame D800 weighs a hulking 900g (body only), compared to 407g for Sony's full-frame Alpha A7RCSC. Add a long lens and you're suddenly hauling around a lot of camera...
All decent digital SLRs now shoot HD video, but as with CSCs, not all have built-in flash – the thinking being that higher-end SLRs will be used with more powerful stand-alone flashguns.
Built-in Wi-Fi and vari-angle screens are becoming more common on mid-range models, a good example being the Nikon D5300, but touch-control is thin on the ground.
How much should I spend?
Good entry-level SLRs, such as the Canon EOS 1100D, can be snapped up for under £250 / US$450 / AU$400 with a basic 'kit' lens, while a quality mid-range model, such as the Nikon D7100 costs around £840 / US$1,150 / AU$1,250 body only.
Full-frame SLRs such as Nikon's D610 start at around £1400 / US$1,900 / AU$2,000 body only, so you can see the price jump.
A quick word about rangefinders
Another type of camera we need to talk about is what's called a rangefinder. These use a dual-image rangefinding device to focus; when the two images correlate, you have perfect focus.
While they take some getting used to, rangefinders are still popular in the digital age, as they are usually discrete, compact and quiet. They also weigh less, since they don't have mirrors or prisms that flip.
Leica rules the roost when it comes to digital rangefinders, and you'll pay for a premium for this legendary name: even the entry level rangefinder, the Leica M, costs around £5,100 / US$7,000 / AU$9,000 body only.
If that seems excessive, note that rangefinder-style CSCs are now becoming popular, a good example being the Fujifilm X-Pro1.
Find your ideal camera
Now you know what type of camera you want, follow the links below to find out which model is best for you: