Digital technology hasn’t only transformed the way we take photographs, but also created an explosion of camera options. Where a camera maker in the days of film would have a few models in their line, it’s not uncommon today to find a dozen or more options from each manufacturer.
This is partly because there are more variations of camera design today. The film shooter had basically two choices: SLR or compact "point-and-shoot." In the digital world, the compact, fixed-lens cameras have split into two varieties: the very simple, very small point-and-shoot models, and the more robust, high-performance models with pro features and expansive zooms.
Interchangeable-lens models have also diverged, into three types: traditional SLRs, Sony’s fixed-translucent-mirror cameras, and mirrorless models that completely omit the mirror box and optical viewfinder and dramatically cut size and weight in the process.
We have more choices than ever, and that’s a good thing—if you know what you want. Consider these 10 factors to help define your needs as a photographer, and your camera selection will be much easier.
1. SIZE & WEIGHT.
You’ve probably heard the aphorism, "The best camera is the one you have with you." It makes sense. If the size and weight of your gear is going to strongly influence whether or not you carry it often, then you ought to rule out larger cameras. Your best options will be mirrorless systems, smaller DSLRs or a premium compact camera with a generous zoom.
Don’t assume you have to buy the most expensive camera to get something that’s perfect for you. Many of the more costly cameras are priced that way because they have features that only a handful of photographers will actually need or use. And don’t forget to reserve part of your budget for lenses, lighting gear and accessories that play a major role in the quality of your images.
This is one of those features that drive up a camera’s price. Metal alloys are more rugged than plastics and composites, but also more expensive. Think about your favorite subjects and typical shooting environment. If you shoot mostly indoors, you probably don’t need to worry about heavy-duty construction and weather-proofing. Also consider how you handle your gear. If you do a lot of travel photography, shoot in inclement weather or generally expect your camera to withstand being knocked around, then you might want to invest in a DSLR body that’s built to take it.
It’s pretty incredible that most of the cameras in this buyer’s guide can shoot four frames per second or faster—some much faster. Canon’s top-of-the-line EOS-1D X can capture JPEGs at 14 frames per second or RAW at 12 fps. Sure, the Canon retails for almost $7,000, but the $650 Sony NEX-5R can do 10 fps with continuous autofocusing. So, speed is available to you, regardless of your budget. Most photographers don’t really need that speed, though. Unless you shoot a lot of fast action sports, capturing in high-speed bursts means you’ll have a lot more images to organize and store. It’s nice to know you have the horsepower when you need it, but only a handful of subjects actually require it. The lesson here is don’t dismiss a camera you otherwise prefer because of capture rates if you don’t actually need the speed.
5. INTERCHANGEABLE LENSES.
The ability to switch lenses is about more than just covering a focal range. (Many of the premium compact cameras featured in this buyer’s guide have extensive zooms that cover wide to supertele ranges.) Interchangeable-lens cameras not only let you tailor your system to meet your focal-length needs, but also give you the option to choose lenses with other advantages, like a fast maximum aperture or high-end glass. Fixed-lens cameras are just that: fixed. If you’re looking for a compact camera and minimal size is your ultimate concern, then a fixed-lens model may be your first choice; but for the ultimate in creative options, an interchangeable-lens model, whether DSLR or mirrorless, is the better choice.