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.
6. SYSTEM & ACCESSORIES.
Whichever camera you choose, accessories like flash, lens adapters, microphones, GPS and more can make a big difference in not only the quality of your images and video, but also the pleasure of taking photos. It’s worth looking at the system accessories offered by the manufacturer for the cameras you’re considering (and at third-party options compatible with your system, too).
What started as a high-end feature on top DSLRs is now practically ubiquitous. Even entry-level cameras today can capture HD video, and many with sophisticated options like the ability to control frame rates for a cinematic look. One big difference to keep in mind, however, is sound. Great video imagery becomes nearly impossible to watch if the sound is distractingly bad. If video is an important feature to you, choose a camera that has a stereo input for auxiliary mics so you can choose the right microphone for your recording environment. (To learn more about microphone types and when to choose them, see our DSLR Microphone Guide: www.dpmag.com/mics.)
8. IMAGE QUALITY.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a digital camera from any of the major makers today that doesn’t deliver sharp, beautiful shots. Still, it’s worth mentioning that size does matter. All else being equal, the larger the sensor and larger the pixels, the better the image quality, especially in low light. Larger pixels are able to collect more light for a better signal-to-noise ratio. A corollary to this is that more megapixels doesn’t necessarily translate into better images. Take two APS-C-sized sensors, one 12 MP and the other 18 MP. To fit the extra 6 MP on the same-sized sensor, the pixels have to get smaller—something to consider.
While the large monitors on the back of your camera are great for reviewing images, they’re not always ideal when shooting. Many are actually quite difficult to use in bright outdoor conditions, making an eye-level viewfinder essential. If you shoot mostly indoors under controlled lighting, this may not be an issue, but most photographers are going to want the option of a viewfinder. All DSLRs have them, as do some mirrorless and fixed-lens compacts (though viewfinders are much rarer in the latter two categories). However, many mirrorless models offer an optional viewfinder that docks in the camera’s hot-shoe. You’re probably going to want one.
I saved this for last, because while important, this is the most subjective of all of the camera characteristics we’ve considered. My hands are bigger or smaller than your hands, and that affects how comfortable a camera is to hold. The arrangement of buttons and control dials may fit me like a glove but seem misplaced to you. The only way you’re going to know for sure whether you’ll find using a camera to be a pleasure or a pain is to go handle it in person. And please be considerate of your local camera shop—if you use their staff time to help guide you to finding the right gear, at least give them a shot at making the sale rather than going straight to Google to find the cheapest price. You may save a few bucks online, but probably not enough to outweigh the benefit of having the knowledge and support of your local camera retailer.
Power! The Li-ion batteries used in most digital cameras are really good, providing at least a few hundred shots between charges. However, if you do a lot of traveling where access to recharging isn’t always easy, consider one of the cameras that can accept common AA batteries, either as the primary power s
ource or via an optional grip. We also recommend owning at least one spare battery for your camera system.