Which camera should I buy?
You’ve been asking yourself “which camera should I buy” but how do you choose a camera when there are so many on the market? Cameras today are so advanced and diverse that buying one can be daunting experience. Back when I started photography I’d have loved someone to tell me which camera to buy but the truth is it’s not a one-model-fits all decision. So this guide is designed to point you in the right direction. Right then, where do you start?
Why do you want a camera?
It seems like a bonkers question, but make sure you know the answer to this question before you start exploring the internet, it’ll help you from taking the wrong turn.
For example, you might be heading away on holiday? If so, you’ll probably want a camera that’s small and lightweight for travel, yet powerful and flexible enough to capture a range of experiences. Do you lead a fairly active lifestyle? A tough camera or one with a solid build would be sensible – just so your investment lasts! Or maybe you’re thinking of taking photography more seriously? In which case, you should be considering a camera that can grow with you, allowing you to switch lenses and learn new features over time. That said, you might not need to buy a new camera at all – you might be a parent spending a lot of time with your family and enjoy taking everyday shots of your kids? In this instance your camera phone might be all you really need.
Once you’ve given this some thought I’d encourage you to consider three main things: how much creative control over things like exposure and lens choice you’d like, your expectations of image quality, and what you’ll be doing with your images once you’ve taken them.
Have the answers to these questions in mind as you move through the next sections…
What types of cameras are there?
There are a ton of different types of cameras, from little point-and-shoots to big fancy DSLRs. Let’s take a look at the different types …
1. Smartphone Cameras (Point & Shoot)
Most of us already own a pretty decent camera in the form of a smartphone but knowing when a dedicated camera provides an actual benefit over our phones can be really difficult to determine.
In terms of image quality, phone cameras are improving all of the time and the sensor size is challenging (if not out-running) the compact point & shoot devices. The internet is littered with articles reporting the superiority of smartphones like the iPhone 11/12 Pro, Google Pixel 4/5 and the Huawei P30/P40 Pro which makes you wonder if smartphones will replace the entry level compacts altogether?
Advantages: Camera phones are easy to use and always with you, giving you incredible convenience to shoot anytime, anywhere! The camera phone pretty much made photo sharing a “thing”. Now it’s easier than ever to take a shot and almost instantly get it in front of your chosen audience online.
Drawbacks: Smartphones don’t give you full manual control of your camera. Whilst most devices let you make basic adjustments, they largely operate on automatic mode which (in my opinion) stifles creativity and will limit your understanding of how a photograph is actually made. The limitations in lens and zoom capabilities adds further weight to this point. Also keeping up with smartphones to obtain the best features might be too much of a reoccurring cost, not to mention you’ll probably find smart phones are battery guzzlers (especially since we use them for so many other things.)
This camera is for you if: You want to develop your photographer’s eye and only require simple point and shoot capability, keep a visual record of your life and seamlessly share your shots without too much faff. You also don’t want to enlarge or print the images you’ve taken and only intend to store and archive your images electronically.
2. Compact Camera (Entry Level Point & Shoot)
There’s a broad range of options to choose from, spanning from simple point & shoot to premium compacts. But with smartphone photography becoming more viable, the cheap lower end compacts have a tough job proving their worth.
Advantages: Easy, menu based introduction to photography basics and controls. Entry-level models are as cheap as chips.
Drawback: Improvement in image quality is negligible over smartphones.
This camera is for you if: You have a standard smartphone and don’t intend upgrading it anytime soon. Instead you’re after something lightweight and portable with a few more camera controls (but nothing too fancy) with a slightly improved ability to zoom.
3. Bridge or Hybrid Cameras and Premium Compacts
The term “bridge” simply means bridging the gap between lower end compact cameras and DSLRs e.g. a camera which specialises in trying to provide the advantages of both DSLRs and point & shoot cameras with as few of the disadvantages as possible. In 2020, the term makes less sense as what some people call bridge cameras others would call newer premium compacts. I tend to call both “hybrids” as arguably both deserve to be identified as cameras with excellent creative control but without the expensive price tag. These cameras have simple auto settings (but better than low-end compacts) and if you like being able to tweak the settings (e.g. including aperture priority, shutter priority, and program modes), you have those options too.
If you don’t want the fuss of having to change lenses but still want a big adjustable reach in terms of zoom, then a hybrid camera could be the answer. Still providing reasonably large sensors and manual settings, they are a great in-between choice for those transitioning to a manual camera.
Advantages: A great way of getting a lot more options without spending too much and because there is no need for extra lenses so your investment doesn’t grow exponentially. Like entry level compacts the menus are set up to guide you through the camera settings without any prior camera knowledge.
Drawbacks: If you are looking to get serious about photography though, expect to grow out of a hybrid at some point, particularly because you can’t change lenses. Also some makes/models trade big sensors for smaller zooms and vice versa so try finding a happy medium or consider whether zoom reach or image quality is more important to you.
This camera is for you if: You want DSLR controls without the DSLR budget. It’s a good choice for beginners that aren’t quite ready to dive into the DSLR market yet.
4. DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex)
When you think of a big, fancy, expensive camera, you’re probably picturing a DSLR camera.
If you’re an advanced beginner or enthusiast photographer, a DSLR is really the best option given that it offers many features that the other cameras in this guide don’t.
Chief among those features are a larger sensor with greater resolution, advanced camera controls, and interchangeable lenses that give you better image sharpness and a range of focal lengths from ultra wide-angle to super-telephoto. The most important asset of the lens is however the glass, so the better quality of the lens, the better quality of the final image created (this is because the lens is what collects light from your scene)
Image Credit: Tech Radar
Naturally, having the capability of swapping out lenses makes DSLRs much more versatile. And here’s the great news: With DSLRs, there are so many kinds of high quality lenses out there that you have plenty of options when it comes to getting variety and getting creative with your photography. I’ll talk more about lenses in another guide, another time.
With that greater versatility comes a greater ability for you to put your photography knowledge to the test and practice the composition and exposure etc. skills you’ve learned. What’s more, DSLRs have an improved ability to perform in low-light situations with ISO ranges that can extend to well beyond ISO 25600.
Advantages: DSLRs offer interchangeable lenses and larger sensors, both of which give you the ability to take better photos.
Drawbacks: Their price, size and weight will put some people off.
This camera is for you if: You want to invest in photography long term using a camera with all the bells and whistles. This is a great option if you want to do something with your images other than posting them to social media – you can create prints with excellent quality too.
5. Action Cameras
Action cams are small, mountable cameras geared towards sports and adventure photography, and for photographers looking to use the mountable function to bring a unique perspective to their shots. Action cams are primarily used to capture video, but they also let you create image stills and time lapses.
Advantage: Fun features allowing you to take stills and videos in places your primary shooting gear just can’t go.
Drawbacks: The camera settings are pretty limited, and your ability to adjust those few settings is fairly restrictive as well.
The camera for you if: You are specifically looking to create action cam-style shots and videos and aren’t looking for a substitute for a proper camera
6. Mirrorless Cameras
Mirrorless cameras are all the rage right now, and if you ask a lot of photographers, they’ll tell you that mirrorless is the future of digital photography.
Image Credit: Future
The great thing about mirrorless cameras is that they have the full manual controls and interchangeable lenses that you get with a DSLR but in smaller body. This is because without a mirror, mirrorless cameras don’t need as much heft and bulk meaning you get the best of both worlds – the versatility of a DSLR in the size of a bridge or compact camera. That said, depending on the make and model the size can be negligible once you take into account the size of the lens you are using and potentially any adaptor rings (if you are mounting old lenses onto a new camera body).
Advantages: All the features of a DSLR in a compact camera body with typically better focussing systems.
Drawbacks: Costly and have a limited selection of lenses compared to DSLRs.
This camera is for you if: You are a serious hobbyist or professional wanting to take advantage of the latest technology. If you are specifically looking for models with all of the features but with significantly less bulk than the DSPR counterpart then most Micro Four Thirds cameras (a subset of mirrorless) will fit the bill.
Which camera brand should I invest in?
There are so many brands out there, and each one claims to be the best with a band of devoted followers arguing on their behalf. So let’s take a brief look at them.
1. Canon and Nikon
You’ll be forgiven for thinking that the two major manufacturers of DSLRs are Canon and Nikon. Whilst this was true ten years ago, things have changed recently.
Almost half of the 14.8 million cameras sold last year were from Canon, compared to just 2.9 million sold by its nearest rival – SONY! Canon is still the undisputed champion of the camera industry, with a huge 45.4% share of the global camera market – which is greater than the shares of Sony (20.2%), Nikon (18.6%) and Fujifilm (4.7%) combined. Read more here.
Numbers aside all of these manufacturers make cameras along the entire spectrum, from point-and-shoots to high end DSLRs. But choosing a Canon or Nikon camera you’ll find the widest selection of compatible lenses and accessories (both brand name and 3rd party compatibles). Canon and Nikon both build robust cameras that function well, and each have their own pros and cons. It’s generally agreed that Nikons have better build quality and focusing, while Canon has a better selection of lenses. Your best bet in choosing will probably come in trying out each brand, and seeing which ones feels better to you. But be warned once you jump into one camp it’s extremely costly to switch later if you’ve invested in different lenses.
2. Other Brands
Sony is most aggressively pursuing the mirrorless market, and is now a serious competitor to the Canon domination. The cameras they offer have some innovative features that seem ahead of where Canon and Nikon are, and at cheaper prices. They’ve also developed a pretty competitive line up of lenses.
Fuji is another brand offering excellent quality mirrorless cameras and in terms of Micro Four Thirds Panasonic, Olympus are your only options.
When it comes to compact and hybrid cameras, it seems as though every manufacturer has their hand in that competitive market so if you are interested in one brand name shouldn’t play as big a role in your purchasing decision.
Finally, GoPro and Sony make the most popular action cams on the market. But I’ve recently heard about Yi 4K, a Chinese action cam brand, that offers excellent quality for nearly half the price!
You can find more information on brands here.
How much should I spend on a camera?
Prices for new cameras range from a couple hundred to a few thousand pounds, with numerous brands and models at each tier along the way, so it’s about finding your price!
Ideally, you don’t have to spend a fortune to find the camera that is right for you, but you really do get what you pay for. It’s important to consider what you need, though: Many models that are priced higher are loaded with features that you might never use, but will give you room to grow into if you plan on pursuing photography as a passion or profession.
If you are on a limited budget, say £250 or less, really think about whether you need a standalone camera at all. If you buy one, make sure you need it for a specific purpose (zoom lens, waterproofing, etc.) with features your smartphone doesn’t have, and don’t expect significant image quality gains.
If your budget is a little higher (£600-£800) but you want to stick with something simple, Digital Trends recommends an advanced hybrid compact camera with a 1-inch-type sensor.
Should you decide fast response and better quality are what you need, or are interested in photography as a hobby or profession, it’s possibly time to purchase a mirrorless camera or DSLR. Entry-level models start around £500, while more expensive options (£1.2K+ body only) provide more room to grow into.
As for mirrorless options, you are looking at entry level prices between £500-£800 in comparison to “the best you can get” ranging between £2.5K – £4.2K.
It’s worth knowing that with DSLRs and mirrorless cameras many enthusiasts often put more money into their lenses than the camera body itself. With this in mind you could consider getting a second hand model and saving some money to put into the glass. I’d recommend Wex Photo and MPB for reputable used/refurbished devices.
Overall an expensive camera won’t make you a better photographer. It’s all about finding the camera that’s right for you.
Which camera features are important?
Modern cameras are packed with features but which ones really matter when choosing a camera?
1. Shooting Modes
Entry level point & shoot cameras offer a huge variety of shooting modes, but all of them are just takes on the basic automatic mode. In automatic mode, the camera selects aperture, shutter speed and ISO for you and full manual mode allows you to take full creative control over the exposure of an image. If you’re not ready to turn autopilot off quite yet but think you might want to try your hand at flying in the future, look for a camera that offers manual (M) control.
In very basic terms, ISO is a camera setting that will brighten or darken a photo. As you increase your ISO number, your photos will grow progressively brighter meaning you can shoot in darker conditions. Look for cameras that offer ISO 1600 or higher. Top level cameras can shoot as high as 106,000! However, raising your ISO has consequences. A photo taken at too high ISO will show a lot of grain, also known as noise, and might not be usable.
3. Mega Pixels
Megapixels (MP) are a measure of the resolution of a camera. The greater the number of megapixels, the larger the high quality, sharp print you can make. But, megapixels are just one part of the story – the quality of a camera is decisively influenced by the sensor quality, not only by its Megapixel resolution.
According to Digital Trends for typical 4×6 inch and 5×7 inch prints you only need 4MP to get good results! And a 8MP camera will easily make 8×10 inch prints. With 20MP you will be able to create super high quality 12×18 inch prints.
A big thing to consider when purchasing a camera is how it feels in your hands. You’ll be holding your camera a lot, so get a good feel for it before you decide to buy! In particular consider size, weight, durability and accessible menus. The camera you buy should offer quick accessibility to the most commonly used functions, and menus (whether touchscreen or using dials) should be simply structured, logical, and easy to learn.
Image Credit (Left): Jeff David King
5. Image Processing Formats
Some cameras have the capability to save images in either RAW or JPEG format. Others will be limited to the JPEG format only. The difference between the two is that the raw format records all the information captured by the sensor and allows you the most flexibility when it comes to post processing (especially when correcting mistakes!). Whereas, JPEG will compress the image into a smaller file and discard some of the data.
Almost all DSLRs, Micro Four Thirds, and mirrorless cameras can shoot in the raw format (as well as in JPEG format). Very few compact point & shoot cameras, or camera phones, have the option to shoot in RAW and are instead simply limited to the JPEG format. Bear in mind that if you’re serious about photography you’ll definitely want RAW capability.
Here’s a good article explaining the difference in more detail.
6. Interchangeable Lenses
Digital Trends explain this point perfectly “There are several attributes that differentiate a camera from good to great, and the lens is perhaps the most important one. A camera that lets you swap lenses gives you different creative options to choose from. While some point-and-shoot cameras on the high-end have very good optics, they can’t compete with the versatility of interchangeable lenses.
Most DSLRs and mirrorless cameras are typically sold with a basic kit lens. This short zoom is compact and convenient, but it doesn’t really demonstrate the potential of the camera. You can spend a small fortune on a variety of lenses from wide-angle to telephoto. Changing a lens literally changes your perspective, and choosing one is such a large topic (another one for another day)!
First-time camera buyers often ask if, say, Canon lenses can be used on a Nikon camera. In general, you cannot cross brands — at least without using third-party adapters and sacrificing some performance. The exception to this is Micro Four Thirds, where both Panasonic and Olympus make lenses that can be mounted on either brands’ cameras.
There are also third-party manufacturers, like Sigma and Tamron, that make lenses in different mounts to fit Canon, Nikon, Sony, and other brands.”
7. Auto Focussing
Your camera will focus on whatever is behind the chosen AF (focus) point and how well this is achieved can mean the difference between a sharp photo and a missed opportunity. So when you are thinking about which camera to buy here’s what you should do:
Turn the camera on, and look through the viewfinder or the LCD screen. Press the shutter release halfway down to activate the autofocus system, and focus on something in the frame. Pay attention to quickly the camera focuses? Does it focus accurately? Try focusing on something close to you, then something far away, and then close again. If the camera is slow to focus as you change what you’re looking at, or has difficulty focusing on the right thing, then you may want to look for another camera.
When you see something worth capturing, you need to be able to focus quickly and accurately. If your camera can’t keep up, you’re going to keep missing your shots and get frustrated.
Image Credit: Lifewire
8. Image Stabilisation
Image stabilisation refers to a number of techniques used to obtain sharp, blur-free images. They can be found in both camera bodies and lenses. This is especially useful for low light shooting or long-zoom lenses which can be hard to hold steady. Images that display camera shake blur are not ones that can be corrected in post processing. Devices with stabilisation will however come with a slightly higher price tag.
9. Speed and Performance
Digital Trends recommends looking for a camera with at least 5 frames per second (fps), but you may need more if you’ve got kids who play sports or the like. At the same time, don’t be drawn in by marketing alone — a camera advertising 10-20 fps sounds exciting, but few people have an actual need for that much speed.
An optical viewfinder (with eye cups) certainly has its advantages, and photography enthusiasts still prefer them over using an LCD screen. They are all but necessary in bright sunlight when an LCD screen may be washed out, and can also just help you focus on the photograph and ignore external distractions.
Optical viewfinders provide the clearest possible image and don’t drain the battery. Comparatively, electronic viewfinders offer benefits like being able to see the effect of your exposure and color settings while shooting, you can zoom in to check focus, and you can display all sorts of other information.
You might also want to consider a flip screen which will give you more flexibility when setting up selfies and shooting in confined spaces, higher or lower angles and even around corners!!
11. Additional Features
Most cameras have some other nifty, though less essential, features. These can be really fun to experiment with and can make the camera more enjoyable to use, but they probably won’t be what makes or breaks your purchasing decision. If by doing your research you are still finding it a difficult decision then take a deeper delve into the detail and also consider video capabilities, Wifi connectivity and flash options for when you find yourself in low light situations.
Check out this article by The Verge on the key features of a camera – it’s slightly old now (so ignore the conclusion) but it explains everything really well.
Which Camera? The Bottom Line
So, which camera should you go for? This will depend on what you are trying to achieve in your photographs. It also depends on how much money you’re willing or able to spend.
You will probably find that smartphones will continue to dictate the market but whilst the sensor size is challenging the entry level compact cameras they won’t be replacing DLSRs or mirrorless anytime soon. Low light image quality, convincing bokeh effects and extreme close-up macro photography are all still significantly better on a dedicated camera, usually as a result of its large sensor size and zoom capability/availability of different lenses.
Finally, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting a camera that helps you on automatic modes though but if you think you have a long-term interest in photography be sure to select something that can grow with you as you develop more photography skills. That said I’m not sure I’d recommend a mirrorless camera to a first time buyer – if this is you, try before you buy!
I used a number of references to help me compile this guide. I’ve also included a number of reputable links which can help you with specific reviews on the best makes/models of 2020/21. Take a look in greater detail below:
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