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From DSLR to mirrorless and compact, here’s how to choose a digital camera

When Eastman Kodak unveiled the Brownie camera in 1900, it was a cardboard box with a lens and a roll of film. As basic as it was, it was revolutionary in democratizing photography. In those days, buying a camera was simple. Fast-forward more than a century later, and modern cameras are so diverse and so advanced that buying one is akin to shopping for a car.

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Like cars, there are a ton of choices, but nailing one down that’s right for you is another challenge, especially if you’re buying one online or from a big box store with less than helpful clerks. Whether you are looking to buy an entry-level point-and-shoot for your kids or the top-of-the-line digital SLR with the latest bells and whistles for yourself, it’s definitely not a one-model-fits-all kind of decision. Prices can start as low as $100 and climb as high as several thousand. Even at a single price point, you’ll find numerous types of cameras with different models from various manufacturers, and being able to tell one from the next isn’t always easy.

Related: Check our our picks for the best digital cameras, if you’re in need of a new shooter

It’s in your best interest to do a little research to find out exactly what you are looking for. It can be daunting, but never fear: Our ultimate digital camera shopping guide will help point you in the right direction. Designed for new camera buyers and those looking to step up to an advanced model, we’ve broken this guide down to the questions most-often asked by consumers.

What are the different types of cameras?

What type of camera should you buy? In general, there are three types of digital cameras: compact/point-and-shoot, mirrorless interchangeable lens, and digital SLRs (DSLRs). (There are other specialty cameras, but for the purpose of this guide, we will concentrate on these three.) The good news: Everything falls more easily into place once this key question is answered, as it narrows down your choices quite a bit.

Point-and-shoot models

Point-and-shoot cameras run the gamut: they can be compact shooters that are affordable, simple to use, and pocket-size portable, or more robust pro models with longer zooms, better sensors, or full manual exposure controls.

While some entry-level point-and-shoots can be found in the $100-$200 range, these typically won’t offer image quality that’s noticeably better than a modern smartphone. They will, however, offer features phones usually don’t have. Look for optical image stabilization, zoom lenses, and Wi-Fi connectivity.

Compact megazooms and standard megazooms start at around $200 and can go up to $500 or more. Megazooms are so named for their long zoom lenses, which start at a wide-angle and zoom in to a long telephoto (they are also known long-zoom or super-zoom). This gives you a lot of shooting flexibility in a relatively compact package. The bigger and more expensive megazooms, also known as bridge cameras, offer longer lenses and are full-featured models with DSLR-style bodies. Note, though, that many of these models still have the shooting performance and photo quality of a compact camera, due to their small sensors.

For better quality, an advanced compact is the way to go. Look to cameras that use a 1″-type sensor, which start around $500 but can cost as much as $1,500. These bigger sensors record more light than the smaller units found in cheaper point-and-shoots (and phones, for that matter) and produce higher quality images as a result. The downside is that a larger sensor makes everything else about the camera, from the body to the lens, also larger, although engineers have figured out ways to keep things as compact as possible. You may have to sacrifice zoom power or accept a rather sizable camera if you want the best image quality. Sony started the 1-inch sensor craze with its RX100 series, and other manufacturers have followed suit.

Mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras

This category of cameras offers superior image quality, more creative options, and faster performance than point-and-shoots, but they also come with a higher price tag.

When we used to talk about interchangeable lens cameras, it meant one thing: DSLR. Today, mirrorless cameras offer a popular and, in some cases, better alternative. So named because they have removed the bulky mirror and optical viewfinder systems of DSLRs, mirrorless cameras allow for smaller, lighter weight designs – not to mention a blend of ease-of-use and advanced shooting. Early mirrorless cameras were marred by slow performance, but they’ve since caught up to rival DSLRs in most aspects.

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There are different formats of mirrorless camera employed by different brands. Panasonic and Olympus share the Micro Four Thirds format, meaning you can use Panasonic lenses on an Olympus camera and vice versa. Fujifilm uses the larger APS-C sensor for its X-series, and Sony makes mirrorless cameras with both APS-C and even larger full-frame (35mm) sensors. Canon and Nikon are heavyweights in DSLRs, although they, too, offer mirrorless options. All of these ILC cameras allow you to attach a huge variety of lenses, ranging from wide angles suitable for landscape photography to long telephoto zooms for sports and wildlife.

Prices for mirrorless models start at around $500 and can go up to several thousand (Hasselblad introduced the first mirrorless medium-format camera, which can cost more than $10,000). Typically, models with larger sensors are more expensive, although this is not always the case. As with compact cameras, the larger the sensor, the larger the camera. Micro Four Thirds will therefore offer a good balance of image quality and size, while APS-C and full frame cameras will provide better image quality in a larger overall package.

DSLR cameras

DSLRs cover the same price range as mirrorless cameras, although the very top-of-the-line models push up into the range of $6,500, well beyond any consumer-oriented mirrorless camera. They won’t necessarily offer better image quality or more versatility than a mirrorless model, but they do have some other benefits. By and large, professional photographers still prefer DSLRs even as mirrorless cameras have made considerable advances in recent years, particularly those who have invested money in lenses. This comes down to a few key features.

First, autofocus performance is generally faster and much better at tracking moving subjects. For action and sports photography, a DSLR still can’t be beat – although mirrorless cameras are getting closer.

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Second, for many photographers, there’s simply no substitute for a good ol’ optical viewfinder. Optical viewfinders provide a clear view of your subject in any lighting conditions, and don’t have any image lag as do electronic viewfinders on mirrorless cameras. Again, this is especially handy when shooting fast-moving subjects.

Third, DSLRs, mostly thanks to their optical viewfinder, have significantly better battery life than mirrorless cameras. Even professional-level mirrorless cameras top out around 400 shots per charge. A good DSLR can push 1,000 shots. For long shoots, camping trips, or any other time when charging a battery may be impractical, a DSLR has the advantage.

Finally, there’s build quality. While many mirrorless cameras today offer weather sealing and solid construction, nothing beats a high-end DSLR for ultimate ruggedness. Keep in mind, though, that we’re talking about cameras in the $2,000-and-up price range here, so that durability comes at a cost.

The biggest downside of a DSLR is the bulk. Compared to mirrorless cameras, DSLRs are bigger and heavier (although, depending on the lens used, mirrorless cameras can get up there in weight, too). They also tend to perform slower in live view mode (where the image is framed on the LCD screen instead of through the optical viewfinder). This can make them worse off for video shooting compared to a mirrorless camera, although certain models, like Canon’s EOS 80D, are quite good in this regard.

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