So, you’re ready to move beyond your smartphone and begin taking pictures with a real camera? That’s a bold move, my friend, and we congratulate you for it. We understand the process of choosing the right camera is daunting in this day and age, with a multitude of options at every price point. If you’re buying your first camera, this guide covers some of the larger questions you’ll encounter on your journey to photographic fulfillment, and hopefully simplify the camera buying process along the way. It isn’t the purpose of this article to tell you which exact model to buy, but simply what you should look for, where you should be looking, and what to avoid.
Do you actually need a standalone camera?
Well, if you’re reading this, then chances are you’re seriously considering a “real” camera, as opposed to a smartphone. However, it’s a good idea to be sure. Today’s modern smartphone can easily capture images that rival entry-level point-and-shoot camera in terms of quality. If you’re not interested in laying down several hundred dollars on a camera, then you shouldn’t expect significant image quality gains over your phone. Expect to spend in the range of $500 to $800 for a high-end compact camera or entry-level interchangeable lens model, while lower-end point-and-shoots are as cheap as $200 or less.
There are also reasons to look at a dedicated camera that go beyond image quality. Smartphones have many limitations when it comes to photography, especially concerning their fixed, wide-angle lenses that make it difficult to shoot far-away subjects or take good closeups. If you’re looking for versatility, even if you don’t need better image quality, then even a low-end digital camera may fit the bill.
What type of camera should you buy?
This is a loaded question, so bear with us. Firstly, ignore megapixels. Instead, focus on the physical size of the imaging sensor; this is what has the biggest impact on image quality and, yes, bigger is better in that regard. With that in mind, there has never been a more diverse landscape of cameras, which is great news provided you can sift through all the noise and find the one you really need. For the sake of simplicity, let’s look at two broad categories: compact and interchangeable lens.
Compact cameras (or point-and-shoots) are a good choice if you want something that’s easy to keep on your person without bogging you down. While some larger-sensor models exist, most are built around small sensors and retractable zoom lenses. If the size of a compact appeals to you but you want to make sure you’re getting better image quality than your phone, look for a camera with at least a 1-inch sensor (Sony RX100 series, Canon G7 X, Panasonic ZS100, etc.). As larger sensors “see” more light, they work much better in low-light situations, where smartphone cameras tend to be miserable. These higher-end compacts also offer full manual control and other advanced features not usually found on cheaper cameras. If beating your phone’s image quality isn’t your concern, then go for a camera with features that fit your needs, like a long zoom lens for shooting wildlife or waterproofing if you want to take a camera snorkeling, for example.
Speaking of zooms, a common misconception is that larger, interchangeable lens cameras can zoom in farther. In fact, the opposite is usually true. With a small sensor, a much longer zoom lens can be fit into a much smaller space. There are point-and-shoots with 20x, 30x, and even 60x zooms that are light enough to hold in one hand. To achieve that kind of zoom power in an interchangeable lens camera is completely infeasible; the longest telephoto lenses that do exist for such systems are fixed focal length (or prime), meaning they do not zoom. They are also huge, weigh many pounds, and cost thousands of dollars.
The real benefits of interchangeable lens cameras (ILCs) are performance and image quality. Built around large sensors, ILCs offer fast autofocus, virtually no shutter lag, and all the manual control you could desire. They are perfect for anyone — from the budding enthusiast, to the student photographer, to the established professional — but, if you’re a pro, you’re likely not reading this article, so we’re going to focus on the beginner crowd. Beyond speed and image quality, ILCs offer tremendous versatility, with lenses tailored to virtually any specific shooting situation. Popular formats, from smaller to larger sensor, include Micro Four Thirds (MFT), APS-C, and full-frame, but all of these are many times larger than what’s in your phone. (Note: Nikon’s 1-series cameras are built around the smaller 1-inch sensor format).
There are two major subcategories of ILC: mirrorless and DSLR (digital single lens reflex). The DSLR is built around the same concept of its film forebear (the SLR, no D). It uses a mirror to direct light from the lens into an optical viewfinder. This adds some bulk and weight to the camera body, hence the reason mirrorless cameras are more compact. Mirrorless cameras also offer a familiar shooting experience for anyone moving up from a smartphone since the LCD screen can be used to frame your shot, rather than relying on an optical viewfinder, as in a DSLR. DSLRs, however, tend to have better battery life and more reliable autofocus when shooting sports or action. Their larger size can also be a benefit when shooting with larger lenses, as the entire system can be better balanced. Also, optical viewfinders appeal more to purists, draw less battery power, and and offer a clear view in any level of lighting.
The downside of ILCs of any type is that they can get quite large and heavy, depending on the model and the lens attached to it. The larger the sensor, the larger the lens needs to be, so if the flexibility of an interchangeable lens system appeals to you but you’d prefer to keep things as compact as possible, look at an MFT or mirrorless APS-C camera. If you really want the best image quality, then go for a full-frame camera. But keep in mind, full-frame bodies and lenses aren’t just bigger, they’re also typically more expensive. (We’re not going to mention medium-format, like the new Hasselblad H6D, since these pro-centric cameras are beyond the reach of most consumers’ wallets.)