When it comes to shopping for electronics, digital cameras are among the more difficult products to purchase. Not only are there dozens of models to choose from, you have a number of different types ranging from pocket-friendly point-and-shoots to advanced D-SLRs and mirrorless cameras with interchangeable lenses. Figuring out the type you want is the first order of business, so you need to ask yourself a few questions: Are you more interested in a camera that requires minimum effort, or is superlative image quality your top priority? What level of zoom do you need? If you’re interested in an interchangeable lens model, are you married to the idea of a bright optical viewfinder, or would you be willing to consider a smaller camera that can change lenses, but handles more like a point-and-shoot?
There are five main classes of cameras to consider when shopping, and we’ll break them down below to help you decide which type of camera will best suit your needs and your budget. You can see our current favorites in the chart above and in the list below.
For Novices and Light Travelers: The Compact Point-and-Shoot
Point-and-shoot cameras are the smallest models you’ll find—and often the easiest to use. Though even the most advanced D-SLRs have fully automatic modes, novices may feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of physical controls. Your average point-and-shoot camera, on the other hand, typically has a few buttons on the back, so you can adjust shooting settings as necessary. Casual snapshooters can benefit from learning just a bit about photography, but the point-and-shoot camera was designed so you don’t have to think too much about what camera settings to use.
When selecting a compact camera, you should pay attention to a few things. The first thought on most minds is the number of megapixels. This isn’t as important a concern as it once was, since pretty much every camera you can buy these days packs enough megapixels to make large prints. Also, a small camera packed with packed with a lot of megapixels (say, 18 MP) is probably going to suffer in low-light shooting situations where you need to use higher ISO settings—so you shouldn’t automatically rule out 12-megapixel cameras like our Editors’ Choice Canon PowerShot N100 because of its sensor resolution. Your best bet is to look at some reviews to see how a particular model performs. We test the image sharpness and the high ISO performance of every camera that comes through the PC Labs.
The next thing you’ll want to look at is the zoom ratio and the focal lengths that the lens covers. Two cameras may each have a 5x zoom lens, but if the first covers a 24-120mm range and the second covers a 35-175mm range, the former will be better for wide-angle shots and the latter will have a bit of telephoto reach. I generally recommend that point-and-shoot users go for a camera with a lens that is at least 25mm wide, like the 25-100mm zoom used by the Fujifilm XQ2$299.00 at Amazon. A wide lens allows for dynamic compositions, and gives you some leeway for setting up group shots. If you go for a compact with a short zoom lens like the XQ2, you can always do a little bit of cropping after the fact for shots that need it.
There are a few other things to consider. You’ll want to get a model with a good-quality LCD, as it’ll serve as your viewfinder. All but the lowest-end models now support image stabilization and HD video, but they are must-haves in today’s world. If you think a point-and-shoot is the way to go, check out The Best Point-and-Shoot Cameras.
For Those Who Want to Get Close to the Action: Superzoom Cameras
Superzoom cameras come in two flavors—compact and standard. For the compact models, you’ll basically want to handle your research just as you would a point-and-shoot. Models like the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS50 offer a 30x zoom factor, but if you need something longer than that, a larger camera like the 65x Canon PowerShot SX60 HS is in order. Big superzooms often look like miniature D-SLRs, and generally include an electronic viewfinder in addition to the rear LCD.
One of the best models of this type we’ve seen actually has a short zoom for its class; the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10$898.00 at Beach Camera sports a 8.3x (24-200mm f/2.8) zoom lens, but its 1-inch image sensor is bigger than you’ll find in standard long zooms. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ1000$747.99 at Beach Camera uses the same size image sensor, but features a longer 16x (25-400mm f/2.8-4) zoom, and Canon’s G3 X$899.00 at Amazon goes further with a 1-inch sensor and a 25-600mm lens. The Olympus Stylus 1$693.99 at Quill.com sits in the middle of the FZ200 and RX10 in zoom range and sensor size; its 28-300mm f/2.8 lens is coupled with a 1/1.7-inch sensor, right in between the typical 1/2.3-inch that you’ll find in most cameras and the 1-inch chip in the RX10.
When shopping for a model with an EVF, you’ll want to pay attention to its clarity and size, as it is much easier to hold the camera steady at your eye than it is at arm’s length. When you’ve zoomed all the way in—many models go beyond 1,000mm—you’ll need all the help you can get to grab a steady shot. The general rule of thumb is that you need a shutter speed of 1/1000 of a second to get a sharp photo at 1,000mm, although good image stabilization will let you get away with longer speed. You’ll still want to look for a model that does well at high ISO settings—the lenses on these cameras don’t let in a ton of light when zoomed in all the way, so upping the ISO to 1600 or 3200 may be necessary to get a sharp telephoto shot in less-than-ideal light.
A large superzoom can be the perfect travel camera. It won’t offer the image quality of an SLR, but it should beat smaller point-and-shoots and compact superzoom models on photo quality. Not having to carry extra lenses will cut the weight, and a lens with such a large zoom factor will ensure that you’re always able to get your shot.
For Those Who Can Afford It: Premium Compacts
With smartphones eating into the lower end of the market, we’ve seen a new beast emerge. It used to be a rare occasion to see a compact camera sell for more than $500, but that’s no longer the case. Sony rocked the world in 2012 with the originalRX100$398.00 at Amazon, a pocket-friendly cam with a 1-inch sensor and a $650 price tag. It sells for much less now (and is still a solid choice if you’re looking for a good camera that won’t break the bank), but its successors, including our current favorite premium compact RX100 III and the RX100 IV$948.00 at Beach Camera, have continued to push the limits of how much a pocket camera can do, and how much one can cost.
There’s also the Panasonic LX100$697.99 at Buydig.com, which is a little bit bigger than the RX100 family, uses a larger Micro Four Thirds sensor and marries it to a short, fast zoom lens. And if you want a fixed-lens zoom with an SLR-sized APS-C image sensor, Leica has you covered with the X Vario$1,899.00 at Amazon, although it’s not one of our favorites. If you want an APS-C sensor in a compact camera, you’re better off going with a model that has a prime (non-zooming) lens.
And if that tickles your fancy, you’ve got options. One of our favorites, the Ricoh GR$559.95 at Amazon, covers a wide 28mm (full-frame equivalent) field of view and is small enough to fit into your pocket. Its sequel, the GR II adds Wi-Fi. If you prefer a slightly tighter field of view it’s also tough to argue with the size, image quality, and excellent optical/electronic hybrid viewfinder offered by the Fujifilm X100T$1,099.00 at Amazon, another Editors’ Choice award winner, which sports an f/2 lens with a 35mm field of view and a hybrid viewfinder.
Leica has a pair of models, the X$2,019.60 at Amazon and the X-E$1,707.89 at Amazon, that cover the 35mm field of view. And Sigma uses a unique Foveon image sensor in its Quattro series that delivers quality on par with medium format systems in a very portable package. Check our our review of the dp2 Quattro$879.00 at Amazon to learn more about it.
There are also a pair of full-frame models on the market which have image sensors that match a 35mm film frame in size. The $3,300 Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1R II has a 35mm f/2 Carl Zeiss lens and a surprisingly small body. And Leica has its Q, which has a 28mm f/1.7 Summilux lens and an integrated elecronic viewfinder.
If you’re the type of photographer who is willing to forgo a zoom lens, and you can find a model that matches your preferred focal length, one of these cameras might be right up your alley. Pros that normally lug around a heavy D-SLR should also take note, as the image quality you can get from these fixed-lens compacts is excellent and can save you from some back pain when you’re shooting for fun.
For SLR-Quality Images Without the Bulk: Mirrorless Compact Interchangeable Lens Cameras
The 2008 launch of the Micro Four Thirds system introduced a new player to the digital camera field—the compact interchangeable lens (or mirrorless compact) camera. It’s a concept that wasn’t exactly new to photography—rangefinder cameras like the Leica M (Typ 240)$6,380.00 at Amazon, a digital camera based on a 35mm system that has had very few changes in design since the 1950s, offer fixed optical viewfinders and a complicated mechanism for focusing based on the distance from your subject. But the initial Olympus and Panasonic Micro Four Thirds cameras were the first mirrorless interchangeable lens bodies to show you the exact view through the lens—this time via the rear LCD.
The mirrorless market has grown by leaps and bounds, and there are now several lens mount systems to consider. Cameras like the Samsung NX500$638.75 at Amazon use APS-C sensors, the same size found in consumer D-SLRs, but lenses aren’t compatible between the two systems. Nikon offers smaller sensors for its 1 mirrorless camera line, which makes it possible to have lenses that are even smaller than Micro Four Thirds. Samsung also has a 1-inch system, with a different mount from its APS-C NX lineup; there’s currently only one model available, the NX Mini. If you need to go even smaller, Pentax put a sensor that is the same size as a point-and-shoot in its Q-S1$249.95 at Amazon camera, a unique approach in this category.
Like Samsung, Sony has two levels of mirrorless cameras, but instead of going smaller for its second system, Sony went big. It has long marketed APS-C cameras under the NEX brand, but has dropped the NEX name for its current batch of APS-C and full-frame mirrorless shooters. Both support E-mount lenses, and you can use APS-C lenses on full-frame cameras and vice versa; the cameras with larger sensors automatically detect a lens that only covers the smaller APS-C chip and performs an in-camera image crop to compensate. There are models to fit every budget, from the entry-level Alpha 3000$399.99 at Target up through the 42-megapixel full-frame Alpha 7R II$3,198.00 at Amazon$1,898.00 at Beach Camera.
When looking for a mirrorless camera, you should ask yourself how many lenses you plan to buy. At this point, Micro Four Thirds is the most complete system in terms of available lenses, but Samsung and Sony are actively adding glass to the NX and E-mount systems. The Nikon 1 and Pentax Q systems have the fewest lenses available, and Canon’s EOS M has jut returned to the U.S. market. Many mirrorless cameras allow you to mount legacy lenses via adapters—you’ll just have to live with manual focus and aperture control. Fujifilm has a strong lineup of lenses for its X system, but also sells an adapter to use Leica M-mount lenses with its cameras, including the excellent X-T1$999.00 at Amazon
Once you’ve settled into a system, the camera should come a bit easier. Entry-level models generally handle just like a point-and-shoot—you frame images with the rear LCD, which is hinged on some models, so you can focus with the camera above your head or at waist level. Most zoom lenses are manual, so you’ll have to adjust the focal length by hand, but some operate electronically, just like a compact camera. If you want an eye-level electronic viewfinder, look for a model that supports one via an accessory port—like the Olympus PEN E-PL7$399.00 at Amazon—or a model that has the finder built-in, like the Olympus OM-D E-M10$449.00 at Amazon. You’ll also want to take a look to see if the physical controls suit your needs—lower-end models tend to be designed more like point-and-shoots, while the upper echelon of cameras handle more like D-SLRs with plenty of control buttons.
As mentioned above, some mirrorless cameras have sensors that are smaller than D-SLRs, so you’ll want to see how a particular model performs at higher ISO settings. Some can keep up with larger cameras, but others cannot. You’ll also want to take a look at the camera’s speed—most deliver decent burst shooting of around 3 frames per second, but autofocus speed can be a concern. Lower end models use contrast detect focus. That technology is getting faster as the image processors that run cameras do, but it’s not as fast as phase detect focus. We’re starting to see phase detection built into image sensors, like it is on the Sony Alpha 6000 and the Samsung NX1, which is helping to close the gap between mirrorless and D-SLR focus performance.
For more, take a look at The Best Mirrorless Cameras.
For Traditionalists Who Want the Ultimate in Shooting Control and Image Quality: Digital SLRs
And then there’s the Digital SLR. Mirrorless models have been making strides to bridge what was once a wide performance gap, but for many pro photographers there’s just no substitute for an SLR. These cameras are bigger, heavier, and more expensive than others—and while they don’t outperform mirrorless bodies by as wide a margin as they had in the past, they still do rule the world when it comes to lens selection, especially if you invest in a Canon or Nikon system.
Like a compact interchangeable lens camera, you’ll have to stick to lenses that are compatible with a specific camera. And while you’ll have the largest number of lenses to choose from if you opt for a camera from one of the big two, both Sony and Pentax also have quite a number of lens choices for their A-mount and K-mount systems. Chances are that, as a first time D-SLR buyer, your camera will come with a kit lens from the manufacturer—but if you have a very specific optic in mind, it’s best to make sure that it’s available in the lens mount you desire, and at a price you’re willing to pay.
SLR sensors come in two sizes; if you’re looking at a camera that’s priced at less than $1,500 it will likely have an APS-C sensor, which has less than half the surface area of a 35mm film frame. High-end enthusiast and pro models use full-frame sensors, which closely match the 24-by-36mm dimensions of the Kodachrome of days gone by. Each system has its strengths: APS-C wins on price, it can use lighter lenses that don’t offer enough coverage to be used with a full-frame camera, and photographers who often shoot at extreme telephoto distances appreciate the cropped field of view that appears to give legacy lenses longer reach.
If you can get your hands on a camera before buying it, you should. Each manufacturer has a slightly different way of doing things—for example, you may find yourself comfortable with the controls on a Canon, but not on a Nikon, or vice versa. Another aspect to check out in person is the camera’s viewfinder. Entry-level SLRs like the Nikon D3300$496.95 at Dell generally use pentamirror finders, which are not as large or as bright as the pentaprisms installed in pricier D-SLRs like the Canon 7D Mark II. The Pentax K-50$293.85 at Amazon is one of the only inexpensive SLRs to sport a pentaprism finder—it’s also the only one that you’ll find for less than $500 that boasts full weather sealing.
Sony is the odd man out when talking about viewfinders—all of its D-SLRs, including the top-end APS-C Alpha 77 II$848.00 at Amazon and the full-frameAlpha 99$1,998.00 at Beach Camera, use electronic viewfinders. This is because they have fixed mirrors that don’t move while shooting—it speeds up autofocus and burst shooting speed, but precludes the use of an optical finder. Whether or not you’ll be happy with an EVF is a personal preference—some shooters are very happy with them, others will settle for nothing less than an optical finder.
Most APS-C D-SLRs ship with an 18-55mm kit lens with a zoom factor that’s roughly equivalent to the 28-80mm models that shipped with consumer film SLRs in the past. Some midrange models ship with an 18-135mm (28-200mm equivalent), which gives you a longer zoom ratio. A good second lens to consider is a “fast normal”—a fixed focal length lens that isn’t too wide, isn’t too long, and can let in enough light to blur the background and shoot in poorer light. On an APS-C camera, a 35mm f/2 lens is just about perfect for this. If you’re willing to spend a bit more on an upgraded zoom, consider the excellent Sigma 18-35mm F1.8 DC HSM$799.00 at Amazon or the Sigma 17-70mm F2.8-4 DC Macro OS HSM$399.00 at Beach Camera, both of which are available for most APS-C camera systems. You can consult our list of The Best D-SLR Lenses for more ideas on how to expand the versatility of your camera.
Full-frame cameras are heavier and more expensive, but they make up for it with big image sensors and viewfinders to match. They’re capable of capturing photos with extremely shallow depth of field—which blurs the background behind your subject—and if you have lenses from an old 35mm film SLR they’ll cover the same field of view as they do with film.
If you buy a higher-end APS-C camera or a full-frame D-SLR, you’ll have the option of buying it as a body only—that is, without a lens. This lets you choose which lens best suits your style. Some full-frame cameras are available with a bundled zoom lens, but it’s of much higher quality than the low-end 18-55mm kit zoom. You’ll be able to save a few hundred dollars by buying a Canon EOS 6D$1,399.00 at Dell with a 24-105mm or a Nikon D610$1,496.95 at Beach Camera with a 24-85mm when compared with purchasing them separately. Pro bodies like the Nikon D810$3,296.95 at Dell and the Canon EOS-1D X$4,599.00 at Amazon are not available with bundled lenses.
If you think a D-SLR is the right type of camera for you, read more in How to Buy a Digital SLR. If you want to set your sights high on a full-frame SLR, you can find reviews of the top models we’ve tested in The Best Full-Frame S-D-SLRs.