I've long said that one of the most confusing aspects of photography for beginners, heck - even enthusiasts - the sheer number of cameras that are available on the market today.
It's not just that there are tons of brands out there, but it's that within each brand there are dozens of models in each segment from smartphones to entry-level DSLRs to mid-range mirrorless cameras to pro-spec full frame cameras.
The key to sifting through all the information and details about today's cameras is to do so in an organized fashion.
By framing the discussion of "What camera should I buy?" into the context of "What are the different types of cameras available?" will be very helpful.
With that in mind, let's take a look at a number of segments of cameras, each one for a different type of budget and a different level of expertise.
Are mobile phones as good as a full-fledged DSLR or mirrorless camera? No.
But are they as good as many compact and point-and-shoot cameras? You bet!
Smartphone cameras have seen significant gains over the last few years. Combined with advancing technology in terms of low-light performance, camera apps, and post-processing apps, your phone is a pretty powerful little camera.
Sure, the zoom is still terrible and the images your phone takes won't be high enough resolution to create enormous prints, but if you're just starting out in photography and want a capable camera that's easy to use and allows you to post your images to social media, there's really nothing better than your smartphone.
What's more, you likely have your phone with you all the time, which makes it an excellent learning tool for photography.
Just pull out your phone when the mood strikes, and you can put your photography chops to the test both quickly and easily.
I won't get into the discussion of whether iOS or Android phones are better (both offer phenomenal cameras), but what I will say is that if you are trying to decide whether your smartphone is good enough or if you should get a basic compact camera, save your money and keep shooting with your phone.
Best Feature: It's always with you!
Worst Feature: Optical zoom is terrible.
This camera is for you if: You want to develop your photographer's eye, practice new photography skills, or tackle general photography from landscapes to portraits and everything in between.
Learn more about the best smartphone cameras as of this writing in the video below by SuperSaf TV:
If you feel like your smartphone just has too many limitations for you to continue using it as your primary camera, a natural step up would be to a basic compact camera.
These cameras might not get you images that are more detailed or with better resolution, but what they do offer over a smartphone is a built-in zoom lens that allows you to get up close to subjects with improved image quality over what you can get with the zoom on your smartphone.
Granted, the image quality still isn't what you can get with a DSLR or mirrorless camera with an interchangeable lens. This is partly due to the lens on less expensive compact cameras, which are usually cheap and don't produce the sharpest images.
But image quality is also degraded because many compact cameras have very small sensors, usually around 1/2.3 inches.
With such a small sensor - which isn't much bigger than what your phone's camera has - you really won't see a massive improvement in the resolution of your images.
But, compact cameras like the Canon Powershot G15 shown above typically have more controls for you to manipulate things like the focus point, exposure settings, and color, and they are just about as easy to carry as a smartphone.
Compact cameras in this range can also be found for less than $250, so they aren't too hard on your pocketbook, either.
Best Feature: Improved zoom over what's available on smartphones.
Worst Feature: Improvement in image quality is negligible over smartphones.
This camera is for you if: You want a few more camera controls and an improved ability to zoom.
Learn more about a few of the best compact cameras available in the video below by The Verge:
But basic compact cameras aren't the only type of compact.
If you have a little more money, you can opt for something with a few more features and a much better zoom if you opt for something in the long-zoom compact segment.
Long-zoom compacts are called such because they have a much-improved zoom over their basic compact camera cousins.
Where a basic compact camera might have a 5x zoom, long-zoom compact cameras typically have a 30x zoom, which obviously gets you much closer to your subject.
The beauty of long-zoom compacts is that they are still incredibly small and easy to carry - they can fit in your pocket - but they have the expanded range to get you everything from wide shots of landscapes to tightly framed close-ups of distant subjects.
Many long-zoom compacts still have tiny sensors, but newer entrants have larger 1-inch sensors, like the Panasonic Lumix TZ110 shown above.
That means the images you take with a long-zoom compact will have a higher resolution, though when zoomed in there is still a noticeable degradation in image quality versus what you can get with a full-fledged DSLR.
Nevertheless, with some cameras in this segment coming with RAW shooting capabilities, manually adjustable exposure controls, and gorgeous electronic viewfinders that make composing your shots a breeze, there is a lot to like about long-zoom compact cameras.
However, those features come at a higher cost - often in the range of basic DSLRs. That's especially true if you opt for a premium compact camera like the Canon PowerShot G7X II, which has full HD video recording, a large 1-inch sensor, and a top-of-the-line DIGIC-7 processor.
But, if you opt for a good used long-zoom compact, you can save a good deal of money.
Best Feature: The 30x zoom is vastly better than the 5x zoom often found in basic compact cameras.
Worst Feature: The price. Many long-zoom compacts are every bit as expensive as a basic DSLR camera.
This camera is for you if: You travel. The longer zoom and the improved manual controls make long-zoom compacts a much better option for being your travel camera.
Get the scoop on more of the best premium compact cameras in the video below by Tech Best:
If you're the adventurous type and aren't too keen on suction-cupping your phone to your car door for stills and videos or sending your phone up in a drone, then an action camera might be the best option for you.
Where point-and-shoot cameras and smartphones offer tons of easy-to-use features, they simply aren't built to withstand the wear and tear of documenting sports, stunts, and other activities that involve flying, going fast, dirt, and water.
But action cameras are definitely suited to such activities.
They aren't bulletproof, but action cameras have a definite advantage over all other types of cameras in the ruggedness and durability department.
What's more, today's action cameras, like the GoPro Hero+ LCD shown above, have all sorts of features, including full 4K video capabilities, waterproofing and weatherproofing, and they are often pretty inexpensive too, especially if you snag a good used action camera.
In terms of ease-of-use, there's really nothing simpler. In most cases, you just press a button and the shutter fires for stills or videos.
Mount your action cam to anything from your bike helmet to your car windshield to your kid's scooter, and you've got a ready-made action-adventure recording device!
Best Feature: Action cams are built tough and easy to use.
Worst Feature: Many action cams don't have a lot of features that give you control over things like exposure and zoom.
This camera is for you if: You want something rugged for outdoor activities, creating action-packed videos, or giving your kids something fun and easy to use for documenting their adventures.
Learn more about the best action cameras on the market today in the video below by RizKnows:
Nestled between compact cameras and DSLRs, bridge cameras offer similar controls as a DSLR, including aperture priority, shutter priority, and program modes, which means you have a greater ability to control how your images look.
What's more, they often have excellent zoom lenses that give you incredible focal range (even up to 80x), even if the image quality still doesn't match what can be achieved with a DSLR and an interchangeable lens. That's because many bridge cameras utilize the same 1/2.3-inch sensor that many basic compact cameras have.
There are some newcomers to the bridge camera world that are making gains in the image quality department, though. The Sony RX10 III shown below has a 1-inch sensor, a 60x zoom, and a large aperture lens.
Bridge cameras even look a lot like DSLRs because they have a bigger body, a good grip, and similar buttons and dials as you'll find on a DSLR camera body.
Best Feature: DSLR-like controls for a cheaper price.
Worst Feature: Many bridge cameras have tiny sensors that degrade image quality.
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.
If you're an advanced beginner or enthusiast photographer, a DSLR is really the best option given that it offers many features that the previous cameras on this list do not.
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.
Naturally, having the capability of swapping out lenses makes DSLRs much more versatile than any of the previous types of cameras discussed.
With that greater versatility comes a greater ability for you to put your photography knowledge to the test and practice the skills that you've learned as it pertains to composition, exposure, and the like.
Additionally, DSLRs have much better sensors than bridge cameras, compacts, action cameras, and smartphones. DSLRs have APS-C sensors that give you much more surface area that results in higher resolution and better quality images.
In fact, the Canon EOS T6i shown above has a 24.2-megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor that produces images with far more detail than any of the previous cameras discussed above.
Many DSLRs also have advanced processors (the Canon above has a DIGIC-6 processor) that allows them to take shots rapidly and process the images quickly with little buffering time.
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.
That makes a DSLR a good 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.
Add to that an array of controls for exposure, white balance, focusing, and light metering, as well as the ability to shoot JPEGs and in RAW, and you've got the complete package for taking your photography to the next level.
Best Feature: DSLRs offer interchangeable lenses and larger sensors, both of which give you the ability to take better photos.
Worst Feature: DSLRs aren't svelte by any means. Their size and weight will put off some people.
This camera is for you if: You want a camera that gives you all the bells and whistles without being overly expensive.
Have a look at some of the best entry-level DSLR cameras in the video below from Chris Winter:
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.
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 a much smaller body.
This is because without a mirror, mirrorless cameras don't need as much heft and bulk.
That means you essentially get the best of both worlds - the versatility of a DSLR in the size of a bridge or compact camera.
But mirrorless cameras have another advantage over DSLRs: they typically have a better autofocus system.
These autofocus systems have more autofocus points, operate faster, and can be used when shooting in Live View (which is the only option for some mirrorless cameras anyway).
In fact, higher-end mirrorless cameras like the Sony A7R II have outstanding features, including a 42.4-megapixel full frame sensor, an autofocus system with a whopping 399 AF points, ISO range to 102400, and 5-axis in-camera image stabilization.
Many mirrorless cameras that have a viewfinder have an electronic one, which is beneficial to you because unlike an optical viewfinder found on DSLRs, an electronic viewfinder shows you the scene exactly how the camera will capture it.
Add in excellent image detail, 4K video capabilities, and an ever-expanding collection of lenses, and you've got a rather good camera system.
Of course, all those features add up to be pretty pricey, depending on the model of mirrorless camera you choose. However, you can find great deals on entry-level, mid-range, and high-end mirrorless cameras if you know where to look.
Best Feature: All the features of a DSLR in a compact camera body.
Worst Feature: Limited selection of lenses compared to DSLRs.
This camera is for you if: You want the firepower of a full-sized camera but don't want to carry around a full-sized camera body.
Have a look at some of the best mirrorless cameras on the market today in the video below by GlobalOnline:
Full Frame Cameras
At the top of the heap are full frame cameras.
These cameras get their name because their sensors are large - the equivalent size of 35mm film - which is generally twice as big as the APS-C sensors that are common in less expensive DSLRs.
The advantage of having a full frame camera is that they have the type of image quality that professional photographers require.
That means if you're ready to jump into photography as more than a hobby and will be selling images or prints, a full frame camera might be the way to go.
For example, the Canon EOS 5DS has a 50-megapixel sensor that will certainly produce images that can be turned into very large prints.
But even if you aren't in the market for the largest sensor available, there are many full frame cameras that have 20-megapixel (or more) sensors that still offer an improvement in image quality over most APS-C sensor DSLRs.
For the most part, full frame cameras (especially from Nikon and Canon) are DSLRs. However, Sony entered the full frame market with its mirrorless offerings, including the A7R II I noted in the previous section.
Of course, since full frame cameras offer all these benefits (and more), there is a price to pay. Full frame cameras can easily cost over $2,000 just for the camera body, so it's not a purchase - even if you find a good used one - to take lightly.
Best Feature: Full frame cameras produce images with excellent quality and resolution.
Worst Feature: Even used, these cameras can be pricey.
This camera is for you if: Budget is no option, and if you're ready to get into photography as more than just a hobby.
Get more details on the features of full frame cameras in the video below by Nick Carver:
Wrapping It Up
There you have it! Armed with more information about the features, benefits, and detriments of just about any kind of camera you can imagine, you're in a better position to choose a camera that's right for you.
Remember, when looking for a new camera, don't just focus on manufacturer or the type of camera. Consider how the camera will help you take better photos both now and in the future.
In that regard, be sure to select something that can grow with you as you develop more photography skills.
Of course, the price will be a deciding factor too. But as noted earlier, you can find used cameras from compacts to full frames for a great price.
If you're getting a new camera, why not buy used and save some money too? That sounds like a good deal if you ask me!