Which camera to choose, and how to choose it?
As I was writing our comprehensive guide to the cameras I recommend buying this year, I shamefully realized that after four years of blogging, I still hadn’t taken the time to write an article explaining in detail which camera to choose and the criteria to consider. As crazy as it sounds, it was a major omission from my articles, and from the blog in general. I’m still wondering how it’s possible that I missed it.
Anyway, the purpose of this article is to fix all that and to offer you in the simplest and most summarized way possible everything you need to know in order to choose a camera. I won’t go into too many technical details about the basics of photography, otherwise I might write a really long article!
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But let’s get back to the topic. For any person wishing to begin in photography, or even to buy a second camera to upgrade to a more qualitative one, choosing a camera is never easy because the choice is so large; the ranges not always easy to understand for the ordinary person, and the prices range from very cheap to extremely expensive.
Let’s get started by explaining the main types of current cameras, and especially the advantages and disadvantages of each. I will then talk about all the technical criteria to consider when buying a camera. At the end, I’ll talk about your requirements, and a minor detail for most of us (haha): the budget!
Types of cameras
Compact cameras (point-and-shoot)
Let’s begin with the smallest budgets and especially the least-advanced cameras. Well, there are two types of compact cameras: entry-level compact cameras and the so-called expert compacts which have become very popular lately. In fact, there are three, because I will add a few words about the “off-road” compacts, as I like to call them.
Entry-level compact cameras
Let’s say it right away, I really don’t think that buying an entry-level compact camera is interesting anymore. With the progress made in recent years with smartphones, the advantage of this type of camera is more than limited in my opinion.
However, even if I don’t recommend them anymore, they still have the advantage of being very cheap (between €80 and €250), very light, small, and can be stored in your pants pocket without any problem. For someone who doesn’t have the budget to buy a smartphone with decent photographic quality and who has a very low budget, it can still be an idea. Another idea is to save up a few hundred euros more and go for the first expert compacts, around €500 (or for an all-terrain compact like my Olympus TG6).
I will just mention some of the drawbacks of this type of camera (the entry-level compacts): very small sensor size, very limited artistic possibilities (no possibility of getting a shallow depth of field), poor low light control, no viewfinder, no possibility of changing your lens, rather slow camera, etc.
Rugged compact cameras
I won’t go into detail here, but I wanted to mention this sub-category within compacts. I personally own two such compacts: the Olympus TG6 and the Nikon Coolpix W300, which I’ll tell you about in detail in our article on the best all-weather cameras!
Simply put, these are compact cameras with the same advantages and disadvantages I mentioned above. They don’t necessarily offer more, but if you are traveling a lot, if you are going to be in places with bad weather conditions (snow, sand, humidity), I would advise you to buy a compact camera of this type rather than a simple entry-level compact.
These cameras have the advantage of being water-resistant, often to 15m, and are shock-resistant. I bring this camera with me during daily trips to the lagoon, for example, or during a canyoning trip deep in the forest where it is often simply impossible to bring my mirrorless camera. It turns out that my Olympus was perfect for this, it eliminated any concerns about falls, jumps into pools, humidity, rain, mud, etc. For me, they still have their uses for those aspects.
By the way, I wrote an article at the time to help you choose a travel camera. It could be useful for backpackers.
Compact expert cameras
For a few years now, a new range of expert compacts has been emerging which are much more advanced than their entry-level ancestors which are doomed to disappear anyway (which is already more or less the case). We now see the appearance of more advanced cameras, offering much more possibilities when you take pictures. Obviously, the budget is higher and you will have to spend a minimum of €500 for a “basic” expert compact. Prices range up to extremely expensive, exceeding some high-end mirrorless cameras at over €2000 or €3000€. This is, for me, a range that is well worth the cost if you want to go further and have “something else other than your smartphone” without spending a lot of money and not having to change lenses.
Where things are clearly improving is that these cameras now offer larger sensor sizes, allowing you to better blur your backgrounds and make your subjects stand out. Most of the cameras have 1″ sensors, but also Micro 4/3 like the Panasonic LX100, or APS-C like the Fujifilm X100F or Canon G1X III. Some expert compacts like the Sony RX1 or Leica Q2 range even have a full frame sensor.
To give a brief overview, they still have the advantage of their reduced size and weight, but also offer a very good image quality for the ones with a large sensor (beyond Micro 4/3) and remain in an acceptable price range. As for the disadvantages, you will still not be able to change lenses and some do not have an EVF (electronic viewfinder).
It’s hard to talk about bridge cameras without having a slightly biased point of view at first. I’ve never been interested in this type of camera, which is somewhere between a compact and an DSLR (they were even called hybrids for a while). Simply put, they offer a more serious and better construction than a compact camera but you obviously lose out on size. They also offer a very wide focal length range (from wide angle to super telephoto), creative shooting modes (PASM) and very often a viewfinder.
Entry-level bridges are even less interesting in my opinion than compacts, but in the last few years, a new range of expert bridges has also been released. Unfortunately, these cameras have sensor sizes that are too small to be interesting in my opinion (1″), but this is necessary to have a light and compact camera with such a wide focal range. However, some professional photographers use expert bridges like the Sony RX10-M4 or the Panasonic FZ2000 (which is still more accessible).
Finally, the only real interest in my opinion is to be able to offer a very long zoom for a price that is cheaper than if you had to buy this type of focal length for a mirrorless or a DSLR. However, you are limited in your choices, still not being able to change lenses with this type of camera.
I’m not going to get into the “should you still buy a DSLR at a time when mirrorless cameras are selling like hotcakes and are the main focus of all brands?” debate. I have already written a complete article on the differences between DSLR and mirrorless cameras, to help you decide on your choice!
Simply put, a DSLR is a camera with interchangeable lenses. Yes, whatever the camera body, you can change your lenses according to your desires and photography specialties! You have, therefore, a body and a lens which form the package. For your first purchase, you will often be advised to start with a kit that includes body and lens, which is often of mediocre quality, but more than enough to start with.
We now have quite a few advantages compared to bridges or compacts. In order of importance, I would say large sensor (minimum APS-C), really great artistic possibilities, possibility to change lenses or better dynamic range (better handling of high contrast scenes) or low light management. However, DSLRs are still quite bulky (although the entry level ones are really small) but, on the other hand, you will have to buy several lenses to cater for a range of situations.
Should we still advise people to buy a DSLR today? I’m not so sure compared to mirrorless cameras which have greatly improved in the last few years and offer the same or even better features than DSLRs on some points (autofocus, various options, dimensions to a certain extent). However, DSLR cameras still have the advantage of being reliable, and the lenses available on the second hand market for these cameras are really common. You will be able to find more and more beautiful second hand cameras at very reasonable prices, something that will remain more difficult for mirrorless cameras for the time being. Also, the main brands (Canon and Nikon to name a few) have officially announced the end of DSLR production (and associated lenses) and are focusing all their research and development on mirrorless equivalents: Canon RF mount and Nikon Z mount.
The second-hand market is especially interesting; the latest new DSLRs and lenses (especially high-end ones) will quickly lose their value because, when you want to change in a few years, you will probably be pushed towards mirrorless. You will have to sell your DSLRs and will have good reasons to switch to mirrorless lenses (no need for adapter ring, superior performance and recent features, possibly weight/size saving). But as you will not be the only one in this case, your DSLRs and lenses will face a lot of clones on the second hand market, fewer people to buy them. So you will have to lower the price a lot to get rid of them. So you might as well buy entry-level (the depreciation will be less brutal if it costs €500 new and you sell it for €200, than if it cost you 2500€ and you sell it for €1000) or good second-hand ones since you will have already paid less from the start.
Also called, mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras (MILC) or digital single-lens mirrorless (DSLM), it is a bit of a misnomer because basically all cameras that don’t have a DSLR viewfinder are mirrorless, like smartphones, any compact or even old rangefinder cameras; this is the last category of cameras I’m talking about in this article (and actually the only one left, haha!). They have been on the rise for many years now, and let’s face it (as I mentioned above), even the original DSLR brands like Canon/Nikon are now focusing on these new types of cameras, to such an extent that I would have a hard time recommending a DSLR instead of a mirrorless camera (except in some cases).
As for DSLRs mentioned above, these are bodies where you can change lenses, and thus adapt to all situations. Although the range of mirrorless lenses is much more limited than DSLRs (normal considering their “recent” introduction on the market, even if the adaptor rings allow the use of lenses with old mounts), some brands like Sony, helped by third-party brands like Tamron or Sigma, already offer a large choice.
What is there to note about these famous hybrids? You have globally the same advantages as a DSLR, but often in a more compact body/lens set (size/weight). There are globally four types of sensor on mirrorless cameras: Micro 4/3 (MFT), APS-C, full frame and medium format. The last three formats already exist with DSLR. With these sensor sizes (quite large), you have more than enough to enjoy photography since these cameras offer a complete set of settings to progress and go further (RAW, PSAM mode, etc.).
Prices range from a modest €400/€500 for entry-level models with a kit lens, to several thousand euros for full-frame and medium-format mirrorless cameras, which are almost as big and bulky as a DSLR camera (well, still a bit more compact usually), except maybe the very high-end ones, especially the monoblocks.
We also have an article dedicated to the best current mirrorless cameras, which covers several models from each brand.
Here is a quick summary of the cameras mentioned above, with a comparison of the prices at B&H and Amazon.
|Camera||Type or camera||Check prices|
|Olympus TG6||Rugged compact camera||B&H Amazon|
|Panasonic LX100 II||Advanced compact camera||B&H Amazon|
|Canon G1X III||Advanced compact camera||B&H Amazon|
|Sony RX1||Advanced compact camera||Amazon B&H|
|Leica Q2||Advanced compact camera||B&H Amazon|
|Sony RX10-M4||Advanced compact camera||B&H Amazon|
|Panasonic FZ2500||Advanced compact camera||B&H Amazon|
That’s all well and good, but it all depends on the technical criteria of each camera. Not all of them are equal (that would be too easy, haha), and you will obviously have to make choices according to your requirements and needs. I will talk about more specific aspects at the end of this article, such as budget and your expectations.
Sensor size and image quality
The first thing I believe you should think about and consider is the sensor size. I’ve already written an article about sensor sizes, so I won’t go over it all again, but keep in mind the following points. A large sensor will:
- offer you more creative possibilities. Indeed, you will be able to create more blur through a shorter depth of field. There is nothing forcing you to create blurs on every picture, but beyond a 1″ sensor, you will have this possibility more easily. If this is something you are interested in, then all DSLR/mirrorless is the way to go. As mentioned above, you will also find expert compacts with large sensors.
- improve the dynamic range of your images. To put it simply, it is the difference between the highlights and the dark areas of your image. This is often the case on high contrast scenes like those I encounter here in the tropics with a very hard/bright sky and a dark foreground. Larger sensors have a better ability to produce a greater dynamic range and thus offer an image with “realistic” light tones, meaning close to the human eye.
- improve the management of low light/ISO increase. Basically, the bigger the sensor, the bigger the photosites, and the better they capture the light. Also, they better support signal amplification (ISO increase) and produce better results in high ISO. I’m talking about low light situations because you will often tend to raise ISOs, but this obviously applies to many other scenes where increasing ISOs is sometimes required and where you can’t use a tripod. Example: all indoor movement scenes, all scenes where you want to keep a short shutter speed to freeze a movement (ex: wildlife, sports, etc.).
Generally speaking, there is an equivalence between the formats. If an image of ISO 6400 is correct on a full format camera, its quality is equivalent to an image at ISO 3200 on an APS-C sensor (1.5 times smaller) and at ISO 1600 in Micro 4/3. So don’t be surprised to see a very bad ISO handling on 1″ sensors—or on the one in your smartphone, which has a sensor more than six times smaller than a full frame sensor.
Finally, a few words on camera definition, the so-called megapixels. You can refer to my article on the subject, but today, all cameras (from compact to medium format) have plenty of MPs for daily and non-professional use. More MPs allow you to print bigger and crop more, but 8MP is already enough to view an image on a 4K screen or to print it on A4 in good quality. In my opinion—and to summarize—other than if you want to print A0 posters of your images or to crop your pictures to death, the choice of a camera should not really be dictated by the number of MPs.
And here is an example of a Micro 4/3 sensor camera, the Panasonic Lumix G DMC-GX85K (mirrorless camera)
Check prices on B&H
Would you like to switch lenses?
It may seem like a silly question, but it’s really not. Some people don’t want to change lenses and that’s a choice. In that case, keep in mind that if you buy a DSLR or a mirrorless camera, you won’t have a choice. Well, yes, you can always keep your kit lens and never buy anything else, but the benefit is relatively limited in my opinion. If you don’t want to change your lens, I recommend a compact expert or a bridge camera.
Focal length and aperture
Here too, there are some points to bear in mind. So, of course, we are talking about focal length (the length of the zoom/your field of view) and aperture (the amount of light that reaches your sensor) and this refers to the lenses on the cameras mentioned above. Even if the norm is to define a focal length by its equivalent on a full frame sensor, the field of view of a focal length (expressed in mm) obviously depends on the sensor with which it is used.The Panasonic FZ2000 (1″ sensor) offers, for example, an equivalence of “24–480mm f/2.8–4.5”. Generally speaking, keep in mind that small sensors allow you to “zoom in” more easily (e.g., the Panasonic above, offering a focal length equivalent to almost 500mm). On the other hand, on DSLR and mirrorless cameras, you have the choice to buy lenses with large apertures and long focal lengths.
With a DSLR, even if I tend to believe that these cameras are disappearing with the arrival of mirrorless, you will be able to find a lot of long focal lengths at prices which are more than acceptable. This will be even more the case if you look for second-hand lenses, as a lot of users (like me in 2021) are turning towards mirrorless cameras and reselling all their DSLR gear.
Speed and performance
Camera performance is also important across factors, for example the camera’s reactivity, the autofocus sensitivity, the burst rate, and the buffer. Obviously, in general, the higher-end the camera, the better its performance, but not always. Although entry level cameras have lower specs, this isn’t 2001 anymore, so most of them already have a high spec.
As mirrorless cameras are power-hungry, the autonomy (which I discuss later in this article), the camera boot time or other functions vary depending on the brand and the camera’s range. A more sensitive autofocus can also be interesting if you often shoot in dark conditions, since even the best lens with the best motor cannot focus if the AF module of the camera does not distinguish the target (this is one of the reasons for the disparities in some camera and lens tests).
Keep in mind that the highest-end cameras are usually the ones with the best AF modules and the best burst rates since they are often designed for action photography (sports and wildlife, for example), but for “everyday” use; they are often much more powerful than necessary. If you want to know more about this subject, don’t hesitate to check out our article explaining how to choose your gear for sports photography.
This is a short aside, but some of you probably want a camera to shoot video as well. Few of us can afford a dedicated video beast with specialized lenses. If video is something you are interested in, I really invite you to examine the cameras’ video performance carefully.
I’m specifically thinking about the camera’s video resolution (UHD, 4K, 8K), the number of frames per second, and the connectivity.
Controlling your choices (PASM)
Here, I am simply talking about the well-known PASM modes that are now classically found on all mirrorless and DSLRs cameras. These are the “program” (P), aperture priority (A), shutter priority (S), and manual (M) modes. These are creative modes that allow you to control one, several or all the settings of your image.
Today, most cameras are equipped with these modes, but beware of inexpensive compact cameras. Moreover, I find it much more convenient to have the dial on the top of the camera. On some cameras, you have to go into the menu to change the modes.
There is another consideration that needs careful attention. Here, there is no good or bad choice, it all depends on you and what you consider too big, too heavy or too bulky. To summarize, point-and-shoot/compact experts are obviously the most compact. Mirrorless come second and DSLRs are still the most bulky. Be careful; this is not an exact science because high-end mirrorless are actually almost as heavy/large as a pro DSLR. Generally speaking, remember that the bigger the sensors, the bigger/heavier the camera bodies. It’s a matter of taste; it’s up to you.
Available lenses range
Actually, even if this comes quite late in the article, I think it is a crucial point, at least if you are considering a camera with changeable lenses (except for compact experts, for example). But if you are looking for a DSLR or a mirrorless camera, you should look at the lens range offered by the brand you are interested in.
For DSLRs, Canon and Nikon have by far the most choice.
For mirrorless, Sony remains the leader. Fujifilm also offers a very good range (if not the best) of APS-C lenses, the other brands preferring to build lenses dedicated to full frame. Why is that, haha?
The alliance between Panasonic and Olympus is also interesting (for MFT cameras) because the lenses are interchangeable between brands.
I have gathered all the other parameters which seem to me important to consider in the choice of a camera.
- Battery life: In my opinion, it is important. This is the reason why I chose an A7III rather than an A7 II. If you only use your camera in everyday life, this is certainly not a key point, but if you go on a trip with it, or on long hikes, etc. it is important to compare the differences between two cameras.
- The viewfinder: If you have never bought a camera, you have the choice between an optical viewfinder (on DSLR) and an electronic viewfinder (mirrorless). Each has its advantages and disadvantages. For electronic viewfinders, you can also compare and look at criteria like
- The definition of the viewfinder (millions of dots): allows you to judge the quality of the displayed image.
- The size of the viewfinder (inches): a large viewfinder helps to better distinguish the details of the scene and may help for manual focusing
- Refresh rate: it will help you to avoid seeing blurred moving subjects.
- Viewfinder coverage: all electronic viewfinders offer 100% coverage, i.e., what you see in the screen corresponds to the image you are taking. For the more entry/middle range DSLRs, the coverage could be 95% for example.
- Type of screen and touch: this can also be an important factor to consider depending on what you want to do. There are swivel, tilt, touch screens, etc.
- Choice of memory cards and numbers: this may seem like a detail, but you should still look at the type of memory cards your camera accepts and the number of cards. I have written an article on memory cards.
- In-camera stabilization: since the arrival of mirrorless cameras, there are more and more cameras with built-in stabilization. A stabilized camera can help you in low light situations or when you use long focal lengths, for example. In any case, a stabilized camera allows you to shoot at slower shutter speeds. This will help you even more if your lens is not stabilized.
- All-weather construction: here, everything will depend on you and your use. If you use your camera in normal conditions for simple daily life, this is not really a consideration. On the other hand, if you shoot in conditions that can be a bit complicated, a camera with an all-weather construction can be a plus. Of course, a tropicalized camera only makes sense if your lens is also tropicalized.
- Formats (JPEG/RAW): most cameras now offer this, but make sure you can shoot in several formats. Especially if you want to edit your photos in post-processing, being able to shoot in RAW is really interesting.
- Connectivity (Wi-Fi, VTn NFC): if this is an important factor for you; make sure you look at the types of connection on the camera.
I’m done with the technical criteria. Let’s take a quick look at the personal criteria, as I call them.
I wanted to add a few lines at the end of this article, because even if we consider all the above technical criteria, you may choose your camera according to more personal criteria.
Your requirements will inevitably influence your choice of camera. Indeed, you have to know where you stand. Will you accept missing some photos from time to time because your camera does not have an efficient tracking system? That you can’t properly follow the movements of a moving subject? You really have to ask yourself what you want to do with your camera in the end. If it’s just to shoot once or twice a year on vacation, not to print your pictures, maybe your requirements can be lowered, especially if photography is not really your passion.
In fact, it’s all a matter of choice (and budget too). It’s the same for lenses. I bought a Samyang FE 35mm f/1.8 which suits me perfectly for its low price (350€). Is it the best 35mm on a Sony body? Not really, but for my use and the times I use it, I found it was the smart choice, not breaking the bank while keeping a good image quality. It’s going to be the same with your requirements.
Finally, the last point, money. There are several ways to look at it. If you have a small budget, in this case, the choices will be directly reduced and you will have to limit yourself. So actually, the choice might be simpler depending on what you can afford. With a budget of less than €1000, you already know that you can forget about full frame mirrorless cameras, for example. If you have a more average budget, the possibilities open up and you’ll be able to look further into the technical criteria and see what might suit you.
Finally, where things will be more complicated is when you have a budget that will allow you to buy most cameras, except for the very high-end ones which all exceed €5000. I’ll let you refer to the technical criteria and try to evaluate what could be suitable for you.
I’m coming to the end of this article. If you want to know the best current cameras, as well as expert compact, mirrorless or DSLR cameras, don’t hesitate to have a look at our page on the best cameras!
See you soon,