Go to a camera store or search camera options online and it's easy to get overwhelmed with all the shapes, sizes and features of the latest digital sharpshooters. Then there's a decision about price. Do you want to spend just a little for something small and basic for snapshots, or is your smartphone camera good enough? Is a pocket camera sufficient, or do you want a tricked-out mirrorless camera or DSLR that uses interchangeable lenses for maximum quality? Check out our buying guide for advice on how to buy the right camera for your picture-taking needs.
Types of Cameras
Point and Shoot Cameras
Price Range: $139-$350
Simple cameras you can fit in your pocket and use for snapshots aren't just for novice photographers on a budget anymore — though you'll still find plenty of good, fully automated compacts for under $150.
Pros: Extremely portable and often small enough to fit into a pocket; fully automated; minimal investment for budget models.
Cons: Image quality not a lot better than what you'd get with your smartphone; very small image sensors produce photos with some digital grain — aka "noise" — when shooting in low light.
Key Features: Portability; automated photo functions; optical zoom lens; built-in image stabilization.
Key Accessories: SD Memory cards; AA batteries (for some models); protective case.
Top Picks: See the best point and shoot cameras.
Price Range: $200-$500
Most phones, especially smartphones, have respectable cameras. But not all models are created equal. Some companies have introduced phones with cameras offering massive resolution for cropping in as a way of making up for the lack of optical zoom (the Lumia 1020 has a 41MP sensor, for example).
Apple's iPhone 5s keeps the same 8MP of resolution as the previous model, but uses a larger sensor and larger pixels to absorb more light. (However, a point-and-shoot beat an iPhone 5s in our low-light testing.) Meanwhile, Samsung's Galaxy S4 Zoom, almost as much a "real" camera as a phone, has a 10x optical zoom lens.
The best smartphone cameras also have more sophisticated software features, such capturing images using the front and back cameras simultaneously, or erasing stray subjects from the frame.
Pros: Easily share images and videos over cellular and Wi-Fi networks; no need to bring an extra camera; huge number of photo apps let you tweak you images and share them on social networks.
Cons: Image quality is at best on par with an entry-level point-and-shoot camera's; tiny image sensors tend to produce digital grain — aka "noise" — in low-light images; small built-in lenses, for the most part, don't offer any optical zoom.
Key Features: Connectivity; convenience; sharing; burst (rapid) shot and panorama modes; image stabilization on some models.
Key Accessories: Phone cases; photo apps; add-on lenses, grips and tripods in some cases.
Top Picks: See the best smartphone cameras.
Price Range: $250-$500
"Bridge" cameras sit between compacts and interchangeable lens models. They bridge the gap from beginner point-and-shoots to SLRs and mirrorless cameras, sharing some features of both. Bridge cameras are typically distinguished by their built-in optical "superzoom" lenses of up to 50x magnification, which give you the ability to shoot between wide-angle and telephoto, close-up shots without having to change lenses.
Pros: "Superzoom" lenses let you photograph everything from wide landscapes to close-ups of players down on the field during "the big game"; both automatic and manual control give you picture-taking convenience and creative options; some bridge cameras offer tilt-out, vari-angle LCDs to help with composing shots from difficult angles.
Cons: Small image sensors similar to what's in point-and-shoot models, producing comparable image quality, especially in low light; built-in lenses don't produce images as sharp as most interchangeable lenses; slow all-around performance compared with DSLRs
Key Features: Built-in, superzoom lenses; all-in-one portable design; tilt-out LCD screen.
Key Accessories: Hand strap; protective case; external flash; external stereo microphone for video.
Top Picks: See the best bridge cameras.
Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) Cameras
Price Range: $500-$1,500
Single Lens Reflex cameras have long been the standard bearers for image quality. SLR cameras use a mirror and prism-based system that lets photographers see exactly what they're about to shoot though the lens via a viewfinder. DSLRs are among the fastest cameras, used by sports photographers and photojournalists for action assignments. These cameras also use interchangeable lenses that attach to the camera body in front of the digital sensor, giving photographers a range of options for going wide or zooming in for close-ups from a distance.
Pros: Fast shooting; interchangeable lenses provide multiple options — from close-ups to wide-angles — for your photos or HD videos; DSLRs use larger image sensors, giving them the ability to shoot sharper images, especially in dark conditions.
Cons: Bigger, heavier, and more complicated than point-and-shoots; more expensive, especially if you purchase high-quality lenses.
Key Features: Both fully automatic or fully manual controls; interchangeable lens options; burst shooting modes for taking multiple shots in quick succession; optical viewfinder lets you frame subject in bright light.
Key Accessories: External flash; extra lenses; tripod; camera bag or backpack for carrying SLR system.
Top Picks: See the best DSLR cameras.
Price Range: $400-$1,500
Mirrorless or compact system cameras are more popular in Japan than in the United States or Europe (so far), but they are gaining fast. With their small interchangeable lenses, these devices are designed to combine the portability of a point and shoot or bridge camera with the superior image quality of a larger DSLR. Unlike DSLRs, these models don't use a mirror-based optical viewfinder system — allowing them to be smaller.
Pros: Close to DSLR-level image quality in smaller camera bodies with smaller lenses; without the "mirror-slap" of a DSLR, mirrorless cameras are quieter and more inconspicuous; no mirror means fewer moving parts to break.
Cons: Limited lens options; slower performance — particularly autofocus — compared with DSLRs; expensive.
Key Features: Small interchangeable lenses; small camera bodies; larger sensor than point-and-shoot and bridge cameras.
Key Accessories: External flash; external electronic viewfinder; protective case.
Top Picks: See the best mirrorless cameras.
Important Camera Features and Specs
The amount of megapixels a camera's sensor possesses determines how much detail it is able to capture. But there's a trade-off. Cramming too many megapixels onto a sensor — especially the small chips in point-and-shoot and smartphone cameras — means small pixels with less surface area to capture light. The result can be noisy (grainy) photos, especially when shooting in dim conditions without flash. Bottom line: Don't worry about how many megapixels your camera has. Anything at or above 8MP is fine.
The lens is the most important part of your camera. Whether you're using a point-and-shoot with a built-in lens or an interchangeable lens camera system, a lens's ability to capture sharp images in a range of shooting conditions — such as in low light or when photographing fast-moving action — is the key to taking a great photo. Look for lenses with fast apertures (expressed in low f/stop numbers) and optical image stabilization to help you take sharper images even in low light.
In basic terms, aperture is the size of the opening in a lens. In advanced cameras, such as digital SLRs, mirrorless compact system cameras and even many point-and-shoot models, the photographer can manually set the aperture to control the amount of light that reaches the imaging sensor. Look for lenses with a larger maximum aperture — which are inversely expressed with a lower number, such as f/2.8 or f/1.8. They let more light hit the sensor, so you can shoot brighter, sharper images in dark conditions. They also blur the background in portraits, bringing attention to the subject's face.
Technology that helps reduce blur caused by hand shake comes in two varieties. Optical stabilization is more effective because it physically shifts an element in a camera or lens to counteract shake. (It's even starting to show up in smartphones such as the Nokia Lumia 1020 and LG G2.)
Digital stabilization uses in-camera software to correct image blur, but results are often not as sharp as with optical stabilization. But digital stabilization is cheaper and easier to fit into smaller cameras, particularly smartphones.
Focal length describes how close a lens can make a subject appear. Zoom lenses provide variable focal length, from wide-angle shots to close-ups. Focal length is specified in millimeters — such as with a 70mm-200mm telephoto zoom lens — or by a magnification factor, such as 5x, 10x or 20x. Some lenses, called "primes," have a fixed focal length, such as 35mm or 50mm. While less flexible, prime lenses typically produce better image quality and are less expensive than zooms. A good prime lens is generally capable of a larger aperture.
Sensor Type and Size
The sensor converts lights into electronic signals to create a picture. Generally speaking, the bigger a sensor, the better the photos. Bigger imaging sensors allow for some combination of more megapixels and larger pixels that can capture more light.
The largest sensor in a consumer camera is the "full-frame" sensor of high-end DSLRs, so named because it's about the same size as a piece of 35mm film. APS-C sensors, which are slightly smaller than full-frame sensors are in mainstream digital SLRs and some mirrorless cameras. Other mirrorless cameras use sensors slightly smaller than APS-C, known as Micro Four Thirds. Smaller still are the sensors in Bridge cameras, which are about the same size as those found in point-and-shoots. Finally, cellphones (with a few exceptions) have the smallest image sensors.
ISO speed, a standard used to denote film sensitivity, has carried over to digital cameras. The higher you set the ISO, the more effective the camera is at capturing images in low light without a flash. All things being equal, a larger sensor — with larger pixels — is capable of better image quality at a higher ISO. However, there is a trade-off: The higher you set the sensitivity, the greater the distortion, or "noise," which shows up as graininess in a photo.
A maximum ISO capability of 6400 or greater will allow you to capture images in dim conditions inside and out, but the amount of noise will depend on the size and quality of the sensor and the ability of the camera's image processor to clean up images.
The shutter speed is the amount of time the shutter is open in a camera. The faster the shutter speed, the more clearly a moving object can be captured. Shutter speed settings are typically measured in tenths or hundredths of a second. Cameras capable of faster shutter speeds are better for freezing action, so if you like sports photography, you want a camera that can shoot at 1/500 of second and faster. The best DSLRs are capable of shooting at 1/8,000, which is nice if you photograph car racing, but it's faster than most photographers probably need.
Shooting Rate (FPS)
Most cameras have a feature allowing them to capture a burst of images just by holding down the shutter. Often referred to as continuous shooting or burst mode, frame rate is often measured as frames per second (FPS). Some DSLRs — and even some point-and-shoots and smartphones — offer burst rates up to 10 fps. If you like shooting fast action, such as sports, get a camera with a fast shooting rate.
Other Notable Features
Once a luxury feature, the ability to record HD video at up to 1080p is now common in everything from smartphone cameras to DSLRs. The frame rates vary, including 60p (i.e. 60 frames per second) for smooth video of fast action, 24p for a film-like look and even 120p (in the iPhone 5s) for playing back footage in slow motion.
Wi-Fi for sending photos to a smartphone is turning up in more digital cameras these days. It's meant to make sharing photos from stand-alone cameras as easy as from smartphones. But camera makers have struggled to simplify the process.
Some cameras offer built-in GPS to geotag your photos. After your shots are geotagged with latitude and longitude, you can import them into mapping software — such as in Apple's iPhoto — and the images will pop up on a digital map over the location where they were shot.