Shooting with a stand-alone camera instead of a smartphone can make your memories vivid and special. You'll improve the quality of your photos with better lenses and larger image sensors as well as improve how you shoot, since stand-alone cameras are often constructed ergonomically and include physical dials and controls for changing modes and settings. Which one is right for you? We’ve tested dozens of models to give you our top recommendations for the money in five categories.
Want speed, portability and lightning-fast focus? A mirrorless camera is the way to go. Want awesome detail, better low-light photos and a super wide range of lenses? Get a DSLR. Bridge cameras are easier and less expensive than big DSLRs or mirrorless cameras, while waterproof cameras are essential for avid adventurers and outdoor explorers. Or check out our list of compact cameras if you're looking for something portable to take with you on your travels.
Looking for a fun instant camera to give to your kids, or to just have fun with yourself? We've reviewed and ranked 11 of the top instant cameras.
This guide will help you find a reasonably priced camera that meets your needs.
Latest News & Updates (December 2018)
- The Nikon D3500—our favorite DSLR for beginners—is available in a two lens kit (18-55mm and 70-300mm) for $496 ($100 off)
- The Sony A6000—our top pick for mirrorless cameras— is $498 ($150 off)
- Sony's Alpha a7II, a full-frame mirrorless camera, is on sale for $898 (body only), a savings of $500.
One of the larger types of camera, DSLRs (Digital Single Lens Reflex) are so named because the photographer sees the image directly through the lens that will be used to take the image. When the shutter is pressed, a mirror flips up to expose the sensor to light. DSLRs also have the largest sensors, which in general will allow you to get the best quality pictures, especially in low-light conditions. The size of the sensors in DSLRs will also enable you to make larger prints than you would from other types of cameras.
Sporting a 24-megapixel sensor, 3.2-inch swiveling touchscreen and compatibility with a huge range of lenses, the Nikon D5600 DSLR is our favorite camera on the market. With Nikon's traditional d-pad and a number of dials and knobs, it's great for experienced photographers looking for full-featured manual controls, while still including a number of assisted shooting modes to help teach and educate beginners. And with video capture at up to 1080p at 60 FPS and a dedicated mic in jack, the D5600 is a great tool for budding filmmakers too.
Like its predecessor, the Nikon D3500 has a 24.3MP sensor, but it has a faster processor and a refreshed design that makes it easier to use, longer battery life, and the ability to control the camera (somewhat) from your smartphone via Bluetooth. Its sub-$400 price is a great entry point for those new to DSLRs, and it has a bunch of in-camera guides that help explain its more advanced features. It will shoot great photos in almost any situation, too.
Mirrorless (also known as compact system or micro four-thirds) cameras have many of the same features as larger DSLRs--such as interchangeable lenses--but in a more portable form, making them generally a better choice for travel. They’re called “mirrorless” because they don’t use a mirror to direct light through the lens to the viewfinder. Their image sensors aren’t quite as big, but image quality is nearly on a par with their larger brethren. Here's a guide for taking better pictures with the Sony Alpha a6000 and a6300.
MORE: Best Mirrorless Cameras
The Sony A6000 gives you a lot for the price. In addition to superfast autofocus, a 11fps shooting speed that matches or beats pricier DSLRs and excellent low-light quality (up to about ISO 1600), you also get fantastic 1080p video at 60 and 24 fps. It also has an electronic viewfinder in addition to an articulating LCD. All this in a package that weighs just 12 ounces; this is one compact and powerful camera.
The term “Bridge” is somewhat nebulous, and is used to describe cameras that have more features than a point-and-shoot (such as Ultrazoom or enthusiast-level controls), but don’t have interchangeable lenses like mirrorless cameras. As such, there’s a wide range of cameras that fall into this category. Ultrazooms are a good choice for those who want to shoot a lot of nature photography or your kid’s soccer game, without having to invest a lot of money in telephoto lenses.
Packing a fantastic, sharp 12.8-megapixel sensor into a cute retro-styled body that's not much bigger than a smartphone, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX100 is a great pick for people looking for quality and portability. It's got a fast f/1.7 lens with a 3.1x optical zoom, and the ability to record 4K videos or stills at up to 11 fps. And unlike a lot of other cameras this size, the LX100 even features a built-in electronic viewfinder to help you frame your shots.
MORE: Best Bridge Cameras
The smallest (and usually cheapest) of all cameras, compact cameras can usually be stuffed easily into your pocket, and can cost as little as $50. Also known as point-and-shoot cameras, they will often have limited features and are best for impromptu photo shoots where you don’t have your smartphone handy. After testing 10 cameras that cost less than $160, the Sony W800 came out on top for its price and performance.
At less than $100, the Sony W800 is nearly an impulse buy, and not such a financial hardship if you lose it or your kid drops it. Its sturdy metal chassis packs a great suite of features, including an easy panoramic shooting mode and a 5X (26-130mm equivalent) zoom lens with optical image stabilization. The W800's 20.1MP image sensor uses the older CCD technology that tends to not perform as well in dark conditions as today's dominant CMOS sensors. But it's fine for bright afternoons or night shots with flash.
MORE: Best Compact Cameras
Essentially point-and-shoot cameras with waterproofing, these devices can be used when swimming, scuba diving, or wherever you’re afraid of your camera getting wet. Often, they will have some ruggedness built in, so you can drop or knock them around without too much fear of breaking the camera. They’re ideal for backpacking or outdoor trips when weight is a primary concern, or as a starter camera for a child who might have a tendency to drop things.
The powerful Olympus Tough TG-5 is waterproof to depths of up to 50 feet, which isn't the deepest among compact point-and-shoots, but will suffice for snorklers. With its 4x optical zoom lens (24mm-100mm), which has a wide, f/2.0 maximum aperture, the TG-5's lens offers very good quality photos and beautiful video at 4K-resolution. It can also shoot RAW photos, which means it will do a better job than most in darker underwater scenes, and the Olympus features several special underwater modes, as well.
It comes with a versatile flash that lets you adjust the amount of illumination, which is a rare feature on a point-and-shoot. In our tests, the TG-5 took better photos and video than other compact underwater cameras, whether above or below the seas. This camera can also survive almost any kind of abuse on land, including up to 220 pounds of pressure, 7-foot drops and temperatures down to 14 degrees Fahrenheit. In addition to Wi-Fi and GPS, the TG-5 includes an electronic compass.
The iPhone takes pretty good pictures on its own, but there are a number of accessories that can boost its capabilities even further. A good many are lens attachments, which lets you take photos of very small objects or things that are far away. Other attachments, such as the DxO One, have their own sensors, and can take photos much better than what you'd get from your phone.
MORE: Best iPhone Lens Kits
Best Camera Under $100
It's one part camera, one part printer and 100 percent fun. The Polaroid Snap brings the joy of instant film into the 21st century. Featuring a 10-megapixel sensor and a 32GB microSD card slot, the Snap makes it easy to to capture moments, share them immediately via its onboard Zero Ink printer, or take them home so you can save them or upload your photos to social media. And priced at less than $90, the Snap is a perfect gift any time of year.
Tips for Capturing Photos at Outdoor Events
As the weather gets warmer, we tend to spend more time outside, and we generally bring our cameras along with us. But sometimes, if you’re looking to capture a street fair, an outdoor music festival, a parade, or simply a get together in a park with family and friends, you might not get the results you’d hoped for. Here are some tips for shooting better shots outside.
Look for Patterns: Natural or man-made patterns, or maybe even both, such as vine growing on a brick wall, can provide a powerful visual element in your photo.
Simplify the Composition: Oftentimes, we’re more focused on our subjects when we shoot. But in a photo, you’ll see everything, including the background. So, consider what’s behind your subjects, and then move to simplify the background. Also, keep on the lookout for those who will photo-bomb your shot.
Study the Light: While we tend to focus on faces or figures in many candid photos, pro photographers are always considering the light to see how it affects the subject. Is the light warm or cool and is it diffused or direct? What direction is the light coming from? Make sure you notice how the light appears on your photos, and see if it helps clarify or confuse the composition.
Help Tell a Story: Sometimes, when we capture an image, we want to tell some kind of narrative. To do this, great photographers looks for powerful facial expressions. Body languages and gestures can also provide help create an interesting narrative. For instance, if you’re at a music festival, look for how musicians stand on stage. Often, they’re gestures and facial expressions can make for fantastic photos.
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