People know I’m a semi-serious photographer so I get questions from people about all sorts of photography related stuff. One question I get a lot comes from people who are thinking of upgrading their camera. They want to move from a cellphone camera or a cheap pocket camera to a “real” camera and want advice about what to get. So let’s take a look at some basic information about the different kinds of cameras out there and the advantages and disadvantages of each.
Sidenote: Got questions? Leave them in the comments section or you can reach me at email@example.com
And I’ll let you know right up front that there is no hard answer to the question of what camera to buy. When it comes to cameras there are always trade offs. There is no “perfect” camera. Which camera is best for you depends on what you want to do and what compromises you are willing to accept.
Let’s look at the basics. There are four basic types of cameras: Compact (or pocket), bridge, DSLR and mirrorless. But while these are widely accepted as the different types, in reality there is a great deal of blurring of in the lines separating these types, especially when it comes to the camera’s sensors, the part that actually takes the photo, and the electronics and software.
Sidenote: A word about viewfinders. Most modern cameras come with an LCD screen that shows you a representation of the image the camera “sees” through the lens. One would think that the traditional viewfinder, a sort of peephole that you push up to your eye to peer through, would be a thing of the past. It isn’t. A lot of photographers, myself included, still use and still want a traditional viewfinder. My Nikon has a very good LCD screen, but I still use the viewfinder a lot, far more often than I use the LCD screen. For me it seems to work better.
Compact cameras can range from very very bad to very, very good, and prices bounce all over the place from under $100 to, well, to almost as much as your wallet can handle. What they all have in common is small size, usually small enough to easily slip into a pocket. The problem with compact cameras is that unless you’re willing to spend a heck of a lot of money on one, you’re going to be better off just using the camera in your cellphone. Modern cell phone cameras are excellent, often far superior to most of the compact cameras on the market, especially the inexpensive cameras.
The other thing that is true or, rather, used to be true about compact cameras, is that they were very simple to use. They were basically point-and-shoot cameras. There were few if any settings to worry about, the camera’s computers took care of setting everything for you. All you needed to do was point it and press the shutter button. But that’s changed too, especially at the higher prices. A lot of these cameras come with almost as many bells and whistles as DSLR cameras. And this is both good and bad. It’s good in that it gives the photographer more creative control over what the camera does. And it’s bad in that it complicates things when all you want to do is take a quick snapshot. They all will have some kind of default mode where the camera makes all of the decisions for you and all you need to do is press a button.
The good ones, like the Cannon up there, are very good indeed. But it will also cost you about $650, and for not much more than that you can get a pretty nice DSLR with better specifications.
Sidenote: If you have a relatively modern, high quality cellphone, either one of the Android models or an iPhone, chances are good you already have a camera that is as good as, or even better than, most of the compact cameras on the market. If you have something like an iPhone 13 or a Samsung Galaxy S22, you already have one of the best compact cameras made.
Yes, some of them have some pretty clever electronics and software built into them with some interesting special effects capabilities and things like that. Some of them have some pretty nifty zoom lenses. But most of that stuff, well, frankly a lot of those ‘features’ are little more than gimmicks that you’ll play with a couple of times and then never use again.
The only reason to really buy a compact camera is if you need a pocket sized camera with a decent telephoto lens. And if that is your need, go for it. But you’re going to pay for it. Figure on spending around $400+ for a good one.
Don’t get me wrong. Some of these cameras are excellent. I’ve owned a few that were pretty darned good. But I also have a iPhone 13 pro max, and the camera in that is, frankly, amazing, and far, far better than any of the compact cameras I’ve owned in the past.
Bridge cameras are supposed to fill a niche between compact cameras and full blown DSLR. They will have, maybe, much better sensors which offer better resolution photos, better lenses, possibly a zoom lens that will reach out to about 25x telephoto or more, and lots and lots of goodies in the software that let you do interesting things. They will give you some control over things like shutter speeds, apateure, focus, etc. They are supposed to be a jump up in quality from compact cameras, but don’t have interchangeable lenses and lack some of the high end features of a DSLR, which is supposed to help make them cheaper and easier to use than a full blown DSLR.
Here’s the thing with bridge cameras, they’re sort of like the worst of both worlds. You have a camera that is heavy, awkward to carry around, physically as large as a DSLR, and damned near as expensive as a DSLR, but without the advantages of having a DSLR’s interchangeable lenses.
Some of the bridge cameras are excellent, even outstanding. Even some of the ones in the under $500 range aren’t too bad. But if you want a really good one? Be prepared for a bit of sticker shock because some of these puppies will run you well over a grand, which is getting up into DSLR territory.
The biggest problem with bridge cameras, IMO, is the lens. Because the lens cannot be removed it has to be able to do everything the photographer may want to do. They come with a “do it all” type lens that can go from extreme closeups (macro) to extreme telephoto. And in order to do that they have to make compromises that affect things like focus, depth of field, shutter speeds, etc.
And then as I mentioned above, there is a problem with the cost. Yes, you can get a decent bridge camera for around $500. But the really good ones with what I consider to be professional quality features and and software are all in the $700+ range, and some of them run as high as almost $2,000. Just for comparison, my Nikon D5600 DSLR, with a pretty nice 55mm lens, is going for under $800 right now on Amazon.
Let’s move on to SLR type cameras.
DSLR – That’s an acronym that carries over from the film camera era when SLR cameras were considered the high end. So what’s the big deal with SLR type cameras? There are two things, interchangeable lenses and how the photographer sees the image in the viewfinder.
Before SLRs came along, cameras had a separate viewfinder. Sometimes this was little more than a peep hole bolted to the body of the camera to give you a general idea of what you were aiming at. Sort of. You weren’t seeing what the camera was seeing through the lens. Because you weren’t actually seeing what the camera was seeing, this caused a lot of problems. The viewfinder could be misaligned or because of things like parallax, you couldn’t tell if the focus was correct, etc.
SLR cameras use a mirror and prism system where a mirror drops down in front of the film (or sensor in the case of digital cameras) directing the light from the lens into a prism which sends that light into the viewfinder and to your eye. With a SLR what you are seeing in the viewfinder is exactly what the camera sees through the lens. When you press the shutter button, the mirror snaps out of the way so the light coming through the lens falls on the film (or sensor), giving you an image that is, if everything works right, exactly what you saw through the viewfinder.
Needless to say, the ability for the photographer to see exactly what the camera was seeing through the lens was an important development. The SLR system was first introduced in 1935 and has been in use ever since. That it’s been around for nearly a hundred years should give you an idea of just how useful it is. Things are changing, though, and mirrorless cameras are starting to become popular, but I’ll look at those in a minute.
SLR type cameras also have interchangeable lenses. You aren’t stuck with whatever lens the manufacturer decided was best. You can get different apertures, different focal lengths, telephoto, zoom, macro, wide angle, etc. And you weren’t stuck with a single lens manufacturer either. The only problem was that every camera maker had their own lens mounting system, so your Nikon lenses wouldn’t work on your Canon camera, etc.
SLR type cameras also generally have better, well, better everything, really. Better sensors, higher resolution images, better electronics, better software, more options for getting the best exposure, aperture settings, shutter speeds, etc. The problem with all of that is, of course, figuring out how to use all of it to your advantage. Even back in the pre-digital days a lot of SLR cameras had a bewildering variety of knobs and buttons to allow you to set up the camera for the perfect photo, giving you a large number of ways to screw up your photos. Modern cameras with their fancy electronics and processing abilities give you even more control, more complexity, and even more interesting ways of messing up. You can adjust white balance, contrast, brightness, color intensity, shutter speeds, aperture settings, even do some special effects. A lot of these cameras come with WiFi and Bluetooth to connect to your phone or computer to transfer images directly to other devices
Almost all DSLR cameras come with some kind of automated “point-and-shoot” mode where you just let the onboard computers control all of that stuff for you, but if that’s all you’re going to do you might as well stick with a compact camera. One of the points of getting a DSLR is so you can fiddle with all of that stuff to get the perfect photo. So if you do decide to get one of these be prepared to do a lot of homework and a lot of experimenting before you become proficient with it. But the results are worth it.
Now we come to mirrorless cameras. These are a relatively new development. They are basically SLR type cameras that have gotten rid of the mirror. That mirror has always been a bit of a pain in the neck. It is mechanically complex in that it has to drop down in front of the focal plane of the camera to reflect the image into the view finder, and then almost instantly snap up out of the way when you press the shutter button. This can cause vibration, which can mess up an image. It is expensive to manufacturer. It is always a potential failure point in SLR type cameras. And then someone said hey, wait a minute, why do we need that mirror system at all? Just pick off the video from the primary sensor and route that to an LCD display and/or a viewfinder.
And that is the direction cameras are moving these days. A lot of big camera makers are starting to, or already have, phased out most of their SLR style cameras in favor of the mirrorless variety. Despite some pushback from some photographers, mirrorless cameras make a lot of sense and I think you’re eventually going to see DSLR type cameras go away. Does this mean you shouldn’t buy a DSLR? No. DSLR cameras work very, very well. And despite all of the hype about mirrorless cameras, IMO the only thing that makes them attractive is that they are less mechanically complicated and have fewer moving parts that can break. In some ways DSLR cameras are still superior, but that’s changing rapidly. The mirrorless cameras that I’ve seen are very, very nice. I have no incentive to get one, though. I am more than satisfied with the one I have.
Decisions, decisions, decisions…
So, which one should you get? Heck, I don’t know. It’s entirely up to you. That’s going to depend entirely on you. All of the different types of cameras have advantages and disadvantages. There is no such thing as a “perfect” camera. There is no quick and easy answer to that question. All of them have advantages and disadvantages. You’re going to have to decide for yourself if the disadvantages are worth it.