The best camera you can buy isn't always the one that costs the most money. People want different things from their cameras, so while pros will want a powerful DSLR at the heart of an extensive system of lenses and accessories, it will be big, heavy, awkward and almost certainly not the 'best' camera for the rest of us.
Photography enthusiasts want the best combination of performance and versatility for their money, which could be a DSLR or a mirrorless camera – both take interchangeable lenses. Or maybe what you actually need is a high-end compact camera with the controls of a digital SLR in a body you can fit in your pocket? Or a long-zoom bridge camera capable of tackling just about any subject under the sun?
And the fact is that for many of us a camera is just a tool. As long the picture quality is good enough, the camera just has to be easy, affordable and effective. So we've picked the 10 best cameras you can buy right now across this whole spectrum of users, and along the way we'll explain the pros and cons of each type.
1. Nikon D810
The top DSLR for quality conscious experts and professionals
Type: DSLR | Sensor: Full-frame, 36.3Mp | Lens: Nikon FX (DX supported in crop mode) | Monitor: 3.2-inch, 1,229K dots | Viewfinder: Optical | Continuous shooting: 5fps | Movies: 1080 | User level: Expert
The Nikon D810 has an ultra-high resolution full frame sensor and a surprisingly affordable price tag for a professional camera. In fact, many well-heeled enthusiasts have scraped up the cash to buy it too. It has no anti-aliasing filter in front of the sensor which produces even sharper fine detail. The D810 is a classic DSLR which shows the view through the lens via a mirror (which flips up at the moment of exposure) and an optical viewfinder, and it's at the centre of a huge range of lenses and other accessories for both amateurs and pros.
Read the full review: Nikon D810
2. Canon EOS 7D Mark II
Pro performance on an amateur budget, and perfect for action
Type: DSLR | Sensor: APS-C, 20.2MP | Lens: Canon EF-S, EF | Monitor: 3-inch, 1,040K dots | Viewfinder: Optical | Continuous shooting: 10fps | Movies: 1080 | User level: Enthusiast/Expert
One of the reasons the Nikon D810 is so expensive is its full-frame sensor. Most non-professional DSLRs, though, use smaller APS-C size sensors, which deliver quality that's almost as good at a much lower cost. This is the sensor size used in the Canon EOS 7D Mark II, which designed for sports, action and wildlife photography where speed and responsiveness are paramount. It's the first enthusiast DSLR to shoot continuously at 10 frames per second, matching the speed of professional DSLRs like the Canon-1D X and Nikon D4s but at a much lower cost.
Read the full review: Canon EOS 7D Mark II
3. Fuji X-T1
A mirrorless camera that looks and works like a top DSLR
Type: Mirrorless camera | Sensor: APS-C, 16.3MP | Lens: Fuji X-mount | Monitor: 3-inch tilting, 1,040K dots | Viewfinder: Electronic | Continuous shooting: 8fps | Movies: 1080 | User level: Enthusiast/expert
Mirrorless cameras (also called compact system cameras) are really catching on. They take interchangeable lenses, just like DSLRs, but instead of using a mirror and an optical viewfinder they display the image captured 'live' on the LCD or, if they have on, in an electronic viewfinder. The Fuji X-T1 is one of our favourites. It looks, feels and handles just like a traditional 35mm film SLR and Fuji's excellent X-Trans sensor delivers rich, film-like colours and high levels of detail.
Read the full review: Fuji X-T1
4. Panasonic FZ1000
The bridge camera for the photographer who wants quality too
Type: Bridge camera | Sensor: 1-inch, 20.1Mp | Lens: 25-400mm, f/2.8-4.0 | Monitor: 3-inch articulating, 921K dots | Viewfinder: Electronic | Continuous shooting: 12fps | Movies: 4K | User level: Enthusiast
Bridge cameras, technically, are 'compact' cameras. Actually, they're not compact at all – this term simply means cameras with fixed, non-interchangeable lenses. The point about bridge cameras is that they have lenses with such a huge zoom range that they can still tackle almost any subject. The downside with most bridge cameras is that they have tiny 1/2.3-inch sensors – but the Panasonic FZ1000 is the exception. It has a much larger 1-inch sensor that delivers a big step up in definition, low light performance and picture quality in general. Other bridge cameras have a longer zoom range, but the FZ1000 delivers the best blend of zoom range and picture quality combined.
Read the full review: Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ1000
5. Panasonic LX100
Amazing big-sensor quality and classic controls in a pocket-sized camera
Type: High-end compact | Sensor: Micro Four Thirds, 12.8MP | Lens: 24-75mm, f/1.7-2.8 | Monitor: 3-inch, 921K dots | Viewfinder: Electronic | Continuous shooting: 11fps | Movies: 4K | User level: Expert
The LX100 is a compact camera of a different sort. It's designed for keen photographers who like all the manual controls and features of a digital SLR or compact system, but need a camera that can slip into a jacket pocket. Usually, this means you have to put up with a small sensor and reduced quality, but Panasonic a way to squeeze a Micro Four Thirds sensor into the LX100 – the same size used in Olympus and Panasonic mirrorless cameras. It also has a great 4x zoom with a fast maximum aperture of f1/7-2.8. This, combined with the big sensor, makes it great for low-light photography and creative shallow depth of field effects. It's not cheap, but it is brilliant.
Read the full review: Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX100
6. Olympus OM-D E-M10
Get the DSLR look and feel in a super-small mirrorless camera
Type: Mirrorless camera: Sensor: Micro Four Thirds, 16.1Mp | Lens: Micro Four Thirds | Monitor: 3-inch tilting, 1,037K dots | Viewfinder: Electronic | Continuous shooting: 8fps | Movies: 1080 | User level: Enthusiast
If you like the size of the Panasonic LX100 but not the fixed lens, there is an alternative. The Olympus OM-D E-M10 is only a little larger, and while it's barely a 'pocket' camera, it is nevertheless amazingly compact – it's dramatically smaller than any DSLR (and many other compact system cameras) and yet it has interchangeable lenses, a really good electronic viewfinder and looks and feels remarkably like an old OM 35mm SLR. Olympus and Panasonic use Micro Four Thirds sensors in their mirrorless cameras. These sensors are a little smaller than the APS-C sensors in rival cameras, but they don't give much away in quality and do allow super-compact designs like this.
Read the full review: Olympus OM-D E-M10
7. Nikon D3300
Cheap to buy, easy to use – the perfect 'starter' DSLR
Type: DSLR | Sensor: DX (APS-C), 24.2Mp | Lens: Nikon DX, FX | Monitor: 3-inch, 921K dots | Viewfinder: Optical | Continuous shooting: 5fps | Movies: 1080K | User level: Beginner/enthusiast
The D3300 is Nikon's entry-level digital SLR, so it would be easy to write it off as a novice camera for beginners. Don't. Its control layout is optimised for photography newcomers, true, but all the manual controls of a serious DSLR are still there in the menus and interactive on-screen interface, and inside the D3300 is one of the best APS-C sensors on the market, regardless of price. Nikon's 24-megapixel CMOS sensor has no anti-aliasing filter, so it delivers some of the finest detail you'll see outside of the professional full-frame camera market. The D3300 might look simple, but it's a terrific camera to learn and grow with, and it's excellent value for money.
Read the full review: Nikon D3300
8. Panasonic TZ70/ZS50
The perfect travel camera – small but versatile and with a big zoom
Type: Compact travel camera: Sensor: 1/2.3-inch, 12.1Mp | Lens: 24-720mm, f/3.3-6.4 | Monitor: 3-inch, 1,040K dots | Viewfinder: Electronic | Continuous shooting: 10fps | Movies: 1080 | User level: Beginner/enthusiast
But despite all this talk of sensor size, image quality and high-end features, there are times when the most important thing is a camera cheap enough to buy, small enough to carry and versatile enough for what you want it to do. The Panasonic TZ70 (ZS50 is the US) is the perfect example. It's a pocket-size 'travel camera' with a massive 30x zoom range so that you can photograph a cramped and crowded souk one minute and distant minaret the next. The small sensor restricts the maximum image quality, but the results are perfectly good enough for sharing and printing and the TZ70 even has a viewfinder for times when there's too much glare to use the LCD.
Read the full review: Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ70
9. Canon D30
The alternative travel camera – it can go anywhere you can
Type: Waterproof compact | Sensor: 1/2.3-inch, 12.1MP | Lens: 28-140mm, f/3.9-4.8 | Monitor: 3-inch, 461K dots | Viewfinder: No | Continuous shooting: 1.9fps | Movies: 1080 | User level: Beginner
If you like your vacations to be a little more adventurous, or if you just like to spend time in the sea not the city, a waterproof compact camera might be a better choice. The Canon PowerShot D30 is our favorite because it's waterproof to a depth of 25m – that's really deep for any camera not in a professional waterproof housing. It's shockproof too, withstanding drops from heights of up to 2m, freezeproof (down to -10 centigrade) and dustproof. Why get a regular point-and-shoot compact when you can pay just a little more and get one that can stand anything you can throw at it? The D30 even has GPS built in, so your pictures have their location embedded within them.
Read the full review: Canon PowerShot D30
10. Sony W800
Cheap point and shoot camera that combines simplicity with style
Type: Point-and-shoot compact | Sensor: 1/.3-inch, 20.1Mp | Lens: 26-130mm, f/3.2-6.4 | Monitor: 2.7-inch, 230K dots | Viewfinder: No | Continuous shooting: 0.5fps | Movies: 720 | User level: Beginner
Finally, if what you really want is just to get the best little camera possible for the smallest amount of money, we reckon you can't do better than the Sony W800. If you want to be picky you can criticise almost everything about modest little point-and-shoot cameras like this, from the small sensor and adequate-but-no-more image quality to the plastic build and simple controls – but the W800 camera take perfectly good snapshots without requiring any technical know-how and manages to look like a classy bit of kit despite its bargain price. It even has a 5x zoom and a standard HD video mode, and weighing just 109g, it'll slip straight into a shirt or trouser pocket.
Read the full review: Sony DSC-W800