Why is choosing a camera so difficult? If you already know what kind of camera you want, of course, you can go straight to our Camera Channel home page for all the latest camera reviews. But for most users it's not so easy. The range of cameras on sale is massive, stretching from cheap and cheerful compact models competing with your smartphone, right through to professional-spec SLRs that cost as much as a decent used car.

It doesn't help that makers of low-cost cameras also want to boast about 'professional' features, while the makers of more advanced SLR and mirrorless compact system camera want us to know that they're still easy enough for beginners.

It sounds like every camera is brilliant at everything, which of course it's not. So here's our guide to the whole digital camera market, the different camera types available and what to look for, because once you break them down into just three main types, it all starts to get a lot simpler. They are:

  • Compact cameras: perfect for portability and general snapping, but can be more advanced too
  • Digital SLRs: bigger sensors, interchangeable lenses and the pros' favourite
  • Mirrorless compact system cameras: SLR-sized sensors and interchangeable lenses, but in a smaller, lighter and more novice friendly design

We'll look at the pros and cons of each type so that you've got a better idea which one would suit you best, and we'll explain some of the jargon and key technologies along the way.

Compact cameras

This is the biggest group and the one with the widest variety of cameras. Traditionally, these are called 'compact' because they are smaller than the digital SLRs the pros use and mostly you can slide them into a coat or trouser pocket. The sensors are much smaller, though, so while the quality is fine for point-and-shoot snapshots it falls some way short of the quality you get with more advanced cameras.

Nikon CoolPix L29
Simple point-and-shoot compacts like the Nikon CoolPix L28 are cheap, small and perfect for snaps.

At the same time, there's been a big growth in 'bridge' cameras with SLR styling and very long zoom ranges. They are indeed a kind of 'bridge' between pocket-sized compacts and powerful SLRs. You can shoot a much wider range of subjects and with more photographic controls.

These bridge cameras won't fit in your pocket, though, and they mostly use sensors the same size as those in regular compact cameras (though there are exceptions). This means you do get more scope and options, but not necessarily more picture quality.

Canon SX60 HS
The Canon SX60 HS is a typical 'bridge' camera – bulky, but highly versatile with a huge zoom range.

There's also been an increase in the number of high-end compact cameras, sometimes with large sensors or fixed focal length lenses. Designed for experts, these can get close to the quality and control you get from an SLR.

Sony RX1R
The Sony RX1R is one of a new breed of 'big sensor compacts' offering SLR quality.

So-called 'compact' cameras aren't always compact and don't always have small sensors, then! But they do have one thing in common – the lens is permanently attached to the camera. When you choose a compact camera you need to pay extra attention to the lens to make sure it covers the zoom range you need.

There's more about this in our Best compact camera guide. And because compact cameras now come in so many shapes and sizes, we split them up into broad groups to make them easier to categorise.

  • Regular compacts: pocketable snapshot cameras
  • High-end/advanced compact cameras: SLR features and/or quality in a pocket-sized body
  • Bridge cameras: huge zoom ranges, SLR styling – 'do-it-all' cameras
  • Travel/superzoom cameras: the size of a compact but the zoom range (almost) of a bridge camera
  • Waterproof/adventure cameras: compact and waterproof, shockproof, even freeze-proof!

Basic compact cameras are perfect for beginners, and there are more advanced models with bigger sensors aimed at enthusiasts and experts too.

If you are a keen photographer, though, a compact camera will only take you so far, however advanced it is. It might be worth considering as a 'second' camera to carry around, but it probably won't be enough as a main camera. This is where you need to start looking at interchangeable lens cameras, or 'ILC's. Until recently, these came in just one type – the SLR.