Answering the question 'what digital camera should I buy?' has become much more difficult lately, because there are more types of camera available, with the rise of compact system cameras (CSCs), smart cameras with Wi-Fi and GPS, bridge or superzoom cameras, retro-styled cameras, high-end camera phones and more.
When deciding which camera is best for you, first you need to decide which type of camera you want, then choosing a brand and a model will be easier.
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Compact System Cameras or CSCs - also known as mirrorless cameras - reap the benefits of digital technology and exclude the mirror found in a DSLR to enable them to be made smaller and lighter while still accepting interchangeable lenses. A key advantage that most CSCs have over most compact cameras is that the sensors are larger so that they can deliver better image quality, while still having a relatively small body.
But perhaps an even smaller compact camera with a fixed rather than an interchangeable lens is what you are looking for?
The video below explains the basic differences between the different types of camera - compact, compact system, DSLR and bridge or superzoom - to help you decide what camera is the most appropriate choice for you and your photography.
Alternatively, a bridge or superzoom camera may be up your street. Bridge cameras are so called because they bridge the gap between a DSLR and a compact camera by having a mini-DSLR shape but with a fixed lens that usually has a huge zoom range.
For many photography enthusiasts, a full DSLR is still the only way to go. Yes they are big and heavy, but they have optical viewfinders, larger sensors and, in the right hands, produce top-rate images.
Each camera type has its appeal, but which is the right one for you? Read on to find out.
Compact and bridge cameras
Compact cameras are traditionally aimed at the general public and occasional users who wouldn't call themselves photographers. Stuffed with 'smart' and 'intelligent' technology such as Wi-Fi, many compact cameras are ideal for those happy to leave all the decision making to the camera rather than select settings themselves.
There are, however, advanced models that enable a similar level of control over aspects such as exposure and colour as a DSLR.
Since there are hundreds of compact camera models from many manufacturers, it is often very difficult to choose the right one, but here are a few pointers to put you on the right path.
Models priced below £250/AU$400/US$350 all share a similar size of sensor, which today incorporates around 12-16 million pixels (MP). This comfortably meets and exceeds the requirements of most users.
While a greater number of pixels can be beneficial in good light, this can otherwise have a detrimental effect on image quality, particularly when you venture up a camera's sensitivity range to its four-figure ISO settings.
This doesn't mean you should actively avoid digital cameras with the most megapixels, but that your decision making should involve a number of other factors.
If you do plan on buying a simple compact camera, and you're likely to be using it in a range of lighting conditions, look out for those which use a backlit sensor, as these tend to capture images with less grainy and destructive noise, and with a wider dynamic range. It's possible to find these at a range of prices, from entry-level models to more advanced cameras twice as expensive, and the use of this technology is rapidly proliferating.
Other things to look out for include the range of the camera's lens, since this will determine how suitable it is for different subjects.
A wideangle lens which begins at the equivalent of around 24 or 28mm, for example, is an excellent choice for indoor shots and landscapes, and those which extend to 250mm (equivalent) and beyond are ideal for nature and wherever you need to focus on far-off details.
It's a good idea to look for cameras with either lens- or sensor-based image stabilisation systems, particularly if you're looking to buy a camera with a relatively long zoom. These help maintain a higher standard of image quality than sensitivity- and processing-based technologies.
In some cases these are linked to the optical zooms of the cameras so that they move in tandem with the lens, and can be useful for shooting in bright light when LCD screens become hard to view.
Pushing the boat out
So, what if you have a little more money to spend - what camera should you be looking for then? And what are their benefits?
A more expensive compact camera may provide a larger sensor and a better quality lens, which together help improve all aspects of image quality. Many also offer manual control over exposure for when you want to get creative, and you may also get a raw shooting mode which will give you a better starting point for any post-capture processing you may wish to carry out.
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Furthermore, such models are likely to have a superior LCD screen to those on cheaper cameras, which will not only resolve details with greater clarity but will also be easier to view in harsh and sunny conditions.
Alternatively, if it's a large zoom range you're after, you may want to consider a bridge or superzoom camera. These combine expansive optical zooms with manual exposure options, which together provide control similar (but not equivalent) to that of a DSLR.
Alongside their LCD screens, bridge cameras tend to incorporate electronic viewfinders (EVFs) with around 230,000 dots. The performance of these varies wildly between models, so it's worth investigating this before deciding on any particular model.
Electronic viewfinders also have the benefit of displaying much of the information found on the camera's LCD screen, which enables you to view and change settings without you needing to pull the camera away from your eye.
While the results from a bridge camera generally fall short of DSLR quality, what you lose in quality you make up for with portability and the convenience of such a wide zoom range in a small and inexpensive body. Many now offer articulated LCD screens and HD video recording, and some even go on to offer a raw shooting mode.
Compact and bridge camera summary
In summary, if you have about £300-£400 (AU/US$400-$500) to spend, and you want something pocketable yet capable, look out for a camera with a healthy range of manual control, an LCD screen with at least 460,000 dots and ideally a backlit sensor.
But before you do that, consider whether you'd be better off with a compact system camera instead.