How to Choose the Right Camera
Buying a digital camera is a very different experience than it was a few years ago. Smartphone cameras keep getting better, so there are a lot fewer buyers out there for budget pocket shooters. And because of that, there aren’t that many good, inexpensive point-and-shoots. Meanwhile, SLRs have taken a back seat to smaller, lighter mirrorless cameras in performance thanks to wider autofocus coverage and superior video performance on average.
You can still buy a pocket-friendly camera if you want, but you’ll need to spend a bit to get one that offers significantly better imaging than a flagship smartphone. We’ve included a waterproof model on our list, as well as a pair of point-and-shoots with image sensors much larger than smartphones, so you get a bit more zoom power and comparable quality in dim light.
There are still a few pocket superzooms on the market, but if you want to get a camera with incredible zoom power, you’re better off buying a bridge model. They’re a little bit larger, but that allows room for better lenses to bring distant subjects into clear view.
For more serious photographers, full-frame cameras are typically the way to go. We’ve got a pair of Sony models at the top of our chart; Canon and Nikon also make very good cameras. Fujifilm has a strong APS-C system, but skipped making full-frame to play in the more niche medium format market instead.
We test and rate hundreds of cameras each year, and we’ve highlighted some of our favorite models here. We’ve tried to cover a bevy of price points in this more general overview, which means some fantastic cameras, like the 5-star Nikon D850, aren’t listed here. We have more targeted recommendation lists for photographers who know which type of camera you want to buy, which will serve you better once you’ve set your sights on a specific type of camera to buy. You can click through to any of them in the forthcoming sections.
The Best Digital Camera Deals This Week*
*Deals are selected by our partner, TechBargains
Pocket Friendly: Entry-Level Point-and-Shoot Cameras
It’s no secret that smartphones have seriously hurt the demand for entry-level point-and-shoot cameras. The latest from Apple, the iPhone 11 Pro, is a better camera than any low-cost model. It carries a high-end price tag, but if you’re already buying a fancy phone, there’s no reason to buy a low-end camera too.
If you aren’t a smartphone user, you can buy any number of sub-$100 no-name cameras at online retailers, but I’d avoid them like the plague. If you can spend more than a $100, you can get a model from a name brand like Canon or Nikon.
These slimline shooters pack zoom lenses, which set them apart from smartphones, but for the most part use dated CCD sensor technology, which limits image quality when shooting at high ISO settings and cuts the maximum video quality to 720p.
Moving up to the $200 to $400 price nets more modern CMOS image sensors and very long zoom lenses—30x is the standard at this point. For the most part video is still 1080p, and you’ll also see some cameras with small electronic viewfinders, Raw shooting capability, and very quick autofocus. Pure image quality isn’t any better than a smartphone, with the real advantage being the zoom lens. There are also several models that are waterproof available in this price range.
What Is the Best Camera to Buy for a Beginner Photographer?
Smartphones and basic point-and-shoots are designed for automatic operation. If you want to take up photography as a hobby, or aspire to be a photojournalist or wedding pro, you’ll want to get a camera that gives you room to grow and learn the craft.
See How We Test Digital Cameras
I’d recommend getting a good mirrorless camera to start. The Sony a6400 or Fujifilm X-T30 can be used in fully automatic mode, but also offer total manual control over exposure. Because they use electronic viewfinders, you can see a preview of your final exposure before you take the shot. If you prefer an SLR, the Nikon D3500 is a good starter model, with a low price and an in-camera guide that explains some of the basics of making images.
When shopping for a starter camera, ask yourself some questions about what you want. Take a look at the size, as a camera isn’t any good if you’re not going to carry and use it. But also think about connectivity—you probably want to copy images to your smartphone easily—and price. Ease of use isn’t a huge hurdle these days—everything has an auto mode—but models with guided interfaces will let you take some sort of control over how your photos turn out, without having to know too much technical jargon.
Kicking It Old School: Film
You don’t have to get a digital camera to get a camera. Film is still an option, with instant cameras being extremely popular. Instant formats take away the hassle of getting film developed, and make it easy to share physical images with friends and family immediately after they’ve been captured. You can get an entry-level model for around $65, and film packs generally cost around $7.50.
You can also buy a new 35mm or medium format camera. You don’t have as many options for getting film developed as you used to—if you’re in a major city it’ll be easy to find a lab, but you may have to resort to mail order if you’re not close to a metropolis. You can find old film SLRs and compacts in thrift shops and online stores pretty easily. If you’re intent on buying a new model, Lomography still makes a bunch of different ones, from toy models like the Sprocket Rocket, which captures panoramic shots with exposed sprockets, to premium options like the medium format LC-A 120.
Small Camera, Big Sensor: Premium Compacts
You may scratch your head when you see pocket cameras with fixed lenses selling for anywhere from $400 to $1,300. After all, you can get an interchangeable lens model for the same price. But these slim, premium shooters target a very specific market—photographers who already own a mirrorless camera or SLR and a bunch of lenses, but want something small as an alternative option.
For a long time, the premium models sported 1/1.7-inch class sensors, which offered modest advantages over the more common 1/2.3-inch type found in entry-level cameras and premium smartphones. Sony changed that in 2013 with its revolutionary RX100, which brought the 1-inch sensor class into the spotlight.
A 1-inch sensor has roughly four times the surface area of the chips used in premium smartphones and entry-level point-and-shoots. That leads to significantly clearer images, especially at high ISO. The industry has settled on 20MP of resolution for this sensor type, which delivers an excellent balance of image quality and noise control.
With the larger sensor comes a shorter zoom. For the most part, you’ll see models with short 2.9x (24-70mm) reach, or the slightly longer 4x lens (25-100mm). These lenses tend to capture a good amount of light throughout their range and the optics required to do that necessitate a large front element and short zoom range.
We’re starting to see longer zooms in this category, but with narrower aperture and lenses that top out at 10x coverage (25-250mm). A narrow aperture isn’t as good for low light as models with short zooms and big f-stops, but is a better choice for travel, when you want a pocket camera with an ample zoom range. The 1-inch sensor size typically nets solid image quality through ISO 3200, and even to ISO 6400 if you opt to shoot in Raw format, so use in dim light is still possible.
There are also models out there with even larger image sensors and shorter zooms or no zoom at all. You can get a small camera with an SLR-sized APS-C image sensor and a fixed focal length lens, and there are even a couple of options out there with larger full-frame sensors.
You can opt for a fixed-lens camera that’s sized and shaped a lot like an SLR—a bridge camera. These models tend to have really long lenses—up to 83x zoom power in models with the 1/2.3-inch sensor size—and sport electronic viewfinders, hot shoes, and articulating rear displays. If zoom is what you’re after, a bridge camera may be your best bet, although understand that they won’t handle dim light as well as an SLR.
There are also premium bridge models with larger 1-inch sensors and shorter zooms. They still have a considerable size advantage over SLRs with comparable zooms—just think about carrying an interchangeable lens camera and two or three lenses to cover a 24-200mm, 24-400mm, or 24-600mm coverage range. They tend to be more expensive than an SLR, and certainly more than bridge models with smaller sensors, but do better at higher ISO settings and sport lenses that gather more light. If you put a premium on a lightweight camera, and want the versatility that a long zoom design delivers, look at a bridge model with a 1-inch sensor. Just be prepared to pay a premium.
The Best Cameras for Travelers
Not surprisingly, I find bridge models to be just about perfect for globetrotters. They pack a wide zoom range, so you don’t have to fumble with lens changes. And if you opt for a premium 1-inch model you can shoot in varying types of light. But you may want a different kind of camera to take with you on your journeys.
If you want something more pocket-friendly, a point-and-shoot can do the trick. But be prepared to get a little spendy to get something worthy of your exotic destinations. For the rough-and-tumble crowd, I recommend the Olympus TG-6 due to its bright lens and tough build. (If you’re more of a video person, don’t forget about GoPro.)
For more leisurely vacations, reach for a premium compact like a Sony RX100 model or Canon G7 X and enjoy the comfortable form factor of a camera and image quality that’s a tad better than your smartphone.
If you don’t mind carrying something larger, a good mirrorless camera (and a couple of lenses) will fit easily into a small bag and net images and videos worthy of sharing with friends and family back home. The Sony a6100 looks like a very strong affordable option (we’ve not yet had a chance to test it), and there are alternatives like the Fujifilm X-E3 that are a bit more stylish.
Entry-Level Interchangeable Lens: SLR and Mirrorless
For a long time we looked at mirrorless cameras and SLRs as two distinct classes. But that time is over—there are no performance compromises by opting for mirrorless. In many cases, you’ll get better autofocus and image quality by swapping an SLR for a camera without a flipping mirror.
We’ve been disappointed that features common in mirrorless models, including tilting touch-screen displays and wireless connectivity, have been very slow to make their way to SLRs. Likewise, while Canon has made significant improvements in video autofocus in its pricier SLRs, consumers are better off with a low-cost mirrorless model if they want fast, seamless autofocus when recording moving pictures.
If you’re not familiar with the term, the mirror that mirrorless cameras lack is the one that directs light to an optical viewfinder from the lens. SLRs, of course, still offer that. Getting rid of the mirror box allows for a slimmer design with fewer moving parts, as well as more accurate autofocus. And, with the latest spate of models, autofocus is fast. So fast that you won’t miss shooting with an SLR.
If you’re willing to live without a viewfinder of any sort and use the LCD to frame shots, you can find solid mirrorless models for under $500, including a kit lens. Like SLRs, different manufacturers support different lens formats. If you buy a Sony mirrorless camera, you’ll stick with Sony E and FE lenses, and if you opt for Fujifilm you’re locked into the X lens system.
The exception is the Micro Four Thirds system, which is a lens format shared by Olympus and Panasonic, and utilized by more specialized cinema cameras made by companies like Blackmagic. The MFT sensor format is a 4:3 aspect ratio, as opposed to the 3:2 ratio used by most SLRs, and slightly smaller.
Canon, Nikon, and Pentax offer entry-level SLRs with traditional optical viewfinders. Sony still has a couple of models which use the legacy Minolta A-mount, but they use electronic viewfinders. The A-mount system is a legacy one that isn’t likely to see any future development. We don’t recommend new customers invest in it today.
Traditional SLRs struggle when it comes to video autofocus. Contrast-based methods require that the focus point move just beyond the point of crisp focus and come back to it in order to lock on, which can be distracting when refocusing to follow a moving subject. SLR makers have worked to improve this, utilizing lenses with Pulse or Stepping Motors, which are quieter and smoother during focus, but they’re still not on the same level as most mirrorless cameras.
You’ll get the back-and-forth effect with entry-level mirrorless models that rely entirely on contrast for focus. But it’s not as noticeable as you get with SLRs, and by the time you’ve moved up to a midrange price point—which is actually in line with the price of entry-level SLR models—you start to see on-sensor phase detection.
For Serious Shutterbugs: Premium Mirrorless and SLR
When you spend more than $1,000 for a camera, you don’t necessarily see a big jump in image quality versus entry-level models. Camera makers like to streamline sensors across an entire line of models, as it allows them to develop technology once that can be used across their catalog.
Your extra money typically gets you better build quality, faster memory card slots for longer burst shooting, and higher capture rates. All of these are important for enthusiasts interested in capturing fast action, and outdoor photographers who want some level of weather protection.
Don’t forget about lenses and accessories. You shouldn’t just look at the features of the camera you’re interested in, but also if the entire system meets your needs. There are several lens systems to consider.
Micro Four Thirds cameras can use either Olympus or Panasonic lenses, which gives them a leg up in the pure number of lenses available, including fish-eye, ultra-wide angle, and extreme telephoto primes and zooms. Fujifilm has a strong library of lenses, including a 100-400mm zoom that can be paired with a teleconverter for even more reach.
Sony’s mirrorless system has grown by leaps and bounds since its introduction. It uses the same lens mount for its APS-C (E) and full-frame (FE) lenses. There are native options available all the way through 600mm, with teleconverters to extend reach, and third-party support is growing fast.
Canon has created a messy situation for customers considering one of its two mirrorless systems. The APS-C EOS M and the full-frame EOS R systems uses two different lens mounts, and they are not at all cross-compatible. Both can use EF and EF-S SLR lenses via an adapter, though.
Canon’s strategy, so far, is pretty clear. If you place value on a small camera and don’t want to spend a lot on glass, the EOS M and its EF-M lenses are the way to go. Pros and enthusiasts who are prepared to buy f/2.8 zooms and expensive primes should look to the EOS R and its RF lenses.
Nikon has taken a page from Sony’s book and uses the same Z mount for both its APS-C (DX) and full-frame (FX) mirrorless cameras. Either can use F-mount SLR lenses via an adapter. The only downside is that the adapter doesn’t support focus for older screw-driven lenses. But almost all of Nikon’s lenses from the digital era offer internal focus motors.
There are others, of course. Fujfilm has the X-mount for APS-C and G-mount for medium format. Pentax is still hanging in there with the venerable K-mount. There’s also the mirrorless L-mount, which is used in cameras from Leica, Panasonic, and Sigma.
While photographers who want to capture distant subjects and take advantage of telephoto lenses will likely love the flexibility that the APS-C and Micro Four Thirds sensor sizes deliver, there are also a number of full-frame models aimed squarely at enthusiasts. The full-frame size, called so because it matches 35mm film in physical dimension, is a solid choice for landscapes, portraiture, event coverage, and reportage. The larger sensor provides more control over depth of field when paired with wide aperture glass.
If you’re in the market for an interchangeable lens camera and want to keep the budget between $1,000 and $2,500, you have a lot of options. Perhaps too many. If you’re already invested in a system, it would take a much greener field to make you jump ship, and models in this price range are very close in terms of features, performance, and image quality.
If you’re buying into a system, or don’t have a huge investment in lenses and accessories, the first thing I’d recommend doing is identifying which lenses you’d like to have in your bag and factoring those prices into your decision. You may find that spending a bit more on a body is worth it if lenses you’re going to buy are significantly less than the competition.
And then there’s the capabilities of the camera itself. You may put a heavy emphasis on autofocus and burst capture rate, in which case you should target APS-C models that excel in those situations. If you’re more of a landscape or portrait photographer, a full-frame camera is likely a better fit, so you can put money toward the sensor size and quality rather than the focus system.
The choice between an optical or electronic viewfinder is another one to consider. Modern EVFs are really, really good, and refresh quickly enough so you can track moving action. If you haven’t used one in a few years, you’ll be surprised at how far they’ve come. But for some photographers, there’s no substitute for an optical viewfinder, in which case an SLR will be preferred to mirrorless.
Professional Options: Full-Frame and Medium Format
Pro photographers are almost always shooting Canon, Nikon, or Sony systems, but there are some very capable alternatives out there. There are reasons that you see most working photographers using one of the most popular systems—they include a solid bevy of pro-grade bodies and lenses, a strong support system backing that equipment, and the comfort that years of use brings. That’s not to say you can’t go another way, of course.
For pro sports, you’ll see bigger cameras on the sidelines. They don’t pack as much resolution as SLRs used to cover weddings and events, but they fire off images at much higher burst rates—usually about 10fps with continuous tracking and exposure—the Sony a9 II goes even faster, to 20fps in Raw mode.
Beyond full-frame, you move into the territory of medium format photography. In the film days, medium format referred to anything larger than 35mm and smaller than 4-by-5-inch. That’s a pretty big gamut. With digital, you get the 33 by 44mm sensor size used by most of the mirrorless cameras that sell for less than $10,000—including Pentax’s SLR bodies, and mirrorless options from Fujifilm and Hasselblad.
At the high end, you can go for a sensor that’s about 54 by 40mm in size, just about matching the 645 film size. We’ve reviewed one of these cameras so far—the insanely expensive Phase One XF IQ4 150MP. It offers Raw image capture at 150MP resolution, which is more than overkill for the vast majority of photographers.
Where To Buy
Sony a7 III
Pros: 24MP full-frame BSI sensor.
10fps with tracking.
4K HDR video.
Silent shooting available.
Tilting touch LCD.
Dual SD slots.
Vastly improved battery.
Flat profiles available.
Cons: Screen not true vari-angle.
Only one card slot is UHS-II.
No in-body flash.
Accessory required for time-lapse.
Shooting buffer must clear to start video.
Dense menu system.
Omits PC sync socket.
Bottom Line: The Sony a7 III is an entry-level full-frame camera that goes well beyond the basics in features, with excellent image quality, 10fps subject tracking, and 4K video capture.
Sony a7R IV
Pros: 60.2MP full-frame imaging.
10fps Raw capture.
Real-Time Tracking autofocus.
5-axis image stabilization.
Big, crisp EVF.
Tilting touch LCD.
Dual UHS-II slots.
Cons: Lower-pixel cameras are better for video.
Phase detection doesn’t extend to edge of frame.
Bottom Line: The 60.2MP Sony a7R IV boasts the most resolution we’ve seen from a full-frame camera.
Pros: Proven 26MP APS-C image sensor.
Quick, accurate autofocus.
Up to 30fps Raw capture.
Tilting touch LCD.
Cons: Body isn’t weather sealed.
Restricted maximum video clip length.
No in-body stabilization.
Small capture buffer.
Memory card slot limited to UHS-I speed.
Bottom Line: The mirrorless Fujifilm X-T30 incorporates almost all of the features found in the pricier X-T3, including an outstanding autofocus system.
Pros: Solid build.
Advanced, edge-to-edge autofocus system.
10fps capture with tracking focus.
Large buffer for extended shooting.
Superb high ISO image quality.
Clean HDMI output.
Excellent control layout.
Tilting touch-screen LCD.
Dust- and weather-resistant design.
XQD and SD card slots.
Cons: Snapbridge wireless transfer needs some work.
4K video is cropped.
Omits built-in flash.
Bottom Line: The Nikon D500 puts the company’s finest autofocus system in a tough, compact SLR body that will please demanding enthusiasts and pros alike.
Pros: Compact build.
24MP APS-C image sensor.
Quick, accurate autofocus.
11fps continuous drive.
Large, sharp EVF.
Built-in flash and hot shoe.
4K video without recording limit.
Cons: Omits in-body image stabilization.
Flip-up screen not ideal for vloggers.
Some operational frustrations.
External charger not included.
Only full-frame lenses are weather sealed.
UHS-I card slot.
Bottom Line: The Sony a6400 is a camera that straddles the line between consumer and enthusiast, delivering automatic operation for family snapshots with the image quality and speed aficionados love.
Canon PowerShot G5 X Mark II
Pros: Larger image sensor than phones.
5x zoom lens.
Built-in EVF and flash.
Selfie LCD with touch support.
In-lens ND filter.
Cons: No mic input.
Autofocus not as advanced as some competitors.
Bottom Line: The Canon PowerShot G5 X Mark II is a pocket camera that will make enthusiasts happy, with a solid zoom range, a 1-inch sensor, and an electronic viewfinder.
Canon PowerShot G9 X Mark II
Pros: Crisp lens.
1-inch image sensor.
8.1fps image capture.
Built-in ND filter.
In-camera art filters.
Narrow aperture when zoomed.
No 60fps video option.
Bottom Line: The Canon PowerShot G9 X Mark II camera is more responsive than its predecessor, and squeezes a big 1-inch sensor into a compact frame.
Canon PowerShot SX70 HS
Pros: 65x zoom lens.
Raw image capture.
4K video with mic input.
Cons: Not great in dim light.
Omits accessory shoe and 24fps video.
4K not available in all modes.
Not a good choice for fast action.
Bottom Line: The Canon PowerShot SX70 HS captures views ranging from ultra-wide to extreme telephoto.
It’s a solid camera for wildlife observers, families, and shutterbugs in search of a lightweight bridge model.
5fps continuous shooting.
Automatic image transfer via Bluetooth.
In-camera shooting guide for beginners.
Cons: Fixed LCD omits touch support.
Contrast-based live view focus not ideal for video.
No mic input.
Bottom Line: The Nikon D3500 debuts at a lower price than its predecessor, making the company’s entry-level SLR more appealing to beginners and families.
Olympus Tough TG-6
Pros: Tough, waterproof build.
Add-on lenses and macro lights available.
Sharp rear LCD.
Wide aperture lens.
Cons: Not a touch screen.
LCD can pick up scuffs and scratches.
Video feature lag behind action cameras.
Wi-Fi app pushes spammy notifications.
Bottom Line: The Olympus Tough TG-6 is a modest update to our favorite underwater point-and-shoot camera thanks to its tough design, bright lens, and excellent macro capabilities.
More Inside PCMag.com
About the Author