Which type of camera should I choose?The ultimate guide to camera types
If you are just starting to get into photography, it’s easy to feel lost, given the variety of cameras on offer. But we have good news: this ultimate camera guide will provide you with excellent pointers! After reading this lesson, you’ll feel much more confident in choosing your next camera!
Five camera types we’ll examine in this lesson:
Smartphones – Compact – Bridge – MILC – DSLR
A new camera—but for what purpose?
Performance is not everything... usability is more important!
Getting a new camera could entail very different things—just like a new car could refer to a microcar for granny’s shopping rounds or a monster of a Formula-1 sports car.
The latter obviously provides a higher performance, but you kinda need an entire team to run it!
Choose what's best—for you
The Queen’s portrait wasn’t shot with a compact camera, but grandparents obviously won’t grab their Sinar P2 modular camera for shooting a couple of photos at their grandkid’s birthday party. (Who would take care of the apple pie then?!)
Price, knowledge, space and "operating personnel"
The higher a camera’s price, the more technical knowledge, space and human resources are needed to operate it.
Professional photographers don’t walk around with a small satchel containing their equipment… instead, their gear usually fills 1-2 cabinets or even an entire studio.
A few general factors to consider with all camera types
No matter which type of camera you go for, you should know the following:
Resolution is not everything!
Beside the number of pixels, in many cases the size and quality of the lens, usability, and zoom options are more important than the simple question of “whose is bigger”.
Even though cameras are primarily used for capturing still images, today the inclusion of quality video features is indispensable.
A camera should be able to shoot at least in Full HD resolution, but “4K” is even better. The image will have even more detail this way.
With any model, having a flip screen can be very useful for vlogging, taking selfies or shooting from awkward angles.
Today we obviously expect a camera to have Internet connectivity. Any kind of wireless option—WiFi, Bluetooth or NFC—is an advantage when purchasing a new camera. This function is not only handy when uploading photos but also great for sharing images or handling remote control scenarios.
In order to set up clear comparisons within the ever-growing camera supply, we have put together a VisualGangsters Ranking Sheet:
- The first column shows the level of professional knowledge necessary for operating the camera;
- The second column reviews image quality;
- The third column ranks photo sharing options;
- Then we mark whether the camera has an interchangeable lens;
- The final column shows if the camera is suitable for professional use.
But first, let’s talk about camera quality in general
In the beginning (while still getting to know your camera) it’s possible you had a moment or two when you thought “well, I can take better photos with my phone.” This was probably true then, because lacking specific knowledge you couldn’t operate your DSLR camera properly yet.
Check out this graph below:
Let’s break down what it says:
A compact camera or a camera phone will take !good! pictures if…
- circumstances are ideal;
- there is enough light;
- there isn’t too much contrast;
- the subject doesn’t move too fast;
- the photographer doesn’t have any extra concepts in mind (e.g., light painting).
The photos will look suitably good when shared online (e.g., on Facebook)—that is, if you don’t want to zoom in on them, or print them in a size larger than your palm.
But the moment these cameras “step out of their comfort zones” their image quality quickly starts to deteriorate. The photos have more noise, start to burn, etc. As you move away from the ideal shooting situation the yellow curve descends very rapidly.
In contrast, a DSLR camera—a more serious category with interchangeable lens—in ideal circumstances will take better/more beautiful photos that comply with general aesthetic expectations on a higher level. And in more difficult situations… DSLR cameras will absolutely defeat their smaller brethren.
- They handle high contrast way better;
- They are faster;
- The images they produce have significantly more detail and are easily enlarged;
The wide spectrum of their settings provides an advantage even in ideal conditions.
Check out how the blue curve on the graph stays above the yellow curve at all times! As you get farther away from the ideal point, the image does not suffer from such an obvious drop in quality.
1. The first camera type: smartphone cameras
“The best camera is the one you have with you,” the ancient Chinese proverb goes 😉
Smartphone cameras are usually not celebrated for their high quality, but since we all keep them ready in our pocket, they remain a popular choice for taking photos. Even so, you can’t expect too much from them. Their small size fundamentally limits their capacities and determines the character of the resulting images.
More on smartphone cameras:
Their main drawback is the lack of zoom, or its somewhat rudimentary implementation even in the most cutting-edge camera phones. As we mentioned above, the tiny lenses and sensors strongly limit what you can do with these cameras.
In 2018 the Huawei P20 Pro model revolutionized smartphone photography by featuring three camera modules
The future… is already here (well, in top-category smartphones)
The disadvantages cited above can be offset by blending the images from multiple camera modules, thus advancing noise reduction, image quality and zoom options. This neat trick has enabled smartphone cameras to somewhat mimic the optical characteristics of more serious lenses.
Mobil kamerák jellemzői képekben
A telefon kamerák mélységélessége általában extrém nagy. Azaz minden éles a képen. Nem lehet kellemesen elmosni a hátteret.
Előbbi problémát óhajtják kiküszöbölni a több kamerás mobilok. A több kamera pozíciókülönbségéből megsaccolják mely képelem van a háttérben és azt elmossák
Így valahogy >> Bal oldalon a mesterségesen elkent háttér
Smartphone cameras achieved the following results on the VisualGangsters Ranking Scale:
- Necessary professional knowledge: even your Granny can use them!
- Image quality: not so awesome, see lack of zoom, etc.
- Sharing options: since most of them are touchscreen devices, they are great for sharing;
- Lenses are not interchangeable, but the phone might have several of them installed;
- Professional use: No. Way.
If you are interested in cell phone photography, we recommend these models:
Based on comprehensive testing the DXO-MARK site has published the following ranking (Fall 2018):
2. Compact cameras
Their name refers to their small (compact) size. Don’t keep yours in the bathroom, lest someone confuse it for a soap box. They are pretty lame when it comes to cleaning, but okay, soap is lame when it comes to taking photos… Right, let’s move on.
- In truth, compact cameras don’t really have any strengths…
- They have a tiny disadvantage in that they don’t have any advantages at all;
- Today smartphone cameras are more or less on the same level as these;
- All right, they have slightly larger lenses and are able to zoom, which provides better quality.
When should you get one?
- If you don’t have a phone, or your phone doesn’t have a camera, or you have an old phone with a poor-quality camera: in these cases a compact camera will get you better quality;
- These cameras can zoom, while phones usually cannot, or only in a very limited range;
- Their flash has a slightly higher performance than a phone’s built-in LED.
- If you are planning to become a photographer or want to join the ranks of the VisualGangsters, do not buy this type of camera!
- If you don’t harbor any particular photography goals and don’t need more than just a few nice family shots, then this might be a good fit for you.
They are not suitable for specific photography purposes;
- They have very limited settings;
- Their image quality is not through the roof.
We take photos mostly intending to share them, so it’s worth choosing a WiFi-enabled, touchscreen model, even when shopping for a compact camera.
Compact cameras achieved the following results on the VisualGangsters Ranking Scale:
- Nothing to write home about, but having an optical zoom with a passable range helps;
- Mostly depends on the model;
- Non-interchangeable lens, but at least it’s sligthly bigger than a smartphone lens (able to collect more light, etc.);
3. Bridge cameras
These cameras constitute a “bridge”, a transition between compact models and more professional DSLR cameras.
- Having a larger lens and sensor offers more diverse possibilities and options;
Their settings can be adjusted on a wider spectrum;
- Several models are equipped with a hot shoe (a mounting point to attach an external flash unit).
- Bridge lenses have a rather wide zoom range, which makes it unnecessary to buy and haul around multiple lenses;
- Usually they also have a macro setting, meaning you can spare the expenses of a macro lens too;
- On account of the above, they constitute the perfect choice for hobby purposes, taking holiday photos… basically for any “non-professional” activity.
A typical bridge camera: it’s small, but the lens protrudes from the camera body
When should you get one?
- If you feel that your phone’s camera is not enough, and you don’t want to spend money on a compact camera with only slightly better abilities;
- If you don’t want to spend time, energy and money on purchasing multiple lenses and maintaining professional equipment;
- If you are content with taking good/very good photos.
- They are not suitable for specific or professional photography purposes.
Bridge cameras achieved the following results on the VisualGangsters Ranking Scale:
- They have a wider range of functions, so you have to know what is what and where to set it—but overall they are pretty easy to operate;
- Bridge cameras generally have good image quality. This is partly thanks to their larger and higher-quality sensors;
- Here too, it mostly depends on the model;
- Non-interchangeable lens, but it’s larger and more serious than that of a compact camera;
- A bridge camera can work wonders in the hands of a good/well-trained photographer.
4. An emerging camera type: Mirrorless Interchangeable-Lens Cameras (MILC)
Often simply called mirrorless cameras, these digital cameras do not have a mirror, but feature removable lenses.
SONY Alpha cameras are pioneering mirrorless technology
But what does the mirror do?
At this point it’s worth talking a bit about how the mirror works. To put it simply, the mirror inside DSLR cameras (see below) reflects the image of the lens into the viewfinder with the help of the pentaprism. However, the same mirror would constitute a physical obstacle when taking a photo, so it needs to be raised for shooting. It’s a moving part, it’s fragile and vulnerable, and it increases the size and weight of the equipment.
For years now camera technology has made it possible to leave out the mirror entirely. As a result, a growing number of manufacturers are now launching their self-developed mirrorless systems.
The sole disadvantage of mirrorless cameras is that they lack an optical viewfinder, which needs to be substituted with an electronic one. In all cases, this increases battery consumption.
This illustration demonstrates how omitting the mirror and the pentaprism leads to a definite advantage in size
The size difference between a MILC (left) and a DSLR camera (right) is quite obvious
- Professionally we can say that they are the same category as DSLR cameras;
- Their interchangeable lens makes it possible to use them for specific photography purposes;
- They include the same size sensor as DSLR cameras;
- In some models setting options even surpass those of a DSLR camera.
- Smaller weight and size
- Lower price
When should you get one?
- It’s a very appealing category with lots of advantages and only minimal disadvantages;
- It could make a great first camera, even for professional photographers just starting their career, or it can be a nice back-up camera for DSLR owners;
- It’s ideal for anyone who doesn’t want to haul around heavy equipment.
- As mentioned above, the electronic viewfinder drains the battery. (But having a digital viewfinder is also an advantage, because this way the viewfinder’s image will look a lot more like the eventual photo.)
Mirrorless cameras achieved the following great results on the VisualGangsters Ranking Scale:
- Their operation requires specific knowledge;
- Image quality is superb;
- In most cases they do have sharing options, but they won’t compete with a phone…
- They have interchangeable lenses, meaning that mirrorless systems are a good fit for specific photography purposes;
- When it comes to pro use, we have subtracted a point because they are rather small, their buttons are often too close to each other, and it’s more challenging to get a stable grip on them.
5. Last but not least: DSLR cameras
For many years, these guys were the great white sharks of the genre, the ultimate predators—until the digital age brought forth bridge cameras and MILC systems, which have become worthy competitors to DSLR cameras (and stolen the hearts of hobby photographers, diluting the DSLR fanbase).
- Well… everything?! These cameras will hold their ground under any circumstances.
- They have interchangeable lenses, meaning they are a good fit for specific photography purposes;
- They come in two sensor sizes: APS-C and Full-frame;
- The range of their settings meets professional expectations.
When should you get one?
- If you are planning to take up photography as a serious hobby or go professional;
- If you are okay with buying not only a body, but a range of lenses too.
- DSLR equipment is pretty bulky and weighs a lot;
- Also, it can be relatively expensive.
DSLR cameras achieved the following fantastic results on the VisualGangsters Ranking Scale:
- They are pretty much impossible to operate without specific knowledge;
- Image quality: the sky’s the limit!
- In most cases they have sharing options, but they won’t compete with a phone;
- They have interchangeable lenses, meaning that the system is a good fit for specific photography purposes;
- Absolutely suitable for professional use. The body is large, which makes it easier to hold stable. The buttons are conveniently located; they are easy to press even when the user is looking through the viewfinder.
Let’s go through all 5 categories to summarize:
Click on the image to enlarge it
You have reached the end of this camera guide.
But before you go, it’s worth mentioning that DSLR cameras are not actually the Mount Everest of photographic image quality. Medium and large format photography and camera systems simply play in a different league.
For example, Hasselblad cameras are well-known ambassadors of medium format technology >> for which a digital back (oh yeah, the digital sensor is not included in the price of the camera) will cost you over 25,000 USD.
But you’ll find even more technically advanced cameras too, such as Sinar, Linhof or Plaubel models.
If you enjoyed this article and you think it will be helpful to others too, please share it wherever you think best! 🙂
About the author:
Bence Gyulai is a photographer and professional photography teacher. Grand Prize-winning photographer of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, regular invited speaker at photography events, founder and host of visualgangster.com. More info & images >>