A New Camera-Shopping Landscape
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, entry-level SLRs have serious competition for your dollar from mirrorless rivals, and if you've got a bigger budget you can opt for premium pocket models with large image sensors, midrange interchangeable lens models, or bridge-style superzooms that bring distant subjects into close, clear view.
We've highlighted our favorite model from each of the categories we cover in the chart above, but read on if you want to know more about your options in today's market.
Pocket Friendly: The Entry-Level Point-and-Shoot
It's no secret that smartphones have seriously hurt the demand for entry-level point-and-shoot cameras. You can buy any number of sub-$100 no-name cameras at online retailers, but none are worth your money if already own a decent smartphone. But if you move up to the $100 to $200 bracket, you have some solid options from Canon and 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. But if you're looking for a small camera to carry on vacation or nature walks, you still have a few inexpensive alternatives to a smartphone.
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 is 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.
For more, check out The Best Point-and-Shoot Cameras.
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 models 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. For a complete rundown on what instant cameras and film formats are sold today, check out our list of the Best Instant Cameras.
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 $1,000. 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 ut 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 carryin an interchangebale 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.
We've rounded up The Best Bridge Cameras for your perusal.
Entry-Level Interchangeable Lens: SLR and Mirrorless
For a long time we've looked at mirrorless cameras and SLRs as two distinct classes. And while that distinction still has merit at the higher end of the spectrum, for entry-level photographers the lines are blurred.
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 has continued to support the A-mount SLR system, which dates back to Minolta autofocus SLRs, but has moved to using electronic viewfinders in its Alpha SLT series. The fixed-mirror design and EVF allow the video focus system to use the same sensor as the focus for stills, which delivers autofocus on the same level as with mirrorless cameras when recording moving pictures.
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 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
Once you cross the $1,000 price barrier, you've entered into a realm where you likely have a very good handle on whether you prefer an SLR or mirrorless camera. If you're buying in this range, you need to take a serious look at the lenses and accessories available for each system, and weigh the pluses and minuses of different image sensor formats.
Mirrorless cameras have gotten better and better in terms of tracking autofocus in recent years. Top-tier models track subjects and fire off images as quickly as comparable SLRs. Depending on which system you have your eye on, and what type of shooting you do, you may find that lens selection to be perfectly adequate.
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 cameras, which can utilize both APS-C (E) and full-frame (FE) lenses, have you covered up through 300mm, but longer telephoto options are not available at this time.
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But lens options aren't as vast as they are with the Canon and Nikon SLR systems. You have a much larger selection with a Canon or Nikon, including many excellent third-party options from Sigma and Tamron. SLR lens options like the Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary aren't matched by mirrorless in terms of value, and you also have access to exotic glass like the AF-S Nikkor 800mm f/5.6E FL ED VR ($16,299.95), the likes of which simply isn't available in a mirrorless format at this time.
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 or Nikon SLR systems, but there are some very capable alternatives out there. There are reasons that you see most working photographers using one of the two 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. Sony makes a pro-level SLR and a few mirrorless cameras that fit the bill.
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. Sony has an intriguing alternative out there in the mirrorless space, the a9. Lighter and less expensive than competing SLRs, it locks and fires at an incredible 20fps and records video in 4K.
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 mirroless 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 100MP. It offers Raw image capture at 100MP resolution, which is more than overkill for the vast majority of photographers.
Bottom Line: The Nikon D850 offers the best of all worlds: extreme resolution, fantastic image quality, fast shooting, and an exceptional build. It's our favorite pro SLR.
Bottom Line: The Fujifilm X100F is everything a premium compact camera should be, capturing SLR-quality images in a form factor that slides into your jacket pocket.
Bottom Line: The Fujifilm X-T2 is a fast-shooting mirrorless camera that doesn't disappoint when it comes to imaging, video, or build quality, and is backed by a strong lens library.
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.
Bottom Line: The Sony Alpha 6000 focuses instantly and shoots at 11.1fps. Its image quality matches its speed, making it our Editors' Choice.
Bottom Line: The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 III compact camera earns Editors' Choice accolades because of its image quality and excellent EVF, even despite its high price.
Bottom Line: Canon's EOS Rebel T7i DSLR offers an improved autofocus system in both standard and Live View modes, giving owners of older Rebels a compelling reason to upgrade.
Bottom Line: The Canon PowerShot Elph 190 IS doesn't offer as much as more expensive cameras, but it's the best choice if you're looking for an inexpensive point-and-shoot.
Bottom Line: The Canon PowerShot SX60 HS has a lens that covers an extreme zoom range, and even though it's on the pricey side, it earns our Editors' Choice award.
Bottom Line: The Olympus Tough TG-5 is a go-anywhere camera with a fast lens, speedy response, and 4K video, but it's more expensive than previous iterations.
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