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How to Choose a Camera: The Ultimate Buying Guide

Learn what to look for in photographic equipment.

Are you an aspiring photographer? Then you're probably wondering which is the best camera to buy. Although many people already own a decent camera built into their smartphones or tablets, having a device dedicated solely to taking pictures allows you to explore your creative side when capturing images. Whether you enjoy photography as a hobby or a serious profession, buying a new camera may be a thrilling but intimidating decision. This comprehensive guide offers insightful tips on how to choose the best camera for you.

Types of cameras.

The most common camera types are:

  • Digital single-lens reflex (DSLR): DSLR cameras use a single lens to frame, focus and take photos. This makes them a popular choice among both amateur and professional photographers. They comprise two key parts: the body and the lens. With large sensors, DSLR cameras offer better low-light captures and a good background effect, also known as a bokeh. Entry-level models are also budget-friendly. Plus, their large size offers good ergonomics and interchangeable lenses make them more versatile.
  • Mirrorless cameras: These cameras are light, compact and allow fast video shooting. With no mirror, DSLR cameras offer better image stabilization and less shaky photos. Mirrorless cameras either have fixed or interchangeable lenses. Most come with APS-C or full-frame sensors. With fewer moving parts, mirrorless models are quiet and discreet.
  • Compact (point-and-shoot) cameras: Compact cameras come in lightweight builds for increased portability. Their small dimensions ensure they easily fit in your bag or pocket. Point-and-shoot cameras have fixed lenses and are easy to use.
  • Bridge cameras: Bridge cameras are smaller than DSLRs and larger than compact camera models. They often have a high-magnification zoom lens and manual controls. Bridge cameras come with small image sensors and an electronic viewfinder (EVF) rather than an optical viewfinder (OVF).
  • Action cameras: Action cameras are small, rugged and waterproof cameras that often have video capture as their primary focus. Do you need to capture footage when enjoying outdoor recreation activities? Mount an action camera on your headgear or body to provide a unique first-person perspective. Most of these models feature a unique "fisheye" angle of view.

Consider image quality.

It may be difficult to judge the quality of images that cameras, camcorders and drones produce without taking actual photos and videos yourself. Since image quality largely depends on the camera's lens, deciding which type of lens a potential model has is a key factor to consider.

Many DSLR and mirrorless cameras come with kit lenses. Kit lenses have midrange zoom capability and slow variable apertures. These lenses are a good place to start for amateur or hobby photographers. However, investing in camera accessories, such as a prime lens and better quality zoom lens, will enhance your photography experience.

Type of lens.

Cameras either come with fixed or interchangeable lenses. To help narrow down your options, first decide whether you’re comfortable having a fixed lens on your camera or if you need the flexibility of interchangeable lenses. The ability to use different lenses expands your creative opportunities and opens you up to an entire world of fun photography. Alternatively, fixed lens cameras are easy to use and come with a zoom or prime lens.

Size and ergonomics.

Camera size is also another factor to consider. Size is, however, very subjective. What may seem big to a beginner may appear small to a professional. With buttons too close together, compact cameras may feel awkward to use. You’ll also want to keep in mind how easy a larger camera is to transport. If you want to use an existing camera bag, measure beforehand to make sure that your new camera will fit inside. There are also camera models with grips to ensure optimal comfort.

Sensor size.

Digital cameras use sensors to record images. Larger sensors provide better image quality in low-light conditions. Wide sensors also increase the ability to blur backgrounds. The three most common types of sensors are:

  • 1 inch or smaller: Mostly found in budget compact cameras
  • APS-C: Advanced compact cameras, mirrorless cameras and DSLRs have this type of sensor
  • Full frame: Also found in advanced compact, DSLR and mirrorless cameras

If you’re looking for a camera for professional use, opt for full-frame or advanced APS-C sensor cameras. APS-C sensors can multiply the focal length of your lens, which comes in handy when shooting distant subjects.

Speed and performance.

Important specs to check out when buying a camera are autofocus speed, frames per second (fps), startup time and overall operational speed ratings. The fps rating is the number of photos, shots, or frames that a camera can capture per second. Higher fps ratings offer smoother and clearer images or video. DSLR cameras have faster "wake up" times than point-and-shoot and mirrorless models.

Resolution rating.

Measured in megapixels, resolution affects the image quality of digital cameras. Do you plan to crop into your photos or print images on large surfaces? Go for a camera with higher megapixel ratings. Photos with high megapixels boast more detail but take up more storage space on your camera’s memory card. This can make photos take longer to send, store and edit. People often erroneously evaluate camera image quality using the resolution rating. Pixel size depends on the image sensor and affects quality more than the resolution.

Video performance.

All modern digital cameras can shoot video footage. Some have high-end features, such as 4K Ultra HD resolution, while others have basic video capabilities. If video is your primary focus, the main specifications to consider are:

  • Frame rates: 30fps and 24fps ratings are standard, while 60fps or higher is good for slow-motion footage
  • Image stabilization: If you plan on not using a tripod, consider in-body and in-lens image stabilization
  • 4K video feature: This improves image quality, especially when replayed on a 4K Ultra HD TV
  • External microphone inputs: External mics capture the best audio
  • Recording duration limits: This determines how much footage you can record at one time
  • Rotatable LCD: Reduces neck strain and allows you to film yourself easily
  • HDMI output: Helps record to external capture devices with a HDMI cable

Other features to look out for include battery life, manual shooting modes, auto modes, high ISO performance, memory slots, wireless connectivity and touchscreens.

This camera buying guide highlights all you need to know when choosing a new camera so that you can enjoy your photography and videography experience.