Digital Camera Shopping 101

Your Techwalla master class in how to shop for your next camera.

By Melissa Perenson

Ready to buy a camera? Congratulations—you've decided to take a step beyond what your smartphone can handle. That means you're about to enter into another dimension of photographic features and capabilities, not to mention choices to make around budget and style.

Buying a camera today isn't as simple as saying you're buying a point-and-shoot or an SLR (single-lens reflex) model. Those categories have broadened in scope, with so-called point-and-shoots evolving to encompass both compact cameras and megazooms, while newer subcategories such as action cameras and mirrorless ILCs (interchangeable lens cameras) are now in the mix as well.

We've divided this buying guide into two parts. The first focuses on the key things you need to know before buying a camera, and breaks down the jargon so you can understand the specs that matter. The second part digs into the particulars of the different varieties of cameras. So jump right in to whichever part you feel ready for.

Key Factors to Consider

Purpose. Before anything else, ask yourself what you’re going to use the camera for. Admittedly, in the era of the Apple iPhone 6 S Plus and Samsung Galaxy S6, smartphone cameras are highly capable devices for capturing everyday snapshots. But many occasions and situations—including sports, excursions with fast-moving kids, and low-light environments—are a bad match for smartphone cameras. How many times have you cursed your smartphone's lag, pokey flash response, or interminably slow focus that—whoops—just missed your toddler's quick movements? Not to mention the times you've examined the full-size version of a photo you took with a group, only to realize it's a blurrycam shot because a couple of folks moved just as your smartphone snapped the group selfie?

Knowing the kinds of events you want to capture with your camera will help point you to the appropriate size of camera to consider, as well as the particular type—compact, megazoom, SLR, mirrorless ILC, or action camera—and the amount you'll probably have to spend to get the features you need for the task.

Budget. Everyone has a price in mind that they don’t want to exceed in choosing a camera. But there are often very good reasons why some models cost more—and why you may want to spend more on your next camera to get the right features. As with most gear, the bigger your budget, the more advanced features and power you get. But even a modestly priced entry-level model can deliver better pictures than your smartphone can manage on its best day.

Unlike with some other categories of tech products, you won’t find clearly drawn lines and price stratifications among camera categories. Crossover is common. For example, you can spend up to $1000 on a higher-end compact camera equipped with a versatile 1-inch sensor—like the Canon EOS PowerShot G7 X megazoom ($700) or the svelte Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 IV ($1000). Compare those prices to a capable ILC like the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G7 ($800) or SLR-like the Nikon D5500 ($900 body only), perhaps even sold in a bundle with an extra lens thrown in for good measure. (See the "Specs" subsection below to read more about sensor size.)

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If you're on a limited budget, an action camera, compact camera, or basic megazoom is likely to offer the best value for your dollar. But if you want more control over your images, faster burst modes for capturing fast-moving action, and the greater flexibility you get with lenses of varying apertures and focal lengths, you'll be looking at SLRs (a category that includes Sony's mirrorless SLR-size Alpha models) and the physically smaller mirrorless ILC models.

In general (but not always), pricier models have faster internal chips, leading to speedier on-camera processing and menu navigation, and higher burst modes (which can range from just 3 frames per second on entry-level SLRs to upwards of 12 fps on enthusiast and professional models).

Size and Design. Even within a particular category, different cameras have different ergonomics. What feels good in the mitts of a person with large hands may feel too heavy or awkward to someone with smaller hands. Some cameras have articulating screens that swing out and around, while others have displays that tilt up or down; and still others have fixed displays, while some compact cameras or ILCs have displays that flip up specifically to handle selfies. It makes sense, considering that cameras in each of those categories tend to be the right size for holding steady in one hand for a selfie. In contrast, the typical SLR is bulkier and heavier, and would be a challenge for most people to hold steady with one hand while firing off a self-captured snap.

If you have a chance to handle a camera before you buy, we urge you to do so. How the camera feels in your hand is very individual, and variations among models—in weight, display, button placement, and hand grip (or lack thereof)—can make or break the shooting experience.

Compact point-and-shoots, some megazooms, and ILCs tend to be on the lighter side of the camera weight continuum. The smallest, least obtrusive cameras are the action cams, led by models from GoPro and ActiveOn. Action cameras are an increasingly popular choice for people to carry, thanks to their small footprint and unobtrusive nature. Despite having few controls, these cameras can easily capture wide-angle images and high-definition video, and they’re easy to use on selfie sticks to achieve unusual shot angles. Plus, many action cameras come with waterproof housings, making them a good choice for photo adventures that take you near—or into—the water.

Specs. What specs are the must-haves for any camera purchase? There is no single, universally applicable answer. For instance, though we continue to see megapixel counts climb higher and higher, having more megapixels does not guarantee that a camera will take better pictures.

A complex cocktail of megapixels, in-camera processing, and sensor size determines picture quality. The larger the sensor, the more information the camera can capture—and the wider the dynamic range. This in turn leads to better performance in low-light environs, and less noise. The Sony RX100 IV’s large (1-inch) sensor goes far toward explaining its higher price. A full-frame SLR such as the Nikon D750 has the largest sensor around, while other SLRs and ILCs rely on slightly smaller APS-C, 1.5-inch, or Micro Four Thirds sensors. Higher-end compact cameras typically have 1/1.7-inch sensors, larger than any you'll find on a smartphone camera.

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Megapixels alone can't promise better pictures, but having more megapixels does come in handy in one particular scenario: cropping. Suppose that you’ve captured a sharp image, and now you want to zoom in tighter, perhaps to highlight a specific detail or person. If you have more megapixels, you'll be able to zoom in, crop away some of the surroundings, and still have a reasonably large image left to work with on your screen or to print. For example, let's say you want to zoom in on your kid on the baseball field—and even with your zoom lens, you're still a bit too far away to achieve the framing you want for the shot. If your camera has a large number of megapixels, you have a better chance of reframing the image in post-production, yielding a high-quality image that you can display on your tablet or television in high-definition.

Unlike SLR and ILC cameras, compact and megazoom cameras have fixed lenses, which means you’re stuck with the optics they carry on-board. If you plan to use the camera in low light, look for a minimum aperture of f/1.8 or f/2.8: The lower the aperture setting is, the more light can get into the lens, and the brighter your picture will appear without your having to fuss with other settings.

Features. Few cameras make their key selling point the fact that they have a dozen different scene modes buried under the menu options (though we admit to liking cameras that integrate an HDR option for capturing the brilliant highlights of high-dynamic-range images). So rather than getting caught up in scene modes, you need to look at the big-picture features that distinguish some models from others.

For example, if you're planning on capturing your daughter's handspring series on the balance beam, or the moment her foot comes into contact with the soccer ball, look for a relatively high burst-mode rating (measured in frames per second). A higher frames-per-second rating will give you a better chance of capturing elusive, fast-action moments.

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Also consider how useful a built-in flash would be for your camera. A standalone flash may offer greater range and better lighting effects and flexibility, but it also costs more and is another thing to have to carry with you. A built-in flash is always there in a pinch, and can often do the job effectively.

Speaking of convenience, cameras that charge via micro-USB are extremely useful for people on the go. We've seen some ILC models (Sony's Alpha line, for example) that offer this type of charging. This feature leaves you with one fewer dedicated chargers to schlep with you; and in a pinch, you may be able to recharge your camera during lunch using the same powerbank battery you carry to charge your smartphone.

The display's articulating design is another feature to consider, especially if you like capturing up-high, or down-low angles. And integrated wireless is a boon for people who want to control their camera remotely, or who want to interface with a smartphone to expedite getting photos out to social media. Geotagging is another feature that's slowly gaining traction; it can be useful, especially for sorting images after-the-fact.

So What Camera Should I Buy?

Here at Techwalla, we normally to divide cameras into four main categories: action, compact, mirrorless (sometimes called ILC, or interchangeable lens cameras), and SLR. For the purposes of this article, though, let’s include a fifth category: megazoom. Other people and other sites sometimes break camera categories down a bit differently. Sorry—it’s messy.

So what makes each category of camera different, what kind of user is each best for, and—most important—which one should you buy?

Compact cameras. At one time, this category consisted of small, pocketable cameras—a form that offered very limited room for features and optical zoom reach. But camera optics technology has evolved to the point where, today, cameras can deliver impressive—even megazoom-level—reach in fairly compact, pocketable designs. The compact category no longer is limited to budget models, either: The growing tendency of manufacturers to include 1-inch image sensors in compact cameras means that you can find a wide range of capabilities and prices in this category.

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At the lower end of the price spectrum (below $500), compact cameras offer a budget-friendly way for you to graduate from a camera phone and work with a bonafide optical zoom, which camera phones don't have; but generally, in this price range, you’ll find few or no manual controls. The more expensive models provide more such controls and include features like wider apertures (for low-light shooting) and relatively large image sensors.

Our recommended picks in this category:

The Nikon Coolpix S9900 ($300) has a 30x zoom and Wi-Fi connectivity, delivered in a compact package.

The Sony Cyber-shot RX100 IV ($900) produces great images, but its zoom is less powerful; instead, the things makes this camera so outstanding are its 16.1 frames per second burst speed and its slo-mo video capture.

Megazoom cameras. Functionally, some of the smaller compacts are indeed megazooms, but other models push the limits of lens optics by achieving ever-increasing ranges. The megazoom category includes some models that are full-size and look more like compact SLRs or ILCs than like a tricked-out "compact" or generalized “point-and-shoot.”

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Megazooms are particularly good for travelers who don't want to juggle multiple lenses but do want to be able to zoom in on the action. Just be prepared to support this type of camera with additional batteries: The more you zoom in and out, the faster your battery will go kaput.

As is true of compact cameras, the megazoom category embraces considerable variation in price and features. Our two picks reflect this fact. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ1000 reaches only 400mm, but it has a maximum aperture of f/4, and a minimum aperture of f/2.8—very useful in low light. In addition, it captures video at 4K and it has a 1-inch sensor—excellent features that help justify its $900 price tag.

The Nikon Coolpix P900 ($600), meanwhile, has the greatest range of any megazoom. This isn’t a pocket-size camera, and its massive 83x zoom—the optical-zoom equivalent of 24mm to 2000mm—explains why. The Coolpix P900 reflects some design tradeoffs; but if you're after the longest reach you can get, this camera is for you.

SLR cameras. The design of most digital SLR cameras stems from the analog single-lens reflex cameras of yore. (The exception: Sony's mirrorless Alpha cameras in the full-size SLR body.) Canon and Nikon lead the way in this category, though Pentax and Sony have some attractive options, too.

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SLR cameras are bulkier and heavier than their ILC and megazoom counterparts. Their main appeal lies in the flexibility that interchangeable lenses provide, thanks to their having specialized optics suitable for sports or macro photography, for example. You also get full manual and auto controls, for maximum creativity. Most SLRs provide fast burst speeds, too, for capturing fast-moving sports, kids, and pets; and their sensors and image processors handle low-light environments exceptionally well. Many ILCs now challenge SLRs in burst speed; but in focus speed and noise level at higher ISOs, they still tend to lag behind SLRs.

Lens flexibility is a key reason to buy an SLR. If you're not new to photography, you may already have lenses in a particular system—an investment in glass that may well convince you to stay in a particular system. Canon and Nikon have the widest array of lenses—and both systems have a healthy secondary market, so you can buy used lenses down the road if you want to. Many sub-$1000 SLRs are sold as kits that bundle a lens with the body; as you move upstream in the line, body-only pricing becomes more common. Factors to consider in the SLR category include the focal length (and for zooms, the range) of the lens, and the camera’s aperture (constant, wide-open f-stops like f/1.8 or f/2.8 are great for low-light and indoor shooting).

The Canon EOS 7D Mark II ($1799, body only) is a great camera for sports and casual shooting alike. Its strengths lie in its versatile autofocus, its fast (10 frames per second) shooting, and its smooth, ergonomic handling.

At a lower cost of entry, the highly capable Nikon D5500 ($900 kit) gets you started with both the camera body and a lens—and it does so in a surprisingly (for an SLR) compact package.

ILCs. For this category, we consider cameras that have interchangeable lenses and mirrorless designs (again, the exception to the rule here being the SLR-size mirrorless Sony Alpha cameras). The mirrorless ILCs are smaller and lighter than their SLR brethren; but to achieve their smaller size, many of them sacrifice tactile controls and optical viewfinders, for example—features that traditional camera users may miss.

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A few points to consider about ILCs as a class: The smaller, often kit lens has a fairly limited focal reach; the step-up zoom lens will go farther, but it may feel imbalanced on the smaller body of the ILC. Unlike compact and megazoom cameras, most ILC models lack powered zoom lenses (some Sony ILCs do have powered zoom). And most ILCs lack a built-in flash, which means you have to buy and carry around a separate flash component.

The chief appeal of ILCs lies in their smaller size and weight, factors that make these models a good choice for vacationers or for business travelers trekking through a trade show. Another benefit: Because ILCs have no mirror mechanism, you can change lenses without worrying that an unsightly dust blob may get on your camera's sensor (a common problem with SLRs).

Olympus, Panasonic, and Sony have long been leaders in this category, but Canon and Nikon are gradually introducing competitive mirrorless models. If you already have Canon and Nikon lenses, you can use them with an adapter on their respective mirrorless models—a boon if you might consider moving to an SLR at some point. (Check with the manufacturer to confirm that your lenses are supported.)

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX8 ($1200 body only) has a handy, tilting display and integrated Wi-Fi, and it can record 4K video—making it a star if video capture is a big part of what you do.

The Sony Alpha a6000 ($650, kit) is compact enough to fit in a large coat pocket, but versatile enough to captures great images at up to 11 frames per second.

Action cameras. The action camera category burst onto the scene a few years ago with the runaway popularity of the GoPro Hero line of cameras designed for capturing high-definition video. Over time, these cameras have improved their still capture, too, and we've noticed that people are starting to take these highly portable cameras everywhere for both still and video capture. Their uniquely small footprint—typically rectangular, approximately the length and width of a credit card, and a little more than an inch thick—make these action cams eminently portable. Mount it one on a selfie stick, or simply hold it in your hand—you're bound to get a different perspective using an action cam.

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You can adjust ISO on an action camera, and you can capture wide-angle images at around 12 megapixels (depending on the model). You also get nifty features like time-lapse mode and a burst mode capable of shooting up to 30 frames per second. And many action cams are designed for underwater use, via either an included waterproof housing or an extra-cost option. What you don’t get are other notable manual and creative controls.

The action camera category has lots of players, but GoPro's Hero lineup remains firmly entrenched at the head of the class. The Hero4 Black 4K ($500) takes 4K video, comes with an underwater housing, and shoots stills at 12 megapixels, while the trusty Hero4 Silver delivers HD-quality video for $100 less.

At a more budget-friendly price, consider the ActiveOn CX ($120) which has a screen on back—a major plus for an action cam.

Photo credits: sergeyryzhov/iStock/Getty Images