You're looking to buy a digital camera but are not sure what to buy. I get asked about what camera works best all the time so I've put together this Digital Camera Buying Guide to help you. In this you'll find information that will help you select a camera that meets your specific needs and that will help you no matter how far into the future you're reading this (as long as digital cameras are still being sold). Let's get right to it.
I assume you want a camera which is more powerful or useful than your phone. Digital camera choices can be complicated and a bit confusing. To cut through that confusion we're going to talk about:
- Digital camera types
- Camera prices
- Camera weight
- Manufacturer reliability and longevity
- Lens systems
- And more
All of this will help you understand how to you find the right digital camera for you. I'll tell you what to watch out for and what to not get caught up in (hype, b.s., etc), as well as helping you to determine what you need in a digital camera.
Understanding digital camera categories is the first step to figuring out what camera to buy. Decide the following:
- Do you need to go big and get a large expensive DSLR or Mirrorless?
- Do you want something small and compact that you can slip in your pocket with your phone?
- Do you want an option that exist between the two?
- Do you need a specialty camera or one that works with special equipment like underwater covers or one for astrophotography?
Today's DSLR and mirrorless digital cameras are powerful computer. Most feature interchangeable lenses and lots of different settings that can be intimidating. They come with a lot of bells and whistles and important features to consider depending on what you're looking to photograph.
Today’s compact point and shoot cameras are not what they were before the digital age. They have increasingly better features like red-eye-reduction, scene and face recognition, accurate autofocus, high quality lenses, and more. They are also lightweight, have good battery life, and are usually user friendly.
There are also a wide range of options between them like mirrorless cameras that don't have interchangeable lenses and more advanced digital cameras that pack in some of the features of DSLRs or other high-end digital cameras but are more compact, light-weight, and easier to use.
How do you decide what category of camera you need?
Knowing what you want to do and where you plan to use your camera is very helpful. Take some time to think about and write down what you plan to photograph. Do you have kids and grandkids? Do you like to hike through the woods or visit gardens and photograph flowers? Take your time to think about all the things you might find yourself using the digital camera that you're buying for.
Think about your most common uses as well as any uncommon but likely scenarios. For example if you have been saving up to go to Hawaii or some other paradise do you want a camera you can take with you and if so what will you likely photograph there. Will you visit the active volcanos, Pearl Harbor, will you attend a Luau after the sun sets?
- Are you an avid traveler or do you plan to travel?
- Do you attend a lot of concerts, sports, or other events?
- Do you want to do photography as a hobby or even explore it as a business?
- Do you need a camera for a specific hobby like birding or bird photography?
- What types of lighting conditions are you photographing in, just bright sunny days, after dark, or inside?
- What types of environments are you photographing in, wet or dusty places, swamps, the desert, rain storms?
- Do you want a general purpose camera with a lot of versatility?
- Do you need a camera that is weather sealed and ready for anything?
If you can confidently answer what you anticipate photographing you can narrow down your options to a camera category that fits your needs.
If you’re truly unsure what you want to do the best idea is to take time to think about it. Cameras are expensive. Buying one without knowing what you plan to use it for will leave you frustrated when it doesn’t do what you need.
Eliminate What You Don't Need
If you’re really unsure what digital camera category you want to buy from start by eliminating what you know you don't need. A compact point and shoot with their lack of versatility will limit your choices if you take a wide variety of photos and plan to use your new camera for taking pictures of far away subjects for example.
You might be able to eliminate DSLRs or Mirrorless cameras if you don’t want to carry around a bunch of extra lenses and other accessories. The more that you know about what you will use your camera for the easier it will be to select the right one.
Carrying a camera around can limit some of your activity. Make a list of what types of photos you want to be able to take. Write down what would limit your use:
- Camera size
- Camera weight
- Lack of appropriate lenses
Get to know what you plan to do with your new digital camera before buying it. Understanding how a camera will limit what you do is important. If you want to hike the Niagara gorge but are too scared to risk dropping your $4,000 worth of camera gear into the Niagara River. If that is really too big of a risk then you've got to choose between not taking that camera and gear or not hiking the gorge. The good news is you can always buy insurance for your camera. In fact if you're going to spend a lot of money on buying digital camera equipment then factor in the cost of insurance because it can be a lifesaver, or, at least a big money saver.
How Many Megapixels
I’m asked this all the time. How many megapixels do I need? You’re asking that questions because the camera phone industry have convinced you that it’s important. Digital camera manufacturers told us that megapixels are how to measure the value and quality of a digital camera. As a result, you’re asking yourself how many megapixels you need. There is a world of related and essential questions that you actually need to answer. When you do this question, while important, will be easier to answer.
What are megapixels?
Let's talk about megapixels. What are megapixels? Megapixels are a unit of measurement. The term means 1 million pixels but pixels are not a uniformed size. Smaller cameras will have smaller pixels packed tighter together. This might seem like an advantage but it's actually not. I'll explain why not in a minute.
For now you can think of pixels like car lengths. All cars can get you where you're going but some are bigger and more functional than others. Some are no-frills, barebones, and you often wonder if you're going to make it to your destination. Others are large, luxurious, and expensive as a house.
If you drive you should be familiar with allowing a following distance of x number of car lengths between you and the cars around you. That said, there is a big difference between the length of a Smart Car and a Cadillac Escalade. You wouldn't want to be following a gasoline tanker truck on the highway in a snowstorm at the length of only 2 Smart Cars would you? I know I wouldn't.
There are differences in sizes of pixels. Just as with automobiles less expensive pixels are often smaller.
Microns and Megapixels
Let's talk about microns and megapixels for a minute. A DSL’s pixels might be 8 microns wide (a micron is one millionth of a meter). Your smartphone’s camera pixels might only measure 0.8 microns. That’s a difference of a factor of 10.
You might think that having more pixels in that space would be ideal. It's really not. Camera sensors work by being charged with electricity which travels over the surface and reacts to light particles that interfere with the signal. They need a space between each pixels and pixels of a certain size to not suffer from interference between the pixels which is especially pronounced in low-light situations.
Smaller pixels are less light sensitive and their size means they can interfere with the pixels around them when their sensitivity is turned up. This means they don't look as good in the dark areas of the picture or in low-light. They also lose dynamic range which we'll talk about more below.
Your new Android or iPhone camera might be 150 megapixels but a 5-year-old professional DSLR with only 12 megapixels will still produce a higher dynamic range, larger print size, and better photos in lower light.
Megapixels, as it turns out don't really matter. The size of the pixels matter far more. The size of the pixel is often determined by the size of the sensor which I'll talk about now
The sensor size is far more important than the number of megapixels. If you’re seriously looking for an improvement over your iPhone or Android a modestly priced compact point and shoot camera will have a larger sensor.
A "full frame" mirrorless or DSLR will have an even larger sensor. The only sensors you will find larger than that of the full frame DSLR’s are for medium format cameras and they are priced starting around $4,000 without adding in the cost of lenses. These cameras can cost as much as $40,000 or more just for the camera. As a result they’re not a great choice as a beginner digital camera.
Most new compact point and shoot cameras will provide you with resolution that will allow you to print a photo up to the 11×14” or possibly larger. Mid-range cameras with somewhat larger sensors produce even nicer enlargements in size allowing you to easily print a 16"x24" print or even a 20"x30" print. Their dynamic range is far superior too. So what is dynamic range?
A camera’s dynamic range is a measurement of how much contrast the sensor is capable of recording. What does that mean? It means how much detail you can see in bright and dark areas. A digital camera with low dynamic range will will only show you details in areas that are of average brightness. For example if you take a photo of a white flower. The will see the details in the dark green foliage but not in the dirt under it's shadow and not in the white petals. If your camera had a better dynamic range you'd see the texture in the petals and some of the texture in the dirt as well.
The sensor’s capability to record these details in ever deeper dark shadow and brighter highlights is a big benefit of modern digital cameras but they're not all equal.
Dynamic range tends to increase as the sensor size increases. If seeing a lot of detail in different areas of brightness within your photos is important you’ll want to compare the dynamic range of the cameras that you’re looking at buying. Look for a camera that has a dynamic range above "10 stops" without needing HDR.
Since I mentioned it I should explain what HDR is. HDR stands for high dynamic range. This is often achieved through your camera taking multiple photos of the same scene or by a trick of the camera where it turns off the sensor in the brightest parts of the image while still taking in light in darker parts. The later way is how your Android or iPhone camera works. If you point it at a scene that is too high in contrast you will see a little box with HDR light up on the screen. That's assuming you've turned it on.
HDR on your iPhone's camera is a great feature. That's not always true of mirrorless cameras or DSLRs. They tend to use the first method where they take multiple photos or one long continuous photo. That means to do so you need to use a tripod or have your camera otherwise supported to make this work. There are other ways to add dynamic range to your photos but that's a subject for another day.
Types of Sensors
There are two types of sensors used in modern digital cameras though one of those is largely going away. CCD sensor cameras are still on the market but they’re rare. These actually produce higher quality images but they’re more expensive. Most camera manufacturers now exclusively make cameras with CMOS sensors. A camera with a CCD sensor might be an older model. Investigate to make sure you’re not being sold a camera that is several years old priced similar to new cameras with more advanced features.
In terms of the images we get with them there isn't a lot of difference outside of laboratory conditions. That's especially true now that CMOS sensors have been redesigned. Older CMOS sensors needed a filter on them called an anti-alas filter. This filter actually blurred your image slightly. So slightly that you wouldn't be able to tell even magnified to 200% but the real issue with the filter was that it also slowed the light down meaning you needed to take that into consideration on cameras made with such a filter.
The size of the sensor affects your lenses magnification factor. A cropped sensor will increase the magnification of the image when we compare it to a full-sized sensor. Full sized sensors are the size of a 35mm piece of film. Because the most popular film cameras used 35mm film the general public and professional photographers became used to what specific sized lenses looked like.
Cropped sensors are smaller than a 35mm piece of film so the image isn't actually magnified, it's just enlarged and missing the edges that we see in a full frame photo of the exact same image.
Lenses and Focal Length
Lenses and focal length are measured in millimeters. You may have heard of 50mm lenses or 105mm lenses. That is their focal length. That distance is the length between where the light meets at the center of the lens (where it is focused inside the lens) and the sensor or piece of film. It's the point of the lens's infinite sharpness.
If you were to take a simple lens, like those in a pair of glasses and move it away from and towards a camera's sensor it would provide infinite sharpness at some distance from the lens. As you move it away it would focus on objects closer to the camera. However if you move it closer than it's infinity point everything will be out of focus.
We use different focal lengths because they have different telephoto or wide angle effects. Lenses buying is a subject for another time but it's important to understand that how a photo looks on different sizes of sensors affects the telephoto effect of the lenses you're getting.
A full frame sensor with a 50mm lens will make everything appear normal. There will not be any wide angle or telephoto effect. However on a cropped sensor that same lens will have a telephoto appearance. It will look as if it's actually a 75mm lens. You'll need to use a 35mm lens on a cropped sensor to capture the same image as the 50mm on a full frame sensor.
Why This Matters
This is all really confusing stuff right? So I'm going to tell you why this matters. I've told you that bigger is better, buying the largest sensor you can afford makes sense right? The truth is that depends. Because a 400mm lens will look like a 600mm lens on a cropped sensor camera if you're a birder or really into nature photography, wildlife photography, or even sports photography, it might make more sense to use a cropped sensor for the extra bit of telephoto effect.
If money were no object then it doesn't but when is that ever the case? If you're looking to take great bird photos or sports photos but are not a professional photographer then buying a cropped sensor camera and big expensive lens will make more sense than buying a full frame sensor camera and an even more expensive lens.
Wide Angle Photography
This information is even more important if you want to take wide angle photos. They make wide angle lenses for cropped sensor cameras that give you very wide fields of view but because a 35mm lens on a cropped sensor lens is equal to a 50mm on a full frame lens there are fewer choices before you get into really distorted lenses commonly called fisheye lenses.
Low Light Photography
If Low light photography is important to you then make sure to read specific low light comparisons between the digital cameras you're considering buying. When is low light important to you? The answer is that if you're buying a digital camera it should be important to you.
What you might think of as low light photography is probably not what I think of as low light photography. Astrophotography, long-exposure, nighttime cityscapes, might be what you're picturing. Sure those are low-light situations but low light to me, as a professional photographer, means anything with less light than being outside with the sun shining. If you plan to photography family get togethers or your latest culinary creation you’re going to deal with situations where you or your camera wished you had more light.
There have been big advances over the last few years that help everyone when it comes to low light photography. Compared to film, the sensitivity of digital sensors is incredibly high. This is great but you’re still going to run into low light issues and having a camera that can handle them well will make all the difference between loving and being disappointed with your photos.
Our camera’s sensitivity is measured by a setting called ISO. Higher ISO means more sensitivity but it results in increased digital noise. You might remember buying 400 speed film for action or 200 speed film to take portraits outside. ISO is the same as what we used to call film speed but since our cameras don't use film they have an adjustable sensitivity.
Higher ISO isn’t just important for low light. A high ISO will help you capture action in moderate amounts of light. Buying a camera with a super High ISO doesn't mean the photos at those high settings are going to look great so make sure to read lots of comparisons and reviews. Also consider what the lowest ISO setting is. A camera with a bigger ISO range will often have been dynamic range.
Image stabilization (IS) is another tool that helps with low light photography. In small cameras image stabilization may be integrated into the camera. In DSLR cameras it can be packaged in the lenses or the body and many new mirrorless cameras offer it in both. Getting a body with IS capabilities means most if not all the lenses work with stabilization turned on. That being said, make sure you can also turn it off as sometimes IS can cause issues such as shutter delay or other issues if you're following a subject.
Another issue with image stabilization to watch out for is that some only have vertical or horizontal stabilization. That might be fine if you're just taking family photos but if you're a bird photographer and you're tracking birds in flight you want to make sure the camera is stabilized in all directions.
It can cost more to get a camera with good IS. In DSLRs it’s often a better feature of camera brands with less market share whereas Canon and Nikon didn't prioritize IS for a long time. Brands like Sony and Fujifilm add these features to compete with those bigger names. Big brands historically only added IS to lenses, specifically large telephotos or other lenses used for action photography. That is starting to change with mirrorless cameras coming with in-body stabilization more and more. Having stabilization helps with low-light photos. If you plan to photograph activities in lower light make sure you buy a camera with IS.
Compact cameras are starting to come with low-light settings for stationary subjects such as for portraits as well as some stability features but I'm honestly less familiar with them so I suggest you read reviews about them before you buy as soon IS features can be very well designed and some less so. Don’t pay extra for a gimmick that you can’t use.
Low light capabilities are great but sometimes you need to use flash. Today nearly all cameras have a built-in flash, even many higher end DSLRs include them. Like sensors, the size of the flash is a factor. The smaller they are the less powerful and the less appealing the light looks. Smaller means harsher. You will need flash from time to time, that's a reality of photography. This means you really must consider flash when buying your digital camera.
If you’re buying a mid-range mirrorless or consumer introductory DSLR you will should have a hot shoe on the top of the camera that you can mount a flash or a remote trigger system for controlling a flash unit even if it's off of your camera.
A hot shoe gives you versatility. Even some point and shoot cameras have hot shoes today. No matter what you plan to photograph consider the benefits of a camera with a hot shoe which means more stuff to buy (a flash unit) but will also give you far more versatility than a built in flash.
Working with available light is often enough for most people but learning how to control light, add pops of flash to brighten up parts of your photos, or exerting complete control of the light and becoming a master photographer means using and understanding flashes. Consider your lighting needs carefully. Ask experts or experienced photographers that create the types of photos you want to create about how they use lighting to better understand your needs when it comes to flashes. Even macro photos of plants or insects often benefit from the use of flash so don't skip thinking about flash when it comes to buying a digital camera.
I’ve mentioned mirrorless cameras a few times but if you’re unaware of what these are let me explain. Mirrorless cameras are often similar in appearance to DSLR’s. They usually have interchangeable lenses and they look a bit beefier than the average point and shoot but are often more compact than a DSLR.
Mirrorless vs. DSLR
The debate of mirrorless vs DSLR is silly as, for now, they each have strong and weak points. DSLR cameras contain a series of mirrors that bounce the image from the lens to the viewfinder allowing you to see exactly what your lens is seeing. The main mirror, visible in the camera’s body if you remove the lens, folds up out of the way just as a photo is taken which gives them their loud click and prevents you from seeing what is being photographed (we call that blackout).
Mirrorless cameras don't have these mirrors. Instead they have a tiny video monitor inside the viewfinder as well as the screen on the back where you can see what the lens is seeing. Many still blackout the shot when it's being taken, at least they do if you're using a mechanical shutter, but what you see is exactly what your sensor is recording because the image you're looking at is being captured by your sensor and then shown to you in real (or nearly real time).
Mirrorless cameras are great for a lot reasons. They’re often smaller, lighter, less expensive, and can be quieter than DSLRs.
They can come with large sensors, (full frame or near full frame). Some offer impressive lens collections or can be used with DSLR and old film lenses. The proximity of the lens and sensor offers some advantages as well.
The downside is that they all rely on a digital viewfinder. If you plan to spend a lot of time using a mirrorless camera you will need extra batteries. With a DSLR you can look through the viewfinder with the camera turned off which isn’t the case with mirrorless cameras. Mirrorless viewfinders can also be a problem in really low light. I wouldn't attempt astrophotography with a mirrorless camera as much as I love my Nikon Z6II. The ability to focus and compose when lighting is poor makes it nearly impossible.
I wish I could tell you how much to spend and where to find really great cameras for not a lot of money. The truth is camera prices are and will likely continue to be high. Cameras are luxury items for most people. That said, the price of digital photography is far lower than what the cost of film photography used to be. This is great because while cost as a high barrier to entry hasn't disappeared it's nowhere near as bad as it used to be.
Today a decent DSLR or mirrorless camera with a kit lens or two can be purchased new or refurbished for a few hundred dollars. Add in a memory card to store your photos on and you're all set.
Camera Prices might seem really high but the truth is I've worked with and seen photographers around the world, including those in refugee camps or otherwise dealing with displacement or homelessness that are documenting their world. So while it might seem like digital cameras are expensive they're honestly making photography far more affordable than it ever used to be which is wonderful news!
If you're really on a tight budget look for refurbished gear. That is far easier to do with DSLRs but you can find used or refurbished mirrorless cameras if you know where to look. Plus with an inexpensive adapter you can use old, very inexpensive high quality lenses.
Another considerations is camera weight. A Nikon DSLR with a large lens is going to weigh a lot. Nikon are generally heavier than Canon and Sony, their biggest competitors. A Canon DSLR versus a compact point and shoot will still seem massive. If you’re planning to use your new camera on vacations especially if you’re also carrying a child, a diaper bag, all the things they insisted on taking with them, everything you end up buying for them and yourself, etc. camera weight can be a really big factor. A camera that will fit into your pocket or bag might be all that you want.
The range of weight and size is surprisingly large even within each category of camera. Be sure to look at the weight of the cameras you’re considering once you’ve narrowed your selection to the types of camera you want. Then also check how those stack up against other cameras that may offer you more features and versatility to see if the difference is really enough to sway you.
Water & Dust Resistance
Just like iPhones and android phones a few years ago cameras were not at all water and dust resistant. Even professional level DSLRs were only moderately good at keeping the elements out. Today you have a lot more choices and better weather sealing at all levels but there are still things to consider.
If you're going to the beach, to a something like a Holi celebration or color-run or plan to use your camera in or around water you'll want to add some additional protection. There are a lot of options for doing so but this isn't really the review to cover those.
There are extreme sports model cameras with added ruggedness but those are generally set up for video more than for still photography. Of course these days if you're shooting at a fast frame rate and high enough quality you can pull some still photos from these cameras. Plus cameras such as Go-Pro can take still photos.
Those can be very appealing if you take your camera skiing, surfing, etc. No matter what you're doing Look at the water and dust resistance of your choices before you purchase. Those with better performances in harsh conditions often signal better reliability overall. Plus you never know when you'll be caught out in a rainstorm and will not want to ruin an expensive camera.
Cameras have a lot of delicate moving parts. The bigger more expensive the camera the more this is true. Understand how much punishment the cameras you’re considering can take. Look at their warranty, exceptions to the warranty, their repair costs, and time to repair. Make sure you’re getting a camera that can keep up with you or that can be easily repaired or replaced when it fails to do so.
Even if your camera still functions after being in harsh conditions such as rain or snow be aware that moisture can lead to fungus growing inside the camera. This is a concern especially around the lens because fungus can eat the coatings they place on the lens which will affect the quality of your photos.
If you’re looking for a camera system with interchangeable lenses you consider how long the lens system has been on the market. Nikon cameras still fit lenses from 50 years ago. Canon has changed their lens system over the years so their backwards compatibility is not as high but they’ve been in business for a long time and the ability to buy lenses that fit your Canon DSLR is unlikely to change any time soon. Can the camera you’re looking to buy say the same thing?
Of course today we also have the option of using adapters to retrofit vintage lenses from practically any camera system onto modern digital cameras. If you really like this idea mirrorless cameras tend to work better because the distance from the lens to the sensor is shorter and there isn't a mirror that can get in the way of a lens if it sticks into the camera body.
I mentioned vintage lenses a few times so I want to take a moment to talk about them. Vintage lenses are wonderful. They're often very affordable, have great optics, are often faster than many equally priced modern lenses, and some have really amazing qualities that a lot of photographers seek out. That said, almost none of them come with things like auto-focus or auto exposure. You usually have to shoot them in at least some sort of semi-manual mode.
I teach a lot of intro to photography classes so if you're interested in vintage lenses learning the basics of photography is essential to having a great time using such lenses. Knowing how to manually focus and expose your photos is critical to getting the most out of these lenses.
In conclusion I hope you enjoyed my digital camera buying guide. The fact is there are a lot of other things to think about and if you're still struggling after reading this visit my contact page and shoot me a message. I'm happy to consult with you about buying a camera that will work for you.
There are so many things to think about when it comes to buying a digital camera. I hope that I've helped you feel better rather than adding to that confusion.
Choosing A Camera Store
The last piece of advice is to begin to ask questions of the retailer you’re looking to buy from. Choosing a camera store where the staff know their stuff is critical. Best Buy and Amazon are not your best options. Finding a local camera shop or one not too far away that you can form a relationship with is a huge help.
Pittsburgh is pretty lacking in camera shops but YM Camera in Youngstown Ohio is well worth the drive if you're within a few hours. They will also help you via the phone or over the web. Just make sure to actually buy from them if they do help you. You can also call or message lots of other camera shops and get advice and help including Adorama and B&H Photo Video.
There are shops that have been in the business for decades and employ real experts. You can and should compare prices but sometimes expertise is part of what you’re paying for. If so take advantage of it. Fine-tune your choices and get the exact camera you need.