Our Ratings are divided into two main categories: Basic cameras, which are simple point-and-shoots with just the features needed for routine shots, and advanced cameras, which are feature-laden cameras that include sophisticated point-and-shoot and models that let you change lenses. Note that all point-and-shoots, whether basic or advanced, include cameras with lenses built into the camera (that is, non-removable).
Our basic camera category is divided into four subcategories: subcompacts, rugged & waterproof models, compacts and superzooms.
Subcompacts fit in a pocket, are lightweight but generally have few manual controls. A few include nontelescoping zoom lenses, and others have zooms as high as 14x. Compacts are a bit larger, and often have more manual controls than subcompacts. They can also be among the most inexpensive cameras available.
Rugged & waterproof models claim to resist moisture and withstand falls. All have non-telescoping zoom lenses.
Superzooms offer 15x or greater zoom, with some recent models including optical zooms as great as 60x. Like compacts, superzooms often, though not always, include manual controls. They're also among the more expensive basic cameras.
Our advanced camera category is also divided into three subcategories: advanced point-and-shoots, SLR-like models and SLRs.
Advanced point-and-shoots have a nondetachable lens but differ from basic models because they have lots of manual controls, a hot shoe for an external flash, and support for RAW files. It's the lightest advanced type. SLR-like models have interchangeable lenses, but they lack a through-the-lens viewfinder. They're smaller and lighter than an SLR but are usually larger than a point-and-shoot. SLRs have the most features, with interchangeable lenses and the largest sensors for the best image quality in low light, and a through-the lens viewfinder. Controls are extensive. They're also the heaviest, most expensive cameras.
There are two new kinds of cameras that are becoming more common in the market place. First, more cameras, from inexpensive subcompacts to high-end SLRs, are including wireless features, which allow you to connect to Wi-Fi hot spots and to mobile devices and to upload your photos and video to social networking websites. Some also include NFC (near-field communication), which makes connecting to mobile device quick and easy.
Second, camera manufacturers are churning out more advanced cameras with full-frame sensors for around $2000 or less. These types of sensors, which are the size of one frame of 35mm film and significantly larger than sensors found in point-and-shoot digital cameras, allow the camera to handle a wider variety of lighting situations more accurately. They also limit the amount of visual noise that can distort and degrade an image. (Although we don't yet rate these models, we do plan to include them in our Ratings in the near future as prices continue to drop.)