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Digital Camera
Buying Guide

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Digital Camera Buying Guide

How to Find the Right Camera

Camera shopping is tough. There are lots of different kinds to choose among, and the prices range from around 100 bucks into the thousands. At Consumer Reports, we test virtually every type of camera, and we can guide you through the options.

If you're just getting started, the first decision is whether to choose a basic camera or an advanced one. Here’s the difference: If you plan to just point the camera and shoot, you need (you guessed it) some sort of point-and-shoot. If you sometimes want to fiddle with exposure settings or even swap out lenses, you should look at advanced cameras.

Once you make that first decision, it's time to get a bit more detailed. One of following six camera types—three basic ones, and three advanced—will be right for you.


How to Find the Right Camera


Six Camera Categories

There are three kinds of basic cameras, and three kinds of advanced cameras. Here's what they cost and what they can do. (Narrow your choice down to one or two types, and shopping becomes much easier.)

Three cameras: A basic point-and-shoot, a superzoom point-and-shoot, and a waterproof point-and-shoot.

Basic Cameras

Basic point-and-shoot cameras are used pretty much the way you shoot photos with a smartphone. Simply set the camera on either a fully auto or a scene mode, and fire away. You have only coarse control over exposure settings, and you can't switch lenses. But point-and-shoots do vary quite a bit in terms of features and capabilities. At Consumer Reports, we recognize three flavors of basic camera.

A. Basic point-and-shoots (Price range: $100 to $450). These are simple, portable cameras, but some have optical zoom ranges as long as 23x. That's fine for shooting anything in your backyard, but probably not enough to capture action from across a soccer field. Some of these cameras have touchscreens. And nearly all are lightweight and slim, which make them ideal for slipping into your pocket or bag.

B. Superzoom point-and-shoots (Price range: $100 to $400): If you go to a lot of baseball games or concerts, you may want a superzoom camera. These models have optical zooms of at least 24x, and some are as long as 83x. That can literally capture craters on the moon. Many superzooms have nice grips, which can help you stabilize your camera when you shoot. Current models are also more compact and lighter than their predecessors.

C. Waterproof point-and-shoots (Price range: $100 to $350): If you want to shoot photos or video at the bottom of a swimming pool or beneath the waves, consider a waterproof point-and-shoot. Note that capabilities vary: Some cameras in this category claim to be waterproof to 50 feet, while others can be submerged to a fraction of that depth. With strengthened inner and outer chassis construction, most of these cameras are also rugged enough to survive a fall of several feet and function properly in colder temperatures.

Three cameras in a row: An advanced point-and-shoot, a mirrorless model, and an SLR.

Advanced Cameras

If a camera gives you fine control over exposure settings, we group it with advanced models. But that's just one of the elements that sets these cameras apart. They all have large image sensors and other features to help produce high-quality images.

D. Advanced point-and-shoots (Price range: $350 to $1,500): Like basic point-and-shoots, they have nondetachable lenses, but also have manual controls and other advanced features. They’re also more expensive than basic point-and-shoots. Most have hot-shoe mounts for an external flash and can produce RAW files—the best format to use with image-editing software. Some have high-quality electronic viewfinders—helpful if you shoot in bright light and the LCD looks washed out.

E. Mirrorless models (Price range: $300 to $2,700): These models accept interchangeable lenses, like SLRs, but they're smaller and lighter. Downside: They don't have an SLR through-the-lens viewfinder. Settings are adjusted via knobs and an on-screen menu. Mirrorless cameras have large sensors for enhanced images. Some expensive models have full-frame sensors; these are the size of a frame of 35mm film and enhance low-light performance. Mirrorless models can also capture RAW files.

F. SLRs (Price range: $500 to $3,000): SLRs are interchangeable-lens cameras, and most are compatible with a number of lenses. With the most features, they're also the biggest and heaviest. All SLRs have large sensors for enhanced image quality in low light. They also have through-the-lens viewfinders, which use mirrors to display the photo subject exactly as it appears through the lens. As with mirrorless cameras, there are some pricey SLRs that include full-frame sensors. SLRs can also capture RAW files.


Specs That Matter

Once you have a general idea of what type of camera you’d like to get and how much you want to spend, you can dive deeper into the specs. Just remember that no single spec or feature can tell you whether a camera is good or not.

Megapixel counts, in particular, can nearly be ignored these days—even though they get mentioned prominently in ads and by salespeople. The number tells you how fine the resolution the final picture will have, but every camera on the market has enough megapixels for most people. You only need more than 16 megapixels if you want to send out for literally poster-size prints of your photos.

So, if megapixels don’t matter much, what should you look for? Here are some important features to consider.


Try out Cameras in a Store

Before you buy, we suggest trying out a camera model in a brick-and-mortar store, so that you get a sense of how the camera feels in your hand.

Check the size and weight: No matter what type of photographer you are, you’ll want to consider a camera’s size as well as other factors when choosing a model. Do you want something portable for traveling, like a small, compact point-and-shoot (below, left)? Or are you OK with a big and bulky model, like a large superzoom (below, right)? Remember, if you’re traveling and you’re camera is heavy, you may take fewer photos and miss important moments.

Consider the controls: What do the buttons, switches, dials, and levers look like on your camera? Do you like these types of controls? Most cameras have just a few, and you’ll need to change most of the settings in the menu system, which is why a touchscreen LCD can be useful. SLRs have the most physical controls, which makes changing the settings quick and easy.

An illustration showing the portability of a small, compact camera vs. a larger, superzoom camera with a flash.
Illustration: Chris Philpot

What Else to Shop for

There are various accessories, from essential to esoteric, you can get for your digital camera. And depending on which model you buy, some can be pretty pricey. For most, you’ll want to consider the following important accessories when you purchase a digital camera:

An illustration of a memory card, a camera case, an external flash, and an extra lens.
Illustration: Chris Philpot

Brands That Matter

Canon is the market leader in point-and-shoots, with an extensive line of models, which are known as PowerShots. Most models include built-in Wi-Fi. Its compact camera line includes several different series. The A series comprises budget point-and-shoots while the ELPH series adds more creative features and advanced functions. Its N series provides an even larger number of features including Wi-Fi and photo-sharing. Canon’s D series cameras claim to be waterproof and shockproof. Its SX series are mostly superzooms and come in various sizes and include smaller or larger feature sets. Its high-end series, the S and G lines, include special modes and manual features, such as the ability to shoot RAW files and to focus manually. The EOS Rebel series helped to define budget SLRs. Other SLRs include a host of pro and more advanced consumer models, including models that have large, full-frame sensors. Canon also offers a wider selection of lenses than most brands. More recently, Canon has introduced a line of EOS M-series mirrorless models and compatible lenses.
Nikon has a fairly extensive line of point-and-shoot models, known as Coolpix cameras. Most models include built-in Wi-Fi. Its compacts and superzooms are divided into four series, the budget L, step-up S, high-end P series, and AW series, which Nikon claims is waterproof and shockproof. Nikon also has an innovative S series camera. Nikon also offers a line of advanced point-and-shoots. Like Canon's SLR lineup, Nikon's D series offers cameras for every SLR user and budget and a wide range of lenses. High-end SLRs include large, full-frame sensors, which offer better quality in low light. Nikon also offers a new mirrorless series, the Nikon One, which has large sensors and accepts interchangeable lenses but has no through-the-lens viewfinder.
Sony offers innovations at relatively high prices. Cyber-shot compacts offer distinctions such as touch screen LCDs and sleek bodies. Some larger models include very long optical zooms. Most models include built-in Wi-Fi. The W series is a budget line and T series cameras are waterproof. High-end H series superzoom point-and-shoots are available with and without Wi-Fi. Most RX-series cameras are advanced point-and-shoots that fit in a pocket, and have high-end SLR features. Sony has expanded its mirrorless Alpha series significantly and offers cameras for every advanced camera user and budget, including models that have very large, full-frame sensors and special features, such as High Dynamic Range (HDR). The series also has a wide range of lenses. Its wireless Cyber-shot QX series are portable "camera units" that clip onto—and are meant to be used wirelessly with—your smart phone.
Samsung has produced some very inexpensive compact digital cameras and some innovative models. Most models include built-in Wi-Fi. Its WB series covers compact point-and-shoot models and the superzoom category. Its Galaxy line are compacts that have photo-sharing capabilities. The company has introduced some mirrorless cameras similar to micro four-thirds models, but with a larger, APS-C sensor. The NX-series camera includes key SLR features, including interchangeable lenses. The size of NX models vary: Some are similar to an SLR and others are small and light like a point-and-shoot. New features include 4K video and NFC.
Olympus budget series compacts emphasize simple operation. Other model lines include its high-end SP superzoom models and select "Tough" waterproof cameras, which are also rugged. Olympus's Pen series models are based on micro four-thirds sensor technology. This mirrorless type of camera combines key SLR features—a large image sensor and interchangeable lenses—with the smaller size and weight of a point-and-shoot. Olympus no longer produces SLRs, but continues to offer a wide range of lenses for its mirrorless camera line. Most models include built-in Wi-Fi.
This innovative company produces cameras that serve a niche audience, mostly due to the cameras' high prices. Most of Leica's point-and-shoot cameras (C, D-LUX, and V-LUX series) are essentially the same models produced under the Panasonic brand, although the Leica versions are more expensive. Leica has a high-end, very expensive X-series advanced point-and-shoot that includes a large APS-C sized sensor, similar to those found on SLRs, although it has a fixed lens instead of using interchangeable lenses. Leica's most celebrated line is its very expensive M series of digital rangefinder cameras, which has a small but very loyal following of photographers. The T series is the first advanced point-and-shoot from Leica to feature an integrated Wi-Fi module.
The budget compact FinePix J and A series are the lowest priced Fujifilm cameras. Fujifilm claims that the FinePix XP series is waterproof. Its superzoom models are generally seen in the FinePix F and S series. The X series cameras include advanced point-and-shoot and mirrorless models. Fujifilm does not offer SLRs. Most models include built-in Wi-Fi.
Every Panasonic Lumix, from pricey superzooms to budget models, has optical stabilization. Many models offer great value when they combine optical image stabilization with innovations such as intelligent ISO, which automatically raises the camera sensor's sensitivity when it detects motion, allowing faster shutter speed. Panasonic, a pioneer in mirrorless cameras, has several G-series Lumix models that are based on micro four-thirds sensor technology. This type of mirrorless camera combines key SLR features—a large image sensor and interchangeable lenses—with the smaller size and weight of a point-and-shoot. Some of its recent models are capable of shooting 4K video. Most models include built-in Wi-Fi.
Ricoh, Pentax’s parent company, has had a long tradition of producing high-quality SLRs. Its most recent K series SLRs and compatible lenses are competitively priced. Pentax also offers some mirrorless models in its Q series. Pentax no longer produces compact or waterproof point-and-shoots under this brand. But those point-and-shoots have been rebranded as Ricoh cameras, and include a waterproof W series. Most models include built-in Wi-Fi.
This company is primarily a lens manufacturer, offering third-party interchangeable lenses for most of the major SLR camera lines that are often less expensive than those from the SLR camera manufacturers. But Sigma also produces select cameras, including an SD series SLR and several high-end DP series compacts, which capture images on uniquely designed Foveon sensors.
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