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 almost 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 and three advanced—will be right for you.

6 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 mode 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: $90 to $270). 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 touch screens. And almost all are lightweight and slim, which make them ideal for slipping into your pocket or bag.

B. Superzoom point-and-shoots (price range: $180 to $600). 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: $110 to $390). 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 are claimed to be waterproof to 50 feet, and 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 to 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: $250 to $3,300). Like basic point-and-shoots, they have nondetachable lenses, but they 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: $440 to $4,000). These models accept interchangeable lenses, like SLRs, but they’re smaller and lighter. Downside: They don’t have an SLR through-the-lens viewfinder. Mirrorless cameras have large sensors for enhanced images. Some expensive models have full-frame sensors; these are the size of a frame of 35-mm film and enhance low-light performance. Mirrorless models can also capture RAW files.

F. SLRs (price range: $400 to $3,300). 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 almost 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-sized prints of your photos.

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

Interactive Video Buying Guide

For more, watch our video below. You can skip to different chapters depending on your interests. For example, HD camcorders or action cams, and digital camera basics or camera features.  

Try Out Cameras in a Store

Before you buy, we suggest trying out a camera model in a walk-in 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 okay 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 touch-screen 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, that you can get for your camera. And depending on which model you buy, some can be pretty pricey. For most, you’ll want to consider the following accessories when you purchase a camera:

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

Brands

Canon offers an extensive line of models in every category. Its compact PowerShots line includes several different series, including point-and-shoots (ELPH series), superzoom (SX), rugged (D), and advanced point-and-shoots (S and G). 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 broader selection of lenses than most brands. Canon also sells a line of EOS M-series and R-series mirrorless models and compatible lenses.
Fujifilm primarily offers two main types of camera: compact and mirrorless cameras. Point-and-shoots include the compact A-series, rugged XP-series, and advanced F-series. Fujifilm’s higher-end X series cameras include advanced point-and-shoot and mirrorless models. Fujifilm does not offer SLRs.
This storied company produces cameras that serve a niche audience, mostly because of the cameras’ high prices. Most of Leica’s point-and-shoot cameras (C, D-Lux, X-series, and V-Lux series) are essentially the same models produced under the Panasonic brand, although the Leica versions are more expensive and offered mostly at specialty retailers. Leica’s most celebrated line is its M series of digital rangefinder cameras, which has a small but very loyal following of photographers.
Nikon has a line of point-and-shoot models known as Coolpix cameras. Its compacts and superzooms are divided into three series, the compact S, high-end P, and AW, which Nikon claims is waterproof and shockproof. 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 provide better quality in low light. Nikon also offers its new mirrorless Z-series which has large sensors and accepts interchangeable lenses.
Olympus primarily offers two main types of camera: compact and mirrorless. Under its compact umbrella are Stylus and TG-series waterproof cameras. Olympus’ Pen and OM-D 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.
Panasonic, a pioneer in mirrorless cameras, has several G series Lumix models that are based on Micro Four Thirds sensor technology. Additionally, Panasonic offers a range of point-and-shoots including the F-series, which has both superzoom and advanced point-and-shoot models and the rugged TS-series.
Pentax offers mainly K-series SLRs. While its parent company, Ricoh, sells Theta point-and-shoots and rugged WG-series models.
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 found in specialty stores, including an SD-series SLR and several fixed lens DP-series advanced point-and-shoots.
Sony offers innovations at relatively high prices. Cyber-shot compacts include point-and-shoots (W series), superzoom (H series), and advanced point-and-shoots (RX series). Sony’s bread-and-butter, its mirrorless Alpha series, offers cameras for every user and budget, including models that have large, full-frame sensors. The series also has a wide range of lenses.
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