Camera Buying Guide

Camera shopping is tough. There are so many options to consider. Let us guide you through the choices.

Try Out Cameras in a Store

Before you buy, we suggest trying out a camera model in a camera shop or an electronics 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. Remember, if you’re traveling and your 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? Do the important controls fall under your fingers? Are they easy to use? Most cameras have just a few physical controls, 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 and mirrorless models have the most physical controls, which makes changing the settings quick and easy.

Camera Categories Rated by CR

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 also have large image sensors and other features to help you produce high-quality images. 

An advanced point and shoot camera.

Advanced Point-and-Shoot Cameras

They might not have interchangeable lenses, but they do have manual exposure controls and other advanced features. Most have a hot-shoe mount for an external flash and can produce RAW files—the best format to use with image-editing software because RAW files allow deeper manipulation of especially light and dark areas of an image. Some have a high-quality electronic viewfinder—helpful if you shoot in bright light and the LCD looks washed-out. Price range: $350 to $1,700. 

Advanced point-and-shoot cameras Ratings
A mirrorless camera.

Mirrorless Cameras

These models accept interchangeable lenses, like SLRs, but they tend to be smaller and lighter because they don’t use a relatively bulky pentaprism (the mirror) to reflect the image from the lens to the sensor. One downside: They don’t have a through-the-lens live viewfinder like an SLR, and instead use a tiny video screen in the viewfinder, or just use the rear screen, both of which can be less clear. Mirrorless cameras have a large sensor for enhanced images. Some expensive models have a full-frame sensor; this is the size of a frame of 35-mm film, and it enhances low-light performance. Mirrorless models can also capture RAW files, which provides lots of flexibility when you edit your work. Price range: $450 to $3,600. 

Mirrorless cameras Ratings
A SLR camera.

SLR Cameras

Digital SLRs descend from nondigital SLRs, both of which use a mirror system to send light to either film or a sensor, and to your eye. CR rates the digital variety, which are compatible with a number of lenses, frequently from both the camera manufacturer and third parties. While they sport the most features, SLRs are also the biggest and heaviest cameras. All SLRs have a large sensor for enhanced image quality in low light. As with mirrorless cameras, there are some pricey SLRs that have a full-frame sensor. SLRs can also capture RAW files. Price range: $450 to $2,500. 

SLR cameras Ratings

Specs That Matter

Once you have a general idea of which 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.

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 will be in the final picture, but almost every camera on the market has enough megapixels for most people. You need more than 16 megapixels only if you want to send your photos out for poster-sized prints.

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

What Else to Shop For

There are various accessories, from essential to esoteric, that you can buy for your camera. And depending on which model you buy, some can be pretty pricey. Most people will want to consider the following accessories when purchasing a camera.

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

Camera Brands

Canon offers an extensive line of models in every category, from basic point-and-shoots to pro-level SLRs. Options include superzoom, advanced point-and-shoot, and mirrorless models. Canon also offers a broader selection of lenses for its SLRs and mirrorless models than most other brands offer.
Fujifilm primarily offers advanced point-and-shoot cameras, as well as mirrorless models. Fujifilm offers a waterproof model but doesn’t make SLRs.
This storied company produces cameras that serve a niche audience, mostly because of the cameras’ high prices. Our ratings include advanced point-and-shoot and mirrorless models.
Nikon offers a variety of higher-end point-and-shoot models, including superzooms and advanced point-and-shoots, under the Coolpix name. The company has an SLR for a variety of users and budgets, and a wide range of lenses. Its high-end SLRs include large full-frame sensors, which provide better quality in low light. Nikon has also expanded its line of mirrorless Z Series cameras, which sport large sensors and accept interchangeable lenses.
The Olympus models in our ratings include a waterproof/rugged compact camera, as well as a number of mirrorless cameras. The venerable company no longer offers SLRs.
A pioneer in mirrorless cameras, Panasonic also offers several less expensive superzoom and advanced point-and-shoot models.
Sony offers a variety of innovative cameras in the mirrorless and SLR categories, some with full-frame sensors and a wide variety of lenses, as well as a wide selection of advanced point-and-shoots. The company supplements these higher-end cameras with relatively inexpensive point-and-shoot and superzoom models.
When you shop through retailer links on our site, we may earn affiliate commissions. 100% of the fees we collect are used to support our nonprofit mission. Learn more.