Camera Buying Guide

Camera shopping is tough. There are so many options to consider, and the prices range from around 100 bucks into the thousands. At Consumer Reports, we test almost every type of camera, so let us guide you through the choices.

If you’re just getting started, the first decision is whether to go for 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) a simple point-and-shoot. If you want to experiment with different exposure settings or even swap out lenses, you should consider a more advanced camera.

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 can do and how much they cost. Once you narrow your choice to one or two types, the 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 operate 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 limited control over exposure settings, and you can’t switch lenses. But point-and-shoots vary quite a bit in terms of features and capabilities. At Consumer Reports, we recognize three flavors of basic cameras.

A. Basic point-and-shoots: These are simple, portable cameras, and some have an optical zoom range 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 a touch screen. And almost all are lightweight and slim, which make them ideal for slipping into your pocket or bag. Price range: $90 to $270.

B. Superzoom point-and-shoots: If you go to a lot of baseball games or concerts, you may want a superzoom camera. These models have an optical zoom of at least 24x, and some are as long as 83x. That can capture craters on the moon, if you’re so inclined. Many superzooms have comfortable anatomical grips, which can help you stabilize your camera when you shoot. Current models are also more compact and lighter than their predecessors. Price range: $180 to $600.

C. Waterproof point-and-shoots: 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 only 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. Price range: $110 to $390.

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

D. Advanced point-and-shoots: Like basic point-and-shoots, they have non-interchangeable lenses, but they also have manual exposure controls and other advanced features. They’re also more expensive than basic point-and-shoots. Most have a hot-shoe mount for an external flash and can produce RAW files—the best format to use with image-editing software. Some have a high-quality electronic viewfinder—helpful if you shoot in bright light and the LCD looks washed-out. Price range: $250 to $3,300.

E. Mirrorless models: These models accept interchangeable lenses, like SLRs, but they tend to be smaller and lighter. One downside: They don’t have a through-the-lens viewfinder like an SLR (see below). 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: $440 to $4,000.

F. SLRs: SLRs are interchangeable-lens cameras, and most are compatible with a number of lenses. 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. They also have a through-the-lens viewfinder, which uses a mirror to display the photo subject exactly as it appears through the lens. As with mirrorless cameras, there are some pricey SLRs that have a full-frame sensor. SLRs can also capture RAW files. Price range: $400 to $3,300.

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 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 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.

Video Buying Guide

For more, watch our video below.

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. Do you want something portable for traveling, such as 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 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 on your camera? 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.

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 buy 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, from basic point-and-shoots to pro-level SLRs. Options include superzooms, advanced point-and-shoots, 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 does offer 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 just about every user and budget, 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.
Pentax offers SLRs at higher prices, while its parent company, Ricoh, sells rugged compacts and advanced point-and-shoot cameras.
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.
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