Choosing a camera can be daunting. Now most people have decent-ish snappers on their phones, it’s important to know why proper, standalone cameras are better (and why, sometimes, they’re actually worse).
It’s always worth sticking with the big camera brands for quality, innovation and in the case of DSLRs, compatible lenses. The original camera brands still thriving today are Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Pentax and Fujifilm. Then there are the electronics firms which have now branched out into digital photography - Sony and Panasonic arguably offer the best cameras here. Samsung did, too, but no longer makes cameras for the UK market.
Types of camera
Instant cameras: In some ways, these cameras have been overtaken by the immediacy of digital photography, but if you want to be able to print your shots, this is what you need. Paper and ink comes in a cartridge which slots into the camera. Price per print isn’t cheap, but these cameras can be enormous fun. If this is what you're after, take a look at our instant camera reviews.
Compact cameras: These are the most affordable photographic gadgets, the ones that have been partly supplanted by the camera you always have in your pocket – the one on your phone. But even the cheapest compact has an advantage over almost all phone cameras: it has an optical zoom (usually 3x but sometimes more). The digital zoom found on most smartphones zooms in effect by cropping the picture and enlarging just the centre area, thus reducing resolution. So with a 4-megapixel image, for instance, when you zoom in using a digital zoom, you’re left with an image the same size as before, but with far fewer pixels filling it, reducing resolution to, say, 1 megapixel. However, with an optical zoom, where the lens moves, you still have full resolution whether you’re zoomed in or out. Compacts have non-removable lenses and are straightforward, point-and-shoot machines.
Waterproof cameras: These are compacts with extra protection. As well as surviving a dunking, they are often dust-, shock- and freeze-proof as well, so they are particularly useful for taking on a beach, skiing or on any other active holiday. Or if you’re very clumsy. They are more expensive than an equivalent compact without such protective capabilities. So where a regular 16MP compact might cost £80, a waterproof model with similar specs would be at least £130 but more likely £170.
Advanced compact cameras: The name is clear enough – these are compacts that do a lot more. An advanced compact has a non-removable lens but features a big sensor, and a bigger sensor delivers better results. You’ll also find better lenses than on a regular compact and more manual controls for better images, though you can still point-and-shoot. Also called premium compacts. We've tested advanced compact cameras to find out which ones are worth buying.
DSLR: It stands for Digital Single Lens Reflex and is still the best-quality camera you can find. Usually, it has the highest-quality components, the widest range of compatible lenses and often the highest price attached. There are plenty of accessories available from tripods to lenses, to lens filters, to lens hoods. They’re bigger than mirrorless cameras but can be the most satisfying to use. Many DSLRs are suitable for both first-timers and seasoned pros.
Bridge cameras: Also called superzooms, bridge cameras are the choice of many enthusiasts. The zoom is much bigger than on a compact, often 20x, 30x or even 80x. Some prefer them to DSLRs or mirrorless cameras because the zoom is versatile. Also, because you can’t change the lens you’re safe from one of the worst problems DSLR users face: dust getting onto the sensor.
Mirrorless: Also called compact system cameras, or hybrids, these come with interchangeable lenses like on a DSLR. Because there’s no mirror system as there is in a DSLR, it’s possible to make the body much smaller and lighter. Many have large sensors, and lots of features such as advanced autofocus capabilities to advanced manual controls, too.
The bigger the sensor, the better the result, generally speaking. Sensors in mobile phones can be smaller than the nail on your little finger while a full-frame sensor is as big as a frame of 35mm film. Full-frame sensors are mostly, though not exclusively, found on DSLRs. A one-inch sensor is big and can be found on some advanced compacts. A one-inch sensor is highly effective, though you may have to settle for less. The sensor is where the image is recorded, so the better it is, the better your chances of good results. And it’s not all about megapixels...
The number of pixels on the sensor is important, but no longer the only concern. A larger sensor with 12MP (megapixels) will usually take a better photo than a small one with, say, 20MP squeezed in. Bigger pixels suck in more light than smaller ones, resulting in less image noise (that grainy effect digital pictures sometimes have). Also, bigger pixels are faster, meaning the shutter can stay open for a shorter time, which means less blurring because the photographer’s grip isn’t still enough. Aim for 12MP or above.
Pro photographers may tell you that the very best glass is found on lenses with a fixed focal length –that is, with no zoom. Realistically, though, unless you want to carry a bunch of different lenses around, you’re going to want a zoom. The most versatile lenses can slide from wide-angle (18mm, say) to telephoto (as high as 270mm). To calculate the zoom you divide one figure by the other so, since 270 divided by 18 is 15, that would give you a 15x zoom. Portraits look good with a 50mm lens (though this is a matter of personal choice) so an 18-270mm lens would include such a capability and more. Lenses only become part of the conversation, really, if you’re choosing a DSLR or mirrorless camera.
This is a relatively new addition to camera capabilities, in response to how easy it is to upload your photos to social media, for instance, from a smartphone. It’s still not as simple as it is on a phone and in some cases it’s downright fiddly. Still, it can be a useful feature – some professionals love it because it means you can instantly send the tiny image you see on your camera LCD to a big laptop display, for better analysis.
This is a useful feature. Digital image stabilisation can now be quite good, but optical stabilisation is what you really want. The better the stabilisation, the longer the shutter can stay open, resulting in better pictures, especially in low light.
Almost every camera now shoots video as well as stills. Not all cameras can zoom while they’re actually shooting video, not least because the motor that zooms often interferes with audio being recorded, so check this before you buy. And it’s worth looking out for a camera that shoots in 4K, the highest-resolution available.
Should I get an action camera?
Action cameras are brilliant at one thing: shooting video (and stills, but they really excel at video) in high resolution and in fast-moving situations. They tend to do this better than regular cameras, but can’t really compete elsewhere. For instance, for careful photograph composition you need the extra features a regular camera offers. Battery life rarely compares to that on straightforward cameras too. GoPro is the standout brand here, though there are strong efforts from Panasonic, Olympus and Sony.
Depending on what type of camera you're after, we have a whole range of camera reviews. Below are a selection of our most popular to help get you started.
1. Fujifilm Instax Mini 8: £64.49, Argos
- Instant camera that’s ideal for beginners
- Easy to use
- Automatic light sensor
- Reasonably priced
2. GoPro Hero5 Action Camera: £349, Amazon
- The most advanced action camera on the market
- Shoots video in 4k resolution
- Great video stabilisation
- Simple to control
- Good noise reduction (for eliminating things like wind)
- It has voice control
- It has GPS
3. Sony RX100 IV: £759, Jessops
- Advanced compact camera that delivers excellent images
- Compact and solid build
- One-inch sensor
- Pop-up viewfinder
- Shoots 16 frames per second and shoots video in 4k resolution
- Great video performance
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