As with most photographers / photography enthusiasts, I often end up the go to guy when friends and colleagues are looking to buy cameras. I can go on for hours about the technical designs, sensor quality and real-world handling, but the truth is most people who ask are just looking for something that will allow them to “take better pictures”, usually referring to image quality (IQ).
This article is a very basic guide aimed at total beginners, discussing the four most common types of digital cameras, where their strengths and weaknesses lie, and the kind of user that each is designed for. I am going to be as brand neutral as I can, and try to cast off the typical SLR snobbery I often get faced with when talking to other togs. The truth is, its about getting the camera that is right for YOU, not what I or another tog would use for our own applications. At the end of this article there are a few tips on buying your camera regardless of which type you go with.
For those who are technically minded, here is a basic guide to understanding your camera, and from this you can appreciate how each type differs in component quality.
Lets talk type
I have broken all modern digital cameras down into four simple categories, and each is explained in a bit more detail below:
- Compact (standard) Digital Cameras
- Performance Compacts (also known as hybrids)
- Bridge Cameras
- Digital Single Lens Reflect cameras (dSLRs)
I will not be discussing cameras on smart phones.
Each type sports its own flavour of on-board electronics, optics arrays and data processing and management systems, and thus each has its own pro’s and con’s list and target audience and usage. Price varies hugely across the types as well as brands – there are many more players in the compact digital camera market compared with dSLR, usually as the technology in compact cameras is reasonably unspecialised (and somewhat unchanged in the last 5-10 years), and it is a volume sales market.
Compact Digital Cameras
OK, so lets start at the beginning. This is the type of camera that everyone at some point starts off with. It is responsible for the vast majority of non-professional images on the web, from social media sites to blogs etc. (though as camera phones now reach similar quality, this may change). They are small enough to fit in your pocket to take on a night out, are reasonably cheap and now are becoming usergroup specific.
The average human being who wants to take a camera to document things they do, nights out, holidays and friendsetc. I have once heard this type of camera described as “This is the camera your mum has”. Manufacturers of this type of camera are aware that there is little brand loyalty here, and so are specialising out to particular usergroups: you can now get water and dive proof models for the outdoorsy folk, scratch and bump proof for the wreckless / clumsy / children, and even ultra-compact versions for the handbag hero or dance diva.
As the cheapest of the camera range, costing anywhere from £50 to £200 ish at the very top end (but averaging at under £100) you would imagine that the quality of the components is not great. Often the lenses are made from optical plastics instead of glass, to save on machining costs, the sensors are the smallest, often being smaller than your little finger nail, and the on-board processing is a few generations old. They do not offer full camera control, but often offer “scene modes” that sets the camera up to shoot particular scenes (e.g. night mode, sunset mode, panoramas etc). They have their own flashes fixed on-board that are good for a few meters. They cannot be integrated with other flash systems. This type of camera has a fixed lens that is capable of offering optical zoom (as well as digital zoom, which is managed by the on-board processor).
Of course, all of the above is not necessarily a bad thing for some users: cheap and capable of taking images of loved ones and great memories. For the average user they offer a fuss-free point and shoot solution for their needs. For the most part these cameras compete very well across brands given the aforementioned lack of brand loyalty, and so you can get some really great deals.
This type of camera for those who want to be able to easily record the things they do: photography is not the hobby, it is a means to document their actual hobbies. The simpler and cheaper the better, leaving more time and money to do they things they actually want to document.
Cost: The cheapest class, usually between £50 and 200.
Usergroup: Average users who want to document what they do.
Pros: Cheap, can be a perfectly good solution to the average consumer who wants to take a camera to events in their life. Easy to use.
Cons: Image quality, particularly at high ISO ( e.g. low light), due to pixel compression. Can outgrow them rapidly in terms of creativity
- LIke most people, I started with one of these (a Panasonic Lumix TZ3, it still comes out for active duty on occasion). It was the upper price end of this class, but really got me to think creatively about photography. Everyone’s gotta start somewhere.
Performance Compacts (Hybrids)
A Sony NEX, one of the original Performance Compacts
This type of camera did not exist five or so years ago, and represents an interesting balance of needs – high quality imaging but at a smaller size than a bridge or SLR, with compromises on hardware and lens choices. I see a lot of friends go for these instead of dSLR cameras. The Performance Compact is a hybrid of traditional compact camera with dSLR quality optics, including interchangeable lenses. They are marketed to be for those who want better image quality than shooting with a standard compact camera but don’t want to compromise space or be bogged down too much in the technical details
From the very beginning these cameras were instant hits with those who go travelling lots. Offering much better quality images than compact cameras due to better data handling, far better quality optics and much bigger sensors (often identical to SLR sensors, for example the same sensor, though slightly modified in the sony NEX-5 is used in the Sony dSLR A580 and the Nikon dSLR D7000 and Pentax K5). The bigger sensors mean much better IQ and less noise, even at low-light. Other users include those who shoot amateur video at events, due to size and IQ. I see a lot of bboys and other dancers turning up with Sony NEX’s or Nikon 1’s to shoot, as they fit in their kit bag along with their actual kit for dance events.
Hybrids are often feature rich, with decent sensors and on-board processing kit. They all have interchangeable lenses, which is specific to the brand you purchase (e.g. Nikon 1 mount for Nikon 1 J1 / J2 /V1 cameras). These are NOT the same mounts as dLSR lenses (tending to be shorter and slightly less quality optics than dLSR lenses), and the housings are often made to match the camera body’s style. So now you can buy a 50 mm F/1.8 for your portrait work, just as you would if you shot with a dSLR, albeit the lenses are slightly different.
Hybrid cameras allow the typical “point and shoot” photography, but also have FULL MANUAL control options in the software menus. Now we’re talking actual photography – this camera is as amateur point and shoot when you want it to be, but you can break it out and actually grow with this camera as you get more creative. The systems all use proper photography terms and conventions, and so if you decide to jump up to dSLR later, your know-how still counts. These cameras often have no viewfinder, and rely on medium resolution digital displays on the back of the cameras – some of which are touch screen).
All this comes at a price though: they often cost as much as an entry level dSLR – ranging from £400 up to £900 or so. This is not cheap, but you are paying for near dSLR quality with the additive benefits of small and compact physical form. These systems have their own clip-on flash systems (sometimes these are optional extras), but do not interface with any other lighting systems.
Cost: moderately expensive, expect to pay around £400-900
Usergroup: Travel enthusiasts, journalists, performers, photography enthusiasts who don’t want to go dSLR
Pros: Small, lightweight, and pretty good quality. Can buy lenses to suit your needs. Useful for reasonable quality video
Cons: Cost. Limitations on the lens availability. Also the lack of decent flash support renders these not so great in low-light
- Most people that come to me asking about cameras to go travelling with end up choosing on of these. you CAN grow with them, but the ease of use and size makes them a no-brainer for your year abroad or adventures in far off lands.
Fuji FinePix HS50 Superzoom Bridge Camera
Bridge cameras are a prosumer camera class, meant to bridge the gap between dSLR and point and shoot Compacts. These look and feel like dSLR cameras but are often a touch smaller, and have many features of a real dSLR including dial / button full manual control (rather than software menu control like a hybrid), but with a FIXED lens (that is, it cannot be changed like on a Hybrid or a dSLR). These are great for individuals who want to dip their toe into photography without committing large amounts of cash, and generally are competitively priced.
Aimed at the prosumer with a desire to get into photography, these cameras are big and feel solid. They make excellent stepping stones into amateur photography, and pave the way for understanding how actual photography works. The typical user for such a camera is one who is wanting more from their camera in terms of IQ but also freedom of creativity. I often see this camera with college students and younger budding photographers at events who aren’t ready to delve into the costs of dSLR.
Bridge Cameras have live-view screens on the back and often have electronic viewfinders (EVFs) with a few having proper optical viewfinders (OVFs), but these are not quite the same quality as dSLR cameras. These cameras offer full manual control, and most have hot-shoes for fitting standard flashguns, massively opening up low-light capability and creative lighting opportunities. The lenses usually have proper threads for various physical filters, identical to those used in dSLR protography. The fixed lens is designed to cover a large zoom range (e.g. 17-200 mm, representing a 11.7 x “optical zoom”), however the quality of the lenses is less than that of dSLR lenses, and also large zoom lenses such as this will introduce aberrations that require complex lens design. Some of the cheaper Bridge cameras has small sensors (usually custom designed by make and model), but some of the more expensive ones have near APS-C sizes sensors (the size in most entry to mid level dSLRs). The sensor types are usually CCD, which are of a bit more susceptible to noise when compared to the dLSR CMOS standard.
The Bridge camera is usually priced at between £250 to £500 ish, which is cheaper than the Hybrid class of camera and with its fixed lens makes it a bit of an all-rounder for application, as long as you make space in your bag for it – and this is the key point: when you buy such a camera you are now looking at photography as your hobby, and therefore many of your trips and events you attend will be for the purpose of taking photos rather than participating in the actual event.
Cost: moderately expensive, expect to pay around £250-500
Usergroup: Photography enthusiasts interested in taking their photography forward without committing huge financial resource to it.
Pros: Full (or close to full) control, and decent IQ for the most part. Works with certain remote triggers and hot-shoe flashes
Cons: Fixed lens limits creative versatility – you can outgrow the camera if you want to go pro. Sensor quality not quite as good as dSLR.
- Several photographers I have worked with had bridge cameras when they grew up before they forked out on dSLR. They are a good way to learn which features and layouts in a camera that you like and don’t like before you take the plunge and move on to dSLR- and most people do move on to dSLR
Digital Single Lens Reflex Cameras (dSLR)
Nikon D3100 Entry Level dSLR
The dSLR is the camera that you see most pros wandering about with, yet they needn’t cost the earth. These are large, rugged items that you take somewhere because you want to shoot something creatively or with the highest IQ, and care little about space in your bag. I could write tomes on these cameras from technical spec to housing design, but the truth is this is a bewildering and large range of cameras that all kinda do the same thing: they offer large, high quality sensors, high quality optics and data management, and are compatible with a vast array of supporting technologies from battery grips to flash guns and remotes, filter systems and even GPS devices. They have interchangeable lenses, and often the lenses can be made by other manufacturers. There is an element of brand loyalty, and a bit of snobbishness regarding which brand you have or what kit you shoot with, but if you cut out that noise from the photography world and focus on what you need from a dSLR then you wont be lacking in options.
The user of a dSLR camera tends to be photography enthusiast all the way up to professional photographer – the difference is usually the level of kit they use and HOW they use it – relative beginners can use a dSLR in “auto mode” – using it like an overpriced point and shoot, much to the dismay of enthusiasts who learnt the art. When using a dSLR there is a learning curve and some theory to understand, but this is also true of bridge cameras and if you are forking out for this camera class then you either know a little already, or are willing to get stuck in. This is a class of camera you buy when taking pictures is what you want do – unlike a compact camera, which is a documentary device.
Each brand tends to bring different qualities to the fore – Nikkon brings excellent lens design and quality, Canon bring an all-roundedness and their on-board DIGIC processing is blisteringly fast, Sony bring excellent sensors, and as they own Konica Minolta, they bring decent lenses too. Some companies don’t try and compete with competitor’s specialism, but instead license components from others, for example Nikkon and Hasselblad have used Sony sensors in some of their cameras, and Sony and Hasselblad license lens designs from Carl Zeiss.
Whichever flavour of dSLR you go for expect a full range of lenses available (usually a couple of hundred), manufactured by the home brand and also licensed 3rd parties (e.g. Sigma), full flash gun support, sometimes with built in wireless triggering), lenses with threaded ends for filter support, a range of accessories such as wrist straps, battery grips, remotes and intervalometers. Large (APS-C or “Four Thirds” minimum) sensors, with high quality noise reduction and data management electronics. Large optical viewfinders with internal HUDs for setting your exposures properly, with at least one control wheel to allow you to manipulate aperture or shutter (or both simultaneously). Some have customisable buttons and some have HDMI outputs, firewire, USB and even Cat5-e (network) ports for interface. Many intermediate or high end cameras in this class have very fast buffers allowing you to shoot at high speeds, and have multiple memory card slots. You have full control, as well as “auto” and various stepped control modes such as aperture priority, and shutter priority. The scene modes from the compact camera class are often not included in this kind of camera.
Of note here is Sony – they have their own hotshoe design, which has implications on what kit is compatible. Also Sony no longer make formal dSLR cameras, preferring their proprietary SLT technology. This boasts similar or better quality than dSLR, but has negative implications in low-light imaging. For this reason, many hardened Sony fans are jumping ship.
With this system you can grow: most people buy a camera, and then invest in decent lenses. when they then upgrade their camera body down the line, they keep the lenses and use them on the new body. To this end many photographers get by with an intermediate body but high quality lenses.
Cost: Expensive: Entry Level : £300-500 ish, Intermediate: up to £1000, Pro: upto £4000 plus lenses etc
Usergroup: Photography Enthusiasts all the way up to professionals. Sometimes Professional Videographers use dLSRs too as they are cheaper than cinematic cameras for documentary or event videography.
Pros: Full control, high IQ . Vast array of lenses, flashes, filters, studio kits and other creative expansion devices.
Cons: Expensive. Takes patience and know-how to get results, people see it and expect you to take photos of them for free.
- Whilst not for everyone, dSLRs are finding their way into younger and more general-user hands. Prices are coming down for the really entry-level devices, so some users just stick it in auto and use it like a high quality point and shoot, and so it’s finding more use in the interested consumer/prosumer arena.
The Choice is yours…
As you guessed: I have a dSLR. I also have a Compact. I wouldn’t dream of shooting an event with my Compact if I am there to shoot it, but If I’m out with friends and want some photos from the night, then I happily take it along. Likewise I wouldn’t go to an event with my dSLR unless I was hired to, or I specifically wanted the images from it to be very high quality. There is a snooty edge to a lot of photograhpy that says you must shoot this brand and with this type of camera. The truth is, everyone has different needs and one solution isn’t going to suit everyone.
- For the Casual user, who wants images as a way to scrap book their social events and general life stuff, then a compact camera can be just what they need.
- For those with more cash to spend, and who are going travelling, or want their kit to be small, but want a marked step up in IQ, then hybrid systems are a reasonable choice
- For those who are future photographers, who are, or who want to be serious about IQ and making the most of their creativity then bridge or dSLR cameras are for them.
Another way to look at it is instead of classifying each class by USER, classify each class by USE: e.g. if I am out with friends and I want to keep my kit small, then a Compact camera will be best. If I need creative control and high IQ, then a dSLR will be best. Find out which situation you are in the most, and then decide on your camera accordingly.
A few notes on BUYING your camera
- Photography is a practical, hands on thing. The feel, size, shape, build quality and physical ease of use is often as important as the camera itself, especially in the compact digital arena – so don’t just buy online, go and speak to your local camera shop (though this is becoming more difficult as in the UK we lost Jacobs AND Jessops) and get a feel for the camera.
- Once you have your camera, carrying it around safely is important. If you have just spent several hundred pounds on a camera, don’t skimp on suitable protection such as a case or camera bag.
- Be sure to add your camera to your household insurance if it is expensive. If you are shooting events with a nice and expensive dSLR, consider photography insurance, this can also cover you if you are hired and your kit breaks, they will loan you a replacement until your kit is repaired, so you don’t miss your event.
- If you are buying online I would advise not to buy on eBay or similar sites – There is an issue with GREY GOODS (goods imported from other markets, e.g. China), which is particularly applicable to photography: Imported cameras from Eastern Markets do not come with valid European warranty’s. Whilst these are brand new, and completely legal, if your camera gets damaged you wont be able to get them repaired locally under your warranty. I have heard of some manufacturer’s refusing to repair cameras at all based on ” out of market sales”. Don’t risk it for the sake of £20 here or there. There are some excellent photographic online stores that only stock UK/European kit, where your are covered.
- There is a valid market for second-hand dSLRs and the like. Be aware that dSLRs have moving parts, and the shutters have limited lifespans, so be sure to ask how many times its been actuated (many dSLRs have a method that will show you the shutter count). If you are going to be buy second hand (and why not, there are some great deals to be had), buy from a local camera shop, as they know what they are doing (and some even service them and offer an in-house warranty on their used cameras). Cash Exchange shops such as CEX, have no real training on how to check that the camera is in decent shape when they take it in, so the onus is on you to make sure everything is in good order when you check it. As you are not a camera engineer, I wouldn’t take that risk.
- PIXEL COUNT (resolution) is not an indication of quality!! I often get ” its 16 Megapixels, so it must be good”. This is nonsense. Having a higher count is good as you have more real estate in your images to play with, but SENSOR SIZE matters far more. It is possible to pay £70 for a 16 MPx compact camera, or £2000 for a 10 MPx dSLR. the dSLR will blow any image the compact has taken out of the water. The dSLR has a 35 mm sensor, whereas the compact camera has a 7 mm sensor, which means the electronics massively compress data on the compact camera (“pixel squeeze”, or “pixel crush”). This makes them highly susceptible to spurious noise, a low colour depth and dynamic range, and poor signal to noise control across the whole image.
There is a myriad of camera styles and brands out there, and no one solution suits every person. To this end, think about the way you want to use the camera, what you will use it most for, and what your know-how and budget is, and then go from there. Its not as scary a choice as you think. Go to an actual camera shop (or at least a camera section in a department store) and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Get tactile and have a play with the kit.
I hope this article has made you consider the four basic types of camera and what use each is best suited for, and how each might – or might not – be suitable for you.