What Camera Should I Buy: Pros and Cons of Each Type (and What They’re Best At)

This time of year many of us ask ourselves, “What camera should I buy?” Truth is, it can be tricky to decide what camera to buy because we like to shoot different subjects which have different needs. In this jargon-free buyer’s guide our head of testing Angela Nicholson has some advice that will put you on the right track.
 
What camera should I buy: pros and cons of each camera type (and when you should use them)
“What camera should I buy?” When you ask yourself this it can be helpful to ask yourself a few follow-up questions.
 
For example, what do you want to photograph, and when do you want to use the camera? Also, do you want to be able to change lenses and how much control do you want over the settings?
Let’s take a look at the main options available.
 

What Camera Should I Buy: Compact Camera

What camera should I buy: compact cameras
Compact cameras range in complexity from simple point and shoot models that are easy to use because they take full-control, to advanced models that let you set the shutter speed and aperture along with a host of other features if you want to.
 
Although the name implies small size, some compact cameras are actually quite large these days because they contain sensors that are the same size as the ones inside many DSLRs.
 
The lens on a compact camera is fixed and cannot be removed, but most have a zoom lens so you can change focal length if you need to.
 
Wideangle lenses with short focal lengths are useful when you’re shooting inside or in confined spaces, or conversely when you want to shoot landscapes, while middle focal lengths are better for flattering portraits and longer optics are good for picking out distance details.
 
Although there are a few exceptions, compact cameras don’t tend to have viewfinders and the image must be composed on the screen on the back of the camera.
 
Pros
Generally small and light
Easy to use
Better image quality than a cameraphone
 
Cons
Often no viewfinder
Most have a fairly small sensor, which limits image quality
Control over settings may be limited
 
Good for
Family photos
Holiday photos
Parties
Generally everyday snaps
 
Not good for
Sports photography
Low-light photography (although most have a small flash)
High-end photography
Controlling depth of field (reducing the size of the sharp area in an image)
 

What Camera Should I Buy: Bridge Camera

What camera should I buy: Bridge camera
Bridge cameras get their name because they bridge the gap between a DSLR and a compact camera. They usually have mini-SLR styling, but the lens is fixed like on a compact camera.
 
However, the lens usually has a wide zoom range making these cameras suitable for photographing a wide variety of subjects in a range of conditions, from landscapes to portraits and detail shots.
 
The level of control on a bridge camera is usually quite high compared with a mid-range compact camera, but it may not be quite as good as on an SLR or compact system camera.
 
Unlike many compact cameras, bridge cameras have viewfinders built-in.
 
These are electronic devices that display the image seen by the imaging sensor.
 
The EVFs in bridge cameras don’t tend to be as good as those in compact system cameras.
 
Pros
Versatile with more control than a compact camera
Comfortable to hold and use
Viewfinder built-in
Often huge zoom range
 
Cons
Compact camera-sized sensor (so comparable image quality)
Viewfinder not usually top-quality
Bulkier than a compact camera
 
Good for
Family photos
Holiday photos
Generally everyday snaps
Basic wildlife photography
 
Not good for
Sport photography (long zoom is good, but response usually a bit slow)
Low-light photography (although most have a small flash)
High-end photography
 

What Camera Should I Buy: Compact System Camera (CSC)

What camera should I buy: Compact System Camera (CSC)
Compact system and mirrorless cameras are becoming increasingly popular and are generally seen as a smaller alternative to a DSLR or a more versatile alternative to a compact or bridge camera.
 
Crucially, CSCs allow the use of interchangeable lenses. Just like an SLR, CSCs have a specific lens mount and you can only use compatible optics.
 
Panasonic and Olympus use the Micro Four Thirds standard so its possible to use a Panasonic lens on an Olympus camera and vice versa.
 
Other manufacturers use their own mount, but third party optics may also be available.
 
CSCs come in a range of sizes from the incredibly small Panasonic GM1 that makes heavy use of the touchscreen for control, to the Panasonic GH3 which has a large collection of buttons and dials as well as a touchscreen.
 
Although some CSCs have a viewfinder (an electronic one in all accept the Fuji X-Pro1), many don’t. In some cases it’s possible to buy an external viewfinder, which may be electronic or optical as an optional extra.
 
Sony has introduced the first CSCs with a full-frame sensor, the Alpha 7 and Alpha 7R (see our Sony A7R / Sony A7 review), but most CSCs use an APS-C format or smaller sensor.
 
Pros
Accept interchangeable lenses
Generally smaller and lighter than SLRs
Lots of control over features
Some have features such as filter effects, touchscreens and Wi-Fi connectivity built-in
 
Cons
Generally bulkier than compact cameras
Autofocusing may not be as fast as a DSLRs
Some don’t have a viewfinder
Sensor size (and therefore image quality) varies a lot so check the details before buying
Some are more complex than compact cameras
Macro lenses are required for close subjects
 
Good for
Family photos
Holiday photos
Parties
Generally everyday snaps
General photography
Portrait photography
Landscape photography

Some are suitable for professional use
 
Not good for
Sport photography (though possible)
Low-light photography (poor AF)
 

What Camera Should I Buy: DSLR Camera

What camera should I buy: DSLR camera
A DSLR is bigger than the average compact system camera because it has a mirror that reflects light into the optical viewfinder.
 
These cameras accept interchangeable lenses with the compatible mount, making them versatile.
 
Manufacturers such as Canon and Nikon have extensive lens line-ups with optics suitable for shooting everything from cramped interiors to landscapes, portraits or distant details or very close macro subjects.
 
Although the performance of the autofocusing (AF) system varies depending upon the lens mounted on the camera, it is generally very good when images are composed through the viewfinder.
 
However, when images are composed on the screen on the back of the camera, the focusing usually slows down considerably, in most cases making it unsuitable for use with moving subjects or when the camera is handheld.
 
Most DSLR cameras offer lots of control over exposure and the processing of the image, however, there are usually few special effects and their impact cannot be seen in the viewfinder.
 
Pros
High image quality
Fast AF when using the viewfinder
Lots of control
Comfortable to hold
 
Cons
Slow AF when using the screen
Filter effects not visible in viewfinder
Bulky
More complex than compact cameras
Macro lenses required for close subjects
 
Good for
Family photos
Holiday photos
Parties
General photography
Portraits, landscape, macro, street etc photography with the right lens
Professional use
 
Bad for
Handheld shooting using the screen
In-camera effects
 
 

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