There is no shortage of options when it comes to cameras these days. But should you spend money on the latest DSLR, stick to a smartphone or consider something completely different?

Beginner

Your camera is going to be the single most important tool for your photography. But that does not necessarily mean that buying the most expensive camera is going to yield the best photos. Or that it is the best option for the type of photography that you specialise in.

To choose the right camera, you need to know the differences between the camera types and their pros and cons. This guide will help you get a better understanding of the different kinds of camera out there.

Smartphones


“The best camera is the one you always have with you”. Never has this sentiment been more accurate than in today’s digital world. Smartphones need no introduction, with 84% of all UK adults owning one. And their technology has improved hugely in the last 15 years. Better cameras, higher resolutions, and advanced apps like Snapseed and the mobile version of Lightroom mean that smartphone photos are a rival to those taken on traditional photography equipment.

Taking a photo of a building on a smartphone
Smartphone camera capabilities have advanced significantly over the last decade, meaning their image quality rivals those of traditional cameras. Image by m24studio.

The benefits of a smartphone are clear. You always carry it on you so you've always got it there when you need it. They are also much more discreet compared to larger DLSR cameras. Smartphones also make the process of taking a photo and uploading it to somewhere like social media or Picfair a quick endeavour.

But when it comes to their disadvantages, smartphones’ most significant limitations are their image size and quality. Smartphone photos will look fine online and in small print sizes (like 6 x 4" or 7 x 5"); however, the quality might not be as good at larger print sizes. In comparison, DSLR and mirrorless camera models can produce much bigger images, so images can be be printed at larger sizes without looking soft or pixelated.

Taking a photo on a smartphone of Day of the Dead celebrations
With a smartphone, you always have a camera on hand to capture those spontaneous moments perfect for a photo. Image by Maureen Ruddy Burkhart.

It is important to note that smartphone technology is improving, and so in years to come, they may very well be able to take photos of the same quality as today’s DSLRs.

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Compact cameras (point & shoot)


These cameras have come a long way from the early models, which were low resolution and produced inferior quality photos. There was also limited memory space... My very first compact digital camera was a Kodak which only had enough memory for six shots!

Nowadays, some are very capable of capturing great photos and are undoubtedly worth considering.

Taking a photo with a point and shoot camera
Compact (point and shoot) work in the same way as other camera models - in that an image is created on a sensor when light enters the camera. Image by Stephen on Picfair.

Compact cameras usually come with built-in zoom lenses, which cannot be changed, unlike the DSLRs and Mirrorless cameras’ interchangeable lenses. But the main difference between how a compact camera and a DSLR camera work is a lack of a mirror in a compact camera. In a DSLR, a mirror reflects light up into an optical viewfinder to allow you to see the actual view.

Instead of looking through a viewfinder to compose your shot in a compact camera, you will look at a live view on the LCD screen on the back. The lack of a mirror and a smaller sensor means compacts can be much smaller and more lightweight. This, of course, means less weight to carry around. But also, like smartphones, these cameras are much less conspicuous compared to larger camera models.

Compact cameras are also an excellent option for beginners or casual photographers who just want to point and shoot without worrying about the many technical aspects of photography.

However, these advantages come with the compromise of image size and quality. The smaller camera sensor naturally means a smaller image. If you try to print an image in, say, A1 size, you will likely notice that the image becomes soft (where the image looks blurry and not in focus).

Note:

It is possible for a camera without a mirror to have a viewfinder. But these will be an electronic viewfinder (EVF). This is the same principle as with mirrorless cameras (more on that later).


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DSLR Cameras


Nothing has had as significant an impact on photography as the introduction of DSLRs (digital single-lens reflex) in the late 90s. For many professional photographers, this innovation meant a completely different way of working. But the fact that they work on the same principles of film SLR cameras made things a little easier. And meant there was a significant switch from film to digital cameras for many amateur and professional photographers.

There are two types of DSLR cameras. Ones that are known as “cropped sensors”, which veer towards “entry-level” photographers. The other is known as “full-frame” sensors“, which are the more high-end and expensive professional models. And within these DSLR types, there are many different models with varying resolution quality, functions, and price.

Studio shot of a Canon DSLR camera
DSLR cameras mimic the functionality of traditional 35mm DSLR cameras, and are generally considered the most popular camera type for enthusiastic amateur and professional photographers. Image by Valentin Valkov.

DSLR frame sizes

The critical difference between these two main types of sensors in DSLRs is their size. Full-frame sensors replicate 35mm film, and a cropped sensor is simply a smaller version of a full-frame sensor.

You do not need to worry too much about these sensors’ technical aspects, the main factor is their size. So, in effect, if you were taking a photo from the same spot at the same focal length, the cropped sensor version will be a narrower field of view. See the visual below:

View showing the difference between a full frame sensor and a cropped sensor
Comparison between a full frame sensor and a cropped sensor. Image by Kav Dadfar

Full frame sensors will usually offer a broader dynamic range. This is the range between the lightest and darkest tones that make up a photo (i.e. pure white to pure black). Full frame sensors are also often better in low light conditions (where you need to increase your ISO), and they produce bigger size images. It means images can be printed at substantial sizes without any issues.

Full frame or cropped sensor?


So why not just buy a full-frame camera, you may ask? That bigger sensor means a bigger, heavier camera, not to mention it will also be more expensive. For example, an entry-level DSLR could be purchased for a few hundred pounds. But a high-end full-frame camera will be well over £1500 just for the body (without the lens). Again, as per a compact camera, if your images are going to be predominantly used online or as small or medium-size prints, then a cropped sensor might be good enough for what you need.

Note:

A cropped sensor DSLR will produce better quality images than a compact camera. But images will not be as good quality as a full-frame sensor.


Either way, DSLR cameras offer superb image quality and full creative controls. Full-frame DSLRs are generally the camera of choice for professional photographers, whereas cropped sensor DSLRs are excellent for enthusiastic amateur photographers.

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Mirrorless


A mirrorless camera is a digital camera that does not have a reflex mirror or an optical viewfinder. And one of the most common questions that I get asked is the difference between mirrorless cameras and DSLRs. Understanding this will go a long way in helping you decide which is right for you.

In DSLR cameras, a mirror sits in front of your sensor. When you look through your viewfinder, you see a reflection of what the lens is pointing at. As if you were holding up a mirror and looking at the reflection. And when you press the shutter button, this mirror flips up to expose the sensor behind it to the light. This is what makes the photo.

In a mirrorless camera, what you see in the viewfinder is a live digital image created by the camera. And because there is no mirror, the camera is smaller and lighter than an equivalent DSLR. Because there isn’t that mechanical action of a mirror having to move, mirrorless cameras allow for far greater frames per second (i.e., burst mode). Even the best DSLRs are no longer a match for mirrorless cameras on this front.

Taking a photo with a mirrorless camera
Over the last few years in particular, a lot of photographers have made the transition to mirrorless cameras. Image by Gabriel Codarcea.

If I were writing this article a few years ago, the image quality of mirrorless cameras would not match DSLRs. But the explosion in the number of high-quality mirrorless cameras in the last few years has been incredible. The improvements in technology mean there are now models such as the Sony Alpha and the Fujifilm X series' which are amongst the best cameras you can buy.

However, high-end mirrorless cameras are also now as expensive as DSLRs. And one additional benefit of a DSLR over mirrorless is that the mirror in DLSRs offers an extra line of protection in front of your sensor against dust and debris. When removing the lens on mirrorless cameras, your sensor is immediately exposed. Even so, a lot of professional photographers have made the transition to mirrorless cameras.

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Viewfinder note:

One disadvantage of having a digital viewfinder is that sometimes the view you see could lag. This means there might be a delay between what is happening in front of the camera and what you see in the viewfinder.

For a landscape or cityscape shot, this is not an issue. But for a sports photographer who needs to capture the exact moment that something happens, a delay could mean missing that perfect moment. However, it is important to note that high-end mirrorless models these days are pretty much a match for DSLRs in what you see in the viewfinder.


Drones


For many photographers, myself included, drones have become an essential part of their photography. They offer angles and views that were never possible before. And this does not necessarily just mean an aerial view of a scene. Sometimes a drone can simply provide a different angle of view.

Drone in the sky
Drones offer unique angles and views not otherwise possible with traditional cameras and have surged in popularity. Image by Homydesign.

There are some drawbacks, however, with drone photography. For one, there are restrictions on where you can fly a drone. For example, they are banned in all US National Parks with a hefty fine and a prison risk if you break the law. You are also not allowed to fly them in cities, over people, or on private property. Some countries like Cuba will not even allow you to bring a drone into the country. And on top of all these restrictions, drone image quality is still no match for DSLRs or mirrorless cameras.

That said, drone photography is still a fantastic way to capture a completely new and unique view of the world - if you are allowed to fly them. Before venturing out with a drone, it is strongly recommended that you check local laws and restrictions. These vary from place to place, but a good place to start would be to look at the CAA (UK), FAA (US), and CASA (Australia).

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Medium format

Medium formats are cameras with an even larger sensor than a full-frame DSLR sensor. For example, a DSLR full-frame sensor is 36 x 24mm, whereas some medium format sensors are 53 x 40 mm.

A Mamiya medium format camera
Medium format cameras offer superior quality images, but that comes with a hefty price tag. Image by Alex Andrews.

What does this bigger sensor offer? Most importantly, a bigger sensor means a higher resolution and a bigger size. This is useful for large print sizes like for a billboard. The bigger sensor on a medium format camera will capture more nuanced and more detailed tonal information, better image quality, and higher resolutions.

Medium format cameras are generally only used by professional commercial photographers for advertising shoots, architecture and studio photography. Their size and weight also mean they are not very convenient for sports, wildlife, travel, or street photography.

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So which camera type is right for you?


As you can see, there are lots to consider before deciding what camera is right for you. Another factor to consider is what you are going to be shooting. For example, a street photographer might benefit from a smaller camera like a mirrorless or a smartphone. As discussed earlier, these are smaller and lighter, making them easier to move around. And because they are more discreet, it also sometimes allows for more spontaneous shots.

For landscapes, you may want to opt for the higher quality images that DSLRs or Mirrorless produce. Incredible landscape photography demands detail like textures and colours. The bigger and higher resolution sensors of mirrorless and DSLR cameras can capture these details more detail than smartphones or compact cameras. The ability to use an array of accessories such as filters that are not available for smartphones or compact cameras.

DLSR camera mounted on a tripod
DSLRs and Mirrorless cameras are also sturdier, which is essential for photography which warrants slower shutter speeds, such as landscape photography. Image by Kav Dadfar.

Sports photographers and wildlife photographers will often prefer the real-world view of the optical viewfinders of DSLRs. For travel photographers, either DSLRs or mirrorless cameras will be ideal (but keep in mind the limitations of cropped sensors when it comes to printing).

If you are a casual photographer, or only shooting to display your images online or create small size prints, then a compact camera might be sufficient. For all types of cameras, it is also, of course, the price to consider. So ultimately, your decision will be a combination of all these factors and your budget.

In my opinion, there is no doubt that the way forward for cameras is pointing toward mirrorless formats as the go-to camera type. It is getting harder to argue the case for DSLRs against mirrorless cameras. The combination of superb image quality and a smaller, lighter camera than a DSLR makes them the perfect option for professionals and amateurs alike. There are far more mirrorless cameras coming out and far fewer DSLRs. That is an indication of what the future holds.

Whatever you decide to go for. Hopefully, you will now have a better idea of which type of camera will be right for you.