What type of digital camera do I need?

By: Jen Wiss

In this article, I’ll explain the different types of digital cameras you can buy and what they’re good for. I’ll also share with you my favourite cameras of each type, and why I think they’re worth buying.

Compact digital cameras

If you’re after a light, compact camera for everyday use – holiday snaps, days out, selfies, pics of the kids growing up – a compact digital camera is likely to serve you well. They are typically small, light and slim, easy to carry around and provide better image quality than your smartphone.

Features of compact digital cameras include:

  • Image quality: this is influenced by two factors: lens brightness and sensor size. Compact cameras will have either a CCD or CMOS sensor. The more basic designs use CCD, while more sophisticated designs use CMOS, which are more like DSLR sensors. I recommend CMOS as you’ll get better images from these.
  • Zoom: Optical zoom lets you get close to what you’re taking a photo of, without the image getting all fuzzy. 15x optical zoom, for example, lets you get in fifteen times closer to your subject. This is achieved by adjusting the lens. Digital zoom works a little differently because it simply enlarges the image to make it appear closer. This can make your images fuzzy. You can get compacts that offer as much as +15x optical zoom for amazing results, although they’re in the pricey end of the range.
  • Screen: Compact digital cameras have a screen on the back that you can see your shot in before you take it. You’ll also navigate the camera software from here. Screens tend to be about 2 or 3 inches across, but you can find larger screens if you prefer. Some have touchscreens which make the experience more like using a smartphone. Vari-angle or tilting screens are another thing to watch for – these are good for framing shots from awkward angles (for example, if you’re in a crowd), or for taking selfies.
  • Effects: A lot of compact digital cameras allow you to add effects to your photos to enhance them and make them look more interesting. For example, you might be able to add a colour filter to bring out one or more colours in the shot, or take black and white photos. These are great for everyday use and can be a lot of fun. Just be aware that if you’re planning on blowing the photo up or using it for some professional purpose, it is better to take the photo in colour and then convert it to black and white later using photoshop. You don’t need to buy a full Adobe suite – Photoshop elements is perfect for the job.
  • Retouching: Some compacts allow you to retouch your photos while they are still on the camera. This may include removing blemishes, fixing closed eyes and so on. Again, these are fine for day to day use but for enlargements or more professional applications, it’s best to do this sort of work in Photoshop afterwards.
  • Connectivity: A lot of compacts have WiFi built in these days which means you can send your images to your smartphone or tablet device. Some models also allow you to upload straight to Facebook or Twitter. NFC is another feature to watch out for – it lets you send images straight to a device through one-touch wireless pairing. Some Wi-Fi cameras also let you download apps to enhance the functionality of the camera and let you do other things with your device such as play games on it, although I’m not sure why you’d want to. GPS is a useful feature to look for – it records where the pic was taken which is handy for organising your images later.

Recommended compact digital cameras:

  • Nikon Coolpix S5300 – a compact with a CMOS sensor that doesn’t cost a fortune. 16.0mp, 8x optical zoom and a 3.0 inch LCD screen with Wi-Fi built in. Good value for money. Price: £124.99 (find out more).
  • CANON PowerShot G7X – this compact gives you an impressive 20.2 megapixels, my preferred CMOS sensor and a decent 4.2x optical zoom. It allows you to record full HD video (1080p) and has a built in GPS. It’s brilliant in low light too. The downside – it’s pricey for a compact, but you’re getting a lot for your money. Price: £390.55 (find out more).

Tough digital cameras

If you’re an outdoors-y type and your camera is likely to get wet now and then, you’ll need a tough digital camera that can stand up to a bit of rough and tumble. These are great for going to gigs as well, if you’re the mosh pit type. Typically they will be waterproof and shockproof, and some have built-in GPS.

Features of tough digital cameras include:

  • Waterproofing: This is typically up to several metres, allowing you to use the camera in the rain, or underwater.
  • Shockproofing: This proects the camera from breakage if it is dropped, typically from a distance of up to two metres.
  • Zoom: Tough cameras usually have a wide angle zoom lens, perfect for capturing more of the scene. This is what makes them great for gigs, outdoors/scenery, sports events and a whole lot more.
  • Video: Usually you’ll have the ability to film as well as take pics, and many tough cameras let you film in full HD.

Recommended tough digital camera:

  • Nikon Coolpix S33: Aside from being shockproof to 1.5m, cold resistant to -10°C and dustproof, it has a decent 13.2 megapixels, my preferred CMOS sensor, and a good 3x optical zoom. It’s waterproof to 10 metres and has underwater face framing which allows you to detect faces without actually getting in the water yourself.  It has a generous 68mm (2.7 inch) LCD screen too. I’ve linked to the camera on its own but there are some packs available which include a tripod (see here for example) and a few colour choices too so have a good look round on Amazon to find the deal that suits you best. Price: around £100, depending on which pack you buy (find out more).

DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) cameras

If digital photography is a pastime for you or you get paid to take photos, a DSLR is a must. It gives you manual control, a broad range of interchangeable lenses and beautiful, professional full-resolution images.

Features of DSLR cameras include:

  • Large image sensors: All DSLRs have large image sensors that give you fantastic image quality. Choose full frame sensors for the best image quality, particularly for low light pics.
  • Lens: The lens plays a massive part in the image quality on a DSLR. Look at the f number – this specifies how wide the aperture can be set. If a lens is rated f/2.8, f/1.8 or lower, they let more light in, which allows the sensor to capture more detail. With a wider aperture, you’ll also be able to achieve soft-focus background effects like this. Of course, the beauty of a DSLR is that the lenses are interchangeable. This lets you achieve a lot of different results. Choose a wide angle lens to get more in the picture, perfect for shooting scenery and architecture. For close ups, you’ll want a telephoto lens, ideal for sports or wildlife (or for extreme close-ups, you need a macro lens). Good features to watch for are silent focus and image stabilisation for the best results when you’re zoomed right in. For portrait shots, a prime lens is the best choice. These let lots of light in and give you a really professional finish with a soft-focus background.
  • ISO rating: you want the highest possible – the bigger the maximum ISO rating, the more sensitive the camera sensor will be to light, giving you the best results even in the worst lighting.
  • Manual control: A DSLR will give you complete control over every aspect of your shot, perfect for photography enthusiasts and professionals alike. You can adjust your aperture, shutter speed, ISO and other values to get the exact results that you’re after. Of course, DSLRs have an auto mode too for quick snaps where you don’t have the time to fiddle with the settings.
  • Hot shoe adapter: You’ll find these on all DSLRs – allowing you to mount an external flash gun, a mini flash diffuser or a range of other accessories for better results.

Recommended DSLR camera:

  • Nikon D5300 Digital SLR – 24.2mp DX-format CMOS sensor, built in WiFi, GPS, a generous 3.2-inch vari-angle LCD monitor with wide viewing angle, EXPEED 4 Image Processing Engine for better low light pics, and a neat retractable 18-55mm VR II kit lens. The size and weight is very manageable compared to other models which makes it easier to carry about when you’ve got a large lens attached. It’s very quiet to use, and the battery life is excellent, especially when you don’t use the screen. Price: £649.99 (find out more).

Bridge cameras

If you want superior image quality and a very powerful zoom but you’re not keen on anything too bulky, a bridge camera is a good choice – it gives you DSLR functionality but it’s still compact enough to comfortably carry around.

Features of bridge cameras include:

  • Image quality: Like other digitals, this is determined by lens brightness and sensor size. Look for CMOS as these give you results closer to a DSLR.
  • Zoom: Bridge cameras are all about the zoom so for example, 30x optical zoom lets you zoom in 30 times closer to what you’re taking a picture of. As for other types of cameras, digital zoom isn’t as good, as it gives the appearance of zoom by simply enlarging parts of the image. If you can combine optical and digital, you’ll get better results.
  • Electronic viewfinder: A lot of bridge cameras have an electronic viewfinder, allowing you to look through the viewfinder and easily frame your shot without relying on the screen. This is handy when it’s too sunny outside to see what’s on the screen.
  • DSLR features: Bridge cameras mimic many features of DSLR such as manual control and some have a hot shoe adapter letting you attach accessories. However, you can’t change the lens – that’s the big difference. A bridge camera is also usually lighter than a DSLR, although heavier than a compact because of the zoom lens.

Recommended bridge camera:

  • Panasonic DMC-FZ72EB-K Lumix – 60x optical zoom lens, 16.1 megapixel MOS sensor, and also shoots full HD video. It’s also got Raw for creating ultimate pro shots. The image quality in good light conditions is exceptional. In lower light conditions, a few tweaks are needed but it’s still perfectly possible to create great shots. The zoom on this camera is the main attraction – it’s just really, really good. For longer zoom shots, i.e towards the max 60x, you’ll get good images if you use a tripod. Intelligent zoom seems to diminish the picture quality but essentially it’s enhanced cropping so no surprise. At £198.98, I think this is a real bargain of a camera (find out more).

Compact camera systems

A compact system combines the manual control you get from a DSLR with the light portable design of a compact camera. You’ll get a lot of features that you find with compacts such as auto modes for easy shots and filters to create pretty effects – but you’ll also get a decent image sensor, better than your typical compact. Compact  camera systems allow you to specify your own manual settings too, for complete control over ISO, white balance, shutter speed, aperture and so on.

Typical compact camera system features include:

  • Compact in design
  • A large image sensor
  • Interchangeable lenses
  • Manual control
  • Electronic viewfinder
  • Continuous shooting

Although they share many features with the DSLR, their electronic viewfinders do not take up as much space in the camera as with the optical viewfinders in DSLRs. This is why they are smaller and lighter. You have the option of carrying extra lenses but you don’t need to, if you want to travel light.

Recommended compact camera system:

  • Canon EOS M – DSLR quality 18mp camera, interchangeable lenses and accessories, 7.7cm touchsensitive screen. The build quality is excellent, swapping the lenses is easy, and you’ve got pretty much everything you’d get from a DSLR including bracketing – only three frames, though. Personally I’m not keen on the touchscreen – I find it fiddly and I prefer buttons – but that’s more of a personal preference thing I guess. The HDR mode is worth a mention – it lets you take three photos in rapid succession (at different exposures) – hand held, no tripod needed – then it auto-aligns them and blends them for you for a brilliant balanced exposure. Another slight niggle for me is that the battery life isn’t great – it just about lasts through the day and so if you’re away, take a charger pack and your adapter with you. These are small niggles though when you look at what you’re getting for your money, The image quality is fantastic. At £260 this is really worth every penny (find out more).

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