Far too often, I get inquiries asking if “XYZ” camera is a good camera. The issue with this question is that it usually comes after the person has already bought said “XYZ” camera or was given the camera as a gift and now s/he is unsure if the camera is the right fit or wants reassurances they haven’t wasted their money. There are a lot of vocabulary terms that surround photography and some of those terms are important to know and understand before selecting a camera. Those terms are related to camera types – point and shoot, DSLR, SLR, bridge camera, etc. Then within each camera type are more terms related to the features of said camera – interchangeable lens, sensor size, etc.
Before you go shopping, or let someone shop for you, it is a good idea to know the divisions or types of cameras to consider. I am going to present five broad, generalized categories in this post – from most simple to more complex camera types. It is important to understand that the dividing lines between these camera types continues to be “blurred” as technology improves. So if I say a bridge camera has a smaller sensor, more often than not, that statement is true. However there may be exceptions! For example, the Sony 1” sensor used in the Sony Cyber-shot RX10 bridge camera (and other camera models as well) has had so many technical improvements that it begins to rival the lower end APS-C Sony mirrorless cameras even though they have larger sensors. More on sensor sizes later.
For now, let’s tackle some photography jargon by discussing the broad divisions of cameras.
Bridge cameras are a step up in size and weight, and even though they look more like a DSLR, the lens is still built-in much like a point-and-shoot. They “bridge” the gap between a point-and-shoot and DSLR. Depending on the camera model there are often more advanced manual photographic controls like changing the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. These features are similar to a DSLR, but the ISO range may be limited because of smaller sensor sizes. Most bridge cameras lack an optical viewfinder. The built-in lens will have more range of focal lengths and a longer zoom (sometimes called a superzoom or ultrazoom) than a point-and-shoot, often starting with a super wide 20mm or 24mm on up to 400mm, 600mm, 2000mm, or more. The zoom is the most beneficial feature of a bridge camera. To get a zoom of 600mm and more on a DSLR you will spend thousands of dollars. However the drawback is the lens is not interchangeable so you cannot experiment with specialty lenses like macro, tilt-shift, or fisheye.
Mirrorless and DSLR cameras are very similar in that they are both interchangeable lens systems (the lens can be removed and switched out). The difference between a DSLR and a mirrorless camera is mainly a mechanical one and not one of image quality. Theoretically, a DSLR and mirrorless with equivalent sensors will give you the same image. (For more about the differences between DSLR and mirrorless, see our past blog post).
Mirrorless cameras are still a smaller size, but not a small as a point-and-shoot. The camera bodies resemble a point-and-shoot, but with interchangeable lenses. If you purchase additional lenses, the cost can also increase dramatically. Even though the camera body is compact, the lenses are often the same size and weight as DSLR lenses so keep that in mind. Full adjustment of every aspect of photography is available making this type of camera more complex. These cameras offer two different sensor sizes, APS-C and full-frame. A full-frame sensor is larger therefore the overall camera will also be slightly larger. Inside a mirrorless camera, the image from the lens is always projected onto the sensor. This allows for features like focus-peaking (camera shows you what areas are in focus) or autofocus eye tracking, as well as better depth of field preview (which areas are in focus from front to back). Mirrorless is the newest tech so expect to pay more for all those fancy bells and whistles.
DSLR cameras also come in two sensor types – APS-C and Full-frame (same as mirrorless). Full-frame DSLRs are much heavier and bulkier than any other camera type on this list. Like the mirrorless cameras, you can purchase and change out different lenses and have full manual control over every aspect of a photograph. These cameras can cost anywhere from a relatively inexpensive $500 APS-C size to an $8000 full-frame size (depending on brand and model). The sensors in DSLRs (and mirrorless) cameras are larger and will give the best image quality especially in low-light.
Film cameras, or SLRs, are the cameras used before the invention of digital cameras. Some photographers still prefer to use film cameras today. Today’s DSLR cameras are the digital equivalent and replacement for the SLR camera. Depending on the age/era and type of film camera, there may be many features that require manual control by the photographer, such as knowing how to set the aperture on a lens to manually focusing said lens. A typical film camera will use 35mm film, which is the equivalent to a full-frame camera sensor in terms of size. There are other sizes of film such as medium format (120 professional film), instamatic film, APS film, large format (sheet film), and more. The sizes outside of 35mm might be considered specialty cameras as well.
Specialty cameras come in many different types. There are cameras and lenses specifically designed for cinema. There are cameras built into drones that you can fly. There are sport/action cameras, like the GoPro. There are underwater cameras for scuba diving. There are rangefinders, instant cameras, stereo cameras, panoramic cameras, medium and large format cameras, twin lens reflex cameras, pinhole cameras, and more – far too many for us to cover in this article. For more information on specialty cameras, give us a call for a consultation or search for the camera types at a reputable dealer like Adorama or B&H Photo Video. This article from Adorama discusses several types of specialty film cameras like those listed above:
One type of specialty camera that does merit some discussion is toy cameras. Toy cameras can be classified into two sub categories. The first is toy cameras that are meant for toddlers and designed with their safety in mind including waterproof, shockproof covers and no small parts that could be a choking hazard. The second type is “toy cameras” that were originally made in the last century (many for children), but would not necessarily be considered safe for children today. Newer versions of these “toy cameras” are modeled after the originals and are often made of hard plastic and breakable or small parts. See the images to clarify the differences (modern, safer kid's digital on left; 1960s Diana camera on right).
Current, made-for-kids toy cameras are inexpensive, have easy to grip colorful designs that young kids love, and very simple controls. Most of them are digital. Many also offer the ability to add stickers or effects to an image, or even have built-in games. They are not going to have image resolution over approximately 5MP. The cameras are often durable “softer” plastics that are shock and waterproof. Kids can toss them from the top of the slide or chew on them and the child and the camera both will survive.
Old style “toy cameras” are also inexpensive, and although maybe originally designed for kids (like the Diana camera), are used today for their artistic effects. Later models, like the Holga, were designed for mass marketing to consumers or used as giveaways to entice shoppers to spend a certain amount of money or open a bank account. Hobby photographers treasure these cameras (mostly film) because they can inexpensively play around with odd effects (vignettes, distortions), light leaks, blur, and other unpredictable optical effects that manifest from the combination of cheap plastic and film. These types of cameras are sometimes called LOMO cameras and the photographers who use them as lomographers. If you’d like to know more or want to buy a LOMO camera, check out this great article from B&H Photo:
So you probably noticed that one of the main differences among all these camera types is the sensor size. The sensor is the part of the camera that records the image and its size dictates the quality of images a camera is capable of producing. If you want higher image quality then a larger sensor becomes important. A larger sensor has larger pixels which are capable of gathering more light. This means a larger sensor will perform better in low light and will have less grain or digital noise in the image. Most professional photographers prefer full-frame cameras for this reason. Some common sensor sizes (like APS-C and full-frame) are shown here.
The second biggest difference among the camera types is whether the lens is built-in (a closed system where the lens cannot be changed) or whether it has interchangeable lenses (lenses can be removed and swapped). There are trade-offs to both. The built-in lenses offer more zoom range at a considerably lower cost; however, the cameras offer fewer controls, are unable to offer experimentation with genres like macro, and have smaller sensors (the limitations already outlined above). Some of the zooms on the email@example.com lens systems are digital zooms instead of an optical zoom. Optical zoom means the lens physically moves or changes and will result in better quality images than a digital zoom (uses magnification to enlarge and area, but reduces the megapixels and image resolution). All zoom lenses on film, DSLR, and mirrorless cameras are optical zoom lenses.
With these differences in mind, you can select a camera based on what you need or see your needs might be into the future. If you are still unsure, contact us for a consultation. We are happy to help you get started successfully! For further reading, read our past posts on Which Camera is Best? and How to Save on Camera Gear. If you are buying for a child or teen, be sure to read our upcoming post on selecting a camera for kids.