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How to Choose a Digital Camera

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There are a lot of digital cameras available for purchase around the internet, but choosing the the right one for you can often be a confusing process.  To help you along, here are some thoughts and facts to get you started.

What kinds of digital cameras are available?
I have omitted the really high end professional cameras, as this article is discussing gear in the consumer and enthusiast price and experience range.
  • Compact / Point & Shoot
  • Prosumer
  • Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens
  • Rangefinder
  • DSLR - Digital Single Lens Reflex

Compact / Point & Shoot
These are the most readily available type of camera when you go into electronics stores such as Best Buy or Fry's Electronics.  These cameras are recommended as a very basic digital camera with lots of automatic settings to make it easy to use and take great snapshots.  Priced to match the simplicity, these types of cameras start around $50 and go up to about $300-400.
Above, the Kodak EasyShare M580 and Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W90 are examples at both extents of the point & shoot camera range.  These cameras usually include an LCD on the back for looking at images, buttons for changing some basic settings, optical and/or digital zoom lenses, facial recognition, integrated flash.  The lenses are fixed to the camera body and cannot be changed, so when you choose a point & shoot be sure to choose one that has the right zoom range for your needs.

Prosumer cameras are also fairly available in electronics stores, but not as much so as the point & shoot cameras.  These cameras are for enthusiasts and/or consumers looking for a little more quality in their photos.  The name "prosumer" is a combination of professional and consumer, and that is exactly the market that these $400-800 cameras are made for.

Above, the Lumix DMC-LX3 is an example of the typical prosumer level camera.  These cameras have more features and more expensive glass (lenses) built into the camera.  The lenses are fixed to the camera body and cannot be changed, so when you choose a prosumer be sure to choose one that has the right zoom range for your needs.  Also be mindful of the fixed lens model with NO zoom lens - these will typically be more for enthusiasts who prefer taking artistic photos with a specific, high quality lens; however, this sacrifices the ability to zoom in when you are taking pictures.

Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens
Mirrorless cameras are becoming more common as more people get into photography.  These are enthusiast rigs to the core, but consumers who want interchangeable lenses also buy these great cameras because the price of $400-1000 (for base kits with body and a lens or two) is typically better than a full fledged DSLR.
Above, the Olympus PEN E-PL1 is a perfect example of a great mirrorless camera.  We'll get into the mirror on cameras later in the DSLR cameras, but this kind of camera is the same as the DSLRs in a lot of ways.  There are a few fancy features on top of what prosumer cameras offer, but the big gain for mirrorless cameras is the ability to change between good quality lenses and do lots of different types of photography.  These cameras have an LCD on the back that you use to take pictures, and this LCD displays images directly through the lenses that you attach.

Rangefinder cameras are a mash up a throwback film point & shoot and a crazy expensive mirrorless camera.  The rangefinder class is most similar in function to the disposable film cameras that you can buy at the supermarket - you look through a window at the top of the camera that is slightly different (higher) than the image that you get once you've taken the picture.  The biggest drawback of Leica's is the price - the model below is $8,000.  The price brings with it a simple type of camera, but lenses with VERY high quality glass that take noticeably better photos in every way than most of the other cameras on this list.

Above, the Leica M9 is one of the most common rangefinder type cameras - you can see the rangefinder window in the top right corner of the Leica M9 image.  The Leica's in particular are really designed for photography professionals and enthusiasts who want to create high quality artistic images with the special style and throwback fun of a rangefinder camera.  Price aside, I really view these cameras as novelty items because as far as features go the only real benefit is the high quality lenses that Leica offers.

DSLR - Digital Single Lens Reflex
DSLR cameras are digital versions of the film SLR camera.  These cameras utilize a single mirror (hence the single in the acronym of the name), and this mirror bounces the image (the exact same image that you end up capturing) up to the eyepeice.  Long story short, when you look through the eyepeice of a DSLR or SLR, you are seeing exactly what you will be taking a photo of.  On the low end, base kits with the body and a couple lenses start around $700, but on the high end of things the DSLR bodies cost up to $6,000 by themselves.
Above, the Canon Rebel T3i and Nikon D3S are great examples of the extremes of the DSLR camera range.  These cameras are the most versatile of all the cameras in this article.  Full manual settings; still photographs and video capabilities; and many other advanced features.  While the lower end kits like the Canon Rebels are geared more towards the advanced consumer and enthusiast needs, the mid to high end cameras such as the Nikon D700 and D3S are made for professional photographers that do weddings, portraits and other kinds of photography for business.  These higher level DSLRs also offer consumers and enthusiasts a LOT of great features for advanced photography if the price is affordable enough for them.

That about sums it up, so if you have any questions or comments, please let me know in the comments field below!
fradyphoto posted Mar 01, 2012

wow, the rangefinder camera is expensive but looks like the older style cameras! So, DSLR is best for "professional-like" photos I guess? What is best for action pictures. I like to hike and often see wildlife. I want to take their picture without scaring them, but I also want to be able to take a photo while they are in motion.

VirginiaPeanuts (rep: 12.4k) posted Mar 02, 2012


Very informative Page, BTW! Thanks!

VirginiaPeanuts (rep: 12.4k) posted Mar 02, 2012


Hey VirginiaPeanuts,

Yes, that is correct, the more expensive DSLRs are professional grade...that's what professional wedding photographers exclusively use!

As for a good camera for hiking and wildlife, I would recommend the mirrorless. The mirrorless cameras are smaller and lighter than a big DSLR (good for hiking), and you can buy lenses in the 200-300mm zoom (REALLY far zoomed in) range for them. If you are willing to carry more weight, you can do what professional landscape and wildlife photographers do and just carry a DSLR and a big zoom lens to go with it too. It's all about trade-offs for price, quality, and weight!


fradyphoto (rep: 398) posted Mar 02, 2012


P.S. If you are curious about the 200-300mm comment I made, I created another quick page to try to to help explain it - check it out!

fradyphoto (rep: 398) posted Mar 02, 2012


Thanks a lot! I'm in for a new camera soon!

VirginiaPeanuts (rep: 12.4k) posted Mar 03, 2012