Sometimes the search for “the best” camera looks like one of the apparently impossible chores of Hercules. So many concepts, so many manufacturers, so many models… And every single one among those cloaked in ads which present it as the best piece of anything, ever!
So how to find that special needle, in the haystack this big? One has to establish some kind of filtering, to arrive at that certain camera that should be able to do what one wants, and do it good.
To paraphrase the navigational code QB (quel bateau, meaning which boat), let’s hope that an efficient product-filtering system can help us answer our QB (quel boitier, or which camera).
Digital Single Lens Reflex… A name that is somewhat fuzzy. D, okay, it’s Digital. SL, well, there are hardly any digital Twin Lens cameras; of course it has a Single Lens. Reflex… an aspect of camera build that is an overkill without film, since what you see through the ocular-prism-mirror-lens is no longer what the sensor will record. An internal monitor will show you more data. But old habits die hard.
Not that such cameras should be considered the best for what you have in mind, but DSLRs are still the most developed system cameras. Although built after a concept remained from the technically different kind of photography, (which required a moving mirror, a prism, and other mechanical parts), SLRs in digital version (DSLR) will probably be slowly phased out, as the mirror / prism arrangement isn’t really necessary in this technology. All it does is augmenting the production costs and complexity, effectively and needlessly raising the end-user prices.
Nevertheless, many people need DSLR-type cameras for their special applications. Some photographers are simply used to such systems, and this inertia is keeping them from looking at other concepts.
All DSLRs offer interchangeable lenses, opening a measure of free choice dependent upon your photographing needs.
Is it good? Yes, if you want to be locked in one system for additional lenses in the range of focal lengths you would need. Alternatively, you could buy other lenses from other manufacturers and use those with appropriate adapters. In all cases you will pay for the additional lenses, and those are not cheap.
So perhaps you would want to consider other systems. Some offer interchangeable lenses, other just one lens that covers all the focal range you need…
Nowadays, it’s the type of cameras that seems to be on the way to replace DSLRs. There are pretty good quality models to choose from. Without the mirror arrangement, these systems are simpler and cheaper to produce. Usual lens interchangeability is the same as with DSLRs, but the mirror box and the prism are no longer there. Instead, there is an internal (or add-on) viewfinder to employ when the ambiental light makes it difficult to see the monitor. What's also important, the volume and weight of such cameras got significantly reduced, which is good.
Such cameras (with certain lenses) may be regarded as “pocketable”, while retaining all or most of the DSLR quality and/or advantages. Of course, if you decide to acquire additional lenses, these may occupy some more pockets, more probably a bag or backpack… which raises other questions.
BRIDGE / PROSUMER?
If your photographing idea covers various focal lengths, from wide-angle to telephoto, the prosumers or bridge cameras may suit you well. These cameras have one built-in lens only, but it offers an optical flexibility not even conceivable some short years ago. Some of the recently produced prosumers enable zooms of up to incredible 125 times (Nikon Coolpix P1000).
This is not the end of development, of course, and I presume that in short time there will be even more to expect along that line. Thus, you can enjoy an extremely wide-angle field of view, a strong telephoto, and all the focal lengths inbetween, in one small package which comfortably fits into the usually-sized windjacket pocket!
Such cameras support the adage “Travel Light - Go Far”, and if those advantages align with your photography idea, maybe you should go for it. Prosumer cameras employ (for now) smaller sensors than DSLRs, though, which might be critical if your photos are intended for very large printouts, but generally, and for exhibition-grade prints sized, say, 70 x 100 centimeters plus, the results will be more than satisfactory. But sensor sizes and resolutions change rapidly; always expect better!
Prosumers are called “bridge cameras”, because in the analog photograpy days, these have bridged the gap between small compacts and SLRs. The cameras are now chock-full of other features, including RAW readout, video, time-lapse, in-camera HDR, and many other things. One can really think about those as “all-in-one” and “go-anywhere” because of their simplicity of use, high portability, and a smaller investment for very acceptable results. Worth looking up!
POINT & SHOOT COMPACT?
This category was the most numerous in models, and therefore most confusing. There are ever more features that their manufacturers offer daily, and not without reason. Such cameras are truly pocketable (meaning the jeans of shirt-sized pockets). Featuring mostly smaller sensors, these cameras were meant to accompany photographers at all times, and consequently produce the largest percentage of pics. They’re also meant as a backup, if and when your “main camera” refuses to co-operate. In all, the P&S is simply easier and quicker to use. But recently these small cameras were significantly improved with larger sensors (like SONY RX100-# which sports an 1" sensor), and their tech abilities put them in a category of their own, well worth seriusly looking up. The prices have been raised, sure... but also the quality of their output!
Depending upon your needs, the simplicity of use and extremely small volume and weight might make a P&S your main camera, and for a relatively small overall investment. If you travel or hike... look them up!
Some among those cameras have one thing that no other system can have: models which do not extend the lens (and change their volume) can be made anywhere from weather-resistant to waterproof, which is an extremely useful feature. Having no need for an external casing, these are called “amphibious”. See, for example, Olympus TG-# series for this kind of cameras, but they're by far not the only ones.
You’ll need to distinguish weather / water-resistant from waterproof in order to pick the right model for your needs. See my article titled "Understanding Waterproof" for more detailed description of differences between those terms. The advantages of this feature range from cameras that are shielded from rain to the models that can be used underwater down to certain depths / pressures, (model-dependent) usable between -1 to -25 meters.
What seemed to be just an afterthought in the beginning days, the cameras of today’s smartphones show perhaps the most interesting progress. There is still some clash between the intended allround camera capabilities and the smartphone size, especially the thickness of the phone. As there simply isn't enough place to employ the classical optical systems, the focal length change (zooming) so far occurs mostly at the digital level, which influences the resulting image size (and quality).
There have been certain attempts aimed at solving this problem. One solution separates the optical from the processing part in the system. It essentially offers the wirelessly connected add-on piece, which is capable of taking pictures with quite extensive zoom range, and even has a flash unit of its own. The picture taken will be instantly transferred to the smartphone for processing and storing. Another idea comprises a built-in camera in a disproportionally large bulge which protrudes from the otherwise thin shape of the phone.
They say the phone cameras are making Point-and-Shoot models die off... maybe so, but P&S still exist because of certain features that are not yet possible to have in a phone. So the choice is yours again... at least for some more time!
The camera-equipped phones are generally practical in that these combine two of the most used electronic devices, and this might be sufficient for some people’s ideas of photography. But in my view, the dedicated cameras with their flexible optical systems are still very much better. One manufacturer even turned the idea around and offered cameras that can function as phones too... Right now, that particular field is very active, and the future will probably bring some attractive solutions, since there are so many manufacturers trying to compete in this area.
The action cameras have advantages that can hardly be found in other visual recording devices. These are all about extremes. Their small weight and size can’t be beaten, and really rugged versions are impervious to many adversities in the Great Outdoors. Although mainly intended for video, many models also have various ways of still-picture taking, such as single shots, bursts, and time-lapse photography.
The price tags vary considerably, too. The top-of-the-line action cams can be several times more expensive than some of the cheaper models. But some of the cheaper cams can still output sufficient quality for many a need. Thus, there is something suitable for everyone.
On the less advantageous side, most of action cam lenses offer only a wide-angle field of view ranging from 90 through 170 degrees, which may not be everyone’s photographing idea. But action cams are meant to cram a lot of field-of-view into the video, without much need for careful aiming. All eventual corrections are later done in the post-processing / editing programs.
Strictly for gadget-loving people. These cams are, from the photograper’s aspect, pretty much useless. Nevertheless, many manufacturers compete to put a camera in just about anything that has sufficient volume, which means that for some reason, there must be a large market for things like that. For serious people though, I’d say that those do not fit into any consideration.
Such devices are also often frowned upon, since clandestine photography hardly incorporates themes that the real photographers would approach. I guess you’d have to be a spy, or an over-imaginative child to be attracted to such gadgets.
The choosing process begins with What Do I Need The Camera For? The answer points to the type of camera and optics capable of delivering the quality images of your intended themes.
Try to decide what will be the smallest and largest objects that you intend to photograph, and also the minimal and maximal distances of those. The answers will highlight the optical abilities of your equipment needed to do it properly. It will help you decide on the number and type of lenses you’ll need to cover all the range you had in mind.
Consider the extremely low light associated with the themes you find interesting. If you plan to work in shaded or dark ambient, your final decision might depend upon the widest f-stop of your intended camera model's lens. This is always preferable to the high sensitivity (ISO number), which is the cause of digital noise (formerly known as grain in the days of film), and it ruins the image quality.
Decide what kind of presentation you intend for the photos you do. If you plan to shoot for internet use only, then just any sensor size and resolution might be sufficient. If you plan to exhibit on paper, canvass, or other material versions usually being shown in a gallery, see how your image resolution and size influences the largest printout you plan to produce. Usually, for paper sizes up to B1 / A1, you will want at least 12-14MP output. The camera’s ability to output in RAW or at least in TIFF (tagged image file format) will be useful for such planning.
Indoors photography? Outdoors photography? Both? What about the weather, terrain, and sensitivity of the equipment? Which camera can survive all the conditions your photographing ideas can expose it to? Don’t forget to consider the weight and the size of the complete package, inclusive of things like tripods, filters, spare batteries, lighting, and all other possible extras. What kind of carrying and transporting?
Car, public transport, bicycle / motorcycle? Sailing, mountaineering, caving, kayaking, camping… or disco clubs, streets, malls, bazaars, green markets? Air photography? Personal approach, or by remote-controlled models?
In the end you have probably decided upon several camera models which would suit your photographing idea.
Now’s the time to consult your finances.
Unfortunately, no camera can do it all, at least not for long. If money is not a problem, consider upon the kind of photography you’d like to do most often. It’s easier to progress that way. If money is the restrictive factor, go for the camera model or system that shows the best technical characteristic you can afford. It is as simple as that.
Remember that the most worthless camera of all is the one that is not used. Many people have camera models that have been acquired in the surge of some romantic impulse rather than chosen within that photographer's reality. As a consequence, such cameras stay home a lot, and gather dust! Your camera should not have such fate.
Upon deciding which manufacturer and which model suits you best, read all you can about it. Disregard advertising, and try to discern important elements from the camera specifications.
Then go to blogs, fora, reviews... and read from photographers that have used the same system you plan to buy. Look at their work. See if they know what they’re doing, saying and writing. Many people own cameras that cost an arm and a leg, and still are not able to produce anything worth looking at.
Try and establish contact with knowlegeable photographers which are using your potential choice of gear. Ask about their experiences, also maybe their ideas of possible equipment changes in the future. Find their reasons why. Incorporate those reasons into your decision-making.
Now see which seller offers the best price.
Find out about their warranty and service.
Go shop, preferably from the store, so as to be able to handle the camera.
Get back home, unpack and find the User’s Manual. Read it through completely, once.
Make your camera operational. Become familiar with the layout of command buttons and switches.
Test every feature down the line as it appears in the Manual.
Enjoy - and have a Good Light!