digital photography tips with Digital Photo Mentor Darlene Hildebrandt

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How to Choose the Best Digital Camera for You

One question I get asked a lot is, “What camera should I buy?”. That's really hard for me or anyone else to answer for you but I'll give you a few things to ask yourself and consider before you decide on the best digital camera for you.

8 things to consider when choosing a new camera

Before we get started, just know this is not the usual list of what features to compare when buying a camera. I find that most cameras have very similar features with a few variations. But the bigger thing you need to decide is what kind of camera is best for you?

How to Choose the Best Digital Camera for You

Here's a quick summary of the eight considerations, read on for details of each:

  1. What sorts of things do you want to photograph?  Will you be staying put or traveling with your camera?
  2. What is your budget? Like it or not this is a big factor.
  3. Are you a beginner, intermediate or advanced photographer? What features do you need, what's too much?
  4. How will you be sharing your images? What size files do you need?
  5. How big are your hands? No seriously, this one is actually quite important.
  6. Do you want to have the option of upgrading your camera later?
  7. Do you want more control over your images (do you like to process them?)
  8. What brands of camera and models do your friends use? This becomes important later – read on to find out why.

When you get all the way to the end of the article I'll give you a list of some of the cameras I would recommend.

#1 – What do you like to photograph?

This will be one of the biggest determining factors of choosing a new camera. Think about the types of things you like to photograph. Is it:

  • Flowers or close ups
  • Your kids
  • Travel photos
  • Nature or landscapes
  • Wildlife
  • Sports
  • Portraits or even weddings
  • Your dinner for your Instagram and Facebook profiles
  • Street photography

Each of those subjects come with their own unique challenges.

Knowing the kinds of subjects that will be in front of your camera will help you narrow it down. Generally, cameras fall into five categories now:

  1. DSLR (with interchangeable lenses)
  2. Mirrorless or Four Thirds (with interchangeable lenses)
  3. Point and Shoot (lens is not interchangeable)
  4. Smartphone (you may already have one of these)
  5. Specialty cameras like GoPro, drones, or dedicated video cameras. (I'm not going to cover those in this article)

You probably already have a Smartphone, and I'm assuming by the fact you're reading this that you probably want something a step up. So let's have another look at that list of photography subjects above, and I'll add my suggestion for the best camera to suit those needs.

Photography subjects and suggested cameras

Of course, this is a rough suggestion based only on the topic. But keep these in mind as we continue through the other seven questions.

  • Flowers or close ups (DSLR, Mirrorless or Point and shoot – but if you're really serious about it one of the first two)
  • Your kids (DSLR or Mirrorless)
  • Travel photos (Mirrorless or Point and Shoot)
  • Nature or landscapes (DSLR or Mirrorless)
  • Wildlife (DSLR or Mirrorless)
  • Sports (DSLR or Mirrorless)
  • Portraits or even weddings (DSLR or Mirrorless)
  • Your dinner for your Instagram and Facebook profiles (Point and Shoot or just use your phone)
  • Street photography (Mirrorless or Point and Shoot – more on this later!)
Confused? Keep reading!

Read: Is the Camera an Important Factor When You Choose a New Smartphone? At the end of that article, I did a little test. I showed 22 photos taken by different cameras ranging from my Smartphone, Point and Shoot, and full frame Canon DSLR. See if you can tell which is which without reading the captions.

#2 – What is your budget?

We aren't all made of money, so budget may play a big part in choosing the best digital camera for you. Generally the bigger the camera, with more bells and whistles, the bigger the price tag as well. I'll start at the bottom tier and work up.

Point and Shoot Cameras (Compact)

These are cameras that have one fixed lens, often a zoom, which means you can't change it later or upgrade with this option. The prices in this category vary greatly from as low as $100 to up and even over $1500 usually based on the sensor size and number of megapixels (more on those later).

The best digital camera for you might be a point and shoot if … you want something small enough to slip into your pocket or handbag, and you like to keep it simple. You aren't concerned about upgrading, don't shoot sports or wildlife, and want to have it with you all the time. They sometimes have fewer options for exposure settings but most of the medium to high-end ones shoot in RAW format and have a Manual shooting mode.

I actually just bought myself a Fuji X100F which technically falls into this category because the lens is fixed at 23mm. But it's quite high-end at $1299 USD, so isn't for everyone. My intention is to use it as a second camera to my Fuji X-T1 and for street photography when I want to go light. I'll do a review of it after using it in NYC for a week! Watch for that later.

Sony point and shoot camera. Photo by Dennis Klein on Unsplash

Mirrorless and Four Thirds Cameras

If you really want the low-down on these cameras read this more extensive article I wrote just on them alone: Mirrorless Cameras – Everything You Wanted to Know.

Here again, prices vary greatly, based on the features and image sensor size. There are many options available for brand and there are even full frame mirrorless cameras that compete on image quality with the full-size DSLRs. But, don't expect the price to be smaller! You pay a premium for the compact package you get with a Mirrorless camera.

Generally, Mirrorless cameras offer a lot more than the first category above, including:

  • Interchangeable lenses so you can upgrade and expand your system as your learn and grow (or your budget does).
  • Larger sensors than the Point and Shoot cameras which mean you can produce larger final versions (prints) and overall better image quality.
  • Better and faster, focusing abilities to help get your shots sharp.
  • A little bigger and more comfortable in your hands, but not monstrous. If you have small hands and want flexibility this may be a good option for you. Big hands – maybe not. More on that later.
  • Full set of exposure options, RAW format, and usually good video recording abilities as well.
Fuji mirrorless camera. Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

DSLRs – Digital Single Lens Reflex

The only real difference between mirrorless cameras and DSLRs is the size.

Some people may argue that Mirrorless cameras aren't there yet for quality, or they don't focus as fast, or there isn't a good selection of lenses available. But, choose your brand and model carefully and Mirrorless camera might do everything you need (depending on your answer to #1 above).

Why might an SLR be the best digital camera for some people? Here are a few reasons:

  • They've already invested a lot of money in lenses for their system (a valid reason, but didn't stop me).
  • There are specialty lenses they require that aren't in the mirrorless lineup yet (tilt-shift, etc.).
  • They're old school and believe bigger is better (it isn't always).
  • They have really big hands.
  • Sports and/or wildlife are what they shoot and they need really long lenses with large apertures. Not many of these are available for mirrorless cameras – yet.

Of all the categories, a DSLR will still give you the most options as far as a digital camera goes.

There are many brands and models to choose from, and price point ranges from entry-level kits (camera body and one lens) under $500, up to super high-end ones up to $8000 USD.

Full sized DSLR

Price Summary

Sorry, I can't be more specific here, but the prices really are all over the place. You could spend almost $2000 on what's classed as a Point and Shoot camera, or under $500 for a DSLR. Keep reading for my helpful questions and things to take into consideration.

#3 – What is your photography skill level?

Are you a beginner, intermediate or advanced photographer?

How you answer that question will help you determine the best digital camera for your needs.

Notice I didn't mention professional on that list because I'm assuming if you were a professional you'd probably already have a pretty good idea what camera you want/need and wouldn't be reading this. So let's address the other three options.

Beginner cameras

If you've never had a camera before and are upgrading from your Smartphone I wouldn't recommend jumping into the deep end and getting a full frame DSLR. It will likely be too big and bulky for you, and it won't have some of the beginner features that will help you learn photography and how to use the camera.

Instead look at either an entry-level DSLR, mirrorless camera, or even a good point and shoot with some manual settings. That will give you a way to get started at a lower price point and see if you enjoy it.

Beginner photographer – Photo by Biel Morro on Unsplash

Intermediate and advanced

What features do you need beyond the basics?

Do you want to shoot star trails? If so then look at cameras that have a built-in intervalometer.

Want to do video? Read up on the reviews of cameras that excel in that area.

Do you shoot sports or action events and need a camera with fast focusing and a high burst rate? Then the best digital camera would have those features.

The best site for doing camera comparisons and reading reviews is DP Review. They have a handy side-by-side comparison tool so you can select the ones you're considering and compare all the features.

If you're considering moving up the scale to full frame? Read: 7 Questions to Ask Before You Upgrade to a Full Frame Camera Body if you really think you need one, then decide.

A quick note on full frame versus crop sensor cameras

There are also different sizes of sensors available in different cameras. I'll cover that in-depth in an upcoming article. But for now just know that it's not as big a factor as it once was – so choose your camera based on all the other questions. Don't worry about that so much right now.

High-end DSLR and lens. Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

#4 – How will you be sharing your images?

This question is about file size and megapixels. Cameras keep getting bigger and bigger with more megapixels. But do you really need all that? Or is 36 megapixels overkill for your needs?

Consider this – I got my first digital camera in 2004. It was a Canon 10D and was 6 megapixels. Most Smartphones have more than that now and the specs on it are embarrassing by today's standards. But – I quite easily made prints up to 30×40″ (on canvas which is a little forgiving) and they still hang in my home and in those of my customers who purchased them (both portraits and some of my fine art images).

So unless you plan on shooting stock images (even then you don't need the max MP) or printing your images larger than 60″ or on billboard ads, I would not worry about this factor too much.

The best digital camera for you in this instance would probably fit your other criteria first.

Social media only

However, if all you want to do is take photos of your cats and food and share your images on social media, then you may just want to stick with your Smartphone or a Point and Shoot camera.

Cat photo taken with Smartphone.

#5 –  How big are your hands?

I touched on this earlier because it's a real, valid issue.

If you are shopping for the best digital camera online – stop now.

Make a short list of three or four that you are considering and go to an actual camera store. And I don't mean a big warehouse shop like Costco or Best Buy either – no a real camera store.

I recommend this for a couple reasons:

  1. You really need to hold the camera in your hands and see how it feels. People with big hands may find an Olympus hard to use – the buttons are tiny as is the camera. People with small hands may prefer a Sony or Olympus mirrorless over a DSLR.
  2. They have photography specialists at the camera store. That will allow you to ask questions, tell them about your needs (print out this article if you want and take it with you), and see what they suggest. You can't ask a website questions.
Big hands need a bigger camera. Photo by Tim Graf on Unsplash

So after you've held all your short listed cameras in your hands, then you can make a better decision on which is the best digital camera for you. You don't want to do all your research, pick the one that looks great on paper, only for it to arrive and it's too big for your hands to reach the buttons.

#6 – Do you want the option of upgrading later?

This one is pretty simple.

If you want an entry-level camera that will give you the option of adding more components or upgrading later then the best digital camera you'll want to go with will be a mirrorless or DSLR.

A Point and Shoot camera with a fixed lens will not do this.

However, having said that. If you do decide to get a Point and Shoot to start off with – you can always use it as a backup camera later.

But generally mirrorless and DSLRs will allow you to upgrade and get new lenses, add filters, etc. So if you want to start small and add-on as you learn, choose one of those options.

#7 – Do you want more control over your images?

Hands up if you're a control freak, please. Me too!

That's why I actually love the processing part of photography just as much as the shooting part. It allows me to control the final look of my images completely.

The black and white with split-tone in sepia (browns) transforms this image of a blacksmith into an antique looking photo. Only shooting in RAW allows for this level of creativity.

How the camera you choose affects this is whether or not it can shoot a raw file, and do some degree image quality. Honestly, most cameras shoot raw now (even my little Panasonic Point and Shoot does) so just make sure the one you're considering has this option if you want to process your images.

Raw files give you more to work with on the computer later.

#8 – What brand camera do most of your friends use?

This may not seem important but it could be a big deciding factor for you.

If most of your photography buddies shoot Canon, but you decide to go with Nikon, you can never borrow and share lenses.

That's huge!

Also, if you go full frame and they are not, it's the same issue.

Lenses specifically made for crop sensor cameras will not fit on full frame camera bodies.

If you and your friends all shoot the same camera brand you can share lenses! Photo by Goh Rhy Yan on Unsplash

So ask around, see what your photography friends are using and ask if you can borrow their camera for a day or go out shooting with them to try it out. You don't have to have the same exact model they do, but lens compatibility is really handy for sharing. This can expand your lens repertoire significantly without having to buy them all yourself.

Along those same lines, see what your local camera store has available for rent.

Some stores have lenses available to rent for a day or two at a time (or longer). So if you need a special lens just for one event you don't have to actually spend the big bucks. Sometimes they also offer rent to own programs, meaning if you rent a lens and decide you really want it – your rental fee will apply to your purchase price.

Check online for rentals as well with Borrow Lenses (USA based only) or Vistek (in Canada), or other big stores like Adorama in New York City. I rented a Canon 15mm lens and a tripod from them once when I was there and had a lot of fun with it for two days.

This article helped me make a decision on which would be the best digital camera for meClick To Tweet

Bottom line – which is the best digital camera for you?

The best camera is the one you'll use! Photo by Jean-Pierre Brungs on Unsplash

The saying goes,

“The best digital camera is the one you have with you.” – They say! 

So, that has to do with how much gear you're willing to carry around. And – will you actually do it?

If you buy so many lenses and a huge bag to fit them all into – will it be so heavy you never take it anywhere? Or will a big DSLR and long zoom lens be too much to carry around all day – especially if you travel?

These are serious factors in why I downsized from my full frame Canon system to Fuji Mirrorless (my husband is grateful because now I carry my own bag instead of him being my Sherpa).

These are serious factors in why I downsized from my full frame Canon system to Fuji Mirrorless (my husband is grateful because now I carry my own bag instead of him being my Sherpa). I often left lenses behind and just went with my 50mm or simple 24-105mm (Canon) because I just didn't want to heft it all around all day.

The best digital camera is useless if it sits on the shelf all the time and you just take your phone because it's easier. If that's likely to happen for you, consider why you want the big camera? Could you manage just fine with a smaller one (notice I didn't say lesser!)?

Cameras collecting dust, don't let yours sit all alone. Photo by Stephen Shumaker on Unsplash

So the bottom line is to pick the camera that best matches your answers to the questions above, and which you are most likely to take with you when you go out.

Choose the one that's fun to play with and you like how it works.

If the buttons and menu annoy you in the store when you test it – they will annoy you forever and it will make photography less fun. Pick the camera that's intuitive for you to use and makes it the most fun for you.

Camera listing

So, having said all that, here is a list of some of the cameras I would currently recommend. I'm not going to list any full frame ones – you can find those over here: 7 Questions to Ask Before You Upgrade to a Full Frame Camera Body

Point and Shoot Cameras

The big players in this area are Panasonic, Sony, Olympus, Fuji, and Canon.

You'll notice the absence of Nikon from that list – I'm not a big fan of their cameras in this range.

Here are a few from those manufacturers that are popular (note I haven't used all these myself, but have seen a few of them on my photo tours – often people will carry a small pocket-sized Point and Shoot camera as a backup on trips).

Mirrorless Cameras

I already did a full description and recommendation of mirrorless cameras here: Mirrorless Cameras – Everything You Wanted to Know. Start there, then see below for some of the most popular models currently:

You will notice that two big names are not on this list – Canon and Nikon.

In my opinion they are both sadly lagging behind the other manufacturers above in the realm of mirorrless cameras.

The Canon EOS M6 gets good reviews, but don't buy it thinking you can put your regular Canon lenses on it – nope it uses M-mount (you can get an adapter to mount them, but I tried that with my Fuji and it's clunky).

The Nikon 1J5 was never given a full review on DP Review – that has to say something. They're getting closer, but not there yet I don't think.

DSLR Cameras

The best digital camera for your needs may be a DSLR.

Cheers,
Darlene-1-250x130.png

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  • Hi Darlene, Great in-depth coverage of how to choose the best camera. As you always do, you kept the reader in mind when you wrote this post. Thanks, Bruce

  • Mukund Umra

    Dear Darlene, Excellent,as usual, detailed, in depth article. Though I don’t need to buy in near future I read it in single sitting. Thanks.

    • A great compliment, thank you. Feel free to share with anyone who is looking for a camera.

  • Vishu Bishu

    Thanks a lot. Learnt quite a bit in the first reading,but will have to go through
    two more times to get in entirety.
    Have a Canon EOS-600 D with 18-55mm, 55-80mm, and 70-300mm.lenses.
    wish to have a good telescopic lens when I can afford it.
    Thanks again

  • H Shaheen

    Thank you for an excellent, well balanced and highly readable article. For reasons of size and weight, I have stuck to crop sensor Nikon (D5500 and D7200) but am intrigued by the mirror-less trend. To date however I have found it difficult to be comfortable with EVFs as compared to traditional OVFs.

    • Thanks Hassan, what is it about the EVFs that you don’t like? I thought that myself too until I learned all they can do. You can see a histogram IN the viewfinder before you shoot! You can see focus peaking, a level, composition grid (thirds) and more. You set the display to show what you want to see. Stuff you can’t see inside an SLR viewfinder. Maybe on live view but some not even there.

      • H Shaheen

        You make some good points, Darlene. Admittedly my experience with EVFs may predate recent advancements and improvements. In general, i found the view in an EVF to be grainy and uncomfortable to look at. I probably need to look at some more recent and higher end examples. Cheers !

        • Yeah those are the older ones! Try one of the Fuji XT-1 or XT-2, it’ll blow your mind.

  • thierry

    Dear Darlene,

    first thank you for your articles

    I am not a pro, so i allowed myself to continue reading. i would say that with the dslr, you select the lenses choice before the body. i would also mention the differences between a full frame sensor and smaller ones and the influence they have on what you see with your lens. the processing speed and the number of bits also add an important part on the quality.
    last, when you mention models, please consider they might have a different name outside the american continent (like the ‘rebels’ from canon) and add (if you can) their other names

    in your list you did not mention the canon 6d (mark II now). i find it an acceptable step-in for full frame (5d and 1d if you win the lotto).
    my advice when you go higher in price, don’t rush to buy a kit (body + lens) as the provided lenses are mostly ‘all around’ and you will find yourself in ‘need’ to buy 2 extra lenses to cover a wider range, making the all around lens useless.

    • Yes I often do add the other names but the article was really long (almost 4000 words) and it took me like 2 hours just to get all those links to the ones there and 2 days to write the aritcle. So I was too tired at that point, I apologize. I may have time to update it a bit later. If you know the corresponding names and let me know them I can add them in. I didn’t mention any full frame, and said as much, as that’s all over on the other article on whether or not to upgrade.

      • thierry

        i looked on the net, the rebel t6i and t6s seem to correspond to the eos 750d / 760d in europe

        and the t7i seems to be the 800d
        it seem that the names are even different in japan (market protection ?) kiss 9i for the 800d in japan
        very different names and confusing. that old-time region specific market should disappear

      • Mike C.

        Actually, you did mention full frame. The Sony a7 and a9 are full frame cameras.

  • TomC

    Hi, Darlene
    As usual your articles are spot on and makes for great reading, This article was no exception. There is one little thing I picked up on that made me want to comment. Early on, you mentioned a cell phone as a camera option and you assumed everyone has one.
    I think it’s wrong to assume that. I don’t have one and don’t want one and I know several people who don’t have one.
    The main thing about smart phones is they’re very expensive to purchase and very expensive to have access to everything. I just find it hard to justify that much money being spent every month on a “telephone”. I can’t imagine paying in excess of $100-150 every month. It’s just not sensible for me. I do have a cell phone, just not a smart one.
    I might just mention that I am retired and on a fixed income. But that doesn’t mean I can’t afford a smart phone.
    I can well afford one, I just don’t see the value in it and the waste of time and money most people put into them.
    Please continue with your interesting articles. It’s a big help for many people and they are fun to read and cull information out of.

    • Good to know thanks Tom! I guess I’m judging by the people who come on our photo tours and workshops. Mostly they have smartphones that I’ve seen. FYI I don’t spend $150 a month on my phone (and we have two) and we use them for everything when we travel: email, staying in touch on social media (important for a business), mapping, finding a restaurant, etc. So again, it all depends on your needs and situation.

      • TomC

        Thanks, Darlene, for your timely response.

    • Further to that – I’ve edited it to say “you MAY already have a Smartphone” 😉

  • Sandi Davenport Caine

    Hi Darlene, awesome article as usually. I am surprised that you mentioned 3 Nikon cameras for the DSLR with huge MP. My question is why, when there are other Nikon camera’s in the DSLR format that have less MP and just as good for their quality.

    • Hi Sandi – which Nikons are you referring to? I selected the most popular models, and to my knowledge the D3400 is their entry level model. But I’m not a Nikon user, so you tell me? Let me know which ones you suggest, I can always add a few more to the list. Oh I also tried to avoid listing models released more than 2 years ago so the list doesn’t get dated too fast.

  • walwit

    About #5 (How big are your hands?) I had little hands but is odd that I feel better my old Canon 40D, which is big, than the Fuji XT-1, my new camera. On the Canon all my fingers seems to be in the right place to push the buttons.

    • Part of that is muscle memory. I suggest putting your Canon away for a week and use the Fuji every day. I bet it will catch up really fast.

      • walwit

        Thank you Darlene, I’ll do just that.

  • William Turnbull

    Hi Darlene: You missed some of the best point and shoots from Panasonic – the FZ300, FZ1000 and FZ2500. The FZ300 features a constant aperture Leica f2.8 zoom from 25 – 600 efl. The latter two have 1″ sensors and Leica lenses. All have 4K video with complete PASM control. It doesn’t get much better.

    • Thanks I’ll have a look at adding one or two next week. I’m away right now.

  • You can start here: https://www.digitalphotomentor.com/?s=beginner – great choice.

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