A few questions I get asked a lot include the following: “What is the best digital camera? Which one should I buy? What is the best digital camera for beginners?”. Which camera should I upgrade to next or which is best for intermediate photographers?
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 buying 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?
Here’s a quick summary of the eight things to consider, read on for details of each:
- What sorts of things do you want to photograph? Will you be staying put or traveling with your camera?
- What is your budget? Like it or not this is going to be a huge factor in your decision-making process.
- Are you a beginner, intermediate or advanced photographer? What features do you need, what’s overkill?
- How will you be sharing your images? What size files do you need?
- How big are your hands? No seriously, this one is actually quite important.
- Do you want to have the option of upgrading your camera later?
- Do you want more control over your images Do you want to learn to get off Automatic and to process your photos?
- 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 best digital cameras I would recommend in three different categories.
#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. Which of the following do you enjoy?
- Flowers or close-ups
- Photographing your kids or grandkids
- Travel photos
- Nature or landscapes
- Events, or weddings
- Food, including your dinner for your Instagram and Facebook profiles
- Street photography
- Night or astrophotography
Each of those subjects or photography genres come with their own unique challenges.
Knowing the kinds of subjects that will be in front of your camera will help you narrow down your camera search. Generally, cameras fall into five categories now:
- DSLRs (with interchangeable lenses)
- Mirrorless or four-thirds cameras (with interchangeable lenses)
- Compact cameras (this includes both Point & Shoot AND bridge cameras, neither of which have interchangeable lenses)
- Smartphones (you may already have one of these)
- Specialty cameras like GoPro, drones, or dedicated video cameras (I’m not going to cover those in this article, however).
You probably already have a Smartphone, and I’m assuming by the fact that you’re reading this article, you want a camera that’s a step up from there.
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.
Cameras for specific subjects
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 compact – but if you’re really serious about doing this, then opt for one of the first two)
- Your kids (DSLR or mirrorless)
- Travel photos (mirrorless or compact)
- Nature or landscapes (DSLR, mirrorless, or compact)
- Wildlife (DSLR or mirrorless)
- Sports (DSLR or mirrorless)
- Portraits (DSLR, mirrorless, or compact – but you’ll have a harder time using the latter)
- Events or weddings (DSLR or mirrorless)
- Food, including your dinner for IG and Facebook (compact camera or just use your phone)
- Street photography (mirrorless or compact – more on this later!)
#2 – What is your budget?
Likely, you aren’t made of money, so the 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.
Best digital cameras by price
Compact cameras (point & shoot and bridge)
These are cameras that have a fixed lens, often a zoom lens. This means the lens is not interchangeable and you can’t upgrade to better lenses later if you go with this option.
The prices in this category vary greatly from as low as $100 to up and even over $1500. This is usually based on the sensor size and number of megapixels (more on those later).
The best digital camera for you might be a compact camera 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 the camera with you all the time.
This type of camera sometimes has 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 own (and love) a Fuji X100F which technically falls into this category because the lens is not removable. But it doesn’t have a zoom lens, so it’s not good for all-purpose shooting and it’s quite high-end at $1299 USD. So this camera isn’t for everyone.
For me, it’s a second camera to my main Fuji X-T3. I use it for street photography when I want to go light. I did a review of the Fuji X100F here after using it in NYC for a week! See how much I love this little camera!
Mirrorless and four-thirds cameras
If you really want the low-down on these cameras read this more extensive article I wrote just on this category: Mirrorless Cameras – Everything You Wanted to Know.
Here again, prices will vary greatly, based on the features and image sensor size in the camera.
There are many options available by 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 just because the camera is 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 and bridge cameras which means you can produce larger final versions (prints) and overall better image quality.
- Better and faster, focusing abilities to help get your shots sharp.
- They are physically 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. But if you have big hands – maybe not. More on that later.
- Full set of exposure options, RAW format, and usually good video recording abilities as well.
DSLRs – Digital Single Lens Reflex
The only real difference between mirrorless cameras and DSLRs is their physical size.
Some people may argue that mirrorless cameras aren’t up to the top standards 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 a mirrorless camera might do everything you need (depending on your answer to #1 above).
Why might a DSLR be the best digital camera for you? Here are a few reasons:
- If you’ve already invested a lot of money in lenses for your system (a valid reason, but that didn’t stop me from switching from Canon to Fuji).
- If you need specialty lenses that aren’t in the mirrorless lineup yet (tilt-shift, etc.).
- If you’re old school and believe bigger is better (it isn’t always).
- If you have really big hands.
- If sports and/or wildlife is what you want to shoot and you need really long lenses with large apertures. Not many of these are available for mirrorless cameras – yet. (UPDATE: Sony and Panasonic offer many great options in this area and they may actually be better choices than a DSLR in this area now).
Of all the categories, a DSLR will still give you the most options as far as a digital camera goes. But that is rapidly changing. Fuji and Sony were early leaders in the mirrorless race. But now Canon and Nikon are finally getting in the game and are making some impressive advances in this area.
There are many brands and models from which to choose. The price ranges from entry-level kits (camera body and one lens) at under $500, up to super high-end ones over $8000 USD or more.
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 compact camera, or under $500 for a DSLR with a lens. Keep reading for more 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 the question above 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.
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. Also, those cameras don’t have 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 compact camera with some manual settings.
That will give you a way to get started at a lower price point so you can see if you enjoy it before investing a lot of money.
Intermediate and advanced
What features do you need beyond the basics?
Do you want to shoot star trails? If so, then you’ll want to consider a camera that has a built-in intervalometer.
Want to do video? Read up on the reviews of cameras that excel in that area. Panasonic or Sony would beat the top of that list.
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. Remember to also look at things like weight, physical size, as well as the number of megapixels.
If you’re considering moving up the scale to full-frame? Read this first: 7 Questions to Ask Before You Upgrade to a Full Frame Camera Body then if you really think you need one, go for it.
A quick note on full-frame versus crop sensor cameras
There are also different sizes of sensors available in different cameras. I cover that in-depth in this 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.
#4 – How will you share your images?
This question is about file size and megapixels.
What are megapixels anyway? It is the measurement of the actual file size the same shoots in pixels. Take the width and multiply it by the height and you get the number of megapixels. For example, if a camera shoots pictures at 4000×6000, that is 24,000,000 if you do that math. So that’s 24 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 which was a 6-megapixel camera. 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 or digital sharing only
However, if all you want to do is take photos of your cats and your dinner and share your images on social media, then you may just want to stick with your Smartphone or a compact camera.
#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 shortlist 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 – go a real camera store! One that sells ONLY cameras!
I recommend this for a few reasons:
- 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 a Panasonic mirrorless camera over a DSLR.
- 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.
- You can see how intuitive it feels for you. There is no way to test this by reading about cameras. You have to try one out. Fuji and Sony both often have “Try before you buy” programs were you can borrow one for a day then make your decision. Do that, or rent one if you have to in order to take it for a test drive. You wouldn’t buy a car without driving it first, right?
So after you’ve held all your shortlisted 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 you. What if your fingers to reach the buttons, or it’s so heavy for you that you want to just go back to using your phone?
#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 option for you will be either a mirrorless camera or a DSLR.
A compact camera with a fixed lens will not give you any future options.
However, having said that. If you do decide to get a compact camera to start off with – you can always use it as a backup later, so it’s not a total waste.
But generally, mirrorless cameras 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?
Put our hand 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.
How the camera you choose comes into play here is whether or not it can shoot a raw file (and to a lesser degree, image quality). Honestly, though, most cameras shoot raw now, so just make sure the one you’re considering has this option if you want to process your images later.
Read this for more info on why 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.
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.
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 need to get the same exact model they have, 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 as rentals. 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 (like a 70-200mm f/2.8) you don’t have to actually spend the big bucks to buy it. Some stores even offer rent to own programs, meaning if you rent a lens and decide to buy it later – 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
The bottom line – which is the best digital camera for you?
The saying goes,
“The best digital camera is the one you have with you.” – They say!
That has to do with how much gear you’re willing to carry around. And – will you actually do so?
If you buy so many lenses and a huge bag to fit them all into – will it be so heavy that dread carrying it which means 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 were serious factors in why I downsized from my full-frame Canon (5D Mark III) system to Fuji mirrorless. My husband is grateful because now I carry my own bag instead of him always being my Sherpa.
I often left lenses behind and just went with my 50mm or simple 24-105mm f/4 lens (Canon) because I just didn’t want to heft all of it around all day.
Even 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!)?
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 that gives you the most pleasure and joy. Not the one that other people say you should use.
So, having said all that, here is a list of some of the cameras I would currently recommend.
NOTICE July 17th, 2020: Please be aware that since the original publication date of this article Olympus has sold their camera division to a third party. How that will affect product development or continued support for existing products is as yet unknown. So if you choose to go down that path, do some research on the issue and make an informed decision!
Best compact and bridge cameras
The big players in this area are Panasonic, Sony, Canon, and Leica.
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 & shoot camera as a backup on trips).
- Panasonic Lumix FZ2500 4K Point and Shoot Camera f/2.8-4.5 lens
- Panasonic Lumix FZ1000 II 20.1MP 25-400mm f/2.8-4 Digital Camera
- Panasonic Lumix ZS200 20.1MP 24-360mm f/3.3-6.4 Digital Camera
- Panasonic Lumix LX10 4K f/1.4-2.8 Aperture
- Panasonic Lumix LX100 II 24-77mm f/1.7-2.8 Lens
- Sony Cyber-Shot RX10 AF, 25x Optical Zoom lens
- Sony ZV-1 Camera w/ 24-70mm f/1.8-2.8 Lens
- Sony RX100VA 20MP 24-70mm zoom lens
- Sony RX100 VII Premium Compact Camera w/ 24-200mm lens f/2.8-4.5
- Sony RX100 VI 20MP 24-200mm zoom lens f/2.8-4.5
- Canon PowerShot G1 X Mark III 24MP 24-72mm
- Canon PowerShot G5 X Mark II 20MP 24-120mm f/1.8-2.8
- Canon PowerShot G7X Mark III 4k Vlogging camera 24-100mm f/1.8-2.8
- Leica D-Lux 17MP 4/3rds sensor 24-77mm f/1.7-2.8
- Leica C-Lux 20MP 8.8-132mm f/3 lens
- Leica V-Lux 5 20MP Superzoom Camera w 9.1-146mm f/2.8-4 Lens
You can find the most recent and up to date version of this list on my Amazon store in the Best Compact and Bridge Cameras section.
Best digital cameras for beginners – under $1000
Here’s my list of 26 of the best digital cameras for beginners that come in under the $1000 (USD) mark, so they won’t break the bank.
Here you’ll find Sony, Nikon, Canon, Panasonic, Fuji, and Olympus.
NOTE: Yes photography is or can be an expensive hobby. So make sure you choose wisely!
- Sony Alpha A6100 Mirrorless Camera 16-50mm and 44-210mm zoom lenses
- Sony Alpha a5100 with 16-50mm and 55-210mm lenses
- Nikon D3400 DSLR 18-55 f/3.5-5.6 and 70-300mm f/4.5-6.3 lenses
- Nikon D3500 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 lens
- Nikon D5600 18-55 f/3.5-5.6 and 70-300mm f/4.5-6.3 lenses
- Canon EOS Rebel SL3 18-55mm f/4-5.6 and 55-250 f/4-5.6 lenses
- Canon EOS M50 Mirrorless Vlogging camera bundle w/ 15-45mm and 55-200mm lenses
- Canon EOS 77D 18-135mm
- Canon EOS 77D 18-135mm lens, wide-angle lens, and Accessory Bundle
- Canon EOS 80D 24MP 18-55 f/3.5-5.6 lens
- Canon EOS Rebel T6i 18-55mm and 75-300mm lenses
- Canon EOS Rebel T6 w/ 18-55mm and 75-300mm zoom lenses
- Canon EOS Rebel T7i 24MP 18-135mm f/4-5.6
- Canon EOS Rebel T7i 18-55 and 55-250mm f/4-5.6 lenses
- Panasonic Lumix GX9 4K Mirrorless 12-60mm f/3.5-5.6 lens
- Panasonic Lumix GX85 4K 16MP camera w/ 12-32wmm and 45-150mm lenses
- Panasonic Lumix G7 4K 16MP Mirrorless camera w/ 14-140mm
- Panasonic Lumix G7 4K 16MP Mirrorless camera w/ 14-42mm and 45-150mm lenses
- Fujifilm X-T30 Mirrorless camera 26MP w/ 18-55mm f/2.8-4
- Fujifilm X-E3 Mirrorless camera 24MP 18-44mm lens
- Fujifilm X-T200 Mirrorless camera 15-45mm lens
- Fujifilm X-A7 Mirrorless camera 24MP 15-45mm f/3.5-5.6 lens
- Olympus PEN E-PL9 Kit 14-42mm lens
- Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark II Mirrorless camera w/ 14-42mm and 40-150 lenses
- Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark III camera Kit w/ 14-42mm lens, bag, memory card
- Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark II Mirrorless camera w/ 14-42mm and 40-150mm lenses
I maintain this list of digital cameras for beginners on my Amazon shop page here.
Advanced and Full-Frame Cameras
It’s easy to get GAS (gear acquisition syndrome) and get carried away buying camera equipment. Be careful not to end up with too much stuff that you don’t need!
But if you decide you do need a more advanced camera with professional features, here is a list of some of the top cameras on the market.
- Sony a7 III Full-frame Mirrorless camera 24MP w/ 28-70mm lens
- Sony a9 II Full-frame Mirrorless camera 24MP
- Sony a7R IV Full-frame Mirrorless camera 61MP
- Sony a7R III Full-frame Mirrorless camera w/ 24-70mm f/2.8 lens
- Canon EOS RP Full-frame Mirrorless w/ 24-105mm f/4-7.1
- Canon EOS-1D X Mark III Full-frame 20MP
- Canon EOS 6D Mark II Full-frame 26MP
- Canon EOS 5D Mark IV Full-frame Digital SLR w/ 24-105mm f/4
- Canon EOS 7D Mark II 20MP Digital SLR camera
- Canon EOS 90D 32MP camera
- Nikon D7500 DX-format camera
- Nikon D780 24MP camera w/ 24-120mm f/4 lens
- Nikon D850 45MP FX-format Digital SLR camera body
- Nikon Z6 FX-format Mirrorless 24MP camera 2/ 24-70mm f/2.8 lens
- Nikon Z7 FX-format Mirrorless 45MP camera with 24-70mm f/4 lens
- Fujifilm GFX 100 102MP Medium format camera body
- Fujifilm GFX 50R 51MP Mirrorless medium format camera body
- Fujifilm X-T3 26MP Mirrorless camera w/ 16-55mm f/2.8 lens
- Panasonic Lumix S1R Full-frame mirrorless w/ 70-200mm f/4 telephoto lens
- Panasonic Lumix S1 24MP Full-frame mirrorless camera w/ 24-105mm f/4 lens
- Panasonic Lumix S1H 24MP Full-frame mirrorless
- Leica SL2 47MP Mirrorless camera body
The complete list of advanced cameras can be found on my Amazon shop page for Advanced and Full-Frame cameras.
Okay, that was a lot of information right?!
Now it’s up to you to do a little reading, narrow down your list, and go try out a few of the cameras that make your shortlist.
If you’re new to photography altogether, there are many great options and there is no one “best digital camera for beginners” but I hope this article can help you choose the best one for you!