types of digital cameras

A Guide to the Types of Digital Cameras

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Aha, how here is a subject that is likely to start a lot of people arguing. That is because there are so many great cameras out there on the market at the moment that as long as you are sticking with a nice brand name camera, there is not really a bad choice out there. There are some better than others depending on your needs and your wants but for the mot part, nothing that you are going to refer to as bad.

There are several different types of digital cameras on the market, each intended for a specific purpose, type of photography, and level of experience.  The combination of these aspects will help determine what type of camera is right for you.  Once you have determined the type of camera you need, then you will need to determine the best camera in that class for you.

The intent will be to keep the descriptions simple and easy to understand without leaving out important features and aspects of each camera.  The last thing the average person needs is an overly technical description that can only be understood by a tech junkie.  The one thing to remember when deciding upon a camera is that good images do not create themselves anymore than a high dollar camera will.  Creativity, inspiration, and skill will always create a striking and meaningful image.  High quality cameras will help to make a better image, but the photographer is more responsible than is the equipment.

So let’s get right into the meat and potatoes of the subject and start chewing things over.

We should begin by defining the different types of cameras, and the specific tasks in which each type excels.  The numbers of camera types are as vast as those who are defining the types, therefore, the following list, while not necessarily exhaustive, should allow enough variation to help you make an intelligent and informed choice.

Types of Digital Cameras

For the most part we can break up the types of cameras available out there into five sub categories that will cover about 99 percent of the saleable market share. Those categories are as follows:

  • Ultra Compact: This is a great camera that can be carried by almost anyone and is small enough to fit almost anywhere that you want to place it. Some of these are half the size (or smaller) than your hand. The biggest downfall in a camera of this size is that there are so many features on the camera that folks with anything larger than a small hand find them awkward to use. They are great for kids and ladies or smaller handed men.
  • Compact Camera: This is the camera that most of us see in use and they abound on the shelves of any retail store. They fit nicely in pockets and purses, they re easy to control and give fair quality for a low price. In other words a great buy for the money. This is your ‘typical digital camera’ you’ll see around.
  • High-End Compact: This is a great camera for people who know more about photography than just point and shoot technology. In other words this camera is geared towards someone that wants to take more control over the final results that they get in the final print. Typically these are more expensive and run in the higher price range generally above $300.
  • Compact System Camera (CSC) / Mirrorless: These things are a bit larger than a Compact (in between a compact and dslr in size) and give you easy to use controls and menus with larger LCDs for information. They give you a lot of the same information and features that you might get from a true SLR WITH the ability to change lenses. They are typically much better at shooting photos in lower light than the smaller cameras because the camera maker usually put in a larger sensor allowing for more light to be captured. The best mirrorless cameras can go one on one with top end DSLR’s. Right now, there is a war being fought between DSLR’s which are the old technology and the status quo for professional photographers and the new generation of mirrorless, which offer pretty much (and more) the same features of top end DSLR’s, but in a fraction of the size.
  • DSLR: This style camera is usually the largest in the line and is also going to be very feature rich and get you the best possible image quality (though some of the mirrorless cameras can now match them). You can swap out lenses so as your needs change you simply buy a different lens rather than a new camera. Your low light shooting will be second to none, the range of things that you can capture will increase and the size of your bank account will likely drop because all of these options come at a price. Even a modest Digital SLR system can easily run between $750.00 and $1000.00 with a great system reaching into the multiple thousands of dollars even for a non professional There are two levels of SLR:.
    • Hobbyist DSLR
    • “Pro” DSLR

The above list is a very short one and as such, each one can have a variety of subcategories beneath.  This list is broad with the intent of helping you understand the basic configurations and uses for each style or type of camera.

General Camera Buying Tips

Before we get into the guts of each different type of camera, there are a few pointers you need to consider before buying a digital camera.

1. Get a Brand Name

I would seriously look at the name brands as opposed to a generic name. That will increase your resale value, lower your possibility of problems and if you are going with the better camera like the SLR versions, your ability to grow the system by adding on as you go will be much better.

Names that are typically thought of in the world and the industry today as being the “Brand Names” and the industry leaders are companies such as Nikon, Canon, Kodak, Sony and even Olympus and Fuji. A good way to ascertain if a camera is a name brand that you should consider would be to walk through some of the camera stores and see what they have on the shelves. A general rule of thumb that way given to me a long time ago was “If it has more than four syllables, is unpronounceable or looks like it is trying to make you think it is another make (such as Cannon or Nikkon etc.) then it might be best to shy away from that item.

There are some exceptions to that rule and I have seen some fairly nice aftermarket, no name cameras that are feature rich and well made. The big problem is not so much will they do a good job at taking a photograph. It is more what happens when there is a problem? Can I find a place to get the camera fixed or will it just go in the garbage. With a brand name that is not a question or a concern.

2. Price, Price

The guiding factor will probably be the price. You can spend anywhere from 50 bucks to several thousand dollars on a camera. Most people who want to buy a point and shoot are looking for a camera feature set that will cost between 150-200 dollars. And for that price, you can get a good camera that should be perfectly fine for day-to-day photos.

3. Size Matters

The next consideration is going to be whether or not this camera is going to be with you almost all of the time. I personally carry a small camera with me everywhere I go so that I can be assured of getting a decent shot if the opportunity for a once in a lifetime photograph should present its self. The small pocket style means I can literally pull it out, turn it on and get the shot in less time than it usually takes just to unzip the big SLR camera bag.

4. Pictures of What?

The rule of thumb when choose a camera is to decide what you are going to be using the camera for. Or more precisely, what sort of pictures will you be taking. If you are like most folks these days and simply want an easy way to document things with a camera. About 90 or 95 percent of the photos will end up on Face book and you may get an occasional print but nothing over a 5 by 7 or an occasional 8 by 10, then you can get along easily with a good 3 mega pixel camera. But watch out, the number of mega pixels (or the dots in the image if you had no clue what they were) are not important if those pixels are out of focus or fuzzy. You will find that – as a general rule – the larger the camera, the more precise the rendition of the pixels and thus the sharper the photo at any given size. So shy away from the lower end cameras and invest in a higher price tag unless all you are doing is updating your social networking sites. You don’t need anything fancy, so a cheap ultra compact camera should do the trick.

If you want more serious pictures, then you might consider a compact camera with higher megapixels (6-12 range) with the bells n whistles you might use (HD video, different shooting modes, etc). If you are into more serious photography or like creative photography, then you might want to look at a high end compact camera or even a DSLR camera.

5. The MegaPixel Myth

Camera advertisements today tend to include mention of the number of mega pixels.  In fact, mega pixels have been mentioned so much that people automatically assume more is better.  Unfortunately, this is not the case.  There is some benefit to having a large number of mega pixels, but mega pixels alone do not a good photograph make. Some of the higher range DSLR’s (such as the Canon 5Ds) and Mirrorless (Sony AR ii) have upwards of 40 or 50 megapixels!

When you are considering ordering prints, you can achieve a decent 8 x 10 print from a camera with as few as three mega pixels.  More important than mega pixels are other aspects of the photograph, things like the quality of the lens or “glass” in front of the camera, the size and quality of the image sensor, and finally the type of format in which the images are initially stored.

Smaller cameras typically have smaller image sensors resulting in less detail in the photograph.  In most cases, point and shoot style cameras do not have high quality lenses and the image quality suffers as a result.  Another aspect of poor or substandard image quality in compact style cameras is the standard of using Jpeg formatting in camera.  Jpeg formatting contains a great deal of compression and can cause a lot of ‘noise’ in an image.  Simply having a larger number of pixels with inferior components can actually compound the problem.

Broad Digital Camera Categories

Ultra Compact

No matter what you read in on the packaging or the store tags about how great the image quality of this type of camera. Do not believe it. The size of the image sensor is far too small to give you a sharp image. You will get fairly decent shots outdoor in daylight on a sunny day but the lower the lighting the faster the image is going to break up and the faster you will become dissatisfied with what you are seeing in the results. If you get anything other than bright and direct sunshine you will for the most part end up with a dull and fairly uninteresting and sub par image, This is a lot like what you see in the under seventy five dollar price point. The lenses are slower and usually are made of a plastic of some sort. Again, sticking with a well known brand name will improve your chances of getting a usable photo but there is only so much that can be done with plastic lenses if you are trying to get sharp and usable images.

Best Ultra Compact Camera Suggestion for 2015

While opinions vary from person to person, one of the best Ultra Compact Cameras in 2011 is the Canon PowerShot A1000 IS.  This ultra compact weighs a slight 5.47 ounces and measures 3.76 x 2.46 x 1.22 inches, making this camera easy to handle.  The price is easy to handle as well, averaging under $200, this 10MP, 4x zoom camera with 17 different shooting modes and built in red eye reduction is a great camera for travel, or taking pics of the kiddies and the park or birthday celebrations.



Compact Cameras

There are a lot of great entrants in this particular category from most every manufacturer imaginable. However it should be fairly easy to find a favorite for yourself if you do a little research after you ascertain your needs and wants. They have somewhat larger sensors so the image quality is much better and they are still small enough to carry anywhere without many issues. These are often called Point and Shoot cameras in the general sense and are the most “common” sort of digital camera you see people carrying about.

Compact Cameras Defined

Compact Cameras are also known as “point-and-shoot” cameras.  A point-and-shoot camera is a still camera designed specifically for simple operation. This kind of camera is the type with which most people are familiar.  Almost everything occurs automatically when it comes to controlling camera settings for taking a picture.  This style of camera is the most popular with people who do not consider themselves photographers.

Most have flash units built in to them, use autofocus for focusing, and automatic systems for setting the exposure options.  Exposure settings include all options for causing photographs to have the proper amount of light.  These settings are aperture settings, shutter speed settings, and ISO settings.

This is not to say that compact cameras do not possess the ability to control some settings.  Many allow for varying amounts of control.  However, in general, compact or point and shoot cameras are used in fully automatic mode.
Compact cameras are generally used for vacations, snapshots, and photo album type shots.  The typical consumer will have a point and shoot because of the convenience, ease of use, and relative inexpensive cost associated of this type of camera.

If you are looking for a camera that is easy to use, takes good pictures, small enough to take along on short and long trips, then you are likely looking for a compact camera.  One subcategory of compact cameras is the ultra compact.

An ultra compact camera will have all of the same features as the typical compact, but it will be much smaller and lighter.  While there is no governing body to delineate the difference between compact and ultra compact in camera size and weight, one should generally consider an ultra compact to be considerably smaller than a standard point and shoot.  Ultra compact cameras will easily fit in a shirt pocket where the standard compact camera may not.

It is uncommon for many people to look specifically for ultra compact cameras today because of the high quality images that most can create with the cameras built into most of the smart cellular phones.  However, a small market niche of those who prefer a dedicated ultra compact camera instead of a cell phone camera does exist.

Another category under compact cameras is the creative compact camera.  Creative compacts are just like the compact camera only with more user-defined features.  While the average compact camera will allow slight modifications or modes in which photos are taken to achieve a specific desired ‘look’, creative compacts will allow more user-defined controls in order to be even more creative.

Pros and Cons of Compact and Ultra Compact Cameras

The obvious benefit of compact and ultra compact cameras is portability and ease of use.  These cameras are lightweight and hardly need any instruction or pre-existing skills to use.  An average consumer can simply pick up the camera, turn it on, point it at the subject, and shoot a picture.  Hence, the name, point and shoot.  Many are not aware of the other benefits and shortcomings that cameras of this nature possess.

Pros of Ultra Compacts and Compacts

  • Weight—Portability is one that should top the list.  The average ultra compact camera is weighed using ounces and grams instead of pound and kilograms.
  • Size—Typically, not much larger than a packet of playing cards, they make travelling with a camera simple and easy. These cameras are easy to store in small spaces.
  • Ease of Use—Because of the ‘point and shoot’ styling, there is little difficulty for users when taking pictures.

Cons of Ultra Compacts and Compacts

  • Sensor Size—Because of their small size, ultra compact cameras typically have very small sensors.  Small sensor size makes it difficult to achieve good quality, especially in low light situations.  The sensor size will cause a higher degree of noise than other larger sensors.  If lighting is not good, photos will have a great deal of digital ‘noise’ or ‘grain’.
  • Customization—Typically, there are not many controls available to the user.  Point and shoot is about all you get.
  • Flash Power—Again, because of their size, the on board or built in flash is not very powerful.  This type of camera has less real estate in which to place all the components, including a flash, therefore the flash is much less powerful and can cause problems with low light situations.
  • Shutter Lag—Simply defined, shutter lag is the length of time between pushing the button to take a photo and the photo actually being taken.  Ultra compact cameras usually have a considerable lag time and can cause you to miss that special moment.



Birdge Style Cameras

This is where we start to add in the ability to start telling the camera what you want it to do rather than the other way around. In other words cameras of this type allow you to start to control the final result that you are going to capture on your film card. You are going to begin to act like a professional here. You might think of these cameras as high end or “pro” compact point and shoot cameras.

While it’s true that many of the cameras in this category are not any larger than the others we have talked about so far, at least in size, but they sure make it up in features if you are looking for the creative control that a more in depth camera can afford you. In fact one of the really neat things about this type camera is that they have the ability, for the most part anyway, to record in what is commonly called the RAW format. Raw, if you didn’t know it, saves a lot more information than a standard JPG format. It retains a lot of the data that JPG considers to be useless. This data doesn’t make a lot of difference if you are just sending photos to the web but things like light and shadow information and white balance can mean a world of difference when you are working on the image from a more serious aspect. That is where this type of camera shines.

One thing to remember is that this type of camera, much like the SLR styles that we will talk about shortly, is far more than a camera that you pick up. Point and shoot. Yes, you can certainly use the camera that way and get decent shots but you are going to miss out on a lot of the options that make this camera style what it is. It is also not a camera that you will be able to make good use of without taking the time to read through the manual. In fact if you want to milk the most out of it, you are going to have to read the manual several times but it will ultimately be well worth the time invested. If you are not ever going to read the manual and plan on just using it as a point and shoot, then save your money and buy one of the models we have discussed already. You will be happier and wealthier.

In fact as I reviewed what was available as of this writing, there is not a lot out there today that I would consider a good camera for the features and the price at which it is being offered for sale.

Compact System Camera (CPC) / Mirrorless

When we are talking about this type of camera we are looking at a much larger footprint than any other camera we have talked about so far. In fact many of these cameras offer the same (or nearly the same) quality as their bigger DSLR cousins, but with a much smaller size.

Some of the CSC do not have any type of optical viewfinder and instead offer only the LCD from which to judge your shooting ability. Where a true SLR lets you actually look through the lens that will take the photo by bouncing the image off of a mirror up to the viewfinder, the one main advantage of the SLR like camera is that your mirror does not have to pop out of the way for the image to be recorded so you get continuous real time images. A professional might have trouble adjusting to shooting off of an LCD and might not enjoy the lack of having a viewfinder in which to frame the shot.

This type of camera is good for just about any type of photography, depending on the brand and model you choose.  There is a WIDE range of prices in this category with entry levels giving you features and quality between a DSLR and Bridge Camera and the more Prosumer / Professional models that offer you the same quality and features you find in expensive DSLRs, but in a smaller size but with a price to match — some of these can be nearly 4,000 USD)..

DSLR Cameras

This portion of the article is really capable of having an entire article done on it without just being nothing more than a small segment along with the rest of the cameras. But in the interest of making things fair and giving you a true over view of what is on the market that makes sense, let’s expound a little on what there is to offer in the world of Digital Single Lens Reflex cameras. If you want more information about DSLR cameras, you should look out our Best DSLR lists.

There are basically three types of DSLR cameras:

  1. Entry level or “hobbyist” cameras
  2. Prosumer Level
  3. Pro DSLR cameras.


Hobbyist Digital Cameras Defined

The range of cameras that fit this category is vast.  It makes it difficult to narrow the field without first laying some sort of foundation that will help one determine the parameters necessary for such a camera.  In order to keep the playing field level, we will move forward with the following definition of a hobbyist camera.

A hobbyist camera is a digital camera that allows manual controls so that the hobbyist photographer will be able to make choices on how the photograph will appear.  This kind of camera neither needs to be light nor small.  It is intended as an entry-level pro style camera.  This typically means the camera should be a DSLR or Digital Single Lens Reflex.  To simplify, a DSLR is a digital camera in which you look through a viewfinder and actually see through the lens instead of looking at an electronic image displayed from a sensor on an LCD screen.  However, a hobbyist camera does not have to be a DSLR.  It can be more akin to a point and shoot.  In essence, a hobbyist digital camera will fall somewhere in between a point and shoot and a professional grade camera.
A hobbyist digital camera will be more expensive than its point and shoot brothers and sisters but not nearly as expensive as it pro level siblings.  A good price range for such a camera is between $400 and $600 on avearge.  The image sensor should be larger than compact cameras, low light shooting should be better, shutter lag should be almost non-existent, and the image quality should be superb.  The average person will look at a hobbyist digital camera and think it is a professional camera.

A good hobbyist camera should have the ability to change lenses for different purposes.  This feature alone will separate the ‘wannabees’ from the ‘real deal’.  No lens is ideal for all situations.  Therefore, the ability to swap out lenses as the situation dictates is paramount for a hobbyist.

There are some pros and cons in this category as well.  However, as you will find, the cons are not typically related to the quality of the images produced or the limitations in the camera itself, but rather to other aspects about which many will not initially think.

Pros of a Hobbyist Digital Camera

  • Image Sensor—The image sensor on hobbyist cameras is going to be much larger than compact and ultra compact cameras allowing for a much higher quality image.
  • Shutter Lag—A hobbyist digital camera will have virtually no shutter lag, helping you capture the moment just right.
  • Controls—The amount of control will be greatly increased.  The camera should be able to be used in full automatic mode as well as offering a varying amount of control to those who want it.  This kind camera will allow the photographer to grow with the camera and learn more skills.

Cons of a Hobbyist Digital Camera

  • Cost—Most people will not like the price range of this style camera.  It is much more expensive than a regular point and shoot compact camera, but not nearly as high as the professional level cameras.
  • Size—Much larger than the compact and ultra compact cameras, a hobbyist camera is larger and heavier.  This makes it less likely to be used by many people on their travels.  The cumbersome nature of the camera is odd feeling to many who are used to the compact point and shoot varieties.
  • Controls—Many people find themselves overwhelmed with a hobbyist level camera.  They are used to having limited options with other cameras and the level of control offered by these cameras intimidates many people.


DSLR Cameras Defined

A DSLR is simply a Digital Single Lens Reflex camera.  Realizing that this definition does not do anything to help anyone understand, here is a better explanation.  With a DSLR, you see exactly what the lens sees because the viewfinder looks through the lens.  The light entering the lens is reflected by mirrors to the viewfinder.

DSLRs have larger image sensors, faster shutters, and overall better quality than other cameras have.  When you push the button to take a picture with a DSLR, the main mirror moves out of the way, allowing the light to strike the image sensor, thus creating the image.  Before the advent of the digital age, this type of camera was simply an SLR and film was in the place of the image sensor.
DSLRs offer a great deal of control and flexibility to the photographer who knows how to use them or those who are willing to learn.

Some people will say that there is not much difference between the criteria of DSLR and Hobbyist cameras.  While they are indeed similar in some ways, there are things that separate a Hobbyist from a full out DSLR (pro level) camera.  To many people, these difference will seem slight, but to those who depend upon the quality and controls on their cameras for superb images, time and again, and/or for those who use their cameras as their livelihood, those differences can be as large as the Grand Canyon.
When looking for the Best DSLR, price is a consideration, but it cannot be the only consideration.  Performance, features, functions, and controls will top the list.  Technical details including image processors, continuous shooting, ISO range, priority modes, and more are things that should be examined thoroughly when choosing the best DSLR.

While most of the cameras thus far have had a pro and con listing, the DSLR category is not going to have many cons.  The only real cons of a DSLR are portability and pricing.  DSLR cameras tend to be on the bulky and heavy side, making them less than ideal for traveling and vacations or simply taking pictures at birthday parties or social events.

They also tend to be on the pricy side of the spectrum.  It is common to find a wide range of prices with DSLRs.  Finding a price tag between $1,000 and $5,000 is very common.  An average price of around $2,800 to $3,500 is to be expected when looking for this type of camera.  Something else worth noting with DSLR cameras is that they have the ability to accept multiple different lenses.  This is a great option for those who want the most that these cameras can offer.  However, one must realize that it is common to pay between $300 to $1,000 per lens and higher for some specialty lenses.  The cost of having multiple lenses and a high end DSLR can easily reach into the $10,000 range for many people.

Pros of a DSLR

  • Lens versatility—A DSLR is made to accept multiple lenses designed for specific purposes and uses.  The range can include zooms and super zooms, wide angle, fish-eye, telephoto, macro (extreme close up), and tilt/shift lenses (perspective control lenses).  This versatility allows for a greater degree of control, quality, and function.
  • Image Quality—If you were to compare photos taken by a standard point and shoot camera rated at 10MP and a DSLR rated at 10MP, you would see that the DSLR camera would outperform the point and shoot every time.  This is true of any lighting situation, but is especially true in low light.  The image sensor on DSLR cameras is much large and will produce better images as a result.  By way of short explanation, if you were to divide a one inch square into 10 million parts and compare it to a 3 inch square divided into 10 million parts, you would start to get the idea of why image sensor size makes such a difference.
  • Performance—When compared to the average consumer cameras, DSLRs are better in terms of shutter lag, flash performance, autofocus, battery life, continuous shooting, low light ISO settings, and larger memory buffers to aid in quick cycle times between shots.  All of these things help increase the overall performance received when using DSLR cameras.
  • Ergonomic Design—The average DSLR has control buttons and wheels built into the design of the camera body in logical places allowing for easy and quick adjustments to camera settings.  By contrast, many of the consumer grade point and shoot cameras might not offer some of these controls and those that do, only offer them in a menu.  This constant ‘menu surfing’ takes time away from creating images and makes them less suitable for many situations.
  • Flexibility—When it comes to external devices, DSLRs take the cake.  It is difficult to find peripheral devices for consumer grade point and shoot style cameras.  Things like external flashes, remote shutter releases, alternate power sources, and wireless transmitters are easy to find for DSLR cameras.  These external devices allow for a much greater degree of flexibility and function for DSLR cameras.
  • Control—Most DSLR cameras offer a host of controls for the photographer to use.  This host of controls includes fully automatic with autofocus to fully manual without autofocus.  Shutter priority, aperture priority, scene, and custom modes are available at the turn of a dial.  White balance, ISO sensitivity, shutter speed, aperture settings, bracketing, EV stops, metering choices, and image review are all controlled quickly and easily.  Nearly anything you want to do with the settings of the camera that will affect the image can be controlled with a DSLR.

Cons of a DSLR

  • Size and Weight—As already stated, DSLRs are bigger and heavier making them less than ideal for travel.  Some people find the camera too heavy and cumbersome to use at all.  Many people are so accustomed to using the LCD screen to frame their photos that when the try to use the “Live View” modes with DSLRs that offer this feature, they soon tire from the weight.  DSLRs are designed to be held up to the face and use the optical viewfinder to frame and shoot pictures.
  • Higher Price—While most people are willing to spend as much as $300 for a digital camera, they are typically not willing to spend thousands of dollars.  The increased price of today’s DSLRs can be considered a con by many people.
  • Complexity—While versatility, flexibility, and controls are all listed as pros for DSLR, they tend to add a bit of complexity to regular camera functions.  This can cause many people to become so confused they will simply not use the camera.  For others, the complexity of these cameras is a matter of intimidation and can be off putting enough to cause many to forego purchase in favor of a camera they find simpler to operate.

Add On Items

I know this sounds like a sales pitch from the guy at the store, but don’t forget things like filters, a nice camera bag, tripod, extra batteries and memory cards. You are making a decent investment for most of these items and you want to protect them and be sure that you have everything that you need to make them as functional as they can be while you are using them.

With the price of the technology and the accessories so low these days it makes absolutely no sense to not own at least a decent Digital DSL and if you travel a lot, adding a compact digital of some sort is also a great addition that will add lots of enjoyment to your life, photographically speaking.

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