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Types of digital cameras: 9 different types to know about

The digital camera market has grown exponentially over the past few years and there are so many different types of digital cameras available that it can be a little confusing as to which type of camera is suited to what situation!

Below you’ll find a short overview that should help you make sense of them all and make a better buying decision.

Types of digital cameras

A quick search for “camera” on any online superstore will yield so many results that as a beginner, your head may start to spin! The many different types of camera available can make a buying process even more confusing.

Let’s explore the different types of digital cameras and see their pros, cons, and who they’re good for.

1. Compact(point and shoot)

Canon PowerShot ELPH 180 Digital Camera w/Image Stabilization and Smart AUTO Mode (Red)

The first type of camera is the most common: the compact point and shoot camera. These cameras are small, don’t weigh much, and you can find a decent one for under $150. They’re not going to break the bank, but the image quality is not going to blow your mind, either!

The image quality is very basic because the sensor in these cameras is fairly tiny, so it can only capture a small amount of light.

These cameras will have moderate zoom levels and not much in terms of extra modes or features. Most modern compact cameras have video recording of at least full HD, though newer models may offer 4K too.

There are higher end models available too, but once you get into that realm, you’re not that far off from bridge cameras.

Pros

  • Very light and easy to carry
  • A good step up from a smartphone camera

Cons

  • Tiny sensor
  • Photo quality is OK at best
  • No extra functions or manual controls
  • No viewfinder

Who it’s for

Compact cameras are for extremely casual photography where you’re just clicking a memory and are planning on uploading it later that day to Instagram, or saving it in an online album. They’re good cameras for kids to play around with and get interested in photography.

While you could print photos shot with a compact camera, the quality just won’t compare to photos taken from mroe advanced cameras.

2. Zoom compact cameras

Canon PowerShot SX740 Digital Camera w/40x Optical Zoom & 3 Inch Tilt LCD - 4K VIdeo, Wi-Fi, NFC, Bluetooth Enabled (Silver)

A step up from the typical compact camera is a zoom compact camera. While compact cameras have zooms that max out at 5x to 10x, these cameras will go all the way up to 30x or more in some models.

Zoom compact cameras will also have manual exposure controls and HD recording. As you might imagine, zoom compact cameras will be more costly than their counterparts.

The sensor size will still be quite small, so the photos will not be as good as those from cameras with bigger sensors.

Pros

  • Powerful zoom if you need close up shots
  • Some manual controls give you an opportunity to learn

Cons

  • Photo quality is lackluster thanks to the smaller sensor
  • The only way to upgrade is buying a new camera

Who it’s for

If you’re still dabbling with photography and want something that’s a step up from compact cameras but not as expensive or indeed as large as a mirrorless or DSLR camera, zoom compacts offer some level of manual control for experimentation as well as an auto mode meant for hands off shooting. They’re great for vacations and family photography.

3. Advanced compact cameras

Sony RX100 III 20.1 MP Premium Compact Digital Camera w/1-inch Sensor and 24-70mm F1.8-2.8 ZEISS Zoom Lens (DSCRX100M3/B), 6in l x 4.65in w x 2.93in h, Black

Advanced compact cameras are a step up from compact cameras in that they offer far more features and better image quality than the typical compact cameras.

On these cameras, you’ll find welcome additions such as viewfinders, more robust focusing, and the possibility for expanding with add ons.

Video quality and recording will be better too, and in the higher end range of these cameras, you can expect to find 4K video capability.

Because these cameras are so much more robust, you’ll need to spend more money on them, of course.

It’s not easy to pinpoint a price range for advanced compact cameras as the pricing will vary according to sensor size. Remember, the larger the sensor, the better image quality you can expect.

Another form of advanced compact is the bridge camera, which looks and feels like an SLR camera but does not have interchangeable lenses.

These cameras usually have very big zooms and offer nearly full manual controls from exposure, ISO, aperture, shutterspeed, and manual focus.

Of course there are auto modes, too.

The sensor size will vary.

These cameras are not quite as common anymore thanks to the advent of mirrorless cameras, which combine the best of compact and DSLR cameras in one.

Pros

  • Lots of advanced features which will be welcomed by more advanced users
  • Still fairly compact
  • Not that expensive

Cons

  • Lenses are not interchangeable
  • Still not as full-featured as a proper DSLR
  • You can pick up an entry level DSLR for the same price

Who it’s for

Advanced compact and bridge cameras are suitable for advanced users who wish to have manual control but don’t want to deal with the size of a DSLR. These cameras take the most common DSLR features and cram them into a small body. DSLRs and mirrorless cameras will usually still have bigger sensors.

4. Action cameras

GoPro HERO7 White - E-Commerce Packaging - Waterproof Digital Action Camera with Touch Screen 4K HD Video 10MP Photos Live Streaming Stabilization

Next up we have action cameras. Action cameras are super compact and are meant to be strapped pretty much anywhere for some really unique perspectives.

At their heart, action cameras are meant for video, but most can take stills too. Good action cameras are waterproof and also shockproof to a certain extent.

They’re really popular with action sports enthusiasts and interestingly enough, many are used by strapping them onto FPV drones for some really interesting aerial shots.

Action cameras vary from super cheap cameras that can take OK video to GoPro Heros which capture very good video and are built to withstand the elements.

Pros

  • Very compact and meant to go anywhere
  • Usually have wide angle lenses for sweeping shots
  • Most good action cameras shoot 4K and high FPS 1080p

Cons

  • Photo quality is not good
  • Cheaper action cameras are rather flimsy

Who it’s for

Action cameras are superb for getting really unique perspectives and angles. Their small size means you can fit them pretty much anywhere. Use them for family vacations, or use them for your adventures by strapping them to your chest or to your helmet!

Find the best low light action cameras here

5. DSLR Cameras

Canon EOS Rebel SL2 DSLR Camera with EF-S 18-55mm STM Lens - WiFi Enabled

DSLR cameras are pretty much the gold standard for photography nowadays. DSLR cameras are the digital versions of the original SLR cameras.

SLR stands for Single Lens Reflex, in which light enters the lens, bounces off a mirror, and goes into the viewfinder for you to compose your shot.

When you click the shutter, the mirror snaps up, exposing the film, and comes back down.

DSLRs work in the same way, except that instead of film, there is a digital sensor. Most budget DSLR cameras have APS-C sensors, which are medium sized and larger than the ones in compacts, but higher end cameras will have much larger full-frame sensors.

DSLR cameras have a lot of customization: you can take full manual control of pretty much everything from ISO, exposure, shutterspeed, aperture, and focus. They also have many automatic modes for assisted shooting.

You can find cheap entry level DSLRs as well as high end professional grade DSLRs.

Generally speaking, the higher end models come without lenses and you have to use your existing lenses or buy a lens with the camera.

As you grow in skills, you will probably find yourself investing in a zoom lens or macro lens depending on your use.

Pros

  • Gold standard for photography as of this writing
  • Lots of possibilities and expansion thanks to interchangeable lenses
  • Excellent photo quality

Cons

  • Not at all compact
  • Good DSLRs are very expensive

Who it’s for

Digital SLRs are amazing digital cameras that are suitable for pretty much anyone from a beginner who wants to learn and grow in photography all the way up to professionals who demand quality and functionality. As a beginner, if you’ve got the budget and you don’t mind the bigger size, there’s no better way to start than with a DSLR.

6. Mirrorless cameras

Panasonic LUMIX GX85 4K Digital Camera, 12-32mm and 45-150mm Lens Bundle, 16 Megapixel Mirrorless Camera Kit, 5 Axis In-Body Dual Image Stabilization, 3-Inch Tilt and Touch LCD, DMC-GX85WK (Black)

Mirrorless cameras are fairly new entrants to the digital camera scene and threaten to usurp the digital camera throne from DSLRs.

These types of cameras are similar to DSLRs in that they both have interchangeable lenses. The major difference though is that DSLRs have a mirror, as you read above, and mirrorless cameras don’t.

Instead of the light reflecting up through a mirror into the viewfinder, the light falls direclty onto the sensor and the image is digitally displayed on an LCD screen or an electronic viewfinder.

These types of cameras rival DSLRs in sensor size, manual controls, and actually outdo many of them in autofocus functionality and burst shooting.

The real advantage is that a mirrorless camera is a compact camera in size. The lack of a mirror means the body can be much sleeker and lighter than an SLR.

Mirrorless cameras typically have APS-C sensors but there are some models that have full-frame sensors, too.

Pros

  • Lightweight
  • Great photo quality
  • Interchangeable lenses – many cameras support using your existing lenses with an adapter
  • Usually full manual features

Cons

  • Some feel that the image quality is not quite there, but we disagree

Who it’s for

If I already did not have a DSLR that I’m quite happy with, I’d get a mirrorless camera. Although I love the photo quality from my Nikon DSLR, the size is always something that irks me and having a compact camera that has the benefits of a DSLR is a dream come true.

A mirrorless camera is a good starting point for a beginner that has the budget and wants to grow, and it’s also a good choice for pros who want a lighter type of camera for their shoots.

Check out the best mirrorless cameras under $1000

7. Medium format cameras

Medium format cameras are quite uncommon amongst consumers as they’re so expensive. However, these types of cameras are the cream of the cream. The sensor size is even bigger than full-frame DSLR cameras. The photos you can take with these cameras are just out of this world.

Pros

  • Unbelievable photo quality

Cons

  • Too expensive for consumers, more suited to professionals

Who it’s for

If you’re a movie studio or you’re earning a lot of money from photography, medium format cameras are your thing. For the average consumer and indeed the typical photographer, a really high end DSLR or mirrorless camera will do the trick just fine.

8. Rangefinder cameras

Rangefinder cameras are another rare-ish type of camera where you take an photograph by lining up the image through two lenses.

SLR cameras will show you what the main lens is seeing, but rangefinder cameras have the viewfinder on the side from the main lens.

Also, since the body of rangfinder cameras is much narrower and there is no mirror, wider lenses can fit.

Learn more about rangefinder vs slr cameras.

Pros

  • Better photos than DSLRs in some cases
  • Great for landscape photography

Cons

  • Not as easy to find
  • Not that easy to use

9. Smartphone cameras

Smartphone cameras have become ubiquitous over the past few years. From the first Nokia phones to have cameras built in, smartphone photography has come a long way. Manufacturers now use high quality optics and advanced software processing to take really good images.

You’re still limited by sensor size, and obviously there’s going to be limited zoom and manual control, if any.

However, with a smartphone camera, there’s hardly going to be a moment where you wish you had a camera to capture that moment.

Pros

  • Most smartphones take respectable photos
  • Also shoot 4K video
  • You can shoot YouTube videos with a smartphone and an unsuspecting viewer may not even notice it was not shot with a full sized camera

Cons

  • Very little zoom or manual control
  • Sensor size is tiny

Who it’s for

Smartphones are incredibly common now so a lot of people have these cameras in their pockets. However, a smartphone camera is not a replacement for a digital camera (yet). Perhaps compact cameras are going the way of the dodo, but for heavy duty and serious usage, you can’t replace a DSLR or mirrorless with a phone.

Conclusion

These are the 9 most common types of digital cameras. Many users will prefer an advanced compact as a good halfway point, but if you don’t mind the slightly larger size and price point, you can’t go wrong with a DSLR or a mirrorless camera.

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