So you’ve decided it’s time to buy a camera. But which one should you get? This is a really common question among people who want to attend a beginners photography course. 

There are hundreds if not thousands of different cameras available, and the many factors to consider can make choosing a new camera a confusing process. Choose well and you’ll have the start of a camera system that will last you the rest of your life. Choose badly and your camera will gather dust while you continue taking photos on your phone. 

It’s worth remembering there is no single factor which makes one camera better than another. Everyone has different priorities, and the best camera for one person may not be right for another. It’s difficult to buy a genuinely bad camera today, but it still pays to do some research to make sure you are still satisfied with your choice in a couple of years’ time. 

In this series of articles, we examine some of the decisions you’ll need to make when choosing a new camera. In this first part, we look at the different types of cameras available, comparing DSLR, mirrorless and compact cameras. Having decided on what type of camera you want, part two looks at the factors you need to consider when picking your new camera. Covering everything from sensor size to file formats, part two guides you through everything you need to think about when selecting your camera. In part three we share information on a range of cameras which are particularly suited to the beginner photographer who wants to learn how to take better photos. 

Types of Cameras

Generally speaking, cameras fall into five categories:

  1. DSLR
  2. Mirrorless
  3. Point and shoot 
  4. Smartphone 
  5. Specialty cameras (like GoPro, drones, or dedicated video cameras)

You probably already have a smartphone, and I’m assuming by the fact you’re reading this that you probably want a step up, so we’re not going to look at those here. We’re also not going to cover speciality cameras. That leaves us with DSLR, mirrorless and compact cameras

So, what’s the difference? 

Most people start their photography journey with a point and shoot camera. Quality-wise these range from cheap with uninspiring quality to pretty awesome. DSLRs are the big, fancy-looking cameras, with multiple buttons and big lenses, traditionally used by professional photographers. There is an overwhelming choice of lenses and flashes available, as well as a multiple other gadgets which are used to achieve all sorts of creative effects.

With mirrorless technology becoming increasingly popular, the view that a DSLR is required for ‘proper’ photography is changing. Mirrorless cameras are smaller in size than DSLRs, but are quickly gaining respect for their great compromise of quality and versatility.

Interchangeable or fixed lens?

One of the main decisions to make when choosing a type of camera is whether or not you want to be able to change the lens. In general, point and shoot cameras come with a fixed lens (i.e. it can’t be taken off the camera and changed for a different lens), whilst DSLR and mirrorless camera generally have interchangeable lenses. 

Advantages of fixed lens cameras:
  • The cameras tend to be much smaller
  • A fixed lens often has a zoom range that would be too expensive or heaving in an interchangeable lens
  • Swapping lens can be a pain, as can carrying around the different lens you might want to use
  • Often, a fixed lens is allows a wider aperture than the kit lens included with DSLRs or mirrorless cameras
Advantages of cameras with interchangeable lens:
  • You can buy better lens to improve photo quality and performance, either now or in the future
  • If you need a wider or narrower angle of view, you can get another lens 
  • You can get a faster (i.e. wider maximum aperture) lens if you need better low-light performance.

If size and convenience are the most important factors, then a point and shoot may be the camera for you. Don’t be fooled by the name, many point and shoot cameras have manual modes that allow you to take control of your images. If however you want the quality and flexibility that comes with an interchangeable lens then read on to find out more about the differences between DSLR and mirrorless cameras. 

Mirrorless or DSLR?

If you decide to go for a camera with an interchangeable lens you will need to choose between a DSLR camera and a mirrorless camera. For a long time it was thought that for true photographers nothing could beat a DSLR camera to get the perfect photo. DSLRs have been the mainstay of professional photography for many years. 

But that is changing. Mirrorless cameras are rapidly becoming more popular, and some of the worlds top photographers are ditching their DSLRs in favour of mirrorless cameras. Filling the gap between a small point and shoot that will fit in your pocket and DSLRs with their heavy lens, it’s easy to see why more and more people are choosing mirrorless.  

A DSLR camera uses a mirror to direct the light to your eye through the viewfinder. To take a picture this mirror flips up to expose the sensor. With a mirrorless camera, the need for the mirror is removed, and you compose your photo on a large screen or using an electronic viewfinder, meaning no mirrors are required and cameras can be smaller and lighter. 

Advantages of a DSLR over a mirrorless camera: 
  • If you want the biggest possible choice of lenses, then a Canon or Nikon DSLR is possibly your best choice thanks to their huge range of optics – they both have an extensive range of lenses, as well as excellent third party support from the likes of Sigma and Tamron
  • The battery life of DSLR cameras is better than the battery life of mirrorless cameras
  • All DSLRs come with an optical viewfinder, meaning its easy to compose images even in bright sunlight
  • You get more for your money with a cheap DSLR, compared to a cheap mirrorless camera
Advantages of a mirrorless camera over a DSLR:
  • Most mirrorless cameras and lenses are smaller than DSLRs
  • The lack of a mirror means that as you adjust exposure settings on your camera, you will see what the image will actually look like before you take it. In DLSRs you only see your actual image after you have the photo. This is a feature is of great benefit while you are learning about and experimenting with different exposure settings. 

In terms of features and controls, DSLRs and mirrorless cameras are increasingly hard to split. The choice for many comes down to personal preference of size versus price. DSLRs are sturdy, good value cameras offering top quality images. Mirrorless cameras are smaller, full of just as many features and becoming increasingly popular. For beginners and those on a budget, entry level DSLR gives you more than a cheap mirrorless camera. Further up the price range, there is less difference and there are fewer and fewer technical reasons why a DSLR should be considered the best option for photographers. 

The best way to decide is often to compare them side by side. Visit a shop, pick a few cameras up, try them out and feel which is more comfortable in your hands. You may prefer the chunky feel and optical view finder of a DSLR, or you may prefer the smaller size of a mirrorless camera. 

Beginners Photography Courses

If you want to learn how to use your new camera, why not check out our photography courses for beginners? Details and next available dates are available here.

Part Two

Decided what type of camera you want? Ready to learn about the other features you need to think about when choosing your next camera? Part Two is coming soon. Get in touch if you have a question in the mean time.