Digital Camera Buying Guide: Everything You Need to Know

Digital Camera Decision Criteria

Last Update: June 2, 2020
Lumix ZS20 640x629 - Digital Camera Buying Guide: Everything You Need to Know

Buying a digital camera is one of the toughest purchase decisions to make. That’s because many very good brands offer multiple types of cameras with an overwhelming number of features. This is great for consumer choice but it does make choosing the “best” camera extremely difficult. To make that choice easier, one way to approach buying a new camera is to consider the following broad criteria.

  1. Type of camera
    If you have done some research already you may know what type of camera you want. Choices—more or less in order of quality—include subcompact point-and-shoot, compact point-and-shoot, waterproof/shockproof, ultra-zoom compact point-and-shoot, bridge, mirrorless (alternatively known as Electronic Viewfinder with Interchangeable Lens (EVIL), Digital Single Lens Mirrorless (DSLM), Compact System Camera (CSC) or Mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera (MILC)), and DSLR (digital single-lens reflex). If you aren’t sure what type of camera suits you, let the other criteria here guide your choice.
  2. Size
    There is a trade-off between size and features/quality. As a traveler you have to ask yourself where you stand on that trade-off. Are you willing to lug something large and heavy to get the great shots you want? Or would you accept fewer options and diminished functionality in order to have something light you will be sure to carry with you when you need it?
  3. Body
    While the camera body primarily affects the overall size and weight, another potentially important factor is the shape and hand grip of the body design. Some are more comfortable to hold and allow for more stability (less shake) when taking photos.
  4. Price
    What’s your budget? It seems obvious that more money equals better digital camera, but these days that is not always true. There is also overlap in pricing between different types of cameras. As a broad guideline, budget cameras are typically under $250. Value cameras are $250-500. Mid-range options are $500-1000. High-end cameras are higher than $1000.
  5. Picture quality (sensor)
    Most modern cameras take good photos in good light but the real difference comes in low light and backlight situations. The quality of the sensor really determines how good photos look in these conditions. I suggest you don’t focus much on the number of megapixels as these days most cameras have plenty (a frame of 35mm film has the digital equivalent of between 15 and 20 megapixels). Sometimes a higher pixel camera actually has a worse sensor or results in noisier pictures. In fact, the first rule in choosing a digital camera should be to place sensor size over pixel count. That’s because a camera with a large sensor has more area to capture more light and detail. With a larger sensor you’ll also get more detail. This allows you to make larger prints or crop them smaller without losing quality. The most common sensor sizes that you will see listed in specs sheets or product pages, in order of increasing size, are: 1/3 to 1/2 inch (smartphone, point-and-shoots); 1 inch (high-end point-and-shoots); Four Thirds (mirrorless); APS-C (mirrorless, DSLR); and 35mm full-frame (DSLR). When considering sensors and picture quality, pay attention to dynamic range. This is a spec provided that states the maximum range a camera can capture in one image from light to dark (given in exposure values or EV).
  6. Optics/lens
    The quality of lens used, along with the sensor discussed above, is a key determinant in picture quality. You will also want to consider the focal length range (i.e., the aperture limits and amount of optical zoom). The wider the aperture (lower f-number) the better the lens will perform in low light situations and the more you will be able to achieve shallow depth of field. Ignore any mention of digital zoom, as it is often useless. For point-and-shoot cameras, try to choose one with a wide angle lens. 28mm is typical and not very wide. 24mm is better, though this is also a function of the sensor. For cameras with changeable lenses, investigate the options and prices available. Nikon and Canon DSLR cameras are famous for a large selection of high-quality, often expensive lenses. Mirrorless cameras are catching up but may have a less robust selection (though more than sufficient for most amateur needs).
  7. Weather sealing
    Some digital cameras offer weather sealing to protect you from sand, dust, water, and other unpleasant environmental elements.
  8. Stabilization
    Many digital cameras offer some form of stabilization to compensate for camera movement (usually due to your hands). There are two kinds. Optical stabilization is superior because it involves physical movements to compensate for any shake. In contrast, the inferior option is digital stabilization, which manipulates the image and can lead to lower quality photos. Additionally, some cameras offer stabilization in the body, some in the lenses and some both. If the camera doesn’t have body stabilization you will need to get it in your lens purchases so check those options.
  9. Speed
    There are three main types of digital camera speed: power-on delay (the time between when you switch the camera on and when it is ready to take pictures), shutter lag (the time between when you press the button to take the picture and when it actually gets around to doing it), and burst speed (the number of consecutive shooting mode photos that can be taken in a period of time).
  10. Video quality and features
    Things to consider are whether you can shoot HD or 4K video; if you can zoom while shooting (many lower-end models cannot); whether there is noticeable noise from zooming during recording; if there is an external microphone jack; frame rate; and output format (AVI, MP4, etc.). You might also be interested in a camera that can take still photos from recorded video.
  11. Other features
    There are so many other features that manufacturers use to differentiate their digital cameras. Some include: battery life, GPS, WiFi, NFC, number of preset settings, the ability to manually configure settings, the ability to shoot in raw image format (RAW), the size and resolution of the back LCD display, viewfinder, type of autofocus (phase detection vs. contrast detection) and number of focus points, time-lapse recording, panorama, macro mode, 3D, etc.
  12. Learning curve
    This is a question of being honest with yourself. If you are not the kind of person to read the manual and learn the various features and settings a digital camera offers, you are probably best off not buying an expensive camera.
  13. Future goals
    This is another area that requires honesty about where you want to take your photo skills in the future. If you are still a beginner but hope to make photography a serious hobby, it may be a good idea to pay for more digital camera than you can currently use with your current skills. A good choice is a mid-range camera that will let you change lenses. Different lenses will open up lots of shots you cannot get with lower-end cameras. On the other hand, if you are happy using auto mode to get “good enough” shots, you’ll be wasting your money on a mid-range camera.

Create a Prioritized List of Digital Camera Features

As you think of the various options and features above, create a prioritized list of the ones important to you. Some will be must-haves and some will be like-to-haves. This will help you more quickly eliminate potential cameras as you shop. For example, I recently jumped from my advanced compact camera to a mirrorless one. Here is how I ordered my personal prioritized list.

  1. Size. As someone that travels light, size and weight is very important. That’s the main reason I used a point-and-shoot for so many years.
  2. Sensor. This is the biggest determinant of image quality so I wanted the best I could afford. I ended up with my preferred APS-C sensor but if necessary I would have purchased to a Four Thirds sensor. Megapixel count wasn’t a high priority for me.
  3. Price. I wanted to keep my purchase in the $500 range, including a kit lens.
  4. Display screen and viewfinder. I wanted a swiveling or significantly tilting display screen, which is an easy to achieve goal. I wanted a viewfinder, though that is not a common feature in my price range.
  5. Connectivity. I had no strong opinion on the importance of Bluetooth or NFC options, though WiFi was a must.
  6. AE Bracketing. I was surprised to see that this is not offered on some models but it was a fairly important feature for me.
  7. Video. Video wasn’t terribly important to me but I realized that 4K video is the future and if possible I wanted to have that option to grow into. I would also have liked the ability to take still photos from a 4K video frame. Since video isn’t my thing, I was not too concerned with having an external microphone jack. I have used a camera that cannot zoom on video mode and I was unhappy with that so having video zoom was a high priority. Most mirrorless cameras do offer that feature.
  8. Lens. I wanted a lens interchange system that offers a fair number of choices at reasonable prices. Since most of the main brands offer this, it was not a major differentiator for me.
  9. Stabilization. This was a nice-to-have option for me but if necessary I was OK with lens-based stabilization rather than body stabilization.
  10. Battery life. I was not too concerned about this as I usually pack a spare and I rarely go on extended photo shooting sprees without access to an outlet to recharge.
  11. Speed, burst rate and autofocus. These weren’t high on my priority list though the more focus points the better.
Mirrorless vs. DSLR
A DSLR camera uses a mirror so you can view the scene via reflected light in a viewfinder (what you put your eye to). Mirrorless cameras either do away with the viewfinder entirely (not a problem for some, a huge issue for others) or add a digital viewfinder which mimics the optical viewfinder but which is really seeing an electronic representation of what the lens is seeing. One advantage of a digital viewfinder is that it lets you view the real-time effect of exposure adjustments. Getting rid of the mirror allows for a more compact camera. With DSLR-quality sensors and lenses, mirrorless cameras typically offer the same image quality as DSLRs but in a smaller size.

Find Online Camera Reviews and Comparisons

Once you have your own prioritized list of features it is time to search for information online. For most of my shopping needs I rely on the reviews found at Amazon.com and is true for digital cameras. But, my number one source for camera reviews—when they have what I am interested in—is Expert Reviews.

I find their well-written, concise reviews cover the features and performance I actually care about. I also like how they tend to compare a model to its predecessor and/or its siblings. The site is great for narrowing down choices as well since you can select by type of camera and by features and then sort results by price or ratings. You can even select up to 12 models to compare. Finally, I find it helpful to compare a review by a true expert to those of a retail site like Amazon. Many times they concur but sometimes they are worlds apart.

If you are a true photography enthusiast I don’t know if this site and its reviews will provide the level of detail you need or not, but for regular travelers like me it is great.

An alternative site which also offers very good—perhaps more detailed—reviews and buying guides is Digital Photography Review.

CameraDecision is a great site that lets you compare two specific digital cameras head to head. It also has a “smart finder” page where you can search for cameras by feature. You can then select up to five to compare side by side.

Model Branding and Differences

One thing to consider in your research is that different manufacturers tend to keep some consistency in their model branding. So, for example, my Lumix ZS20 was an update to the previous ZS10 model. That, in turn, has since had multiple newer versions (the latest being the ZS200). Likewise the Sony DSC-HX90V replaced the DSC-HX80V and so on.

You might think that the latest model will always be better, but that isn’t necessarily the case. Also, even if a newer model is better, the improved quality may or may not be worth the increased price (though sometimes the old models stop being discounted and thus are much more expensive than their newer siblings). The broader point is, do your research and get a feel for which brands and model lines you like. If you choose a winner, the next time you want to upgrade you can just check out the latest line in your series. If you are unhappy with your purchase, at least you will have an idea of what competition you might consider.

Another thing worth noting is that certain manufacturers brand their lines differently in different countries. For example, my Lumix ZS20 is also called the TZ30 in some countries. Thus, if you use the Expert Reviews site, which is based in the UK, you might have a hard time finding a review for a specific US model you are interested in (though they often mention when a model is marketed differently). Likewise, if you get a recommendation from a fellow traveler who is from a different region of the world you might not be getting the model name and number applicable to your home territory.

Create a Digital Camera Shortlist

To get started on your shopping research, I recommend compiling a list of 5-10 models to compare. Try to include at least a few different brands. Make your list using Amazon (you can choose the type of camera you are interested in and then use the selection features on the left sidebar to narrow your search) or via a review site like CNET’s Best Digital Cameras list or Expert Reviews.

For example, here is the higher-end compact point-and-shoot list I considered back in 2012. Even though that was a long time ago, these brands and models still exist today (x is a variable number that changes as models get updated).

  1. Canon SXxxx or PowerShot ELPH xxx
  2. Fuji Finepix
  3. Nikon Coolpix Lxxx or Coolpix Bxxx
  4. Panasonic DMC-ZSxx
  5. Sony Cybershot DSC-HXxxV

You will notice that I have included most of the powerhouse brands in this list (minus Olympus). I have met fellow travelers satisfied with each of these brands (depending on the model and personal experiences, naturally). That doesn’t mean you should ignore others but this list was long enough for my interests.

If you already have a limited list of brands you want to consider, then a different approach would be to take a detailed look at each brand’s current models. Again, you can use a site like Amazon but the manufacturers’ product description page might prove even more useful.

Mobile Phone Camera vs. Point-and-Shoot Camera

I should say that this entire discussion assumes that a mobile phone camera isn’t sufficient for your needs. That is a big assumption given that today’s smartphone cameras rival—and sometimes surpass—the quality of the point-and-shoots. Some even offer settings usually only seen on DSLR models.

Many mobile phones now have multiple lens cameras that let you get great shallow depth of field shots that the typical point-and-shoot cannot. Increased optical zoom is also becoming common. You can even purchase a lens kit to extend the usually limited default focal lengths when needed. So, if you are not quite ready for a more advanced mirrorless or DSLR digital camera and you have been considering a point-and-shoot instead, perhaps upgrading your smartphone would be a better use of that money.

My Digital Camera Suggestions

If all that still leaves you wondering what to buy, here are my thoughts.

  1. Get a smartphone with a good camera as your everyday option.
  2. If you prioritize convenience and lightweight travel, supplement your phone camera with a higher-end or ultra-zoom point-and-shoot with manual settings and a good lens.
  3. If you are interested in taking your photography game to the next level but are put off by the idea of lugging around an entire bag of heavy camera equipment, get a mirrorless digital camera with a good general-purpose zoom lens. When you have the budget, add a good prime (fixed) lens (50mm, f/1.8 would be the most popular and economical choice).
  4. If you think you might really like to make photography a serious hobby and aren’t bothered by carrying lots of equipment with you, go for a good quality mirrorless or DSLR and add lenses as you need them. Until you get very advanced you should be fine with two or three lenses (a wide-angle zoom, a telephoto zoom, and a good prime).
Don’t Forget the Accessories
You are going to need some accessories for your new camera, so be prepared for them in your budget. Specifically, consider getting at least one extra battery, two or more memory cards, a tripod, a case, and lens filters (UV, polarizing, neutral density). If you want to take underwater shots and don’t want a separate camera for that purpose, consider buying a special housing.

My New Camera

The camera I bought to replace my point-and-shoot is the Sony alpha a5100. As discussed already, it’s part of a regularly updated Alpha aXXXX line. It’s actually fairly old but the quality is still very good and I got a great deal on one used. It’s also the smallest/lightest mirrorless camera I could find. I purchased a prime lens for it, which is great for portrait and close-up shots.

sony a5100 640x611 - Digital Camera Buying Guide: Everything You Need to Know

Wrapping Up

Did I miss anything important? If so, let me know in the comments or feel free to praise or criticize the model you chose.

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