The 4 Basic Types of Camera: A Primer

It seems a good place to begin this Digital Photography Basics series by looking at the main types of digital cameras that are available. The tutorials that follow in this series will give you a grounding in the key principles of photography, and show you how to take creative control of your camera whatever type you are using. It's important to stress that the 'best' type of camera depends totally on what you need it for.

So try not to think of digital cameras as all belonging on a single scale, or that they could all be marked out of 10 by the same criteria! Hopefully this brief summary of the main camera types, and what they offer the user, will make things nice and clear. So let's get started...

Compact cameras

compact cameras

In a nutshell, compact cameras are the smallest, simplest and least expensive of the main camera types available. They are fantastically portable, making them the easiest camera to have on you at all times. What they gain in portability, though, they lose in image quality (due to small sensors. Note: the size of sensor is more important than the number of megapixels, the latter only impacting potential print size) and creative control (less ability to manually select settings).

Having said that, compact cameras are racing ahead with image quality and the ability to fine tune settings. So, whilst many of us now use (increasingly high quality) phone cameras as the go-to portable camera option, traditional compact cameras are becoming better and better, easily justifying their continued existence. Let's take a look at the pro's and con's of compact digital cameras:




DSLR cameras

DSLR Cameras

DSLR cameras are the preferred choice for people who are keen to learn the art and craft of photography. They make use of interchangeable lenses, which offers total control over focal length, and enables you to build up a lens collection with a wide range of specifications and visual characteristics. DSLR's contain the largest image sensors, which means they offer the best image quality and low light performance (Note: mirrorless cameras, discussed below, do rival DSLR sensor size and image quality).

DSLR cameras also offer total control over the camera's functions and settings. This is both through physical buttons on the camera body, and the extensive menus accessed through a large LCD screen. Owning a DSLR requires more effort than owning a compact, as there are important some important things you need to do to keep it in good order, and more space for storage is needed. They are the heaviest and bulkiest cameras available, which can make transportation difficult. This also makes it harder to take a candid shot without being noticed! DSLR's are usuallyu the most expensive camera option. Let's take a look at a pro's and con's list:




Bridge cameras

bridge cameras

Bridge cameras, also called superzoom digital cameras, can be thought of as souped up compacts! They are an attempt at literally bridging the gap between compacts and DSLR's, to suit users who want something between the two. How do they do that? Well, they feature larger sensors than compacts, with better image quality. They also have fantastic zoom range/magnification - considerably better than most compacts. Bridge cameras also offer excellent control over settings and, unlike compacts, have the advantage of a viewfinder.

These cameras do not, though, feature interchangeable lenses. Although the sensor size is larger than for compacts, it is still a fair way off that of DSLR sensors. So image quality is good, but not as good as DSLR's, and low light photography is likely to be difficult (hard to avoid noise: a grainy texture). The biggest weakness of bridge cameras, in my experience, is poor battery life. Let's take a look a the pro's and con's:




Mirrorless cameras

mirrorless cameras

Mirrorless cameras are an ingenious solution to the gap in the market between compacts and DSLR's, which bridge cameras don't quite fill completely. They are small cameras, easily transportable, with an appearance that varies from 'miniature DSLR' to lovely old school rangefinder (think wartime photojournalists). They have sensors that are equal in size to many popular DSLR models, which produces image quality that outstrips Bridge cameras. They also boast interchangeable lenses, which is a huge advantage. The process of shooting with a mirrorless is a akin to compacts, due to a simple design and Live View LCD for composing pictures.

On the down side, mirrorless cameras currently have a fairly small range of lenses available, compared to those on offer to DSLR users. The lack of a viewfinder might be frustrating for certain users, as might be the sometimes poor battery life.





So that's the end of the first tutorial in this series on Digital Photography Basics. I hope you now understand that each type of camera has its own strengths and weaknesses, and there is no such thing as the 'best' camera.

We've seen that compacts can offer a good range of controls, but that their main strength is portability; that DSLR's offer the best quality and creative control, but are expensive and require care and space to maintain; that bridge cameras are nice and small, but also have excellent creative control and magnification; and finally that mirrorless cameras combine the simplicity and (depending on the lens being used) portability of compacts, whilst also boasting DSLR sized sensors and interchangeable lenses. I hope you found this helpful.

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