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Beginners guide to different camera types

February 21, 2022

Welcome to the AP Improve Your Photography Series – in partnership with MPB – This series is designed to take you from the beginnings of photography, introduce different shooting skills and styles, and teach you how to grow as a photographer, so you can enjoy producing amazing photography (and video), to take you to the next level, whether that’s making money or simply mastering your art form.

Improve your photography from AP and MPB

Each week you’ll find a new article so make sure to come back to continue your journey. The start may seem basic to some photographers, but it’s an important step in making sure you’re comfortable with your equipment and the basics of photography, as it’s part of the foundations that help build into great photographs, and once you know these, you’ll be able to play with them, and understand further articles in this series.

Beginners guide to camera types, and what to look for when buying, so you’re able to grow as you learn more

To start with, if you haven’t already selected a camera, or if you’re not sure if you have the right camera, then let’s jump in and look at the four main types (to keep things simple): Compact, Mirrorless, DSLR, and Mirrorless.

Compact cameras

Sony RX100 VII

Sony RX100 VII – an advanced compact camera with manual controls

The compact camera – this was the most common type of camera, but as smartphones have, for the most part, replaced these, they are much less common now. There are only a small number of new models available, and many of them are now expensive, and much more high-end than they used to be. Many are available second-hand, but for the best learning experience, and control, it’s recommended you find a camera with full manual controls, so that you can control ISO, shutter, aperture, and other settings. Whilst some compact cameras do offer manual controls, the options may be limited, especially when compared to interchangeable lens cameras.

Top models include the Sony RX100 series, Fujifilm X100 series, and others, look for a “serious compact” or “advanced compact” to ensure you get one with manual controls – see our guide to compact cameras.

Pros: Compact, fits in your pocket, waterproof models available
Cons: Most often feature a smaller sensor which gives lower quality images, unless you got for a camera with a 1inch sensor or APS-C sensor – these can be more expensive than mirrorless and DSLR cameras.

Side note: The “bridge camera” is technically also in the same category as a “compact camera” even though they aren’t very compact, and often offer exceptional zoom range, however, they also suffer from the same disadvantages as compact cameras with the majority featuring a smaller sensor. The exception to this being the Sony RX10 series, and Panasonic FZ1000 series, however these can be expensive, and limit you, as they do not let you change your lens.

Interchangeable lens cameras

Konica Minolta Dynax 5D 6MP DSLR (75)

Konica Minolta Dynax 5D 6MP DSLR, with mirror in the middle

This is divided into “mirrorless” cameras and “DSLRs” and the main thing in common between these is a larger camera sensor, manual controls, and the ability to change the lens. This gives you the ability to specialise in certain areas, so for example, you could buy a macro lens if you want to take close up photos, or a “bright” lens if you want to get better low-light shots.

An interchangeable lens camera is therefore one of the best options for learning photography, and will be helpful later in the series, but don’t worry if you don’t have one yet. Also, don’t be put off by the price, as there are hundreds available second-hand making them a great bargain, and a good investment.

Good to know: New cameras are often sold as “body only” or “with kit lens” – and it’s worth making sure you clarify this before clicking “Buy Now”, as “body only” means just that, you get the camera body, but no lens, and it’s then up to you to choose your lens. The kits lens is often a good starting point for general photography, but at some point, you’ll most likely want to go beyond this lens. Don’t worry though, we have a guide to lenses coming up soon.

Mirrorless cameras

Olympus OM-D E-M5

Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II with zoom lens

Mirrorless cameras have become the go to choice for many people, offering the same sensor sizes as DSLRs, meaning they can offer the same (if not better) image quality performance, they also benefit from the latest technological advances, and have reduced bulk and weight. They also give a “through the lens” view with an electronic viewfinder (EVF) on most cameras. The majority of camera companies have now committed to developing and releasing new mirrorless cameras and lenses, with the exception of Pentax.

If you’re looking for an affordable option, then Olympus and Panasonic cameras offer great value, with a range of options, good image quality, and a vast array of lens options, but you’ll also find cameras available from Sony and Fujifilm. Some of the Nikon and Canon options can be quite/very expensive.

Pros: More compact than DSLRs, advanced technology, faster performance, continued development with new cameras and lenses planned
Cons: Newer to the market, some have less lenses available than DSLRs, some can be expensive, many have shorter battery life than DSLRs, some people still believe they aren’t as “professional” as DSLRs

DSLR cameras

Pentax K-3 III in hand

Pentax K-3 III, DSLR in hand with lens

The DSLR, or “Digital SLR” gets its name from the traditional film SLR camera and inherited from the SLR is the “single-lens-reflex” which includes the mirror mechanism (reflex = reflection), this mirror reflects the view through the lens up to the optical viewfinder. This mirror has to move out of the way when you take a photo, and add complexity to the autofocus system, which is why you end up with two different focus systems on DSLRs, with “Live view” being one of the options.

As the DSLR was the first “proper” camera introduced when cameras went digital, there are a vast array of options available, so care is needed, particularly when choosing a second-hand model.

Some of the well-known brands available include Canon, Nikon, and Pentax. Pentax are also completely dedicated to DSLRs, but most new Pentax DSLRs are expensive.

Pros: Some like the optical viewfinder, vast array of lenses available (especially second-hand), the majority have good handling, wide variety of options available, often have the best battery life of all camera types, some may like the larger size of camera.
Cons: Size and weight, may lack advanced new features such as eye-detection AF, it’s unknown how long camera companies such as Nikon and Canon will continue to release new DSLRs and lenses, vast array of options available may be confusing.

What about smartphones?

JOBY Swing slider shoots timelapse

The JOBY Swing slider shown shooting a timelapse on a smartphone

Much like compact cameras, there are some smartphones that offer manual controls, but these can be quite limited, and very few smartphones give control over the aperture setting, as the lens often has a fixed aperture. Instead, most smartphones offer a simulated (or fake) aperture control. So, whilst you can follow this series with a smartphone, it’s likely, that at some points you may be limited by this depending on what smartphone you’re using.

Other types of cameras – If you want to know more about the other types of cameras, then have a look at our film photography section, or have a look at medium format options.


Tune in next week, for the next article in the series of the AP Improve Your Photography Series – in partnership with MPB .

Find the latest Improve Your Photography articles here.

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