If you are considering a new camera purchase, this article will help you figure out which type of camera is the right choice. It will also help you understand your current camera better as well. Digital Camera buying can be overwhelming, but today, many cameras have the same features, and most will give you very good results. Here are some important things to know.
If you are coming to this blog after reading the Fall 2023 e-newsletter, then you know what I recommend as two of the most important characterizes to consider before purchasing a camera; how the camera fits your hands, and its viewing system. Check out the newsletter if you’d like to read more about camera ergonomics. I do address the viewing systems below.
Cameras are classified by their viewing systems and there are 4 popular camera types on the market. Let’s identify the viewing system options and talk about lenses before diving into the types of cameras so you can see how they measure up against each other.
The light must travel through the lens to enter the camera body where the sensor or film will record the image. The lens focuses and controls the light, so the quality of the glass elements is important. There are two relevant aspects to lenses when considering camera types; fixed or interchangeable.
A fixed lens does not come off the camera. It is forever dedicated to the camera body. Some have a fairly large zoom range. These cameras are convenient, easy to use, and light weight. While they are mostly less expensive than the cameras with interchangeable lenses, you do have the option to spend more to get very good quality glass. The disadvantage is that you can’t expand your lens options and if you damage your lens the whole camera is trash.
You’ll have complete flexibility of lens choices for your camera. You can build your camera kit as your interests change. You’ll have options with the quality so you can find what it affordable. Since you’re likely to have more than one lens in your kit, these come with increased expense and weight.
Your viewing system is directly related to the “type” of camera you have. For the mainstream market you’ll find one of the following camera types: DSLR, Mirrorless, Bridge, or Point-n-Shoot. Viewing options are either through viewfinder or on a monitor.
Viewfinder: Optical or Electronic
Optical Viewfinder = OVF
Here, you are viewing your scene through the eye piece. The rays of light that are passing through the lens are being reflected to your eye through a series of mirrors, 3 to be exact. One mirror immediately behind the lens and 2 more up in the pentaprism, the area around the eye piece. There is a purity to the image that you won’t get in the other viewing options. These cameras make a sound when the 1st mirror flips up out of the way when you take your shot.
Electronic Viewfinder = EVF
Viewing is also through the eye piece, however, there are no mirrors. Immediately behind the lens is your sensor. The image is electronically fed or transmitted to your eye piece. You are viewing on an LCD screen with an internal light source, not the light in your scene. In low light scene situations this can be very helpful. However, there can be a slight lag in time, for instance, subject movement will be seen through the viewfinder a fraction of a second later than it happens.
EVF’s allow you to see your exposure density and other camera settings as applied to the image before you take the picture. So, if it looks too dark, your exposure will be too dark. Some cameras allow you to zoom in on your point of focus for focus accuracy before taking the shot. With no mirror the camera can be small and quiet, and it won’t make that classic sound when you take the picture.
Live view = LV
On all cameras, viewing on the monitor is an electronic viewing system, not optical. On DSLR’s, when you switch to LV you can hear your mirror flip up out of the way thereby cutting off the OVF and you are now seeing your image though an electronic feed from your sensor, like the EVF mentioned above. The rays of light passing through the lens hit the sensor and are electronically transmitted to the monitor. Again, this system allows you to zoom in on your point of focus before taking the shot and it is using an internal light source on an LCD screen.
Types of Cameras:
Now that you understand the differences in lenses and viewing systems let’s put this together to discuss what is available on the mainstream market.
1. Digital Single Lens Reflex – DSLR
Lenses – Interchangeable
Viewing system – both Optical Viewfinder and Monitor Live View. (The word ‘Reflex’ refers directly to the mirrors that assist how you view your scene.)
These cameras have auto and manual settings, excellent image quality, good low light exposure capabilities. Higher end models will up your game with higher ranking features. These cameras are heavier and noisier because of the mirror.
2. Mirrorless Cameras
Lenses – Interchangeable
Viewing system – Electronic Viewfinder and Monitor Live View. (As the name implies, does not have a mirror viewing system. )
Compared to DSLR’s, these cameras are smaller and lighter since the viewing system is electronic and not mechanical (less parts). They are quiet. You’ll have auto and manual controls, and you can see your exposure exactly how the image is going to look while viewing before you press the button.
One disadvantage is it will require more battery power. You need to charge and carry more batteries. In my experience working with beginners, the menu items can be more complicated to learn than any other camera type.
Note: DSLR and Mirrorless come in a range of models from entry level to professional. They often come priced with a small zoom lens (called a Kit Lens), or without a lens at all (Body Only). Make sure you know what you are buying.
3. Point-&-shoot – (P&S)
Lenses – Fixed
Viewing System – Monitor Live View, and some have an Electronic Viewfinder as well.
These are lightweight, compact, and easy to carry and are an upgrade to a phone camera. The higher end models have manual modes and excellent lenses. Disadvantages play out because of its size; smaller sensors than all the other camera types and can be difficult to hold. Cheap models will have low quality glass in their lenses. The aperture range can be minimal.
4. Bridge Cameras
Lenses – Fixed
Viewing system – Monitor Live View, and some have Electronic Viewfinders as well.
No mirror, but at the same time they are not called a mirrorless camera because the lens is fixed. These cameras bridge the gap between DSLR’s and P&S.
They look like DSLR’s with their medium size, easy to hold grips, rugged bodies, and many have manual controls. But these cameras function like a P&S having smaller sensors than DSLR’s, however, they tend to have a larger, or longer zoom range (aka Super Zooms), better quality glass, and larger sensors than their smaller P&S cousins.
Not as common in today’s market, but these cameras might be having a comeback in digital format.
Lenses – Interchangeable or Fixed
Viewing system – You’re viewing your image in real time like a DSLR, but through a secondary window. You are not seeing through the lens but it is still considered an optical viewing system, not electronic. These cameras are quiet and lightweight, and often come with high-end lenses.
Please note that all manufacturers are testing alternative designs and creating nonconventional cameras so there may be a camera model out there that blurs the lines between camera types.