Whether the question comes from a beginner wanting to go beyond the limiting capabilities of the smartphone, an experienced (we won’t say “older”) advanced amateur looking to downsize, or an active, accomplished photographer lusting after the latest, greatest offerings from his or her current (or a competing) manufacturer, my answer is always another question: “What do you want to accomplish with the new camera?” It’s kind of the same question your spouse or partner might ask, albeit in a different tone: “Why the heck do you need a new camera?”
Either way, that’s where it starts. So here we’ll offer some answers to both questions, with a little summary of what we’ll call the five tiers of digital cameras and some examples from the various brands. Keep in mind that prices change, and new cameras are introduced all the time; we’re not going to cover them all here.
Tier 1: Point-And-Shoots
More lens versatility than your smartphone
If you’re moving beyond the phone, I’d guess that you want to work with additional focal lengths, such as wide-angle for landscapes, medium telephotos for people pictures and telephotos for wildlife or sports. Your objective is to share online or via small prints, and you don’t want to bear the investment or weight of a bunch of expensive lenses and accessories.
For you, there are the “point-and-shoots” or “compact” cameras, a series of lightweight, self-contained cameras with built-in zoom lenses that range from reasonable wide-angle to major telephoto (all the way up to a 35mm-equivalent of 3000mm). With many of these cameras, image-stabilized video is possible, and 4K video is available. There’s likely a built-in flash, and images can be shared through WiFi.
On the downside, these cameras typically have slower autofocus and frame capture rates, so they’re not the best choice for fast action. A smaller sensor compared to a DSLR limits overall quality and low-light ability, so don’t expect to make large wall prints. And these bodies are not as well sealed against moisture and dust as most DSLRs.
Still, no big backpack is needed for a remarkable variety of applications. It’s just the camera, some extra batteries, memory cards and a ticket to your destination.
Examples: Canon PowerShot series, Nikon Coolpix series, Sony RX series.
Tier 2: Entry-Level DSLRs
A “real” DSLR and lens options
You’ve decided you want image quality sufficient to make larger prints and the versatility of different lenses. At the same time, you don’t want to take out a second mortgage to pay for a pro outfit or carry a lot of weight in the field. A group of cameras we’ll call “consumer” or “entry-level” DSLRs will meet these ambitions and get you started down the digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) creative route. These lower-priced but highly capable cameras can also be practical for photographers who work in precarious conditions. I remember that my late colleague, the adventure photographer Galen Rowell, often carried several lightweight, less-expensive consumer-level camera bodies at a time; as he climbed rock faces and trekked through the high country, cameras sometimes banged against boulders or sank in a stream. It was good to have a spare at hand.
Most examples in this tier have smaller imaging sensors than you’ll find in the higher-tier cameras. If you are photographing wildlife, you’ll appreciate the crop magnification (approximately 1.5x with APS-C, or 2x with the Micro Four Thirds) due to the smaller sensor, but if wide-angle is your primary focal length, this will be a detriment. Most have slower capture rates than “prosumer” cameras offer, and their construction is less resistant to moisture and dust.
It would be wrong to think that this group of cameras is not capable of taking excellent photographs. Because of all the technological advancements, today’s consumer cameras are comparable to prosumer cameras from just a few years ago. The sensors are quite good and resolution matches more expensive cameras in the next tier. You have the choice of using less-expensive consumer-grade lenses or moving up to better glass that covers a full-frame sensor in case you anticipate needing sharper, faster optics for low-light situations in the future.
Examples: Canon EOS Rebel series, Nikon D3500 through D7200.
Tier 3: Professional/Prosumer DSLRs
Now we’re getting serious
You don’t have to be a professional photographer to use professional equipment and photograph at a professional level. The term “prosumer” or “enthusiast” recognizes the large numbers of advanced amateur photographers who demand all the advantages of pro gear. That said, this group of cameras varies widely in terms of both features and price, ranging from around $1,500 up to $6,500.
So, what do you want to accomplish? Big landscapes? Those with a full-frame sensor offer higher resolution, up to 50 megapixels with capture rates of 5 frames per second in the Canon EOS 5DS R. Higher-resolution sensors are excellent for well-lit macro photography, but the smaller pixels are less sensitive for low-light situations.
Wildlife action and/or low light? There’s the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II (20.2 MP and up to 16 fps), the Nikon D5 (20.8 MP and 12 fps), the Nikon DX-format D7500 (20.9 MP and 8 fps), and Canon’s APS-C format EOS 7D Mark II (20.2 MP and 10 fps), to name a few.
Video and frame capture? All of these cameras will capture professional-quality video, with some at 4K, in a smaller package than specialized video cameras. But be aware—these great features, not to mention the pro-level lenses and accessories you’re going to want to use with them, come with a higher price, larger size and heavier weight. And, of course, if you’re into a variety of photographic endeavors, you’ll need at least two.
Tier 4: Pro/Prosumer Mirrorless Cameras
A different approach
Most of the camera manufacturers now offer one or more mirrorless models. For clarification, digital cameras without mirrors have been around for a while; many compact cameras are technically mirrorless. But the newer category of sophisticated mirrorless bodies that accept multiple lenses holds much interest to serious photographers, and the technology continues to evolve.
The current lineup includes cameras for photographers of all levels of experience and in a broad price range. Some photographers have migrated to mirrorless cameras because of a perception that they are smaller and lighter, which is not always the case. Initially, a limiting factor was the lack of resolution in the electronic viewfinder (EVF); that problem has been well resolved in the newer offerings. You can see your ongoing exposure in real time when working with the EVF, and it will be brighter in low light if the exposure is correctly set—what you see is what you get. Another advantage of the EVF is that you can shoot directly into the sun without damaging your eyes. Both HD and 4K video are available. Look for a model that offers an articulating rear LCD for much greater flexibility in positioning.
Mirrorless cameras are quieter than DSLRs, and some are actually silent, a real advantage in wildlife photography. The autofocus is more accurate because it is reading directly off the sensor. But in some models, the AF is slower than with DSLRs. With mirrorless cameras that have a good lens adapter, all of the compatible lenses from the same manufacturer will work perfectly; but in some cases, the lens adapters lose functions, and the selection of lenses dedicated specifically to mirrorless bodies is more limited than with DSLR systems that have decades of lens development behind them.
Examples: Canon EOS R, Fujifilm X series, Olympus and Panasonic Micro Four Thirds models, Nikon Z series, Sony Alpha series.
Tier 5: Pro Specialty Cameras
High res at high cost
In the digital realm, medium format is an expensive proposition. But if you need superior resolution equivalent to the results achieved by medium- and large-format film cameras, plus HD video, this is the answer.
Because of their size, weight and limited lens focal lengths, these cameras are typically used for museum, studio and landscape photography. Pentax’s 645Z and Fujifilm’s GFX 50S each have a large 43.8×32.9mm sensor (51.4 MP) compared to a 35mm full-frame (24x36mm). At a price of approximately $5,500 for the Pentax and $6,500 for the Fujifilm, they’re the least-expensive digital medium format cameras.
Hasselblad offers several 50MP and 100MP digital medium format cameras and digital backs. The X1D-50c ($6,495) is a lightweight mirrorless digital medium format camera with a 50 MP sensor, and at the very top of the pixel pile is the H6D-400C Multi-shot, with a 100 MP sensor that can, with still subjects and a tethered computer, capture and composite six shots into a 400 MP image. That’s only $48,000.
See Anything You Like?
No doubt about it—the digital realm holds every machine your heart could possibly desire. No matter your skill level, affinity for complexity, physical ability to carry gear or subject interest, you should be able to find a new camera that meets your criteria and feeds your creative impulses. This little discussion of what’s available should get you started; from here, you and the internet can figure this out.