Don Douglas Photography

How to choose your digital camera: brand? Reflex, bridge, compact or hybrid?

The purpose of this article is therefore to make a kind of “ultimate guide” to help you choose a camera. As I don’t want it to expire in 15 days with the release of a new camera, I won’t make a comparison and I won’t recommend ONE model in particular, but on the contrary I will try to guide you in your choice without turning me into a mother either: you are adults, it’s up to you to make the final choice of your camera according to what’s most important for you.

So I will start by explaining the 4 main camera families, the 3 most important criteria for choosing one, and finally a step-by-step method for choosing the final model.

The type of camera: compact, bridge, hybrid or SLR

First of all, I’m willing to bet that you did your own research before you came across this blog, and that you’ve already heard about these 4 types of devices, so what are the differences between these 4 big families, their advantages, and their disadvantages?

Compact cameras

Budget: from 70 to 500€

Advantages :

  • Small size (can be put in the pocket)
  • Affordable financially

Disadvantages :

  • Small sensor size (we come back to it)
  • So inability to achieve a low depth of field(background blur)
  • Often made bad in low light (e. g. indoors)
  • Relatively low dynamics (difficulty to obtain a good rendering in contrasting situations)
  • Lack of responsiveness (both in terms of focus and shutter speed)
  • Non-interchangeable lens
  • Aimed at per screen in most cases

There are also more expert compact units, in which it is not necessarily easy to find your way around: some have small sensors, others already larger sensors (1 inch or even micro 4/3!), and more advanced functions, with variable prices. Some top-of-the-range models are quite credible cameras, but I always recommend a camera with an interchangeable lens at this price, to have more possibilities in the future.

Bridge cameras

Budget: from 200 to 350€

Advantages :

  • More zoom than on compact models
  • Presence of a viewfinder in most cases

Disadvantages :

  • All the disadvantages of compact cars
  • Larger footprint than compact

Despite its “small reflex mouth”, the bridge is often closer to a compact: non-interchangeable lenses, limited settings, relatively poor optical quality. Supposed to be a compromise between compact and reflex, I have the feeling that bridge is only a way to make the user move from compact to reflex smoothly, while leaving a few euros on the way. At the price of entry-level reflexes and bridges, it seems to me that bridge is an investment that will not last, and less interesting than a good compact in my opinion (which at least allows you to keep it everywhere on you).

DSLR cameras

A SLR camera consists of two parts: the body first, what you hold in your hand, with the shutter release, the screen, and the adjustment buttons. It is important in terms of ergonomics and adjustment capabilities, but what makes the image quality is the objective! If you combine a very high-end camera with a first price lens, you will get poor quality images, while a high quality lens on an entry-level camera will give you very satisfactory results.

These two parts of the camera being independent, this means that you can change your lens depending on the situation. Indeed, even without having any photo knowledge, you can imagine that it takes different lenses to photograph a tiny insect on a flower, a portrait or even slightly shy birds that stay at a long distance.

Objectives can sometimes be quite expensive, but they are a long-term investment and allow you to take the pictures you want. But rest assured, to begin with, the objective of the kit is more than enough, as long as it is of high quality! If you want to acquire another objective later on, I advise you to turn to my guide for purchasing an objective.

Budget: from 400€ to infinity

Advantages :

  • Large sensor (from entry-level):
  • Possibility to achieve shallow depth of field (pretty background blur)
  • Better rendering in low light
  • Good sensor dynamics (better management of contrasting situations)
  • Interchangeable lens:
    • Specialized objective for each occasion, which delivers the best possible result
  • Better trigger and focusing responsiveness than bridges and compact units
  • Systematic optical viewfinder: you see what you are photographing directly, without the need for an electronic intermediary (screen or electronic viewfinder)

Disadvantages :

  • Size quite large (depending on the range of the camera and the lens chosen)
  • Interchangeable lens:
    • More expensive
    • More cumbersome
  • Difficult to obtain good image quality and low-light rendering with a 18-200mm or 18-300mm zoom (which reproduces the zoom range of a bridge)

Hybrid (or “compact with interchangeable lenses”) cameras

I will end with hybrids, because it is more complicated for you to decipher, especially since they have not really been in use as long as the others. Basically the manufacturers’ idea was to combine the advantages of SLRs (large sensor, good image quality, interchangeable lenses) with those of compact cameras (small size, low weight). Hence the name “compact with interchangeable lenses”.

This is in theory, in practice it is more complicated, to such an extent that it is difficult for me to put advantages/disadvantages as for other families. Indeed, there are many different models, which are not equivalent at all:

  • Compact with interchangeable lenses (COI) but with a small sensor size, and therefore lose many of the advantages of SLRs (but become more compact)
  • Cameras with a large sensor, but with a fixed lens (not interchangeable). They are not really compact in the strict sense of the word for me, because they are often more professional oriented and with an excellent wide-aperture lens, usually in fixed focal length.

Here is what can be summarized as the advantages and disadvantages common to all hybrids or similar:

  • Compactness (does not fit in the pocket, but in a small bag)
  • Often but not always a large sensor, with the associated advantages (shallow depth of field, low-light rendering and contrasting situations)
  • Good reactivity (better than compact and bridges, equivalent or slightly below reflexes)
  • If applicable, interchangeable objectives with their advantages and disadvantages
  • Presence of an electronic viewfinder on some models

Budget: from 400€ to infinity (or almost)

Well, as you can see, it’s a good thing for us, because half of the characteristics depend on the models. But that’s okay, that’s why the rest of the article is here! 🙂

The main criteria for choosing a camera

After this essential clarification (pun! ! :D), I will be able to explain to you what are the essential criteria to look for when you buy a camera, especially your first “serious” camera.

Indeed, I guess if you’re here, it’s because you don’t just take pictures with your friends in the evening and 3 pictures on vacation. In this case, frankly, buy a compact, it will be enough! 🙂 But if you are looking to make beautiful artistic photos, or even to professionalize yourself, choosing according to the criteria below is essential.

Creative modes

What is very important is that you can make precise adjustments to the technical characteristics of the camera such as aperture, shutter speed, ISO sensitivity, white balance, etc. Without going into details here, these settings are important for getting good shots and special effects that help you express yourself when photographing.

(Idoesn’t fit into the jargon any more:these terms are essential to know, and for that click on the links of the articles for more details 😉)

THE most important criterion is therefore that your device allows you to access the creative modes – Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and Manual modes. They are really very important to control your images. Most devices offer them, but you have to be careful with the cheap compact ones.

In addition, you will see that in use, it is much more comfortable to have a dedicated wheel that allows you to change modes easily. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a purchasing criterion for a device: if the wheel is not present, I don’t buy.

Warning: some devices allow access to these modes via menus, including among hybrids. As far as I’m concerned, it bothers me, but this is personal 🙂

The RAW format

If you have already read the blog correctly, you probably know the importance I attach to using the RAW format. It is really very important for the final quality of your images to go through the post-processing phase, which is much more flexible with this format. For me, its presence is therefore an essential criterion if you are buying a serious device.

If you turn to hybrids or reflexes, you will have the RAW, but this will not always be the case on bridges and compact: make sure that they offer it if you turn to these solutions.

The size of the sensor

The two previous criteria are essential and non-negotiable, especially since they are not complicated to meet, even for fairly tight budgets.

But there is one criterion that is really important for many things:

  • the quality of the images
  • the versatility of the device
  • your creative possibilities

If you have read the first part correctly, you must guess it: it is the size of the sensor. Be careful, I am talking about the physical size of the sensor, not the number of megapixels (which is still sufficient today). If you want details on this, I refer you to my article on the subject, but to summarize, a large sensor will allow you several very nice things:

  • Achieve shallow depths of field, i.e. a pronounced and aesthetic background blur. You won’t have to have it on all your images, it’ll just be possible. This is an effect sought by many photographers, especially for portraits, but it can be used creatively in all fields. Without a large sensor, don’t even think about it.
  • Second kiss cool effect: better rendering in low light. A large sensor will generate less noise and better quality images when you run out of light (i.e. quite often in reality).
    Exception all the same: if you compare a small sensor today to a large sensor from 6 years ago, the most recent one could be better. But for the same generation, the large sensor beats the small one flatly!
  • Similarly, a large sensor has a greater dynamic range than a small one. This is a criterion that is almost never mentioned in comparisons, but which is nevertheless very important: a great dynamic will allow you to better manage the high contrast lighting situations like a very bright sky in the middle of the summer afternoon. Be careful, no miracle either if you photograph with the sun in front of you! But you will see the difference between a compact and a SLR for example. For more details, also watch my video on sensor dynamics 😉

My big buying advice is to direct you to a large sensor device if your budget allows it. It’s always better, unless you really want to take it in your pocket (and again, there are smaller and smaller hybrids).

What is a large sensor?

So you’re going to tell me: “What exactly do you call a big sensor? “». That’s a very good question! For me, a great sensor is, in descending order:

  • a Full Frame
  • an APS-C
  • a 4/3 microphone

Smaller than that, it is in my opinion too small to offer a real difference compared to bridges and compact, which in the vast majority of cases have really ridiculous sensors (except recent and expensive models like the Sony RX1 for example).

To make it simple:

  • All SLRs (even entry-level) have a large sensor. APS-C for most, Full Frame for the older ones.
  • For hybrids, some have an APS-C sensor, which is the same size as most SLRs. This is the case with Sony NEX, Samsung NX, EOS M, and several cameras whose lenses are not interchangeable like some Fuji.
    Disadvantage: for technical reasons, the objectives remain quite large, and therefore they are far from slipping into the pocket.
  • Other hybrids have a 4/3 micro sensor, which is a little smaller and still has excellent possibilities. There is the Panasonic G and Olympus PEN series. They had a good idea: to gather around a table to agree on the same standard. Big advantage for you: the micro 4/3 lenses of the 2 brands are compatible with the micro 4/3 cameras of the 2 brands, so you have access to many more different lenses.
    The advantage of this slightly smaller sensor is that the objectives are also smaller, especially those called “pancakes”, and therefore the whole thing is clearly more compact.
  • Finally, there are other IOCs that have sensors too small to be of real interest in the compact ones in my opinion (which will remain less cumbersome thanks to their retractable lens). This is the case, for example, with Nikon 1 or Pentax Q.

Here, then, you have understood the main essential criteria in choosing your camera. You will already be able to eliminate a lot of options, by doing some online research: it is very easy to type”[name of your device] sensor size” in Google to find out what its size is (again, I am not your mom, I will not do it for you 😉).

But you still haven’t come to a final choice, as Lauriane said in her email.

How to choose the device model: step-by-step method

Now that you have understood the ins and outs, you will see that it will be much easier here, and almost automatic. We will use an online comparison from now on, since we have our main criteria in mind. I recommend the Digital ones, it works well 🙂

The brand

First of all, I would like to draw your attention to a very important point: it is useless to get too caught up in the head. For the same range, 2 cameras of different brands are often just as good as each other, and will not make any fundamental difference in your photography practice. What I mean is that a 200€ compact from one brand or another will often be about the same. Ditto if you hesitate between 2 entry-level reflexes from Canon or Nikon. I will come back to this, but it seems important to me to clarify it now.

If you want to know more about what I think about the choice of the brand, you can read my article “Choosing your first reflex: croissant or chocolate bread?”, it should make you relax 😉

The budget

  • Below 150-200€: choose a good compact, well rated on the Digital ones. You don’t have to worry about it.
  • About 300€ (or even 400€ when selling a kidney): think about second-hand options. You will find reflexes (or even hybrids) 2 to 3 years old, which work very well and will be enough to start with. You will probably be much happier with it than a brand new bridge or compact. Don’t be fooled by things like wi-fi, GPS and so on: it’s frankly not essential.
  • Over 400-500€: choose a SLR or hybrid. Even at the beginning of the range, you will really enjoy it.

Hybrid or reflex?

That’s the question you’re asking yourself a lot today. Clearly, many hybrids have achieved a quality equivalent to SLRs. However, a small footprint is always a big advantage (footprint, weight, travel and travel, discretion, etc.). So in which situations should you still choose a reflex? As always, it depends on your needs and your photography practice.

In my opinion, reflex is essential in the following practices:

  • Animal photography: you will need a long telephoto lens and a good balance with the body, which hybrids cannot offer.
  • Sports photography: for the moment, SLRs still have the advantage in terms of reactivity, which is essential in this discipline. The gap is likely to be reduced to zero in the coming years, but this is still the case in 2014.
  • The photo of shows (concerts, etc.): the handling, ergonomics and reactivity of reflexes remain for me essential in this discipline. But high-end hybrids are starting to compete!
  • To a lesser extent, the macro: the range of macro lenses is often reduced on hybrids, so make sure you have what you need before you buy.

And that’s all! For everything else (landscape, portrait, everyday life, architecture, street photography, travel, etc.), you will not see any fundamental difference in the rendering between hybrid and reflex. Especially if the sensor size is the same.

So it’s really a matter of personal preference: some will favour a small footprint to be able to take the device everywhere, and others will prefer something bigger for a better grip. Now it’s up to you!

How to choose between the 2 or 3 finalists?

Normally, at this stage, you will have 2 or 3 cameras that tempt you, without being able to choose: you have kept the cameras that correspond to the 3 main criteria mentioned above, you have filtered with your budget, you have chosen between hybrid and SLR. And you still have 2 hybrids or 3 SLRs left at the same price, looking at the top rated cameras on the comparison sites. And you have no idea of the differences between them, despite reading many tests or comparisons.

Well, good news: there are few of them! As I said above, for the same range, there are relatively few differences between competing devices. An Olympus PEN and a Panasonic GF of the same generation are quite close. Ditto for Canon and Nikon SLR cameras of the same range.

So there’s no answer to “is the Nikon Thing better than the Canon Truc? “» ! 😉

My best advice here is to take them in hand in store: look at which one you feel most comfortable with. Handle the device, see if you can easily find the settings, if the menus are intuitive for you, if it “falls into your hands”. It’s a bit like looking for an apartment after all: you have a crush or not. It may seem trivial to you, but it’s really very, very important to have an intuitive grip: it will make it easier for you to take pictures, and the pleasure of taking pictures.

This first-hand experience will also allow you to notice small details that you may have missed in the tests, but that are important to you:

  • the presence of a viewfinder
  • a swivelling screen

These criteria are really very personal, personally I don’t find the swivel screen important, but you have the right to take this into consideration 😉