Buying digital cameras is quite a different experience than it was a few years prior, now with the advent of smartphone photography. And we’ve seen an interesting shift in the market away from much of the lower-end range. Meanwhile, DSLRs are slowly taking a backseat to their smaller, lighter, and more portable mirrorless counterparts. Even so, you can still find a dedicated digital camera that will provide a substantial upgrade in image quality. All the while not breaking the bank in the process. And there’s plenty of options that’ll surprise you by their advantages, power, and flexibility over camera phones.
But, the market for digital cameras is vast these days. And there’s quite a broad range of options to narrow your search. So choosing the best camera will be tricky and a decision primarily based on your needs. You can opt for a point-and-shoot, mirrorless, or even a DSLR camera, all of which have their pros. But, there’s a world of difference between each in price, features, and capabilities. Thankfully, there are always some models that are easily the best amongst their competitors. So to aid in that search, we’ve compiled a detailed guide outlining the most important factors. And we’ve also compiled a list of the best digital cameras on the present market.
Jump to a Section
- 5 – GoPro HERO9 Black
- 4 – Olympus Tough TG-6
- 3 – Olympus E-M10 Mark IV
- 2 – Nikon D3500
- 1 – Sony a7 Mark III
- Buyers Guide
- How do digital cameras work?
- How to choose the best digital camera?
- Point & Shoot Cameras
- What should I look for when buying a camera?
- Image quality & quality of the Photos
- Beginner-friendly controls & Ease of Use
- Form factor
- Manual Control
- Interchangeable lenses
5 – GoPro HERO9 Black
Released in 2020, the Hero9 sports more power and versatility to up the standards in the action camera segment. It features a 23.6MP sensor, 1080p 240 FPS, 4K 60 FPS, and 5K 30 FPS video. It also has three lens options, from a fixed 27mm lens to a wide 16-34mm and a 19-39mm liner. Plus, it offers time-lapse, HDR, live streaming support, webcam support, a removable lens cover, and wireless connectivity.
With this ninth iteration comes a new design and updated displays. Now, the rear LCD is larger, and the front has a live preview function for capturing selfies and assessing camera information. This model also offers the Hindsight Mode, which captures 30 seconds of video prior, ensuring you never miss the action. But, thanks to the 5K resolution, you can now pull high-quality 14.7MP images from videos too. So, either way, capturing the action is an afterthought. Yet, the device remains waterproof to 10m natively, or you can up things to 60m with the optional housing making it ready for the deepest dives humanly possible.
Overall, GoPro’s Hero9 ups the action camera segment by boasting more resolution, features, and general versatility. And it proves action cameras are a formidable contender in today’s market.
4 – Olympus Tough TG-6
Released in 2019, the TG-6 is Olympus’ latest waterproof camera. It features a 12MP sensor, 1080p 240 FPS, and 4K 30 FPS video. It also has a 4x optical zoom 25-100mm lens, Live Composite, focus bracketing, focus stacking, HDR, timelapse, a 2x teleconverter, panorama, and wireless connectivity.
The TG-6 houses the fastest lens in the segment, with a supremely bright F/2 aperture. And, by comparison, it offers significantly better low light image quality and flexibility in dark scenes. Yet, this lens also offers unrivaled macro capabilities, letting you focus at 1cm throughout the entire zoom range. As such, it’s perfect for capturing small subjects’ underwater while remaining at a safe distance. The TG-6 also boasts class-leading burst performance, shooting at 20 FPS with unlimited images. So capturing fast action or movements is of little difficulty here. And it also does so with class-leading 4K video performance and an internal compass and GPS for perfect image geotagging.
Overall, the TG-6 is undoubtedly powerful. And despite the lacking zoom, it’s a brilliant compact camera that delivers functionality unmatched by its rivals.
3 – Olympus E-M10 Mark IV
Released in 2020, the E-M10 Mark IV is their latest release. It features a 20.3MP micro-four-thirds sized sensor, 1080p 120 FPS, and 4K 24 FPS video. It also has a tilting touchscreen, multi-exposures, image stabilization, HDR, Live Composite, panorama, time-lapse, and wireless connectivity.
The E-M10 Mark IV uses a 121-point AF system with similar software technologies as their flagship E-M1 Mark III. But, it also houses a redesigned sensor, which is now identical to the acclaimed Pen F, and dramatically improves its overall image quality. Like many Olympus cameras, it offers a wealth of art filters to give your images a sharp but highly unique flair. But, crucially, it’s one of few cameras in this class with image stabilization to compensate for handshake and produce sharper images in low light.
Overall, Olympus EM-10 Mark IV provides a high-end professional feature set. Yet, it remains supremely attractive and quite affordable.
2 – Nikon D3500
Released in 2018, Nikon’s D3500 is their latest entry-level DSLR that’s aimed squarely towards beginners. It features a 24MP sensor, 1080p 60 FPS video, and Bluetooth connectivity.
The D3500 uses an 11-point AF system with Nikon’s higher-end 3D and Dynamic Tracking functionality. These features let the autofocusing points work synergistically, increasing their precision. But crucially, the D3500 is one of a few entry-level DSLRs without an optical low pass filter. This filter reduces the camera’s fine detail, so without it, the D3500 out resolves most of its peer group in raw image quality. Instead, it offers image quality that matches Nikon’s flagship D500. Plus, the camera does so with a class-leading battery life of 1,550 shots on a single charge.
Overall, Nikon’s D3500 is straightforward indeed. But it’s a fan favorite given its exceptional battery life, ergonomics, and superior image quality.
1 – Sony a7 Mark III
Released in 2018, Sony’s A7 Mark III is their most popular release to date. It features a 24MP BSI sensor, 1080p 120 FPS, and 4K 30 FPS video. It also has a tilting touchscreen, image stabilization, dual card slots, weather sealing, headphone and microphone ports, and wireless connectivity.
The A7 Mark III uses a high-end 693-point autofocusing system, which matches Sony’s flagship a9 sports camera. And it offers full-time face and eye detection too. But, crucially, this third-generation model was the first to finally debut the larger Z-type battery, which finally brings much-needed battery life to mirrorless cameras. But, at 710 shots per charge, it holds the reins as the longest battery life of all cameras in its competing class.
Overall, the A7 Mark III is a powerful camera, given its affordability and performance. And it’s an excellent option for those wanting to jump to full-frame without breaking the bank midway through.
How do digital cameras work?
Digital cameras use an attached lens to focus light onto an imaging sensor, where this is the digital equivalent to an analog piece of film. The sensor has light-sensitive pixels, which capture red, green, or blue light. This light is then processed internally by the camera and combined to create an image. Image sensors vary in size, but, generally, the bigger, the better the resulting photos. And a larger sensor is why photographers eventually upgrade from point and shoot and smartphone cameras to other cameras.
How to choose the best digital camera?
When it comes to digital cameras, you have many options at your disposal. And you can find many sub-$100 cameras online. But, these cameras won’t provide the upgrade in image quality you’re genuinely seeking. As such, consider saving and spending to get a brand name model from a recognizable manufacturer. And look at the $200-400 price range. Here, you’ll get similar image quality as most flagship smartphones with more versatile lenses and more comfortable handling.
But, below, you will find a host of other considerations to keep in mind when looking for the best digital camera. And the types of cameras available today, with their appropriate pros and cons.
Point & Shoot Cameras
These cameras are ultra-compact and lightweight, making them well suited for traveling. And many of them are pocket-friendly too. However, they typically trade size and portability for their image quality. So, they’re generally not quite as good at producing high-end images as other cameras.
In this category, you’ll find two subsections, bridge cameras and compact cameras. Bridge cameras are point-and-shoots with a longer lens, somewhere around 30-100x. But, these cameras are substantially larger than most compact cameras, making them not quite as portable. Conversely, you can find premium compacts ranging in the thousands. And these cameras are equally portable, but they offer high-end features, namely larger sensors, and fast lenses, aimed at existing photography wanting something more lightweight.
Overall, point-and-shoots are a mixed bag in most situations. They’re incredibly convenient on the one end, given their size. But, they don’t offer much room for long-term growth and the best image quality for their price. Even so, they provide a superior zoom range and better autofocus than a smartphone, which is their real advantage.
Digital Single Len Reflex cameras are often the first cameras that come to mind when looking for a dedicated camera. And for most, it’s the default beginner’s camera. DSLRs offer excellent image quality, and they’re affordable and easy to use. The main trade-off, however, is that these cameras are rather large and bulky. And their size makes them a bit cumbersome while traveling. Even so, they do offer superior ergonomics, which becomes a key selling point over other cameras. And they’re usually the most rugged and robust cameras, making them a great choice for shooting outdoors in harsh conditions. But, they do have notably more limited autofocusing capabilities than comparable mirrorless cameras. So that does remain a critical drawback.
Mirrorless cameras are the new alternative cameras, with similar image quality and power as a DSLR. And they’re now quite affordable and equally easy to use. By design, these cameras are inherently smaller than DSLRs, which is great if you want more portability. But, it does make them a bit uncomfortable for those with larger hands. Even so, they’re much easier to travel with and substantially less bulky than a comparable DSLR. So the trade-off in form factor and ergonomics are worthwhile if portability is key to you.
So, which is best?
The best digital camera provides the right balance between features, ease of use, potential, and price point. And the best camera is one that’s convenient but holistic for continued growth.
Thus, the best digital cameras, in our opinion, are interchangeable lens cameras, be it a DSLR or a mirrorless camera. Both of these camera types offer larger sensors, improving their photos, and it’s their key advantage over point & shoot cameras. Point and shoot cameras are undoubtedly capable. But, long-term, a larger sensor camera offers the best value, given the marginal price difference.
What should I look for when buying a camera?
Now we’ll cover the factors to consider when looking for a digital camera. But, it’s important to understand, buying a camera isn’t about the camera itself. You’re also buying into the ecosystem, which includes lenses and accessories. And in many cases, purchasing a camera sometimes means that’s the ecosystem you’ll use long-term, given the expense involved. But, not all ecosystems are created equally, and some are more versatile than others. So it’ll pay dividends to take your time, do some research, then pick the right ecosystem that fits your needs best.
Additionally, consider what you want to photograph, as the best camera for you will vary based on the intended use. Some are more capable of adventure photography, others, landscapes or portraits.
But, let’s cover the factors to consider, from most important to least.
Image quality & quality of the Photos
Several factors combine to determine the quality of images a camera produces. But, as you get better as a photographer, you’ll realize the camera isn’t the sole determiner in a compelling photo. And experienced photographers will always capture better images, even with outdated cameras, than a beginner with the best flagship camera available.
Even so, there are several things to know. And easily, the most important is the role sensor size plays. The camera’s sensor size dictates how much light it sees, thus its low light image quality and the photos’ sharpness. A small sensor captures less light, and the less light it sees, the worse its photos. This reason alone is why most photographers desire an upgrade from a smartphone. Thankfully, DSLR and mirrorless cameras have sensors 1.6x larger than a phone, so you’ll see a huge image quality bump.
Next, you’ll want a camera with manual control, so you can change the aperture to alter the background blur. Manual control also plays an important role in photography, as it helps dictate what and how much is in focus. And it’s a key tool to control where your viewer’s eye goes throughout an image.
Lastly, resolution. 24-megapixels is the standard for resolution these days. And for most photographers, it’s more than enough resolution to print images and have flexibility in editing photos. More resolution is only required for commercial applications and extensive cropping. Otherwise, there’s no need to look for a high-resolution camera. Instead, focus on sensor size, ideally APS-C, and manual control. With these together, you’ll capture great images.
Beginner-friendly controls & Ease of Use
Photography takes time to master completely. And the last thing you want is an overcomplicated camera, which makes the process unnecessarily challenging and slightly intimidating. As such, you’ll want a camera that’s straightforward and easily mastered. Thankfully, the best digital cameras are ones with plenty of automatic modes that simplify capturing great images. Additionally, they have simple to use menus and an intuitive layout. So, in the beginning, they’ll help do the brunt of the work so that you can learn the fundamentals. Thankfully, most cameras offer fully automatic modes, even the most expensive and sophisticated models. So even if your budget allows a more expensive camera, you can still capture excellent images without mastering the technicalities. However, the budget-friendly option usually also have on-screen guides, tips, and visual aids. And they’ll help more on that front.
This is usually overlooked by most photographers. But, the form factor and the size of a camera are critical considerations. Every digital camera is different. And some are more compact than others. But, if you have small hands or want to stay light and mobile while about, you’ll want a small camera. And the last thing you want is something clunky that’s tedious to lug around and causes strain in the process. But, if that isn’t a problem, consider getting something larger, as you’ll feel more comfortable handling it that way.
We mentioned this above in the image quality section, but it’s important to reiterate. As you naturally master the basics, you’ll want more control over the photographic process than the automatic modes. And in these cases, having a camera with manual control is crucial.
But, there’s a paradox here. That is the more manual control offered, the less intuitive the camera becomes. And it also increases the general complexity of shooting. Even so, the freedom to configure the camera to your taste removes any artificial limits on your creativity.
But,it’s important to know not all cameras offer complete manual control. And not all cameras provide easy access to some parameters. Thankfully, the best digital cameras do and they strike an excellent balance between control and ease of use.
There’s only so much you can do with a fixed lens, regardless of its optical greatness. And eventually, you’ll like to explore other possibilities and angles. This is the moment interchangeable lenses come into play. An interchangeable lens camera lets you tailor the camera’s image quality as needed, from wide-angle landscapes to telephoto angles for sports. And it’s a long-term must-have, so you have utmost flexibility.