Cameras & Camcorders Buying Guide

Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II

Olympus

Introduction

In today’s post, we’re going to discuss the different camera options that are available in today’s marketplace and briefly discuss the history that led to the current technologies. Unfortunately, there’s still plenty of confusion surrounding the various options available whenever purchasing a camera as first-time buyers. Our goal today is to clarify and remove this confusion to give you a full-proof strategy to access a camera to determine if it meets your specific needs. 

What is a camera? 

So what exactly is a camera, what are the distinguishing features between what’s in our smartphones today versus a dedicated standalone camera? 

At its core, a camera is a box with a piece of glass (a lens) in which light enters. Light enters through the lens and scatters onto the back wall. Inside the lens, are many pieces of glass which function to concentrate the diffused light. Once focused, it hits a light-sensitive material, which captures the light as a single exposure. Initially, the light-sensitive content was a piece of film. But, as time progressed, the film was later replaced with digital sensors and image processors.

The problem is, we need a way to stop the light from exposing the sensor to prevent overexposure. And this is where the shutter comes in. The role of the shutter, at its core, is to be a doorway to the incoming light. When the shutter button is depressed, the shutter opens for a small duration of time, exposing the sensor to light entering the lens. Okay. But, how do we control the amount of light entering the lens? We don’t want too much light to expose the sensor, and this is where the aperture comes in. Aperture controls the opening of a lens, and its size determines how much light enters at any given time. 

And those are the essential elements: lens, sensor, aperture, and shutter. 

inside-of-a-digital-camera-aperture-mirror-shutter-and-sensor

Great. Now that we have the essential elements covered, how do we compose our photographers using a camera? In comes the viewfinder. Essentially, what the viewfinder does at its core is transmit incoming light from the lens back into the viewer’s eye. Early iterations of viewfinders were initially separate from the lens. However, in the last century, these systems have evolved into the Single Lens Reflex and Mirrorless systems we see today.

And there you have it. Those are the necessary components of a camera. Our eyes function the same way. The only difference is that we cannot capture single moments indefinitely, and that’s where the origins of the camera comes into play. 

What are the four types of cameras available? 

With our understanding of what a camera is, now let’s discuss the major forms of cameras in today’s world. 

Compact Cameras (Point & Shoot)

Let’s start with compact (a.k.a Point & Shoot)  cameras. The main distinguishing characteristic of a compact camera is a camera with a fixed lens that retracts fully into the body of the camera when powered off.
 
Compact cameras are designed to be small, convenient, and optimized for the traveling photographer.
 
Though more compact than other camera types, they do experience several restrictions to functionality. Namely, they typically have more restrictive zoom ranges and smaller apertures, which means they naturally lack strong low light performance.
 
However, they make an excellent choice for the casual photographer who doesn’t need a substantial zoom range or strong low light performance. The budget level cameras in this camera do have smaller sensors than the other cameras of this list, which means image quality lacks compared to other larger cameras. Thankfully, larger sensors in this category do exist, though at a much higher price.
 

Bridge Cameras

The next category of cameras is bridge cameras. Bridge cameras are what we often see in major local department stores, but a class that in today’s market gets unfortunately overlooked. This camera category was designed to bridge the gap between compact cameras and DSLRs.

What distinguishes them from a compact camera is the fact that they have a single fixed lens, similar to ones found on DSLRs, that don’t retract into the body. With that, their lenses offer the advantage of having superior zoom ranges and wider apertures. However, they have lighter weight bodies than larger sized SLRs.

Overall, these are best for hobbyists looking for wider versatility not offered by smartphones and compact cameras, but not quite ready to jump to the professional level body yet.

Mirrorless Cameras

The next category is mirrorless cameras. Mirrorless cameras, like SLRs, are interchangeable lens cameras that make an excellent choice for those looking to upgrade from compact or bridge cameras. They offer equivalent performance to that of a DSLR, just in smaller sized bodies.

The only downsides to mirrorless are poor battery life and weaker autofocusing systems. The landscape over the last five years has changed dramatically; so known, poor autofocusing performance compared to similarity priced SLRs isn’t always applicable. However, battery life remains a notable drawback. Industry-standard for a mirrorless camera in this regard is 340 shots on a single charge, while SLRs typically fall between 700-1,000 images, quite a difference. 

Nonetheless, for the value and money spent, mirrorless cameras make an excellent and compelling system for those looking for more compact systems without a compromise in performance. 

Digital SLRs (Digital Single Lens Reflex)

The final category is the digital SLR. These cameras deliver the same image quality as competing mirrorless cameras.  However, they have a separate autofocusing system that strictly performs autofocusing, unlike a mirrorless camera, which relies on the image processor and sensor.

This system allows these cameras to be more responsive and remains part of the reason for their improved battery life, though this particular gap is closing as of 2019. If you’re aspiring sports, action, or wildlife photographer, these cameras make an excellent choice for those mediums. The only real drawbacks of this particular category are size, clustered autofocus points, and lack of beginner-friendly features.  

And there you have it. These are the available camera systems in today’s marketplace. Each of these groups best suite very different demographics of users. The best advice is to ask yourself the following: Do I need an all-in-one general-purpose camera, where I can use a single lens to zoom in and out? Then look into a compact or bridge camera system.

Am I looking for a more specialized kit, where I want the ability to swap lenses to shoot in specific situations? In this case, look at either mirrorless or DSLR. From there, go out and experience the camera to see where your particular preferences lie. 

What’s the difference between a Digital SLR and a Mirrorless camera?

Taking the next step in photography usually means upgrading from the cameras that are in our smartphones or from simple point and shoot cameras. Historically, this transition represented a migration towards digital SLR cameras.

With their interchangeable lens mounts, larger resolution sensors, comprehensive feature set, and overall professional-looking appeal. But, over the last decade, the mirrorless camera has evolved. They are now to a point where they rival all SLR flagships in both performance and usability.

Roughly 15 years ago is where we see the initial birth of this technology and its subsequent revolution in the photographic industry. Over the last seven years alone, they’ve captured a significant segment of the market, disrupting areas once dominated by SLRs. And, while they have not yet thoroughly replaced SLRs, they’re closely approaching. So then, what’s the big difference between Mirrorless and SLR? Below we explain the key differences. 

The primary distinction between a Mirrorless camera and an SLR is the presence of an internal mirror.  The SLR goes back to the film days in the mid-20th century. In an SLR, Single Lens Reflex, camera, the term “reflex” refers to the reflection of light.

When light enters through the lens of a reflex camera, it’s reflected off an internal mirror where it then passes up to the prism of the viewfinder. In this prism, the light reflects in the viewer’s eye, a technology that was far advanced for its time.

Earlier designs initially used a Twin Reflex design, which had two separate lenses. One of which was used to capture the image, the other was to focus. The challenge with the design, however, is that these two lenses were separate and slightly offset. This slight offset ultimately means what you see is somewhat different from what the camera captures, which affects the composition.

The introduction of the SLR fixed this issue by linking the viewfinder directly to the lens, simplifying the overall design. Now you can use a camera with a single lens and see what the lens sees without removing the film plate or the twin’s lens design. Initially, they were large and cumbersome in design as the mirrors had to be the same size as the film used. This change ultimately became a distinct selling feature over traditional rangefinder designs and their inevitable downfall.  

inside-of-a-digital-camera-aperture-mirror-shutter-and-sensor

So then, what exactly is a mirrorless camera? Why exactly would you choose one design over the other? 

Mirrorless technology removes the presence of the internal mirror. And, instead, replaces it with an imaging processor that works in conjunction with the sensor to interpret the captured light. Light passes directly through the lens to the sensor. At which point, it hits the image processor, which converts the data and presents it on the rear LCD or electronic viewfinder as a live display. The presence of this internal mirror is the main distinguishing feature between mirrorless and SLR technologies. While SLRs do have imaging processors themselves, they don’t translate and display the incoming image, which means they function differently.

That is unless you place the SLR in the “Live View Mode,” which disables the mirror and exposes the sensor to incoming light allowing it to act as a mirrorless camera. At this point, their functions become equivalent in all respects.

camera-aperture-shutter-sensor-and-image-processor

The initial niche of mirrorless cameras was that they were smaller and lighter alternatives to traditional DSLRs, better suited for traveling or casual photographers. The SLR was still the golden standard for those looking to upgrade and go professionally. But, as smartphones popularized, the future of mirrorless cameras changed as consumers opted for smartphones instead of compact cameras.

Progressively, this caused the compact consumer market to erode and transitioned these cameras over into performance. The size of the mirrorless camera grew steadily, so much that the size advantage over traditional SLRs has largely disappeared. Nonetheless, there are several accompanying advantages with mirrorless technology and the removal of the internal mirror over SLRs. 

Firstly, the inclusion of an electronic viewfinder allows photographers to preview the exposure before taking an image, which means what you see is what you get. Seeing the final image beforehand is a significant aid, especially for newer photographers, when first learning how to use cameras. Not only that, but a mirrorless camera delivers the same experience when switching between the rear screen and electronic viewfinder.

SLRs, on the other hand, typically produce faster focusing when composing via the viewfinder than on the rear screen. Secondly, you get a breadth of additional bonus features such as sensor stabilization, focus peaking, zebras, histograms, and manual focus assist, to name a few. Thirdly, removing the mirror allows the camera to be more compact and smaller in design yet still deliver the same quality. Unfortunately, the internal mirror is the primary reason traditional DSLRs are the size they are today. 

Initially, mirrorless cameras lacked the performance of rivaling SLRs. However, over the last decade, innovations in the industry have closed this gap. In today’s world, there are no differences in performance or image quality between mirrorless cameras and SLRs. The only remaining advantage in today’s marketplace is that SLRs have optical viewfinders. Optical viewfinders have no lag during continuous burst shooting, due to imaging processing, which is critical for sports or action photography.

While both mirrorless and SLR cameras do experience a short blackout when the shutter closes, mirrorless cameras tend to have latency, as well. That latency can be upwards of a 1/10 second, which is both noticeable and problematic when tracking complex action. With no lag, users can maintain proper composition without losing track of a subject. Outside of viewfinder blackout, differences between mirrorless and SLR cameras merely come down to personal preference in ergonomics, menu layout, and design, not performance.