Buying a camera has never been more complicated: there are so many good options available, but picking between them can feel like a nightmare, especially if you’re just starting out with photography. It’s hard to buy a bad camera, but it’s not always easy to buy the right camera for you. Here’s what you should be thinking about.
DSLR vs Mirrorless
Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) cameras have been the main “good” camera for the past decade. They’re based off the same design as older film cameras which use a physical mirror inside the camera body to direct light to the viewfinder. Space-wise, it’s pretty inefficient.
In the past couple of years, mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras (normally just called mirrorless cameras) have become a lot better, and more popular. They use most of the same sensors and components as DSLRs, but with an electronic viewfinder. This means they’re a lot smaller and lighter.
There is a third category, too: Point-and-Shoot cameras, which were a lot more popular before the rise of smartphones. If you need something that is better than your phone and as compact as humanly possible, a point-and-shoot may be the right buy—but the money is almost certainly better spent on a DSLR or mirrorless camera in most cases. So, for that reason, we’ll be focusing on DSLRs and mirrorless cameras in this guide.
Right now, deciding between a DSLR and a mirrorless camera is the biggest decision you need to make when buying a new camera. Although DSLRs are nowhere near obsolete and still have the edge feature-wise, manufacturers are putting a lot of effort into making their mirrorless cameras better.
Here are some things to consider when choosing between DSLR and mirrorless:
- What features do you need? DSLRs have faster burst rates, better battery life, more lens options, and are just generally slightly better at everything that isn’t straight up taking photos. If you need the extra features a DSLR brings, then it’s the obvious choice. If you don’t, and want a smaller camera that’s easier to carry around, go mirrorless.
- What lenses do you already have? When you buy a camera, you’re not just buying the body, you’re also buying the system. Good lenses can last for decades so the choice you make now is going to affect what choices you can make in ten years time. I shoot with Canon DSLRs, so unless I want to sell all my lenses, any new camera I buy is also going to be a Canon DSLR. The same will apply if you’re a Nikon user. Keep in mind even mirrorless cameras have lenses nearly identical to DSLR ones.
- What will you actually carry? At the end of the day, size may make this decision easy for you. If having a big DSLR is going to make you want to carry the camera less, a mirrorless is going to be a better option. Remember, the best camera is the one you actually have with you.
- Which do you prefer? I’ve played around with some mirrorless cameras and to be honest, I absolutely hate the electronic viewfinders. That’s one of the biggest things that stops me jumping ship. Try and use both systems for a day or two and see which you like to use more.
Once you can answer these questions, you should be able to narrow the market down a lot by virtue of picking a DSLR or mirrorless camera.
What Manufacturer Should You Buy?
If you’re buying a DSLR, the main two manufacturers are Canon and Nikon. Sony, Olympus and Pentax also make great DSLRs, but they aren’t as popular, so you won’t get third-party lenses and accessories as easily.
If you’re buying a mirrorless camera, on the other hand, then Sony, Fujifilm and Olympus are currently leading the way. Canon and Nikon have been slow to move away from the DSLR market, although Canon’s EOS M5 released just this year has been getting great reviews.
To be honest, the differences between camera manufacturers are tiny. No one manufacturer is clearly the best with the others falling behind. If your photography is so good that the subtle variations in image quality between Canon and Nikon cameras are going to effect the photos you take, you don’t need to read this article!
Again, if you’re already invested in a system, then stick with that manufacturer. If not, then manufacturer isn’t going to help you narrow down your selection too much.
Full-Frame or Crop Sensor
The heart of every digital camera is its sensor, which is what actually takes the pictures. In general, the bigger the sensor, the better the photos, but the more expensive the camera will be. There are two main sensor sizes for DSLRs: 35mm (normally called full frame) and ASP-C (crop sensor). Mirrorless cameras come in full frame, ASP-C, and Four Thirds, which is smaller again.
If you’re buying your first camera, I’d recommend something with an ASP-C sensor. You won’t get a full frame camera for under $1500 secondhand, while you can pick up a decent ASP-C DSLR or mirrorless camera for half that price.
For most people, the benefits of full frame just aren’t worth the extra cost. Unless photography is part of your job, you have lots of disposable income, or you know you need the extra image quality and low light performance, you’re better off saving the money to spend on lenses.
Megapixels Don’t Matter
Surprise: It doesn’t matter how many megapixels your camera has. I genuinely don’t know what the sensor resolution of my Canon 5D MKIII is—it’s 20-something megapixels. All that matters is that it’s enough.
Once you get past 10 or 12 megapixels, you can shoot pixel perfect magazine covers and billboard ad campaigns. Any camera that’s been released in the last couple of years has more than enough megapixels for most people.
Consider Buying Used
Digital cameras go out of date very slowly. There are plenty of professional photographers shooting with cameras that are six years old and producing stunning work. Newer cameras don’t generally take much better photos, they just work in more extreme situations and have better burst rates, faster and more accurate autofocus, can shoot movies, come with Wi-Fi, and so on.
That means that as long as you’re prepared to lose out on the intense extra features, you can score some very good deals on secondhand cameras. If you’re on a limited budget and want to go full frame, or just want to save some money, it can be a good option.
I still use my five year old Canon 650D (released as the Canon Rebel T4i in the US) from time to time and it’s a great camera. Canon has updated the line twice since then—the current model is the 750D or Rebel T6i—and hasn’t changed that much. The sensor has gone from 18 to 24 megapixels and there are more autofocus points, but the images they make are still really similar. You can pick up a 650D for less than $400 secondhand; I can’t think of a brand new DSLR that’s as good for that price.
So, before you buy, think about whether you really need the stuff a new camera offers. Fast autofocus and Wi-Fi are awesome, but they’re extras. not essentials. Some photographers will need them while others won’t. Do you need a warranty, or are you happy taking a risk on a secondhand camera? If you’ve got the money, it’s obviously better to buy new, but you can get more camera for your money buying used.
A Few Recommendations
Even with the above things in mind, you’ll probably end up overwhelmed by the selection. If you need a good starting point, here are a few good options we recommend.
For mirrorless cameras, I’d go with either the Sony a5100 (The Wirecutter’s best mirrorless for beginners) or the Olympus OM-D E-M10 II (Wirecutter’s pick for best mid-range mirrorless and highly recommended by DPReview for its bang-for-the-buck). I’ve played with both and much preferred the Olympus; if you’ve got the extra $100 that separate the two, it’s well worth it.
Once you’re going past entry level gear, the prices start to jump, but so does the quality. The Canon 5D Mark IV, Nikon D810, and Sony A7 line are all used by professionals around the world, so if you have the money and want a boost in quality, you can’t go wrong with any of them.
And don’t forget: If you want to buy any of these used, don’t just search for the recommended model—search for its predecessor models, too, which will be almost as good for less money.
There’s a lot to think about when you’re buying a camera and I’ve covered some of the major decisions in this article. The good news is that it’s actually hard to go wrong—modern cameras are pretty good across the board. Developing your eye for good photos will make a much bigger difference in your photos than the difference between two DSLRs.