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Which type of digital camera should you choose?

By Ryan Shaw

A good-quality camera will make a real difference to your photos. But should you buy a compact, DSLR, compact system or bridge camera?

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The best cameras take fantastic photos in every situation, whether you’re on holiday, at a family gathering or just enjoying a day out. But it's important to choose the right type of camera for your needs, level of expertise and how much control you want over your photos to get the best results.

With cameras available from well-known brands such as Canon, Nikon, Olympus and Sony, there are plenty to choose from for all budgets.

However, there are big differences in picture quality, advanced features and how easy they are to use. So if you want to find the best camera for your needs, read on for our advice on key factors to consider.

Just want to see which digital cameras we recommend? Take a look at our Best Buy compact cameras, bridge cameras and DSLR cameras, including compact system models.

What type of camera should you buy?

There are four main types of digital camera: compact, bridge, DSLR and compact system cameras. The latter two have interchangeable lenses. The type you go for will depend on a number of factors, including what you want to photograph or film, how portable you want it to be and the image quality you're looking for. There is also an element of personal preference, too.

If you don't know which camera type you want, our descriptions and advice below can help.

Compact camera 

Typically called a point-and-shoot, a compact camera is small enough to carry in a pocket or small bag. The best compact cameras offer a good compromise between features and price, proving great photographic all-rounders. Choose the wrong model and you can end up with a flimsy camera that takes out-of-focus snaps.

Pros: Lightweight and easy to carry, simple to use, automatic shooting modes are perfect for beginners, inexpensive.
Cons: Buttons can be small and fiddly. Most models lack a viewfinder.
Buy if: You’re a beginner, or you want better-quality photos than your smartphone camera.

Watch our video above to find out how to choose the best model. Or see our compact camera reviews to find the ideal point-and-shoot camera for you.

  • Waterproof camera

This is a sub-type of compact camera. Waterproof and shockproof, these are very tough cameras built to withstand the outdoors.

If you want to take pictures anywhere wet, whether the beach, by a waterfall or just out in the great British weather, a compact waterproof camera is worth considering. They’re built inside a waterproof, dustproof and usually shockproof casing, meaning you can take them to the pool, to the beach, snorkelling or even scuba diving and still get good shots. They will work at depths of up to 15 metres, although 10 metres will be good enough for all but the keenest divers.

Pros: Easy to use, extremely tough. Can be used in outdoor conditions where other cameras fear to tread.
Cons: Limited zoom. Can be more expensive than a typical compact camera.
Buy if: If you want to experience the best of the outdoors.

We pick the top waterproof cameras that can handle the rough and tumble, plus take a high-quality photo.

Bridge camera

A popular halfway house between a compact camera and a DSLR camera. They offer more advanced features than you get from a compact camera, and typically aren't quite as advanced or expensive as a system camera (these include DSLRs and compact-system cameras). This is due to their fixed-lens set-up, which offers excellent zoom capabilities without having to change camera lenses. They are a budget-friendly compromise if you want to add a professional sheen to your holiday shots.

Pros: Great all-rounder cameras, huge zoom ranges and more manual controls. Viewfinder is also often built in.
Cons: Compact sensor falls short of DSLR/compact system camera (CSC) standards. Lenses are fixed and not interchangeable.
Buy if: Photography is your newfound hobby, or you want an all-in-one camera.

To explore the differences between compact and bridge cameras and decide which one is right for you, use our choosing tool below.

Bridge camera reviews - find the best for your budget

Compact system camera

If you want superior image quality and interchangeable lenses, without the bulk of a DSLR, a compact system camera - also known as a mirrorless camera - is a solid choice. Smaller and technically more advanced than a DSLR, they offer professional-level features, such as 4K video or fast continuous shooting. However, they don’t have as many lenses or accessories available compared with DSLRs.

Pros: Lighter and more compact than a DSLR, in-camera image stabilisation, fast shutter and autofocus speed, quieter, better for video recording.
Cons: Fewer choices in lenses and accessories when compared with DSLR cameras.
Buy if: You travel frequently, don't want to compromise on quality and want to carry extra lenses.

Read our mirrorless camera reviews to find an affordable and versatile solution.

DSLR camera

If you want to have more professional control over your photography and the best possible picture quality, there’s no substitute for a DSLR camera. Also referred to as digital SLR (single-lens reflex) cameras, DSLRs tend to be expensive but they are very flexible, allowing you to change lenses to suit and control every aspect of your photography.

Pros: Large image sensor means more detailed photos, wide range of interchangeable lenses and accessories, features plenty of manual controls (aperture, shutter speed and ISO levels).
Cons: More expensive than other camera types, can be bulky in size and harder to hold in one hand, learning curve can be a little steep.
Buy if: Professionalism is what you want from your photos.

See our DSLR camera reviews if you looking for first-class image quality.

How much do you need to spend on a camera?

As with most technology products, how you use your digital camera will determine how much you’ll need to spend. If you’re looking to take occasional photos and videos, you can get by with just a point-and-shoot camera. But if you're more of a serious photographer or you're looking to print your photos larger than A4 size, it’s recommended that you look at a bridge, DSLR or compact system camera for the best results.

Compact camera prices range from £60 for a cheap point-and-shoot model to around £500 for a top-of-the-line camera. The average price for a Best Buy compact camera is £320, but you can still find a top-rated compact model for around £225. Best Buy waterproof cameras range from £149 to £300.

You can find bridge cameras for less than £200, but spending more will get you a larger or more capable sensor and a longer or more versatile zoom lens. Our Best Buy bridge cameras start at £500 and go up to £1,800.

System cameras, such as mirrorless/compact system cameras and DSLRs, cost anywhere from £300 for an entry-level model, up to an eye-watering £5,000 and beyond for high-end cameras. Our Best Buy system cameras range from £400 to £2,300, although that buys you the kind of camera that professional photographers aspire to.

What makes a good digital camera?

Whether you’re after a simple point-and-shoot compact camera or a more advanced digital SLR camera, our expert advice can help you choose from the hundreds available.

Thanks to our rigorous lab testing, we can help you buy the right model with our essential camera buying tips. 

  • Megapixels (Mp) A higher megapixel count is no guarantee of quality when it comes to actual results, however, even a 5Mp camera can produce good prints at 4x6, 5x7 or 9x10 inches – the kind that easily fit in a photo frame. Most cheap digital cameras offer at least 14Mp.
  • Zoom When you want to zoom in on faraway subjects, such as a lighthouse, the optical zoom range is most important. With optical zoom, a camera’s lens magnifies an image for much sharper results – 5x optical zoom is the minimum acceptable standard. In comparison, digital zoom enlarges the pixels in an image as the shot is taken, reducing the quality of the shot.
  • Sensor sizes This is one of the most important factors when purchasing a camera – the larger the sensor, the more light it can let in, which results in more detailed photos and video. Of all the camera types, DSLRs have the largest sensor size and, typically, better image quality. For more details on the importance of sensor size, see camera sensor sizes explained.
  • Build quality Some digital cameras may be pocket-sized and lightweight, but you shouldn’t have to settle for one that feels flimsy. Be sure to choose a camera with a metal or high-density plastic casing. Also look for solid, well-placed buttons. Additionally, if you plan to use your camera out in the elements, look for a model that has weather-resistant casing (also called weather sealing).
  • Manual controls As you grow in confidence with your photography, you’ll want to step away from the automatic settings and explore the manual controls of the camera. Typically seen in bridge, mirrorless and DSLR cameras, settings such as aperture, ISO levels and shutter speed allow for more control over the creative elements to your photos.
  • Image stabilisation This helps reduce any blurriness in photos that’s caused by shaky camera movement. Some models have stabilisation built into the camera, while other camera types choose to build it into the lens. The best digital cameras will produce sharp and crisp images regardless of how difficult they were to capture.
  • Lenses For cameras with interchangeable lenses, your lens choice is just as important as the camera you choose. High-quality optics and build quality will provide the best image results and, with different lenses optimised for different shooting scenarios, it’s worth considering what you want to shoot before purchasing. Additionally, each camera brand has its own lens mount, so you’ll have to check that the lens is compatible with your camera before buying.
  • Wireless connectivity Most digital cameras now offer a wireless connection type, such as Bluetooth, wi-fi or both, built in to wirelessly transfer photos or videos to your mobile phone or tablet. Most manufacturers also offer free apps to partner up with your camera; some even allow you to use your phone as a remote control, so you can be in the family portrait, too.
  • Low-light photo quality A poor digital camera will offer fuzzy low-light photos with imbalanced colours and little detail. Better models don't suffer so much in tough conditions.
  • Recording video Just like still image quality, video recording depends on the camera type and the type of subjects you’ll be recording the most. Compact and bridge cameras are great for recording everyday activities, such as birthdays and holidays but, for best results, consider a mirrorless (compact system) or DSLR camera that provides professional-quality 4K Ultra-HD and even 6K video.

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