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Updated: 7 Mar 2022

Which type of digital camera should you choose?

A good-quality camera will make a real difference to your photos. But should you buy a compact, DSLR, compact system or bridge camera?
Jake Massey
How to buy the best digital camera 1

The best cameras take fantastic photos in every situation, whether you’re on holiday, at a family gathering or just enjoying a day out. 

However, there are big differences in picture quality and advanced features, and not every digital camera is easy to use – something to consider if you're a beginner. If you want to find the best camera for your needs, read on for our expert advice on the key factors to consider.

Just want to see which digital cameras we recommend? Take a look at our independent digital camera reviews.

What type of digital camera should you buy?

There are four main types of digital camera: compact, bridge, DSLR and mirrorless cameras. DSLRs and mirrorless models 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. 

Compact camera features

Typically called a point-and-shoot, a compact camera has a fixed lens and is small enough to carry in a pocket or small bag. 

The best compact cameras offer a good compromise between features and price, and are often ideal all-rounders. But choose the wrong model and you can end up with a flimsy camera that takes out-of-focus snaps.

Pros of compact cameras:

  • lightweight, compact and easy to carry 
  • simple to use with an LCD screen for composition
  • include automatic shooting modes, which are perfect for beginners
  • often inexpensive

Cons of compact cameras:

  • buttons can be small and fiddly
  • most models lack a viewfinder

Buy a compact camera if: 

You’re a beginner or you want better-quality photos than your smartphone camera can provide. 

See our digital camera reviews to find the best point-and-shoot camera for you.

Waterproof camera features

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

If you're going to be taking pictures anywhere near water, whether that's while you're relaxing on the beach, paddle boarding on a river or just when you're out walking on a wet day in the UK, a compact waterproof camera is worth considering. 

They’re built inside a waterproof, dustproof and usually shockproof casing. This means you can take them to the swimming pool and the seaside, or even while you're snorkelling or scuba diving

Most waterproof cameras will work at depths of down to 15 metres, although 10 metres should be good enough for all but the keenest divers. The best cameras still take great photos when you've taken the plunge. 

However,  not all waterproof cameras cope when they find themselves in the deep end. During our tests we found a few waterproof cameras that didn't perform well. The picture quality was so bad you might as well do without. 

Waterproof camera features

Pros of waterproof cameras:

  • easy to use with simple controls
  • extremely tough
  • can be used in outdoor conditions where other cameras fear to tread

Cons of waterproof cameras:

  • limited zoom
  • can be more expensive than a basic compact camera
  • picture quality isn't the best

Buy a waterproof camera if: 

You want to experience the best of the great outdoors – and capture memories of your adventures.

We pick the best waterproof cameras that can handle any rough and tumble, plus take high-quality photos.

Bridge camera features

Bridge cameras are halfway between a compact camera and a DSLR. They have more advanced features (such as manual controls to change ISO, shutter speed and aperture) than you get from a basic compact camera, but typically aren't quite as advanced or expensive as DSLRs and mirrorless cameras. This is because of their fixed-lens setup, although the best bridge cameras will have an excellent zoom. 

Bridge cameras are a lower-priced compromise if you want to add a professional sheen to your shots.

Bridge camera features

Pros of bridge cameras

  • great all-round camera 
  • huge zoom range and more manual controls
  • viewfinder often built in

Cons of bridge cameras:

  • compact sensor falls short of DSLR/mirrorless standards
  • lenses are fixed and not interchangeable

Buy a bridge camera if: 

Photography is your new-found hobby, or you want an all-in-one camera.

To find the best bridge camera for your budget, read our bridge camera reviews.

Mirrorless camera features

If you want superior image quality and interchangeable lenses, without the bulk of a DSLR, a mirrorless camera (also known as a compact system 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.

Mirrorless camera features

Pros of mirrorless cameras:

  • lighter and more compact than a DSLR 
  • in-camera image stabilisation
  • fast shutter speed and continuous shooting speed
  • quieter than a DSLR
  • often better for video recording

Cons of mirrorless cameras:

  • fewer choices in lenses and accessories compared with DSLR cameras
  • if using sensor-based autofocus, tracking moving subjects can be slow

Buy a mirrorless camera if: 

You travel frequently, don't want to compromise on quality and want to carry extra lenses.

Read our mirrorless camera reviews to find the best model for your budget.

DSLR camera features

If you want your photography to have that professional touch and you're keen for 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 bulky, but they're also very flexible – allowing you to change lenses to suit and control every aspect of your photography.

DSLR camera features

Pros of DSLR cameras:

  • wide range of interchangeable lenses and accessories
  • plenty of manual controls (aperture, shutter speed and ISO levels)
  • traditionally have faster autofocus and tracking subjects (although this is changing) 

Cons of DSLR cameras:

  • more expensive than other camera types
  • can be bulky and hard to hold in one hand
  • learning curve can be a little steep

Buy a DSLR camera if: 

You want the best professional-looking photos possible.

See our DSLR camera reviews if you're looking for a camera that captures images of the highest quality. If you're interested in finding more out about how DSLR cameras compare with mirrorless cameras, read our guide - mirrorless vs DSLR cameras: what's the difference?

How much do you need to spend on a camera?

Compact cameras

Compact camera prices range from £60 for a lower-priced point-and-shoot model to around £1,200 for a top-of-the-line camera. The average price for a Best Buy compact camera is £805, but you can also find a top-rated compact model for around £450. 

We've rounded up our best cheap compact cameras - these are models that cost less than £200. 

Waterproof cameras

The best waterproof cameras range from £149 to £399, and you'll find decent bridge cameras for less than £200. Spending more will generally get you a larger or more capable sensor, and a longer or more versatile zoom lens. Our best bridge cameras start at £500 and go up to £1,500.

System cameras, including mirrorless and DSLRs

System cameras, such as mirrorless/compact system cameras and DSLRs, cost anywhere from around £300 for an entry-level model, up to an eye-watering £5,000 and beyond for high-end cameras. 

Our Best Buy mirrorless cameras range from £650 to £4,199 – the top end buys you the kind of camera that professional photographers aspire to.

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What makes a good digital camera?

  • 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 lower-priced 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 buying 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 tend to 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 might 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 premium compact, 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 to reduce any blurriness in photos that’s caused by shaky camera movement. Some models have stabilisation built into the camera, while other camera types have it built into the lens. Some even have both, which work together to keep shots blur-free. 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. 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 photograph before buying. Additionally, each camera brand has its own lens mount, so you’ll have to check that the lens is compatible with your camera before you buy.
  • 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. There's also live view, which lets you view exactly what the camera can see on your phone; great for composing shots that you're in when your camera is on a tripod, for example.
  • 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.