Things were simple back in the olden days of digital imaging. You could plunk down a few hundred bucks and get a nifty little snapshot brick, double that and walk away with an ergonomically molded superzoomer, or really break the bank and score a hefty chunk of DSLR. But these days the lines between categories have blurred, and there’s a lot more to decide on than small, medium or large.
Size no longer corresponds strictly to quality, and since camera phones came along and stole the snapshot camera’s thunder, run-of-the-mill compacts have largely lost their appeal. DSLRs have also gotten cheaper and come into their own as video cameras. The market’s rising star is the new breed of compact system cameras (CSCs), which feature interchangeable lenses and large sensors but are significantly smaller than DSLRs.
In every camera category, the same technological wave is washing in, carrying larger sensors for improved image quality, greater connectivity to the Web and other devices, and more extensive user customization through both software and hardware.
Touch screens are also becoming more commonplace on all camera types. Whether you opt for a compact camera, a DSLR or a CSC, those are the cutting-edge features you’ll pay a little more for. If you really want to ride the wave of the future, you can go with a compact camera running the same Android operating system that’s on smartphones and tablets, complete with Web access and all the apps.
Nearly all digital cameras now come with HD video recording and speedy continuous shooting modes. Also increasingly common are built-in “computational photography” features, which merge several photos into high-dynamic-range (HDR) images, panoramas and even 3D shots.
For clear, clean images in low light at ISO settings of 6400 and even higher, look for a large sensor — so-called 1-inch type or bigger. For serious sports and action photography, and the most lens options, opt for a DSLR.
The CSC category is still relatively new and building out, so look for a reasonable range of lens choices and check autofocus performance, which has lagged behind DSLRs.
Up to $400: This is compact camera territory. Good mega-zoom models can be had for $300 and less; the new Android-powered models creep toward $400.
$400 to $700: In this range, you’ve got a choice between a premium pocket camera with a big sensor and advanced controls, a low-end but still very capable DSLR, or a mid-range CSC. Higher prices bring more control customization, shooting and autofocus speed, as well as better accessory compatibility.
$700 to $1,000: If you’re willing to push four digits, you can get a basic DSLR with two-lens kit or an upper end CSC with speedier performance and more professional controls. Or one of a handful of compacts with luxury cachet. You’ll also find metal construction, retro-styling, and weather resistance in many models in this range.