Comprehensive Guide to Different Types of Digital Cameras

Explore the world of photography with this guide to different types of digital cameras. Discover features, pros, cons, and find the ideal camera for your vision.

Author: Marco Crupi

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This article is a segment of the Digital Photography Course. Click here to return to the main course overview.

What’s the best camera?

The one that best fits your needs!” There isn’t a definitive best camera, the only thing that can be discussed once the type of camera has been identified is which one is the best based on the value for money depending on our budget.

To meet the diverse needs of photo enthusiasts and professionals, there are numerous types of cameras.

Compact Cameras

Compact Camera - Panasonic Lumix TZ100

A common feature to all compact cameras, as the name suggests, is their great portability due to their small size and lightness.

Low-End Compact Cameras

Compacts are also known as point-and-shoot cameras. This definition is particularly apt for medium to low-end (entry-level) compacts whose sole purpose is to allow even a beginner to take pictures.

Almost all the cheaper compacts come with manual functions to practice with photographic techniques and have more control over the scene. They usually also come with a built-in flash and a zoom lens.

Entry-level compact cameras have a very small sensor and low-quality optics, for this reason, the market for low-end compacts has been completely cannibalized by smartphones, which, in addition to having increasingly sophisticated cameras, have the great advantage of being able to share photos on the web in real-time.

High-End Compact Cameras

While it makes little sense to buy a low-end camera today, it makes sense for a photo enthusiast and even a professional to invest in a good high-end compact. This is because it is not always possible to carry around the camera you work with, as experience has taught me, the best scenes always happen when you don’t have the camera with you!

This type of cameras allows total control of the camera settings, even allowing, in some models, manual focusing with a dedicated ring on the optics.

Top-of-the-range compacts stand out from lower-end ones because they mount a sensor of at least 1″, there are compacts that even mount micro 4/3, APS-C, and Full-Frame sensors.

Besides the sensor, these compacts stand out from each other for the optics, some have a zoom with a high focal length range, others instead mount zoom with a very limited focal length range if not even fixed optics to offer the maximum image quality. I will deal with the topic of optics specifically in the following chapters of this photography course, for now, know only that the greater the focal length range of a lens, the greater will be the optical compromises it will encounter, which in simple words, the greater the versatility of a lens, the lesser will be its quality.

Top-of-the-range compacts with an extended zoom being very versatile are generally suitable for those who love to travel and want to bring home photos with a quality superior to that of a smartphone but do not want the weight of a DSLR or mirrorless camera.

Top-of-the-range compacts with fixed optics or with a reduced zoom focus all on image quality, they are generally used by those who care about getting great photos even in low light conditions, this because fixed optics and zooms with reduced focal length range are generally very bright, i.e., they allow to open the diaphragm more compared to optics with more extended zoom.

Rugged Compact Cameras

Rugged Camera - Olympus Stylus TG-6

A special mention goes to rugged compacts, which, as the term ‘rugged’ suggests, are cameras designed for those who need to photograph in extreme conditions, as they are able to withstand shocks, falls, dust, and water. When I talk about water resistance, I mean that a rugged compact is capable of taking pictures underwater as well.

Bridge Cameras

Bridge Camera - Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 IV

Bridge cameras have an attractive appearance often resembling that of a DSLR, although they are essentially compact cameras equipped with a super zoom lens, meaning optics that range from wide-angle to extreme telephoto. I find these cameras very convenient for practice, as they allow you to do everything (albeit poorly), prioritizing versatility over quality. I myself began my journey in the world of photography with a bridge camera, the Kodak P850.

Instant Cameras

Instant Camera - Polaroid One Step 2

Instant cameras are capable of printing photos immediately after taking them. It was the Polaroid Corporation that first introduced this type of camera to the market in 1948, hence it’s common to refer to all instant cameras as “Polaroid” even today.

360° Cameras

360° Camera - Insta360 ONE RS 1

As the name suggests, this type of camera allows us to take immersive photos. Some adopt a dual camera for total immersion, while others have a hemispherical lens. Like action cameras, some of them are tropicalized, shock-resistant, and allow mounting on many surfaces, for instance on cars, helmets, or drones.

Platforms like Google Street View and social networks like Facebook support sharing from these cameras, offering the user the ability to “navigate” through them.

Digital Single-Lens Reflex (DSLR) Cameras

DSLR Camera - Nikon D7500

Digital reflex cameras, also known as DSLRs (Digital Single-Lens Reflex), cater to both photo enthusiasts and professionals. They are much larger than compact cameras, actually, they are quite bulky, which is one of the reasons why mirrorless cameras are gaining increasing popularity.

Pro models are the highest tier, featuring a full-frame sensor with dimensions equal to a 24×36mm film frame, while semi-pro and entry-level models have smaller sensors termed APS-C and APS-H.

Unlike compact cameras, it’s possible to change the lens depending on the usage. For instance, if you are engaging in landscape or architectural photography, you can mount a wide-angle lens; for sports photography, a telephoto lens; for portrait photography, a medium telephoto lens, and so on.

Both DSLRs and mirrorless cameras produce superior quality photos compared to compact cameras.

Cross-section of a Digital SLR Camera

One of the main features that differentiate DSLRs from compacts and mirrorless cameras is the presence of a 45° inclined mirror placed between the lens and the sensor. In the upper part facing the viewfinder, there is a pentaprism in high-end models, while in lower-end models it is a pentamirror.

Mirrorless Cameras

Mirrorless Camera - Fujifilm X-T5

The term mirrorless, abbreviated as MILC (mirrorless interchangeable lens camera), refers to those digital cameras that, unlike reflex cameras, do not have a mirror and a pentaprism (or pentamirror) but share the feature of interchangeable lenses with them.

The market is slowly veering towards this system, which is believed to eventually replace the reflex system entirely. This is because mirrorless cameras offer all the functions of a DSLR camera but, due to the absence of a mirror, they are smaller, lighter, and have a superior focusing system, both in terms of speed and frame coverage.

Inside Look: DSLR and Mirrorless Cameras

The light entering through the lens goes directly to the sensor which transmits the information it captures to the LCD screen and electronic viewfinder. Hence, unlike the reflex system, we will not see the scene as it is but as it is interpreted by the camera. This, in my opinion, is a great advantage as we get a constant preview of the final shot.

In terms of final image quality, there are no appreciable differences between mirrorless and reflex cameras.

Common Types between Mirrorless and DSLRs

Often, manufacturers release high-end models on the market that are similar in name, some features, and design, but differ significantly in the number of megapixels. Therefore, in addition to the division into Pro, Semi-Pro, and Entry-Level, there are two other types of reflex and mirrorless cameras, which are:

  • High-Resolution: Designed for photographers who need high resolutions, such as those in advertising and fashion. Due to the large number of megapixels, they have a lower performance at high ISOs and a slower shooting speed (the more megapixels a camera has, the larger the file size will be, thus the processing speed of each file will be slower, affecting the shooting speed as well).
  • Low-Resolution: I use the term “low resolution” exclusively in relation to the former; compared to them, these have fewer megapixels but a better performance at high ISOs and a higher shooting speed. This type of camera is generally aimed at wedding photographers, photojournalists, sports photographers, wildlife photographers, etc. Basically, for those who need to take quality photos even in low-light environments (with the same type of sensor, the one with fewer megapixels performs better at high ISOs) and who may need a fast burst speed in case of very hectic scenes, a feature often used by sports and wildlife photographers.

An example of cameras of this type are the Panasonic Lumix S1 and S1R, the former being “low resolution” with 24 megapixels, while the latter is “high resolution” with 47 megapixels.

Furthermore, both DSLRs and mirrorless cameras are divided into tropicalized (tropicalization is generally found in Pro and Semi-Pro models) and non-tropicalized; the former are made to withstand adverse weather conditions, thus are resistant to both high and low temperatures, humidity, dust, and sand, the latter are not, they are designed for amateur use.

Medium Format Cameras

Medium Format Camera - Hasselblad H6D-100c

Medium format cameras have a sensor size larger than full frame but smaller than 4×5 (100mm x 130mm) which is considered large format; in the analog era, medium format cameras used 120mm films.

This type of camera sacrifices versatility entirely in favor of quality; all medium format cameras have very high resolutions and are indeed widely used in advertising and fashion photography. It’s not rare to see them also in the hands of high-level landscape photographers.

The downside of medium format is the exorbitant price; in fact, most professionals prefer to rent them rather than buy them, for example, the Hasselblad H6D-400c MS has a 100-megapixel sensor measuring 53.4 x 40mm priced at €47,999.00.

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