Digital Camera Comparison
This brief digital camera comparison is to provide an overview of the different types of digital cameras available today.
Whether you are looking to purchase your first digital camera or upgrade an existing one, knowing the advantages and disadvantages of the different digital camera types can help you choose the best camera for your needs.
Cell Phone Cameras
The quality of today's cell phone cameras keeps improving. With higher resolution image sensors, better software and built in flash, some models of cell phones are moving closer in features to that of a typical Point and Shoot Camera.
They are included as part of this digital camera comparison because for the person who will primarily be posting their pictures to the internet or even printing small 4x6 prints many of today's cell phone cameras might be able to meet your needs.
The primary advantage of having a good quality cell phone camera is that it is always with you. With some of the newer models moving closer in features and image quality to that of the typical point-and-shoot camera, they certainly should be given careful consideration when deciding if you need a dedicated digital camera to fulfill your needs or not.
Today's cellphones have built in cameras that are vastly improved over those of just a few years ago. Some like the Apple iPhone has software that allows HDR images to be captured using the iPhone's camera.
While the quality of cell phone cameras is improving they have one major limitation that will keep them from being the only camera someone interested in photography has. That limitation is the size of their image sensors.
Even though some of the newer cell phones have cameras with up to 16 or more megapixels, the size of the image sensor in a cell phone is much smaller than even that in the smallest point and shoot camera. This limits their light sensitivity as well as the quality of images they can capture.
Another disadvantage of many cell phone cameras is that they are still very limited in the features they offer and are not able to capture the quality of images a larger, dedicated digital camera can. Even with the higher megapixel image sensor the sensor size is simply too small on a cell phone camera to achieve the type of image quality available by a dedicated camera.
Having a high quality cell phone phone camera can be a plus for anyone who loves photography but in general they simply do not have the features or flexibility to replace a dedicated compact camera in most situations.
Are you thinking about buying a new cell phone and what to know how the pictures from its camera compares to other popular models? If so check out CNet's Camera Phone Image Gallery Comparison.
Next in our digital camera comparison are the Point-and-Shoot cameras.
These digital cameras come in a variety of sizes from very small subcompact models to larger models with more optical zoom built in.
Point and Shoot cameras are often some of the most used and best selling models because they offer a good comprise between the size of the camera and the features and image quality that are important to consumers.
There are many different types and varieties of point and shoot cameras on the market today. They range in size from very small units that easily fit in a shirt pocket, to slightly larger ones with as much as 18X digital zoom built in.
The name "point and shoot" comes from the fact that these cameras are designed to be very easy to use and most people who use them leave them in some type of automatic mode where the camera itself determines the exposure and automatically adjusts all of the camera settings.
While they are designed to be simple to use, many point and shoot cameras are very full featured cameras that offer the user a wide variety of digital camera modes designed to allow the photographer have more control over important camera settings.
With the wide variety of point and shoot cameras on the market today you have many different models and types to chose from. Whether you are interested in a low cost, easy to use, fully automatic camera or a small, full featured digital camera with many advanced features and modes you can find a model that will fit your needs an budget.
Here are some points to consider when comparing point and shoot cameras.
- How much optical zoom does the camera have? I recommend avoiding cameras that only have digital zoom. Digital zoom simply enlarges an area of the picture digitally which usually results in lower picture quality and can cause some pixelation.
- What type of pictures will you be taking? This will likely determine how much optical zoom you will need. Point and Shoot digital cameras can range from 3X to as much as 18X optical zoom. Generally speaking the longer the optical zoom the larger the camera size. Which is more important to you more zoom or a smaller camera?
- When comparing the zoom capabilities of two different cameras look at the 35mm focal equivalence of each camera. That will give you a better understanding of the true differences than simply whether a camera has a 3X or 5X zoom lens.
- Keep in mind that point and shoot cameras have relatively small image sensors. Therefore they are more susceptible to digital noise inlow light situations especially as the number of megapixels increases. While image sensor technology continues to improve and newer cameras sometimes have special modes to improve low light performance the relationship between image sensor size and the number of megapixels is still an important factor. For more information on this check out our page on Understanding the Megapixel Myth.Finding a good compromise between the number of megapixels and the overall image quality is important.
- Be sure to compare the features and modes each camera has. This will help you find the camera that best suits your needs.
Point and Shoot cameras remain some of the best selling and most popular digital cameras because they offer such a great value for the money. They are available in a wide variety of sizes and megapixels and are able to capture high quality photos.
Check out these quick reviews of popular point and shoot cameras:
Nikon Coolpix S9100
Super Zoom or "Bridge" Cameras
Another camera type to be considered in this digital camera comparison are Super Zoom or "bridge" cameras.
What sets these cameras apart is they have much larger optical zooms and they have a slightly larger more "DSLR" type of camera body.
These are great all around cameras and work well as the primary camera for families with active kids who need the focal range these cameras offer without dealing with investing in multiple lenses like a good DSLR setup would require. With optical zooms ranging up to 36X times a super zoom camera gives you a very large focal range to work from. This allows you to quickly go from wide angle to extreme telephoto without switching lenses.
Super Zoom cameras tend to have more features and allow the user more control over camera settings than smaller point and shoot cameras do. They make a great transition camera before moving into a DSLR camera and can even be a great complement to a DSLR which is why they are often considered a "bridge" camera.
I think super zoom cameras are a great "middle of the road" camera offering many advantages to the average photographer. The larger focal range and increased amount of optical zoom give them great versatility that is hard to beat.
The size and flexibility of these cameras make them a great camera to have in addition to a DSLR. While they are significantly larger than the typical Point-and-Shoot Camera, I believe the extra features they have override the size difference.
The main drawback of these cameras is that they use a significantly smaller image sensor than is found in a DSLR or even a Micro Four Thirds camera. This could result in more digital noise at lower light levels and possibly a reduction in image quality. While they do a great job and should meet the needs of the average consumer in regards to picture quality it is important to recognize that the smaller image sensor found in these cameras can result in less image quality than one would normally get from cameras that use the larger image sensor sizes.
For more information on super zoom cameras check out this video....
Here are links to some quick reviews of popular Super Zoom or Bridge Cameras
Nikon CoolPix P500
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ100
Canon Powershot SX30 IS
Micro Four Thirds Cameras
Micro Four Thirds cameras are the next cameras in our digital camera comparison. They are a relatively newer entry in the digital camera lineup.
Their name comes from the fact that they use a "Four Thirds" sized image sensor. This means that while their image sensor is smaller than the sensor in a DSLR it is still about 9X larger than the image sensor found in Point-and-Shoot and Super Zoom cameras. The reason that the size of the image sensor is important when considering what is the best type of digital camera for you is because it is closely related to the image quality the camera is able to produce.
Micro Four Thirds camera offer the advantage of using interchangeable lenses and a larger image sensor with smaller camera body than most DSLR's have. A micro four thirds camera can be significantly smaller than a DSLR because they do not have the mirror assembly needed to have an optical viewfinder like is found in digital single lens reflex cameras.
Instead of an optical viewfinder, four thirds cameras will have some combination of an electronic viewfinder and a LCD display. Many of then replace the optical viewfinder of the DSLR with and electronic viewfinder. Some models might not feature any type of viewfinder and instead rely totally on the LCD display for composing and viewing photos.
While optical viewfinders are generally considered to be better than an electronic one, newer technology is rapidly closing the gap and an electronic viewfinder is seen as less of negative than they were just a few years ago.
Micro Four Thirds Cameras are becoming increasingly popular with people who like their smaller size. They feature larger image sensors than a super zoom camera and the ability to use interchangeable lenses without the additional size and weight of a DSLR.
They are a great option for someone interested in DSLR-like quality in a smaller more compact camera.
Here are links to some quick reviews of popular Micro Four Thirds Cameras
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3
Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Cameras (MILC)
Next in the digital camera comparison are Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Cameras (MILC).
They are a relatively new type of camera and are in some ways are very closely related to the Micro Four Thirds Cameras discussed above.
Like a micro four thirds camera a MILC camera utilizes interchangeable lenses but does not have the mirror assembly and optical viewfinder found in DSLR's. The key difference between a Four Thirds camera and a MILC camera is the size of the image sensor.
While a Micro Four Thirds Camera is a type of MILC, for the purpose of this digital camera comparison we are considering them as two separate camera types. The reason for the distinction is that Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Cameras (MILC) use a larger APS sized image sensor like is found in consumer level DSLR cameras.
The first models of MILC cameras did not have any viewfinder at all so the user was forced to use only the LCD display for composing and viewing images. Some recent models have started to incorporate electronic viewfinders as well.
Mirrorless cameras are designed as a bridge or hybrid camera between the compact point-and-shoot cameras and the larger digital single-lens reflex cameras. They offer the advantage of the larger image sensors typically found in DSLR’s as well as the being able to use interchangeable lenses in a camera that is significantly smaller. This is accomplished by the elimination of an optical viewfinder and the associated mirror block that is found in a DSLR camera. The result is a camera only slightly larger than some point-and-shoot cameras that is capable of taking DSLR quality pictures.
By providing the image quality of a DSLR in a more compact body these types of cameras are excellent “bridge” cameras for someone who wants the increase in image quality without the larger size of the typical DSLR. Couple that with their ability to use interchangeable lenses and these cameras present a great option for someone who wants the higher picture quality and versatility of the DSLR without the additional weight and bulk.
These cameras are becoming increasingly popular and are often used as a secondary camera to a DSLR for serious photographers that want great image quality and interchangeable lenses in a smaller easy to carry camera.
One of the main drawbacks of these cameras has been that they generally do not have any type of viewfinder. That means your are limited to using the LCD screen for focusing, etc. Not having a viewfinder also causes you to hold these
cameras at “arms length” so you can see the LCD display. This generally reduces stability and hinders your ability to have good “shooting posture” that allows you to steady a camera in low light or with longer lenses attached.
Another drawback of these models is that they typically use “contrast detection autofocus” instead of the faster “phase detection autofocus” found in DSLR’s. That makes these cameras less suitable for photographing moving objects, such as sporting events.
All things considered these cameras are often thought of to be the “best of both worlds” by combining many of the benefits of compact cameras with the image quality of a DSLR. They offer a larger image sensor than any compact camera and less size and moving parts than a DSLR. They are an excellent choice for any photographer and a category worth giving serious consideration in any digital camera comparison.
Single Lens Translucent Mirror Cameras
With the release of the Sony SLT-A55 and SLT-A33 Alpha cameras in 2010 a new category of camera really came into existence.
While most people consider these Sony Alpha models to be DSLR cameras, in reality they are not because they do not have an optical viewfinder. Both the SLT-A55 and A33 use a fixed translucent mirror which makes them a hybrid camera rather than a typical DSLR.
Unlike most micro four thirds cameras or mirror-less interchangeable lens cameras the Sony SLT cameras have a fixed mirror assembly that allows 70% of the light to pass through the mirror and expose the image sensor while reflecting the other 30% to the phase detection auto focus system.
Because they do not have the moveable mirror typically found in a DSLR they use an electronic viewfinder instead of the normal optical viewfinder found in DSLR's. This allows them to be slightly smaller than the typical consumer DSLR but not quite as small as the mirco four thirds cameras which have no mirror at all.
The combination of a fixed translucent mirror and fast phase detection auto focus, even in live view or video mode. earned these cameras mention as one of Time Magazines Top 50 Inventions of 2010. The result is a mid-range DSLR type of camera with professional level speed. Using this technology allowed the Sony Alpha SLT-A55 to be the first and only camera in its price range to capture up to 10 frames per second.
Now in the second generation the recently introduced Sony SLT-A77V raises the performance bar even higher. With it's OLED electronic viewfinder and electronic first curtain shutter it manages to capture an amazing 12 frames per second of full 24 megapixel resolution photos.
The combination of relatively low cost, fast auto focus and 10-12 frame per second burst speed make a Single Lens Translucent Mirror camera an excellent choice for someone who wants to capture fast action photos such a sports, etc.
While not a true DSLR they should be considered in that class of camera and are well worth considering to anyone who wants a top of the line digital camera.
Here are links to some reviews of SLT cameras.
Digital Single-Lens-Reflex Cameras (DSLR)
The last camera type to consider in our digital camera comparison are the Digital single-lens-reflex cameras (DSLR).
These are your higher end cameras often used by professional photographers. They are characterized by larger image sensors and better photo quality. They offer the photographer the greatest control over the camera settings including complete manual control if desired.
DSLR Cameras feature optical viewfinders, larger image sensors and better low light performance. They typically have both a built in flash as well as a hot-shoe that allows you to use a more powerful add on flash.
DSLR cameras generally come in two different sensor sizes. You have the smaller APS sensors found in the lower priced consumer and "pro-sumer" models as well as the higher priced "Full Frame" sensors commonly found on "professional DSLRs." For the highest image quality, greatest control and flexibility a DSLR is your best option which is why it remains the camera type of choice for professional photographers.
As you can see there are are many different types of digital cameras to choose from. I hope that you have found this digital camera comparison helpful in deciding what type of digital camera best suits your needs. For additional information on important features to consider when buying a digital camera be sure and check out our Digital Camera Buying Guide.