Our largest test finds the best performing cameras from pocket-sized compacts to full DSLRs.
There’s nothing like a good camera for top notch photos. On the flipside, cameras can be daunting to budding photographers. Where do you even start with all those dials, buttons and menu options? We’ve laid out all the basics you need to know before you even pick up camera.
There’s little point in splashing out on a camera with lots of manual settings only to use it in “automatic mode”, so consider what "style" of photography you plan to be doing.
For the point-and-shooters. Grab a compact camera. There’s only one lens to worry about and a lot of automatic shooting options. They tend to be smaller too, which is good for travel.
For the budding amateur and the pros. Mirrorless cameras are the way of the future. They combine the lightweight, digital aspects of compacts, with the full manual controls of DSLRs.
For the serious photographer. Our database contains info on almost everything you want to know from ISO range to sensor size to viewfinder resolution. For DSLR and mirrorless cameras, we also list which lens we tested them with.
Mirrorless cameras are also known as: micro system; compact-system camera (CSC); digital single lens mirrorless (DSLM); and electronic viewfinder with interchangeable lens (EVIL).
Our latest test has lots of recommended cameras, compact and CSC/DSLR, but after you pick one, how do you take the best photos? We’ve laid out the basics to get you started.
Lenses are described by their focal lengths (the distance between the lens and camera sensor) and aperture. Some have adjustable focal lengths; others are fixed. Wide-angle lenses have shorter focal lengths, which means they can capture more of the scene. This also means the subject you’re focusing on will be smaller in the frame.
Longer focal lengths give a smaller angle of view, capturing less of the scene, but your subject will be larger in the image. Longer focal lengths, like you’d find in a telephoto lens, also shorten the depth of field (so objects in the background seem much closer).
You can choose your lens by what shots you want to take. Here are some examples:
If you can only afford one lens, unless you have a specific subject you’re shooting, you’ll be best picking up a lens like the 18-55mm. Its focal range gives you the versatility to shoot a lot of different scenes.
For shutter speed the number – for example, 1/30 – refers to the length of time, in seconds, the shutter opens to expose the sensor.
Faster shutter speeds are better for capturing fast motion. So if you’re photographing an object moving quickly, a faster shutter speed removes any motion blur. The downside is less light is let into the sensor so, unless your subject is well lit, you’ll get a dark image.
Slower speeds let in more light but fast motion becomes blurry. So it’s better for low-light shots, though you need to keep your hands steady as you take the shot to avoid motion blur. Very long shutter speeds (greater than a few seconds) allow you to take long-exposure photos.
As a rule of thumb, if you’re shooting handheld and want a clear shot, use any shutter speed less than double the focal length. For example, if the focal length’s 50mm, you want the shutter speed to be 1/100th of a second or faster. Any longer than that and the shot may come out blurry.
Changing the size of the aperture controls how much light is let in. The aperture is the hole through which light hits the sensor when the shutter is opened. This is another way to control the exposure in brightly or dimly lit places. Aperture size is denoted with an f – for example, f1.8. Note, a smaller number means a bigger aperture, which lets in more light. This can be seen written on lenses as 1:1.8 or 1:3.5-5.6. These numbers denote the maximum aperture at varying zoom lengths. So a 1:3.5-5.6 has a maximum aperture of f3.5 when zoomed out, and f5.6 when zoomed in.
Aperture can add dimension to a photograph by blurring the background or bringing everything into focus. The out-of-focus sections of a photo can create a dappled blurring effect called bokeh (pronounced boh-kay). You can get bokeh by using a low aperture.
ISO refers to the camera’s sensitivity to light. So if you want to take a long-exposure shot, you can turn the ISO down and it’ll take much longer before the image is overexposed. If you want to capture fast-moving subjects in a dark environment, you can increase the shutter speed and the ISO, so the movement won’t be blurry but the sensor will be more sensitive to the light that does get through. However, this increases the amount of “noise” in the image.
Low ISO sensitivities require slow shutter speeds for correct exposure, resulting in blur caused by motion. High ISO sensitivities allow correct exposure to be achieved at faster shutter speeds, making it possible to take a photograph that freezes motion.
The +/- dial on a camera is the exposure compensation dial. Turning it to positive lightens the image, and negative darkens it. So, if a shot is overly bright and you want more contrast, you’d move into the negative, or vice versa if the scene is too dark. How it does that depends on what other settings you’ve selected. You can see the changes in real time on the monitor or through the viewfinder. It’s a simple tool for getting more control over your shots.
Most cameras have their own integrated (rechargeable) batteries and include a charger. Most will last for hours, but if you’re going to do full day of shooting then it’s a good idea to buy a spare battery.
While many cameras come with a decent-sized screen on the back, the viewfinder is the best way to see what you’re doing. For a start, you don’t need to worry about glare off the screen. It’s also easier to read the on-screen text, and see what the settings are and where the focal point is. It can also save battery power.
If you’re using a compact camera, then adjust the brightness and contrast can be adjusted on many monitors – a handy feature if you’re struggling to see it in bright sunlight, or a dark room.
The monitor on most DSLRs is for reviewing images only – you can’t use it for previewing a shot. This is where a good viewfinder is essential.
A WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) system is an advantage of a mirrorless camera. When you point the camera at something and focus, the image in the viewfinder is what the final photo will look like. WYSIWYG gives you more freedom when shooting as you can adjust the settings with confidence before snapping off a shot – a real timesaver for new photographers and experts alike.
The sensor is a grid of pixels that captures incoming light and converts it into a photograph. Generally, the bigger the sensor the better the picture. You may have heard of a “full frame sensor” – this refers to a full frame of 35mm film. The X-T30, like many mirrorless cameras, has a smaller APS-C sensor. Despite being smaller, you can still print images up to A0 poster size with no worries – something you definitely can’t do with pictures taken on a phone.
Nearly all cameras have a movie mode to let you record video. Typically all you have to do is switch the camera to movie mode, press the shutter button and the camera will start filming. Press the shutter button again to stop recording.
The high-end DSLR and mirrorless cameras can capture 4K resolution video and have replaced camcorders in the market.
While red-eye reduction is present on almost all models, it’s still a good idea to learn exactly when to use flash and when not to. Some higher-end models don’t even have a flash and require an extra flash via the “hot shoe” connection.
PASM stands for the various shooting modes found on DSLRs and mirrorless cameras that are simplified for compacts: program mode, aperture priority, shutter priority, and manual modes. Program mode offers partial control over shutter speed and aperture. Aperture priority and shutter priority allows you to control either the aperture or shutter speed while the other, along with ISO sensitivity, is calculated by the camera. Manual mode allows you to control everything.
A low-capacity card is sometimes supplied with the camera. Most of the time this should be enough, but more GB could prove valuable if you plan to take a lot of photos at high resolution.
Don’t buy cheap memory cards. After spending thousands on a camera, a $10 memory card may look like a bargain, but budget cards don’t have the write-speeds needed for high-end photography. If you’re shooting in high resolutions and have a slow write speed, when you press the shutter button, you’ll have to wait a while before the image appears on screen.
For perfect shots, you could consider a tripod. You might think they are big, cumbersome and costly, but there are many cheap and smaller options.
A monopod is a single leg you can attach your camera to. This gives extra stability while shooting but can’t stand on its own.
For smaller cameras there are smaller tripods. Compacts and smaller CSC cameras can work well with small foldable tripods that fit in your camera bag or, in some cases, your pocket.
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