03 – Different Types of Cameras

Today’s lesson will be a continuation of yesterday’s. We have talked about the different components of any camera, but not really about the different types of cameras out there.

We will classify cameras in 5 somewhat arbitrary groups: compacts, Mirrorless, DSLRs, big stuff and exotics. For practical purposes, you can forget about the last two categories, as anyone using those shouldn’t need an introduction class.

Compact cameras, sometimes also called point-and-shoot probably were your first camera. They are very convenient: cheap, small, light and fool proof. As the name suggests, just point it in the general direction of the subject and press the button. The camera does the rest.

Their main advantages, as said, is their low profile. They are so small and unobtrusive that you are likely to carry them all the time, and to have them handy when you need them. After all, even the crappiest camera you have with you beats the amazing one you left at home. Their small size is also an advantage when you want to be discreet. Most people will assume you are just a tourist and won’t give you a second look, whereas even a small DSLR will attract attention.

Unfortunately, the downsides are many, as this type of camera will make many – too many – compromises. In particular, the sensor will be very small. This means that low light capabilities are very bad, and images are often unusable from ISO 400 due to noise. Another consequence is that depth of field (the total area in focus, more on this in another lesson) is always huge, which is sometimes a good thing but limits the ability to separate a subject from its background. Except in high-end compacts, lenses tend to be of rather mediocre quality and with limited maximal apertures, which has an impact on image quality, among other things.

Because they do not use a mirror system like DSLRs, compact cameras use the LCD screen almost exclusively for framing, which is a problem in bright light and is also less pleasant than an optical viewfinder. One of the most annoying characteristics of compacts, however, is the infamous shutter lag – the delay between pressing the trigger and the photo actually being recorded, which varies from half a second to several seconds! It has much to do with the autofocus system being slow, and the situation has gradually been improving, but it still remains one of the main reasons people want to switch to DSLRs, as it is far too easy to miss shots because of it (and is plain frustrating).

Another annoying thing about compacts is that their designers generally assume the photographer wants the camera to take all the decisions. It is often difficult and impractical, if not impossible, to gain manual control of the various camera settings. Few cameras in particular offer PASM modes instead of scene modes. Many controls are also hidden deep in the menus, making them impossible to modify on the fly.

It should be noted, however, that this type of camera is feeling pressure from the cellphones, so there are now a number of point and shoot cameras with advanced features and larger sensors, with which it’s possible to get great results. 2014 examples include the Canon G16 and Sony RX100 III.

Typical 2014 examples of compact cameras are the Nikon Coolpix L28 and the Panasonic DMC-ZS25.

 

Digital Single Lens Reflex cameras (DSLRs) are the “serious” camera of choice these days. Though this comes at the price of a serious increase in weight and bulk (and, well, price), they are also much more uncomprimising on everything that matters. In particular, they have interchangeable lenses which allows you to always have the best lens for the occasion. Even APS-C (DX) cameras have big enough sensors to allow shallow depth of field and good low light/dynamic range quality. There is an optical viewfinder, which allows framing in the worst light conditions and is generally more responsive than any electronic screen.

The annoyances of compact cameras are also gone: shutter lag is virtually unknown, autofocus generally very fast (though this depends on the lens) and even entry-level cameras provide full manual control along with their scene modes.

There are several different sensor sizes, commonly called “cropped sensor”, “APS-C” or “DX” for the smaller versions, and “full frame” or “FX” for the bigger ones, which correspond exactly to the size of 35mm film. High end cameras tend to use FX for a variety of reasons, mostly having to do with image quality in difficult light conditions. Concretely, the main difference has to do with the crop factor, which we will cover in tomorrow’s lesson.

In short, as long as you remember to actually bring it with you, a DSLR will be better than a compact in every respect.

There are DSLRs at all price points, from the entry level to full featured pro beasts. In 2014, entry level models would be the Canon T5i and Nikon D3200, while more advanced models are the Canon 7D and the Nikon D7100.

 

Mirrorless (or EVIL, for Electronic Viewfinder, Interchangeable Lenses) cameras are new hybrids which started appearing in 2008. There are different standards: Sony has NEX, Panasonic and Olympus use micro-4/3 and Fuji has the X-series. The concept is to remove the bulky mirror and pentaprism necessary for the optical viewfinder of a DSLR, but to keep the other capabilities, in particular large sensors and interchangeable lenses. This allows for a drastic reduction in size, putting them closer to compacts than DSLRs. Whether the sacrifice of the optical viewfinder in exchange for a smaller size is worthwhile will be an entirely personal choice.

This is a very fast changing field, but typical 2014 mirrorless cameras are the Sony NEX 6, Olympus OM-D E-M1 and the Fujifilm X-T1.

 

The big stuff refers to bigger than 35mm cameras, which in the digital world means medium format backs. The cheapest start at 10-15k$, without lenses, but their resolution and image quality is hard to beat. They have little interest if you are not printing big, as the difference from high-end DSLRs will be hardly noticeable. They are mostly used by commercial shooters and (rich) landscape photographers.

2014 examples include the Pentax 645Z and the Leica S.

 

Finally, exotics is everything else, including, sadly, all film cameras. Let’s take a small tour:

  • Large format cameras, the wooden box with bellows and a black cloth to hide the photographer. Their resolution can even beat that of MF digital backs but the large negative size makes everything harder, from buying film to developing and scanning or printing it. They are also a mild pain in the ass to use, though there is a zen side to it. For instance the Toyo 45CF 4×5.
  • Rangefinders are another alternative to DSLRs, where the optical viewfinder does not pass through the lens. This permits a smart manual focus system based on split screens. The most famous of these cameras are the Leica M family, and the last iteration, the M Monochrome, is one of the best digital cameras money can buy. Photojournalists and street shooters love them, but their learning curve is steep. A cheaper alternative is the Voigtlander Bessa.
  • Holgas/Lomos are very popular for playing with. Former soviet crappy, light leaking, plastic film bodies with next to no control. They produce images that are technically terrible but have a special look that many people love. They are relatively cheap and fun to play with, so you might be tempted to pick one up.
  • Phone cameras – you have them with you all the time, and their quality is getting better and better every year. Soon they will completely replace the point and shoot market.

Previous Lesson: What is a camera?
Next lesson: Focal Length

29 Comments

  • In Chapter 3 there is a correction needed.

    “Another annoying think about compacts is that…” should read as

    “Another annoying thing about compacts is that”

    Note: think => thing

  • Thanks, it’s now fixed.

  • Firstly, thank you for writing what appears to be the only up-to-date blog about photography in a climbing context.

    I couldn’t help noticing that you only took a few gorgeous photos using an Olympus PEN EP1 camera. Is there any reason why you abandoned shooting with that camera? The form factor seems highly suitable to alpine climbing photography.

    When I was on Chopicalqui last year I carried both a Canon SD780is (compact) and a Canon SX10is (zoom) camera, the latter in my backpack. I can only confirm your statement that camera access is key – if you hide your DSLR in your backpack, you’ll only take camp and summit photos with it.

    However, my SD780is got stolen a few weeks ago and soon I’ll be going back to Peru for more climbing. I’m torn between buying a Canon S100 (compact, capable) and an Olympus PEN EP2 with Panasonic LUMIX G 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens (not so compact, bigger sensor).

    I fancy the Olympus/Panasonic combo but am afraid of not finding any adequate place to stash it when attempting AD to D mixed climbing. This wouldn’t be an issue with the pocketable Canon S100 but it strikes me as a camera that will be less capable of catching the amazing nuances of light in the Andes.

    Thanks in advance for any advice!

    Best Regards,

    Serge

  • Gaskiya we need the picture of a camera and well labeld

  • After reading this, I’m still not clear on what “Digital Single Lens Reflex” really means. What is it exactly that makes a DSLR a DSLR and not a compact, and vice versa?

    • This lesson would clearly do well with some pictures of the cameras discussed.

      To answer you question a “compact” camera is one you would stick in a pocket. They’re typically small and rectangular. They have small sensors (the reason for most of the disadvantages listed). You frame images using the LCD screen on the back. They are typically meant to be used in fully automatic mode where the camera controls all the settings (shutter speed, aperture, white balance, ISO, etc.) for you. This is why they are referred to as Point-and-Shoot cameras.

      A DSLR camera is digital age revamping of SLR cameras from the analog age. Instead of film sitting at the back of the camera, we now have a digital sensor. Light enters through the lens and is reflected via a mirror to the viewfinder. You frame your shots by looking through the viewfinder. When you press the trigger, the mirror lifts up and exposes the sensor to the light. While they have auotmatic settings, DSLR cameras enable the user to have manual control of all the variables. Higher end models put more of the controls at your fingertips while lower end models will typically require you to set them by navigating menus.

  • I have really enjoyed the lessons so far

  • With the picture of the type of camera discussed,it will be better know and one can make a good choice of the camera one need

  • I Enjoy this lessons it’s refresh my brain please more lessons. thanks

  • how get good quality for indoor and outdoor shooting and image capturing

  • Hello Sir,
    I have been going through your blog , it is really helpful for photography enthusiastic people like us. I am doing photography with canon automatic point and shoot camera for the past couple of years(nature , human emotions , portrait, etc). Now I am planning to buy one professional camera, preferably canon. Can you suggest me , which model shall I opt for and you can help me out to choose the right lenses too. My total budget is around $900 to $1200. I shall look forward to hear you . Thanks

  • Hie. Why is it that you don’t give us the reference materials that can help in much of the research

  • I have a Sony nex 5 and wish to improve it or to upgrade. Any suggestion?

  • it could have well elaborated if you had provide those types of camera in picture form

    • i also support you. the discussion on the types of cameras is confusing. where do the big sony pds and pmws, pxws come in ?

  • Hello! we are lunching an arabic website that’s mainly concerned with cameras. Can we translate your content and publish it? Noting that we will provide the translated page on our website. Thanks

    • How do l know a good camera?

  • This is so cool… really learnt alot.

  • heyforsure we appreciate this lesson ,it’s hellps us to achieve our knoledge .tks a lot

  • Lovly pic

  • […] main advantages, as said, is their low profile. They are so small and unobtrusive that BlogSource you are likely to carry them all the time, and to have them handy when you need them. After all, […]

  • thanks

  • Hi ,
    Thanking for your valuable information,
    Is their any device that does not allows any type of camera for taking pictures?

  • Thanks, now I realize, the only cameras I have ever handled are the point and shoot variety. That might be half the battle with taking good photos. ….Now to consider getting a better camera.

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