From smartphone cameras to mirrorless and DSLR cameras, these are the differences between different camera types
Since digital cameras took over from film as the main way we take photographs, and we began carrying one with us everywhere in the form of a smartphone, shelves and websites have been filled with different types. There are some that are a great upgrade from a phone camera, others aimed at shooting video, yet more that are targeted at professionals and come with eye-watering price tags.
Yet, seeing them all together, you’re bound to ask: what are the differences? Are any of these really any better than a smartphone camera? And do I really need to spend a lot of money on one? A lot of what makes cameras different comes down to sensor size, and whether you can change the lens. Fixed-lens cameras are more pocketable, but less versatile, as you won’t be able to switch between wide and telephoto lenses, or attach a specialist lens to get a particular shot.
Sensor size makes a big difference to a camera. The largest sensors generally available are known as full frame—they’re the same size as a frame of 35mm film, about 50mm across the diagonal. The next step down is APS-C, which is about half the area. Then there's Micro Four Thirds, which is smaller again, “one-inch” is smaller still, and the sensors in smartphone cameras are the smallest of the lot. Smaller sensors can mean smaller cameras, but also less light-gathering capacity as the individual pixels are smaller, and the size of the sensor dictates the lens you’ll choose to frame a particular shot.
Phone cameras are sometimes the best option because of their convenience. Photo credit: Edgar Chaparro
With tiny lenses and sensors, smartphone cameras are designed to easily slide into your pocket, but nevertheless can take some fantastic images. The files they produce have often undergone a lot of processing from the phone’s CPU, and they tend to produce low-megapixel files, merging the data from multiple pixels on the sensor into one to avoid image noise.
"There's an old adage that the best camera is the one you have with you"
There's an old adage that the best camera is the one you have with you, and this rings especially true now we all carry smartphones with cameras. Being able to record an image wherever you are is a very powerful thing, and smartphone cameras should not be underestimated.
Examples include the Apple iPhone 14, Google Pixel 7, and Samsung Galaxy S23.
Compact and bridge cameras
These cameras are simpler than some, helping you streamline the process
Smartphone cameras are eating into the market for compact cameras, but there is still a broad range available. These cameras tend to have smaller sensors (though Sony and Leica produce full-frame compacts), and you can’t change the lens, but that simplifies their operation. Some have lenses with fixed focal lengths and are easy to slip into a bag or coat pocket, while others, such as the Nikon P1000 Nikon P1000Nikon P1000NikonP1000NikonP1000Nikon P1000Nikon P1000, have enormous zoom lenses that can capture both wide-angle and long telephoto shots, as well as everything in between.
"You’ll be able to alter settings that a phone camera app won’t let you near"
What these cameras offer is a step-up in image quality from a smartphone camera, along with an increase in control. You’ll be able to alter settings that a phone camera app won’t let you near, and it’s easier to upload the photos to your computer to edit in image editing software, as you’ll simply be able to pull out the memory card.
Examples include the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1R II, Fujifilm X100v, and Canon PowerShot SX70 HS.
These cameras down display as much information as their electronic counterparts, but some still consider them superior. Photo credit: William Bayreuther
Digital cameras that retain the mirror assembly that captures light from the lens and reflects it up to the viewfinder via a prism. This optical viewfinder is considered superior by some, but lacks the ability to display as much information as the electronic versions used in mirrorless cameras. The mirror flips out of the way when you trigger an exposure, exposing the sensor. DSLR cameras have interchangeable lenses, but new models have stopped appearing in the last few years as manufacturers move over to mirrorless models that are smaller and lighter.
"A camera doesn’t stop working just because it has been replaced"
They come with full-frame and APS-C sensors, are covered with dials and buttons that allow you to take precise control of the image you’re creating, and examples of DSLR cameras include Canon’s 90D, Nikon’s D850, and Pentax’s K-3.
As DSLRs have been around a while now, and are currently being phased out in favour of mirrorless models, the second-hand market for these cameras is especially strong. A camera doesn’t stop working just because it has been replaced, and it’s possible to pick up excellent cameras and lenses for a fraction of the price they would have cost at launch.
These cameras are similar to DSLRs, but generally more compact
A mirrorless camera is one that uses an electronic viewfinder instead of an optical one. This means the sensor is uncovered, and can be used to show the view down the lens on the rear screen or in a viewfinder that’s essentially a small screen itself. Otherwise, they’re very similar to DSLRs, but generally smaller, lighter, and capable of faster framerates as there's no mirror to move.
Mirrorless cameras make use of full frame, APS-C, and Micro Four Thirds sensors, and examples include Sony’s A7 IV, Canon’s EOS R10, and OM System’s OM-1.
Reader's Digest Photo Competition 2023: Beautiful Britain
Submit your photo that encapsulates the beauty of Britain for your chance to win a £400 Amazon voucher and grace the back cover of the Reader's Digest July 2023 issue!
The photo competition is open for submissions until 5pm on May 12, 2023.
Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter