Canon, Nikon, Sony, or another camera manufacturer? Who builds the best cameras? Mirrorless system camera (DSLM), digital single-lens reflex camera (DSLR), bridge camera, or compact camera? And which sensor is the best? Full format, APS-C, or MFT? And which lenses do you even need? Finding a good camera can be confusing. If you already own a good camera and want to know what lenses will give you the best results, however, this guide is for you. Today we'll provide a simple explanation of different types of cameras and lenses, and then later we'll show how that knowledge will help you choose the right lens for your needs.
We will answer these and many other questions about buying a camera in my detailed purchase advice.
Different Types of Cameras by Image Sensor
Before you decide on a manufacturer or a camera system, you have to decide on a sensor. What are you planning to do with your photos? It depends on which image sensor you should use.
The common sensor sizes at a glance (from small to large):
- 1 inch
- Micro Four Thirds (MFT)
- Full format (also "KB", small picture)
- Medium format (also "MF", medium picture).
If you mainly take photos for social networks such as Instagram or Facebook, the answer is clear: a camera with an APS-C sensor or an even smaller Micro Four Thirds sensor usually meets your requirements. The highest possible resolution (e.g. for printouts) or image noise do not play a major role in the small displays of smartphones.
If you travel a lot or hike a lot, the compact dimensions of cameras with small image sensors are ideal.
An alternative for your appearance on the Internet is modern top smartphones such as the Samsung Galaxy S20 or the iPhone 12 Pro Max, with which you can shoot breathtaking photos for Instagram and similar. Even prints in A4 are easily possible with a 12-megapixel camera of a modern smartphone in the best print quality.
If you are looking for a versatile camera, the recommendations are different. It depends on whether you photograph subjects that are far away (e.g. landscapes) or subjects that are very close (e.g. insects).
The small image sensors of premium compact cameras like Panasonic's LX100 II, Sony's RX 100 V, or Fuji's XF10 can provide more dynamic range and detail in images compared to APS-C cameras (like the Canon EOS 2000D, Nikon D5600 or Pentax K-70). However, they usually struggle with more noise above ISO 800 due to their smaller pixels. Micro Four Thirds cameras do not have this disadvantage; The Panasonic Lumix G9 or Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II is ideal for photographers who want to get the most out of their equipment.
If you prefer a lightweight camera with Tele lenses or super-zoom lenses, go for APS-C cameras. A mirrorless system camera with interchangeable lenses is an alternative that combines the advantages of DSLRs and bridge cameras. For example, Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark III, Fujifilm X-T30, or Sony Alpha 6300 can be perfect for ambitious amateurs who love photography travels. The image quality of these cameras is sufficient even for large prints (20 x 30 cm). Above all, the low weight makes them easy to handle in difficult terrain or on long trips - without having to use photo tours to carry the equipment.
Traditionally, medium format cameras were used by professionals in a studio or on a photo tour due to their high image quality and high resolution. Today, however, there is not much difference between these cameras and many full-size DSLRs with an APS-C sensor. For example, Pentax 645Z, Fujifilm GFX 50S, Hasselblad X1D II, or Sony Alpha 99 Mark II can convince even professional photographers with impressive image quality for prints up to 60 x 90 cm. The magnification ratio of 1:5 - i.e., "life-size" - makes it easy to take close-ups and portraits without the purchase of additional macro lenses. Even huge panorama photos in A0 format (84 x 118 cm) are possible with medium-format cameras.
If you join the ranks of full-format photographers, it is important that you use lenses that are specifically suitable for these top DSLR models. The entry-level Canon EOS 6D Mark II or Nikon D750 does not offer much when it comes to combination with an ultra-wide-angle lens. However, professional cameras like Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Nikon D850, or Sony Alpha 99 Mark II can be connected to even cheap manual focus lenses to realize many creative ideas. For example, a large sensor gives rise to a shallow depth of field and thus creates beautiful bokeh effects. Even for street photographers who love monochrome, medium format or full-format cameras are recommended thanks to the low image noise at high ISO settings.
If you want to take photos of your child during its birthday party, you don't need a top camera with many megapixels. DSLR cameras like Canon EOS 2000D, Nikon D3500, or Pentax K-70 (with 24 MP) provide enough space for several large prints or even works of art that can be admired by grandparents.
Even if you only plan occasional pictures on your next trip to Thailand, it's better to invest in an entry-level full-size DSLR than rely on the built-in equipment of an APS-C camera (Canon EOS 2000D, Nikon D5600, or Pentax K-70 ). These cameras are designed for extensive photo tours, so why should you be without the best DSLR camera in Thailand itself?
If even an entry-level full-size DSLR is too expensive for you, go to a bridge camera. Modern models offer more features than ever before and can replace your smartphone - especially when it comes to macro shots. The built-in zoom lenses of superzoom cameras like Panasonic Lumix TZ80, Fujifilm FinePix XP130, or Canon PowerShot SX620 HS make them versatile travel companions. However, if you take pictures with high magnification (e.g., when photographing flowers), you will quickly see the limits of these devices.
Different Types of Cameras with Full-Frame Sensors
Full-frame cameras are the first choice for photographers who want the best image quality and, in particular, a large selection of first-class lenses.
The large range of top lenses is one of the main reasons for me to rely on cameras with full-frame sensors. In addition, full-frame cameras have an advantage over cameras with a smaller image sensor when it comes to image noise.
The viewfinder of the full-frame camera - whether optically like the DSLR or electronic like the DSLM - is always superior to the viewfinder of smaller camera models.
Full-frame cameras like the Canon EOS R here are larger and heavier than digital cameras with a smaller image sensor
In the field of full-frame cameras, the Sony Alpha 7R IV is currently the front runner with 61 megapixels.
In the field of APS-C cameras, the Canon EOS 90D is currently the front runner with 32.5 megapixels.
For example, if you are planning a photo exhibition with large-format photos, you should use a full-format camera with a high number of megapixels.
Even if you sell your photos to stock photo agencies, you can do better with a high resolution (advantage of a full-format sensor) because the photos are also interesting for customers who are looking for very detailed work.
In the future, it will continue to be an advantage to use a sensor with a higher resolution if you want to decorate your wall in large format. Another advantage is that you can work with professional image editing tools like Adobe Photoshop and create even finer pictures from a high-resolution original.
A large number of megapixels makes it possible to produce very sharp photos or when using modern RAW converters, larger JPG images. In addition, full-format cameras have a benefit when photographing moving objects because they have more flexibility when shooting at high ISO speeds.
In worst-case scenarios where only one shot is taken at night without a tripod (e.g., in a nightclub), sensors with a lower resolution can show disadvantages in terms of image noise.
I would like to summarize the above with a practical example: if you are selling stock photos of products (e.g., jewelry, technology), it often makes sense to invest in high-resolution cameras because small details are particularly relevant for customers on platforms like iStock or Shutterstock. A good rule of thumb is that you should consider buying the best DSLR camera for sale (or renting it if necessary) when your sales volume via an agency involves several hundred dollars per month - just think about what you can earn by selling thousands of ultra-sharp photos every day.
The variety among good full-frame cameras used by professional photographers is enormous and very different depending on the personal preferences of each photographer.
For example, some people love the Sony A7III because of the excellent price-performance ratio. In my opinion, this is a very interesting camera that takes particularly good photos. The speed and autofocus system are also convincing compared to other high-resolution cameras.
The ergonomics of the Canon EOS R are not as comfortable as those of a DSLR - but it has a superlative electronic viewfinder with which you can take sharp pictures even in adverse lighting conditions or when photographing moving objects with short exposure times (e.g., cars, athletes). A full-frame mirrorless camera gives you more flexibility than a DSLR because of its lighter weight and smaller dimensions.
In addition to resolution, the dynamic range (= autonomy), which is important when taking photos in difficult lighting conditions, should also be considered when choosing a full-frame camera.
For example, if you intend to take many pictures of sunrises or sunsets on holiday without postprocessing, look for the best sensor with the highest possible dynamic range.
The Sony A7R IV has about 1 EV more dynamic range than its predecessor (A7 III). The Canon EOS R is slightly behind the Nikon Z 6 and Z 7 regarding this specification.
When it comes to image noise at high ISO speeds, most cameras achieve excellent results nowadays; however, there are still significant differences between them depending on which technology was used to increase sensitivity (e.g., CMOS instead of CCD).
For example, if you never shoot in bad lighting conditions and you don't enlarge your photos beyond A3 size after postprocessing, the difference between full-format cameras is probably not that important to you. Also note: The dynamic range of a camera is only useful when images are underexposed or overexposed.
I would like to summarize this with another practical example: if you intend to print larger pictures (e.g., A2/A1) or use them for commercial purposes, look at high-resolution cameras such as Canon EOS R, Nikon Z 6, and Sony Alpha A7 III. Budget models like Pentax K-1 II, Nikon D850, and Canon 5D Mark IV need significantly more postprocessing in order to achieve comparable results.
The Nikon and Canon full-format cameras offer an even higher resolution than their direct competitors in the high-resolution segment. The Nikon Z 7 has 47 megapixels, the Canon EOS R 46 megapixels, and Sony Alpha A7 III 42.4 megapixels - but only when using a special wide-angle lens with a sufficiently large aperture. It is not possible to use such lenses on other full-format cameras because they would vignette (light falloff).
When it comes to autofocus, three criteria should be considered: speed, accuracy, and continuous focus (= how fast the camera focuses when there are moving objects in front of it).
Regarding speed, all three models are very close to each other. The speed of the phase-detection system depends to a large extent on the size of pixels used in the camera's sensor. The smaller the pixels, the faster the autofocus.
The Nikon Z 6, Sony A7 III, and Canon EOS R all use an APS-C pixel size (23.5 x 15.6 mm), which is significantly larger than that of full-format cameras (36 x 24 mm). This means that continuous focus will not be as fast in models with full-frame sensors. For this reason, I recommend using lenses with a large aperture (f / 1.4 - f /1 .8) when photographing moving objects with these three cameras.
Different Camera Types: DSLM or DSLR?
You have to choose between a mirrorless system camera (DSLM) and a digital single-lens reflex camera (DSLR). The difference between the two camera systems is the lack of a mirror in the DSLM. That saves space and weight.
With the mirrorless system camera (DSLM) you get an electronic viewfinder (note: some entry-level DSLMs do not have a viewfinder - that's a disadvantage). All data that is also shown on the camera display is shown in the electronic viewfinder. The DSLM also shows, even before the shutter release, what the photo will look like after the shutter release.
- Lighter and smaller camera, as no mirror is involved. Usually, this means there's also a smaller lens selection
- Quicker viewfinder display, as it doesn't have to move up first
- No vibration/shaking is possible through the clicking of the shutter
- Less storage space is required due to fewer pictures being taken
- Lower power consumption (note: DSLMs do not consume less power in practice though). This saves battery life.
- The viewfinder image is much darker than in DSLR cameras. Due to the nature of the mirrorless system, there are more optical elements involved, which reduce the light that reaches your pupil.
- No live view (for shooting from below or at waist level). You can't use the display; you need to use the electronic viewfinder
- If you're used to shooting with a DSLR, you will probably miss some features like a depth of field preview button and an exposure-lock button (note: entry-level DSLMs usually lack these two buttons).
- The field of view through the lens will be different when using different lenses.
- A camera system is better established - especially regarding lenses
- In principle, extremely high image quality
- In principle, excellent color reproduction
- Very good dynamic range
- Better low-light performance
- Has been tested for many years so there are fewer technical problems
- Better connectivity (Wi-Fi, GPS, NFC) and remote control options.
- Easier use of manual settings
- The electronic display is larger than that of a DSLM. You can easily review 100% images on it.
- Much bigger and heavier
- Longer startup time
- The shutter is much louder, which disturbs the people around you when photographing
- Higher power consumption (note: DSLRs do not consume more power in practice though). This will reduce the life of your batteries.
Note: Not all DSLRs have a live view! This disadvantage is particularly noticeable in poor lighting conditions as the image quality in the viewfinder is significantly worse than on a camera's display. In practice, this means you cannot see anything when photographing in badly lit places with an entry-level DSLM or if you do not use an external monitor / EVF. The only possibility would be connecting the camera to a smartphone using Wi-Fi and using it as a monitor to review images.
Image quality comparison: DSLR vs. DSLM
The image quality should be fairly similar because the optical system of the lenses is similar as well as the size and number of pixels on both sensors. In practice, you will only perceive a difference when zooming in quite closely at high ISO values (in bad lighting conditions). The difference between 36 megapixels from a Nikon D850 and 45 from a Z 7 therefore won't make much sense. The 24 megapixels of an A7 III, however, are visibly behind those of the 42-megapixel R . So it's better to go for 36 than 24 or 16 megapixels - unless money is critical.
Before buying, you should also think about whether you want to use the lenses of your DSLR with a DSLM or not. If so, you should look for cameras that have the same lens mount (e.g., Canon EOS and Canon EF). Unfortunately, even mirrorless systems with the same amount do not necessarily mean that you can use them with each other.
If you're looking for a compact and lightweight camera, look for a mirrorless system. As long as the image quality is good enough, it doesn't matter whether you choose a DSLM or an entry-level DSLR.
To cut to the chase: Entry-level DSLRs are recommended if you want to use manual settings often and shoot fast action scenes (e.g., sport) or in poor lighting conditions. If you want better image quality than with an entry-level DSLR without having to spend too much money on it, get a higher-end mirrorless or DSLM instead!
The choice has different criteria depending on the photographer's individual preferences; we've only discussed some of them here.