For many people, there comes a time in life when you need a camera. A high-end camera. Not the one inside your smartphone.
Maybe you've just graduated from college and you're planning to take a vagabond tour through Asia before settling on a career path. Maybe you've just welcomed your first child into the world and you want to record every breath-taking moment of her infancy. And maybe you've reached retirement age and, at long last, purchased that RV—and now you want to capture each glorious sunset you see in the U.S. national park system.
The point is, you want high-quality photos and you don't mind spending a little extra money to get them. A few years ago, you would have been shopping for an SLR—one of the big, heavy cameras with interchangeable lenses that pros have used for decades. But now there are more choices, and you might even want (gasp) a point-and-shoot. Yes, really.
Let's say you have some budget for a high-end camera—around $1,000. At that price, you'll find good options in three flavors: SLR (or single-lens reflex), mirrorless, and advanced point-and-shoot. The first two types let you swap in a variety of lenses, which improves versatility. The third type has a single non-detachable lens, but you can get all the manual controls that were once restricted to SLRs.
The most important thing is that in each category you'll find models with large image sensors and high-quality lenses, which are the key features needed to produce great pictures. And all three camera types each offer advanced features such as high dynamic range technology, which can help you capture crisper images in tough lighting situations, and 4K video recording.
But high-end cameras have their differences, too. Here's what you need to know to make a great choice.
For decades, film SLRs set the standard for performance and operation in the camera world, and in recent years digital SLRs have taken on that mantle.
One big advantage of an SLR is that it lets you change lenses, switching from, say, a zoom to a wide angle to a telephoto. Many digital SLRs can accept a large number of lenses from the original manufacturer and others, so if you want to build up a collection of lenses, an SLR could be for you. Another advantage of SLRs—and their defining characteristic—is that they use a mirror-and-prism system to let you see through the lens to compose your shot, instead of relying exclusively on an LCD. They also generally have more physical controls, like buttons, levers and knobs, which allow you to quickly access a setting on your camera. Most other cameras force you to dive into the camera's menu system.
While these cameras used to be very pricey, you can now buy an SLR camera body for $700 or less, thanks to a highly competitive market. Entry-level models usually come with a single-kit lens, but I suggest looking for a two-lens kit. The standard combination is an 18-55mm zoom and a 55-200mm zoom. You can find other options, though. The Canon Rebel T5i, for example, is available at a few retailers with an 18-55mm zoom and a 75-300mm zoom. I've seen similar deals for the Nikon D3300.
If you're looking for an SLR with a rugged build, consider the Canon EOS 70D, a camera that also excels at autofocus. For about $1,200, you can buy it with a two-lens kit (18-55mm and 55-250mm).
These cameras are very popular among consumers, especially travelers, because they resemble SLRs in both their look and their capabilities, but they can be much smaller and lighter. In fact, a mirrorless camera was used to capture the rich color and the dramatic depth of field in the guitar picture (see below). As you can see, the strings and the wood grain at the very tip of the head are the only elements in sharp focus. It takes a quality lens with a wide aperture (f/2.8 or f/2) to create such stunning effects in low light. So, in many ways, mirrorless cameras very much match the quality you'll get with an SLR.
Mirrorless cameras don't have a through-the-lens viewfinder system, like SLRs. Instead, many models come with a high quality, electronic viewfinder that provides an accurate view of what the lens will see when it captures the shot. And you can still swap lenses to greatly boost the versatility of your camera system. However, there aren't quite as many lenses (yet) to choose among, largely because mirrorless cameras haven't been around as long.
The top professional-quality cameras on the market are still SLRs, but mirrorless cameras are quickly catching up in the image quality they can produce. And virtually any amateur shooter should get be able to get all the camera he or she wants from the right mirrorless model.
Some of the top models are quite pricey. For example, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH4 is $2,200. However, we found it worth the high price, since it has very good image quality for photos and excellent video quality. And it's fast, firing off 12 frames per second in burst mode, and has an excellent quality swiveling, touchscreen LCD that allows you to set focus and shoot by touching the display.
But you can find some bargains, as well. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-G7K, for example, sells for $800, but also has very good image quality for photos and video. It also has an excellent quality LCD, though our testers found it wasn't quite as easy to use as the GH4.
Many consumers will find it easy to understand why a mirrorless camera can compete with an SLR—they both have interchangeable lenses, for one thing. Point-and-shoots can be a tougher sell for someone who wants a great camera. But if you're not planning to change lenses, you should really consider buying an advanced point-and-shoot. These cameras are portable, versatile, and easy to use. And, some point-and-shoots now deliver better picture quality than many SLRs and mirrorless models (when tested with a kit lens). And, two models from Sony—the $1,200 Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 II and the $950 Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 IV—offer better video quality than most SLRs.
Of course, with an advanced point-and-shoot, you have to be satisfied with the one lens you'll be using. And that goes not just for the quality of the glass, but for its other characteristics. The RX10 II, for instance, has a decent 8.3x optical zoom, which helps make it a good travel camera.
Another feature we like on that camera is that you can open up the aperture to a wide f/2.8 no matter how close you zoom in on your subject. This means you can take a shot with shallow depth-of-field even at the telephoto end of the zoom, to produce more professional-looking photos (like the two images in this article of the gymnast and fan). In contrast, the apertures with most cameras' zooms get smaller as you increase the zoom. The bottom line? In some measures of quality, a great point-and-shoot can beat many SLRs and mirrorless models.
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