Digital Cameras to Buy in 2021

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Purchasing a digital camera is no longer the same as it was a few years ago. Because smartphone cameras are improving all the time, there are fewer purchasers for low-cost pocket cameras. As a result, there aren’t many goods, low-cost point-and-shoot cameras. Meanwhile, due to larger autofocus coverage and better video performance on average, SLRs have taken a back seat to smaller, lighter mirrorless cameras in terms of performance.

You can still acquire a pocket-friendly camera, but you’ll have to spend a little more to get one that takes better pictures than a flagship smartphone. We’ve included a waterproof model, the Olympus TG-6, as well as a couple of point-and-shoots from Canon’s G series, both with picture sensors much larger than smartphones, so you get a bit more zoom power and comparable quality in low light.

There are still a few pocket superzooms on the market, but you’re better off getting a bridge model like the mainstream Canon SX70 HS or the high-end Sony RX10 IV if you want a camera with extraordinary zoom capabilities. They’re a touch bigger, but that means superior lenses may be used to bring distant scenes into focus.

Full-frame cameras are often preferred by more serious photographers. The Sony a7 III is our top selection, and while it isn’t the most recent, it can compete with newer, more expensive cameras. The Canon EOS R6 is also a favorite of ours, and while we didn’t list Nikon Z or Panasonic L-mount models here, you’ll find them among our more targeted full-frame recommendations. Each year, we test and review hundreds of cameras, and we’ve featured a few of our favorites here. We sought to cover a wide range of price ranges in this broader review, so some excellent cameras, such as the 5-star Nikon D850, aren’t included. For photographers who know what type of camera they want to buy, we have more tailored recommendation lists that will serve you better once you’ve decided on a specific camera. In the following sections, you can navigate to any of them.

Entry-Level Point-and-Shoot Cameras are Small and Light

Smartphones have had a significant impact on the market for entry-level point-and-shoot cameras. The iPhone 12 Pro Max, Apple’s most recent model, has a better camera than any low-cost model, while Android users can take fantastic photos with phones like the Samsung Galaxy S21 and the OnePlus 9, which is powered by Hasselblad. It has a premium price tag, but if you’re already purchasing a high-end phone, there’s no reason to also purchase a low-end camera. If you’ve taken to smartphone photography, check out our top camera phone options for inspiration.

You can buy any number of sub-$100 no-name cameras at internet merchants if you don’t have a smartphone, but I’d avoid them like the plague. You can purchase a model from a name brand like Canon, Fujifilm, or Nikon if you spend more than $100.

These slimline cameras include zoom lenses, which distinguish them from smartphones, however, they mostly use old CCD sensor technology, which reduces image quality when shooting at high ISO settings and limits video quality to 720p.

More contemporary CMOS image sensors and very long zoom lenses—30x is the standard at this time—are available at the $200 to $400 price point. The majority of the video is still 1080p, and some cameras have small electronic viewfinders, Raw shooting capabilities, and lightning-fast autofocus. The image quality isn’t significantly higher than that of a smartphone, with the zoom lens providing the only true advantage. In this price range, there are various waterproof models to choose from.

Bridge Cameras

A bridge camera is a fixed-lens camera that is similar in size and shape to an SLR. Electronic viewfinders, hot shoes, and articulating back displays are common on these models, which feature extremely long lenses (up to 83x zoom power in 1/2.3-inch sensor variants). A bridge camera maybe your best alternative if you need zoom, but keep in mind that it won’t handle dim light as well as an SLR.

Premium bridge variants with larger 1-inch sensors and shorter zooms are also available. Even with comparable zooms, they still offer a size advantage over SLRs—consider carrying an interchangeable lens camera and two or three lenses to cover a 24-200mm, 24-400mm, or 24-600mm coverage range. They are more expensive than SLRs, and certainly more expensive than bridge versions with lower sensors, but they perform better at higher ISOs and have lenses that gather more light. Consider a bridge model with a 1-inch sensor if you value portability and desire the versatility that a long zoom design provides. Just be aware that you will have to pay a premium.

Travelers’ Favorite Cameras

Bridge models, unsurprisingly, are just about perfect for globetrotters. You won’t have to mess with lens adjustments because they offer a large zoom range. You can also shoot in different sorts of light if you choose a quality 1-inch model. However, you might choose to travel with a different type of camera.

A point-and-shoot camera is a good option if you want something more budget-friendly. However, be prepared to part with a little cash to receive something worthy of your far-flung travels. Because of its bright lens and sturdy design, I recommend the Olympus TG-6 to the rough-and-tumble crowd.

Reach for a premium compact camera like a Sony RX100 model or a Canon G7 X for more relaxing travels, and appreciate the camera’s comfy form factor and image quality that’s somewhat better than your smartphone.

A nice mirrorless camera (and a couple of lenses) will fit easily into a small bag and provide photographs and films worthy of sharing with friends and family back home if you don’t mind carrying anything larger. The Sony a6100 appears to be a highly capable and economical option (we haven’t had a chance to test it), and there are more stylish alternatives such as the Fujifilm X-E3.

SLR and Mirrorless Interchangeable Lenses for Beginners

For a long time, we divided mirrorless cameras and SLRs into two categories. However, that time has passed, and there are no performance trade-offs to be made by going mirrorless. In many circumstances, switching from an SLR to a camera without a flipping mirror will improve autofocus and image quality.

We’ve been unhappy that capabilities found in mirrorless cameras, such as tilting touch screens and wireless networking, have taken a long time to reach SLRs. Similarly, while Canon’s higher-end SLRs have improved video autofocus, users would be better off with a low-cost mirrorless model if they want rapid, smooth autofocus when shooting moving photographs.

If you’re not familiar with the phrase, a mirrorless camera lacks the mirror that transmits light from the lens to an optical viewfinder. SLRs, of course, continue to provide this service. The removal of the mirror box allows for a smaller design with fewer moving components and more precise autofocus. And, with the current models, autofocus is lightning fast. You won’t miss shooting with an SLR because it’s so quick.

If you don’t mind going without a viewfinder and instead use the LCD to frame your photographs, you can get a good mirrorless camera with a kit lens for under $500. Different manufacturers support different lens formats, much as they do with SLRs. If you buy a Sony mirrorless camera, you’ll be limited to Sony E and FE lenses, however, if you buy a Fujifilm mirrorless camera, you’ll be restricted to the X lens system.

The Micro Four Thirds system, a lens format shared by Olympus and Panasonic and used by more specialized movie cameras from firms like Blackmagic, is an exception. The MFT sensor format is slightly smaller and has a 4:3 aspect ratio, as opposed to the 3:2 ratio utilized by most SLRs.

Entry-level SLRs with typical optical viewfinders are available from Canon, Nikon, and Pentax, while other camera manufacturers have gone mirrorless.

When it comes to video autofocus, traditional SLRs struggle. When refocusing to follow a moving topic, contrast-based approaches demand that the focus point go slightly beyond the point of crisp focus and then return to it in order to lock on, which can be distracting. Although SLR manufacturers have sought to remedy this by using lenses with Pulse or Stepping Motors, which are quieter and smoother during focus, they are still not on par with most mirrorless cameras.

With entry-level mirrorless devices that rely solely on contrast for focus, you’ll get the back-and-forth effect. However, it’s not as dramatic as with SLRs, and by the time you’ve moved up to a midrange price point—which is actually comparable to the price of entry-level SLR models—on-sensor phase-detection begins to appear.

Premium Mirrorless and SLR Cameras for Serious Photographers

When you spend more than $1,000 on a camera, you don’t always get a significant improvement in image quality over cheaper versions. Camera manufacturers like to standardize sensors throughout a series of models since it allows them to develop a technology once and utilize it across their whole catalog.

Better build quality, faster memory card slots for longer burst shooting, and greater capture rates are all common benefits of spending more money. All of these are vital for sports photographers who want to capture fast action and outdoor photographers who want to be protected from the elements.

Don’t overlook the importance of lenses and accessories. You should consider not only the features of the camera you’re considering but also if the complete system satisfies your requirements. There are a few different lens systems to think about.

Micro Four Thirds cameras may employ Olympus or Panasonic lenses, giving them an advantage in terms of the sheer number of lenses available, which includes fish-eye, ultra-wide angle, and extreme telephoto primes and zooms. Fujifilm has a diverse lens lineup, including a 100-400mm zoom lens that may be used with a teleconverter for even greater reach.

Since its debut, Sony’s mirrorless system has progressed in leaps and bounds. Its APS-C (E) and full-frame (FE) lenses share the same lens mount. Native solutions are available up to 600mm, with teleconverters to enhance reach, and third-party support is rapidly expanding.

Customers choosing one of Canon’s two mirrorless systems are in for a tangled situation. The full-frame EOS R and the APS-C EOS M systems use two different lens mounts that are not interchangeable. However, both may use EF and EF-S SLR lenses with the help of an adapter.

So far, Canon’s plan has been rather apparent. The EOS M and its EF-M lenses are the way to go if you appreciate a tiny camera and don’t want to spend a lot of money on glass. The EOS R and its RF lenses are ideal for professionals and hobbyists who are willing to invest in F2.8 zooms and pricey primes.

Nikon has followed Sony’s lead and employs the same Z mount on both APS-C (DX) and full-frame (FX) mirrorless cameras. Using an adapter, either may use F-mount SLR lenses. The adapter’s only drawback is that it does not support focus for older screw-driven lenses. Internal focus motors are found in practically all Nikon lenses from the digital age.

Of course, there are others. The APS-C X-mount and the medium format G-mount are both available from Fujifilm. The venerable K-mount is still alive and well at Pentax. The mirrorless L-mount, which is found in cameras from Leica, Panasonic, and Sigma, is another option. The Panasonic S5 is the first L-mount camera to receive our Editors’ Choice award, and Sigma is doing a particularly fine job of expanding the lens system.

While photographers who wish to capture distant scenes and use telephoto lenses will like the versatility provided by the APS-C and Micro Four Thirds sensor sizes, there are also a number of full-frame models intended straight at hobbyists. The full-frame format, so named because it has the same physical dimensions as 35mm film, is an excellent choice for landscapes, portraits, event photography, and reportage. When coupled with wide aperture glass, the bigger sensor gives you more control over the depth of field.

You have a lot of options if you’re looking for an interchangeable lens camera and your budget is between $1,000 and $2,500. Perhaps there are too many. If you’ve already invested in a system, you’d have to find a significantly better deal, because devices in this price bracket are relatively similar in terms of features, performance, and image quality.

If you’re buying into a system or don’t want to invest a lot of money in lenses and accessories, the first thing I’d recommend is deciding which lenses you want in your bag and factoring in the costs. If the lenses you’re intending to buy are much less expensive than the competition, you could discover that paying a little more on a body is worthwhile.

There are also the camera’s own capabilities to consider. You may place a high value on autofocus and burst recording rate, in which case you should look for APS-C cameras that excel in those areas. If you prefer to take landscapes or portraits, a full-frame camera is a better choice because you can spend more money on the sensor size and quality rather than the focus system.

Another option to consider is whether to use an optical or electronic viewfinder. Modern EVFs are fantastic, and they refresh quickly enough to keep up with fast-moving action. You’ll be astonished at how far they’ve come if you haven’t used one in a few years. However, for some photographers, an optical viewfinder is indispensable, hence an SLR will be preferred over a mirrorless camera.

Full-frame and medium-format options are available for professionals

Professional photographers nearly always use Canon, Nikon, or Sony cameras, although there are several excellent options. Most working photographers choose one of the most popular systems for a variety of reasons, including a great selection of pro-grade bodies and lenses, a robust support system, and the comfort that comes with years of use. That’s not to say you can’t move in a different direction.

On the sidelines of professional sports, you’ll notice larger cameras. They don’t have as much resolution as SLRs used to cover weddings and events, but they can shoot at significantly greater burst rates—usually around 10 frames per second with continuous tracking and exposure—and the Sony a1 can shoot at 30 frames per second in Raw mode.

You enter the realm of medium format photography once you’ve gone beyond full-frame. Anything larger than 35mm and smaller than 4-by-5-inch was referred to as medium format in the film days.

That’s a wide range of possibilities. You get the 33 by 44mm sensor size with digital, which is utilized by most mirrorless cameras under $10,000, including Pentax’s SLR bodies and mirrorless alternatives from Fujifilm and Hasselblad.

At the upper end, you can get a sensor that measures 54 by 40mm, which is nearly the same as the 645 film size. So yet, we’ve only examined one of these cameras: the exorbitantly priced Phase One XF IQ4 150MP. It captures raw images at 150MP resolution, which is overkill for the great majority of photographers, especially since a 100MP Fujifilm GFX100S can be purchased for roughly $6,000.

If you’re reading this, it’s because you’re either looking to buy a new camera or you’re a camera lover. What are your thoughts on this article? If it was helpful to you, please leave a comment below.

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