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How to buy the best digital camera

Cheap and compact or pricey and professional – find the right one.

digital cameras in a shopping bag

Do you have a keen interest in the technical elements of photography, or are you someone who likes to point-and-click to capture those special moments?

Even for those who prefer a simpler experience with great results, the latest breed of compact and ultra zoom cameras will do the job just fine.

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What type of camera is right for you?

Finding the right camera can be a bit confusing if you're not sure what to look for. Megapixels are meaningless as a way to tell a good camera from a rubbish one. So how do you know? There are a few of types of camera to consider, each with a different level of complexity.

Compact digital cameras (basic) are small and portable, and usually an all-in-one automatic kind of deal – particularly good for casual or basic use. They sacrifice advanced features and some picture quality for compactness and simplicity. However, improved camera performance in smartphones has mostly killed this market.

Compact digital cameras (advanced) are built to a higher standard and pack some DSLR features into a smaller form factor. Better quality components and basic manual controls give you a lot more flexibility when shooting.

Ultra zoom cameras cameras are often more expensive, and have all the features of a compact, but have some advanced features as well. They're often a bit bulkier, and a good option for someone around the intermediate point in the market. Sometimes these models are also called "bridge cameras" as they are a transition from a basic compact camera to a more sophisticated DSLR (see below).

DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) cameras are the traditional things you think of when you see the word "camera." Detachable lenses can be swapped out depending on how you want to shoot, they allow full auto or manual control and bodies typically have much larger image sensors. They also have a physical shutter and mirror that opens up to expose the sensor when shooting. All these factors combined can give great image quality, but DSLRs are often quite heavy and bulky.

Mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras (aka Mirrorless or Micro four-thirds) basically reduce the size of a typical DSLR by removing the mirror, so the shutter. Otherwise they have many of the same functions, controls and sensor sizes that you'd find in a DSLR, including interchangeable lenses. This market has been growing in popularity for some time thanks to the smaller form factor that doesn't sacrifice quality.

Tough cameras are another option – they have protected features so they can be taken into most situations without fear of dropping or exposure to heat, cold, moisture and sand. The difference is how much rough–handling they can take. Their image quality and ease of use makes them a beginner to intermediate model.

Should you buy a basic, advanced or expert camera?

Are you after a beginner, advanced, expert or tough camera model?

Basic camera models 

These are designed for quick and easy use in automatic mode, which is why they're often referred to as point-and-click cameras. Though they can perform well in well-lit environments, they typically struggle in low light without the help of a flash. Also, manual settings are very limited, leaving little creative flexibility.

But that's not necessarily a bad thing, as these are more about utility than art. There's nothing wrong with wanting to sit back and let the camera do the work while you take happy snaps of friends and family. That's why basic cameras need to be small and light with simple functionality and decent image quality.

That said, these are becoming harder and harder to find as smartphones have largely replaced this option for casual users.


High-end cameras can take some time to understand but they offer unmatched flexibility and total creative control.

Advanced/enthusiast camera models

Advanced are designed for people that want good quality photos, without having to spend a tonne of money while learning all the ins and outs of photography. They have a broad selection of automatic modes and some manual functions that strike a balance between letting the camera do the work while giving you some creative control.

Some models have interchangeable lenses, others have a single built-in option. You can also find high-end compacts in this category.

Expert camera models

At this point, you need to have a good grasp on how your camera works to make the most of the tools at your disposal. Sure this takes work, but once you get your head around the technical side of things, you'll have total creative control backed up by high-end components that can result in stunning images.

They're very flexible, with a range of consumer and pro-grade lenses available, as well as other accessories such as an external flash. They're also designed to perform well in all lighting conditions provided you know how to adjust the settings.

What do cameras cost?

Here's a quick breakdown:

  • Basic: Prices range from around $80–400.
  • Advanced: Prices range from around $200–1500.
  • Expert: Price range from $500 to more than $3000.
  • Tough: Prices range from around $150–500.

Understanding camera basics

These are the standard features, functions and settings you need to get your head around to operate a camera.

Automatic and manual controls: When you turn on automatic mode your camera adjusts its settings to create what it thinks is the best possible picture, usually based on optimal exposure. This is only really effective in well-lit conditions however. Manual mode gives you the freedom to adjust these settings yourself. Many cameras also have semi-manual modes which automatically adjust some settings while you manually tweak others.

Image sensor: this is where the light falls when you're taking a photo. It records the light then uses the information to create a digital image. Sensors replaced film in digital cameras.

Aperture: an adjustable opening in the camera lens that determines how much light is coming in, while changing the depth of field. Depth of field essentially determines which parts of the photo are in and out of focus. A narrow depth of field with keep the subject in focus while softening the background, while a large depth of field will keep the whole photo in focus. Aperture is displayed as an "f-stop" with lower numbers indicating a wider opening and narrower depth of field. E.g. f/1.8 is wide whereas f/22 is much smaller.

Shutter speed: when you take a photo the shutter opens up to reveal the sensor, then closes when it's finished taking a photo. The longer it stays open the more light gets in which is a useful tool for shooting in low light conditions without a flash. However, slower shutter speeds also lead to motion blur in the photo if the subject isn't perfectly still.

ISO: this setting increases/decreases the sensors sensitivity to light. It can give images a little brightness boost where required, but bumping up the ISO will increase the amount of visual noise (aka grain) in the photo.

White balance: light comes in many colours – fluorescent is usually greenish, tungsten (like a normal household bulb) is red/orange and daylight blue to red depending on the time of day. Automatic white balance should make sure whites always appear white regardless of the lighting conditions, but sometimes you'll get a better result if you can manually override the automatic setting.

Image stabilisation: With longer lenses it can be difficult to hold the camera still, which can lead to slightly blurry pictures. Image stabilisation can help by adjusting internally for the camera movement. The best system is often referred to as 'optical anti-shake', where the lens elements move. Some cameras now have very effective mechanical system where the camera's sensor moves.

Electronic systems tend to increase the sensitivity of the sensor, open the aperture as wide as possible and use the fastest shutter speed possible. The result is often noisy as well as blurry pictures. If you're taking pictures in a low light situation or with a long lens use a tripod if possible.

Canon lens example

A good quality lens is just as important as the camera body.

Manual focusing: Manual focus is useful for situations where the automated function isn't up to the task. Low light and subjects behind glass or with little contrast can be tricky for some systems. Continuous manual focus is more useful than systems that only offer a number of pre-set distances as it allows for more precise control.

Resolution: The bigger the resolution the more storage space you'll need, but keep in mind that resolution is not always an indicator of image quality.

Shutter delay: Is how long it takes from when the shutter button is pressed until the shutter opens to take the picture. Some cameras can be pretty slow without pre-focus engaged, taking one second or more to respond – too slow to catch really spontaneous photos. Only cameras consistently at or under a third of a second should be considered for sports and other fast action.

Viewfinder: Most compact digital cameras don't have a viewfinder these days. Those that do, usually have an electronic viewfinder. Be wary of slow responses and colour shifts when in low light conditions. For cameras that don't have a viewfinder at all, you have to use the monitor on the back to frame your shot. This can cause problems seeing what you're taking in bright sunlight, though.

Understanding lenses

DSLR and mirrorless cameras both use interchangeable (removable) lenses, whereas tough, compact and ultra-zoom models have a single fixed lens. Swapping out lenses for different tasks is one of the main advantages of a DSLR or mirrorless camera. Most brands have a large range available so you can pick out some general purpose lenses, followed by more specialised ones if you get into a particular photographic niche.

The main thing you need to know about lenses is focal length, measured in millimetres. This is the distance between the camera sensor and the lens when the subject is in focus. While that doesn't mean much in practice it's used to illustrate the type of lens that you're using. For example 16mm would be considered a wide lens, 50mm would be portrait and 200mm would be telephoto. A bigger focal length equals greater magnification.

There are two main lens categories - prime and zoom.

Zoom lenses are versatile, but typically cost more, are heavier and produce slightly softer images. Prime lenses aren't convenient but they produce much sharper images. They also have a much wider aperture making them ideal for artistic and low light photography. Most zoom lenses go as far as f/2.8 whereas consumer grade prime lenses get down to around f/1.8 or f/1.4 if you're willing to spend a little more.

Within each category are broadly defined lens types. These are fisheye, ultrawide, wide, portrait, telephoto and super-telephoto. To give you an idea of what each end of the spectrum looks like, fisheye lenses were prominent in 90s alt-rock and skateboarding videos while super-telephotos are what you see lined up in the press box at sporting events.

Zoom portrait lenses are the best all-rounders as they have the ideal focal lengths for taking photos of individuals, groups, landscapes etc and just enough zoom for far away subjects. It's also worth picking up a 50mm prime lens for nice portrait shots.

Lens mounts and converters

There's a huge selection of lenses out there from all the camera brands and a bunch of third-party manufacturers as well. But each brand, and camera type (DSLR or mirrorless) uses unique mounts. This is why you can't put a Nikon lens on a Canon camera, or even mount a Canon DSLR lens on a Canon mirrorless camera.

Fortunately, manufacturers have released official converters (aka adapters) so you can attach different lens types, but they come with a caveat. Converters can change or limit certain camera functions in the lens and body.

If you use a converter to mount a Canon DSLR lens on a Canon mirrorless body, it may add a crop factor, or reduce the aperture range. Picture quality may also take a hit, but this isn't as noticeable unless you're working with pro-grade equipment. Some cameras support other lens mounts without the need for a converter, but they can still face the same sort of problems.

This isn't to say that official, first-party converters within the same brand are bad for your camera. Just bear in mind that they don't provide a one for one transition. If you're concerned, look up the specific lens/body combination you're considering online, and note how the converter will impact performance.

Canon lens adapter

This adapter lets you use Canon DSLR lenses on a Canon mirrorless body. Most major manufacturers, and some third-parties, sell these for various camera brands.

Though you can also opt for a third-party converter, there are risks involved as they can damage the electronics in your lens. This is also the case with cross-brand converters (e.g. a Nikon lens mount for Canon cameras), and specific features, such as auto-focus, may not work in these configurations.

Which camera accessories do you need

So you bought a camera and maybe a couple of lenses. Great, now it's time to grab everything else. Regardless of whether you bought a compact or top end DSLR, there are a handful of essential accessories you're going to need:


Memory cards: cameras don't come with memory cards or internal storage (and if they do it's minimal). Pretty much every consumer grade camera uses SD cards these days so remember to pick a couple up. Rather than buying one large card, say 16GB, we recommend picking up two smaller ones such as two 8GB cards. Spreading your photos across two cards like this means that you don't lose all your photos if one goes missing on a trip, for example.

Memory card speed: This isn't really an issue if you're just shooting stills, but you'll need a a high-speed card if you want to capture 1080p or 4K video. 60-90 megabits per second (MB/s), is suitable for 1080p up to 60 frames per second (fps), and 4K at 24 fps. Shooting 4K at anything higher than 24fps, requires a much faster card, up to 300 MB/s.

Carry bag: Not only does this make transport easier, a good quality bag protects your gear and can keep everything in one place including extra memory cards, batteries, lenses and so on.

Extra batteries: a fully charged backup battery will always come in handy. You'd be surprised at how quickly a camera can run dry when you're taking photos all day long.

Cleaning cloth: your lens will get dirty and smudged and that will show up in your photos, which is why you need to keep a cleaning cloth on hand. These are similar to the soft cloths that are used to clean glasses. Other items like towels or clothing can work in a pinch but the material is much more abrasive and can scratch the lens, so they're best avoided.

Screen protector: low-cost clear plastic adhesive designed to protect the LCD screen, similar to a phone protector. You can easily cut one down to size if it's too big for your camera.

UV lens filter: lens filters screw onto the front of DSLR and mirrorless lenses to create different image effects. Though the purpose of a UV filter is to cut UV light it also protects the lens from damage without impacting photos. Why is this important? If the UV filter gets damaged, it'll cost $200 max to replace (depending on the size). If the actual lens glass gets damaged, you're looking at hundreds of dollars in repairs and at least a week or two without that lens while it's in for service. Buy and attach a UV filter to every lens in your kit.

External flash: if you purchased a fancy camera with a hot shoe (the technical term for a flash mount) then grab an external flash. Even if the camera has one built-in an external flash will almost always deliver better results.


Now that you've spent all the money on essential items, you can round out your kit with these optional accessories.

Memory card reader: although you can transfer images directly from your camera to a computer, memory card readers are usually much faster.

Tripod: a three-legged mount that keeps the camera perfectly steady. A tripod is essential if you're using slow shutter speeds to shoot in low light conditions but they're also useful if you don't want to keep a camera hanging around your neck all day.

Monopod: a one-legged version of the tripod designed to strike a balance between stability and portability. You still need to hold the camera and keep movement in mind, but being able to balance it on the ground still improves stability.

Hard drive: external storage is important for backing up your photos while traveling, especially if you're shooting in high quality/uncompressed formats as these will quickly fill the SD card. Some hard drives come with a built-in SD slot so you can directly transfer photos, videos etc without a computer and others have WiFi which can connect to some cameras.

Remote: these plug into your camera so you can take a photo without needing to touch the body at all. They're mainly used for very slow shutter speed shoots, where pressing the button on the body can cause slight motion blur.

Waterproof casing: obviously important if you want to do underwater photography and also worth considering if you're going to be shooting in damp or wet conditions.

How to recycle your old camera

You should have absolutely no trouble re-homing your old camera unless its beyond the point of repair. In that case, it's easy enough to recycle.

Sell it

There are plenty of budding photographers out there that don't have the money to buy brand new gear and your old camera could get their new hobby off the ground. Online marketplaces like eBay and Gumtree are your best options though your local camera store might buy second hand gear as well. This includes old film cameras.

Just don't expect to make much money. Used camera bodies depreciate pretty quickly so don't set the price too high when you put yours online. Lenses, however, can retain a bit more value especially if you're selling one that's no longer in production.

DSLR, mirrorless and high-end compact cameras will generally sell on the aftermarket. You may be able to shift a decent ultra-zoom camera as well, but a basic compact camera will need a pretty steep markdown as they've been largely replaced by smartphones.

Donate it

While the technology that powers cameras has improved over time, core functions and photography rules remain largely unchanged. An older model can be a great hand me down gift for a family member or friend that wants to give it a try before they commit to buying newer, more expensive, equipment.

Otherwise most charities will take camera gear that's in good working order. Salvos will accept it, Vinnies might depending on the store but The Red Cross won't take any electrical goods. You can also try contacting smaller local charities or community organisations in your area.

Recycle it

Digital cameras aren't covered by the National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme (NTCRS) so you may need to ring around before finding a service that will accept your old one. Start by looking for electrical appliance recycling services in the Recycling Near You database.

Dead batteries need to be recycled separately. Fortunately Recycling Near You has an entirely separate database devoted to them here.

JB Hi-Fi and The Good Guys will also recycle your old soundbar via a partnership with Ecoactive. All you need to do is head to the Ecoactive website, enter your details and the items you'd like to recycle, and a staff member will get in touch.

Don't forget to check out the e-waste services run by your local council. Most will take small electrical appliances, including cameras. For example, the Inner West council in NSW (where CHOICE is located) accepts them as well as old batteries.

Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.