Sure, you can take snapshots with your cellphone, and often that’s all you need. But to capture those beautiful shots of important events or incredible scenery, you have to take you gear up a notch.
We chose our favorite high-quality cameras in three categories to explain the tradeoffs for each (mainly heft versus features). Happy shooting!
HIGH-END COMPACT CAMERAS
What are they?
These are the big brothers to those point-and-shoot models people carry around in their pocket. Though a bit larger, they will still fit in a purse or a coat pocket, making them the smallest of the three camera types here. High-end compacts are loaded with tools and features you’d find in bigger, more professional models.
Our Pick: Canon PowerShot G1 X
Like other cameras in this category, the 14-megapixel G1 X ($800) has an image sensor that’s much larger than what’s inside a point-and-shoot model. In fact, it’s nearly the size of sensors in big pro- and semi-pro DSLR cameras (more about them below).
A larger sensor absorbs more light — ideal for shooting in dim settings. You'll capture crisper images of your friends and family at parties or during a night out on the town — without having to nuke them with the flash. Your images will also have more detail when you enlarge them.
MIRRORLESS COMPACT SYSTEM CAMERAS
What are they?
The clunky name basically means small camera with big features. You can change the lenses to create different looks in your photos — such as an extreme wide-angle — just like you can with a pro camera. They also have large image sensors that capture tons of rich detail and color.
Our Pick: Sony Alpha NEX-7
Without a lens attached, the 24-megapixel Sony Alpha NEX-7 ($1,200, body only) is nearly as small and slim as some point-and-shoots. While mounting a lens on the NEX-7 makes it quite a bit bigger, it also increases the range of what you can do photographically.
For instance, add the 50mm portrait lens ($300) and adjust it to a large aperture (lens opening) to shoot brighter images in dark conditions. That setting also creates a blurred effect in the background of your photos while keeping your subject razor-sharp, giving portraits a professional look.
What are they?
With many of the features of those monster cameras you see on the sidelines of the big game or covering news around world, consumer DSLRs are a great bridge into serious photography. In addition to having huge, light-grabbing sensors and the ability to mount a variety of quality lenses, DSLRs are very fast. Firing bursts of up to five photos per second, they make it easy to get the shot.
Our Pick: Nikon D5100
The 16-megapixel Nikon D5100 ($850, body only) may look like a scaled-down version of Nikon’s professional DSLRs but it’s packed with many of the same features, such as a high-grade image sensor. The Nikon D5100 also makes a dynamite video camera, able to shoot 1080p high-definition movies with autofocus and stereo sound.
A consumer DLSR like the Nikon D5100 opens you up to the world of high-quality lenses. Put on the 40mm close-up lens ($280), for example, and you’ll be able to capture life-size pictures of insects and flowers with incredible sharpness and detail worthy of National Geographic.