Beginner's Guide to Digital Cameras

So, you’ve decided to jump into (or return to) the world of digital photography. Welcome—it’s a fascinating journey ahead!

The big question is: which camera should you buy?

You only need to go online or to any camera store to see that there are literally hundreds of options on the market, all with different features and benefits.

We get it; it can be intimidating. But fear not! We here at CameraPro can help you through this potentially overwhelming process.


First things first. There are five main categories of digital cameras on the market today:

  • DSLR (digital single-lens reflex)
  • Mirrorless
  • Compact
  • Bridge
  • Action

What Are DSLR Cameras?

The DSLR as we know it today is the digital version of the SLR (35mm film) camera, recording images on digital sensor rather than film.

DSLRs replaced film SLR cameras in the early 2000s and, despite the recent rise of mirrorless cameras, DSLRs still hold a large share of the market today.

So, how does a DSLR work? Simply put, light comes in via the camera lens, then the movable mechanical mirror inside the camera directs that light to a focusing screen (via a condenser lens and pentaprism/pentamirror) to the optical viewfinder above. This process lets the photographer see what’s in front of the lens.

To take an image, the shutter button is pressed, the mirror swings up, the focal plane shutter opens to reveal the sensor, and the image is captured on the camera’s sensor. 

It’s worth noting that not all DSLR cameras are the same, as each contains one of two different types of image sensor:

  • APS-C (often referred to as cropped sensor) – 23.60 x 15.60mm (or 22.20 x 14.80mm in the case of Canon)
  • Full frame / 35mm (the size of a 35mm piece of film) – 36.00 x 24.00mm

While knowing how the DSLR works is great, it doesn’t really answer the question: Is a DSLR right for you? Let’s think of it this way.

What sort of photography can I create with a DSLR camera?

Due to the ability to change the lens on a DSLR, DSLR cameras are suited to a wide range of photography. The type of photography you can create— be it portraits, wildlife, sports, travel, architecture, landscapes or street photography—depends largely on the lens you use.

Who should buy a DSLR camera?

DSLR cameras are often the choice for professional photographers due to their durability. Some entry level DSLRs will offer ‘Auto’ mode, which lets the camera do most of the thinking for you; however, more advanced models will not.

Here are some key advantages of the DSLR system:

  1. Interchangeable lenses! Being able to change the lens on your camera means you have more creative control. There’s a wide range of lenses to choose from to help you with all sorts of shooting scenarios, from prime and macro to wide or telephoto zoom. Interchangeable lenses also mean more room to grow as a photographer. It’s lenses that make the biggest difference to image quality, and having different lenses enables you to explore different styles and genres.
  2. DSLRs have bigger sensors than most other camera types. And a bigger sensor = high resolution, high quality images—great if you want to print your images really large! If you’re planning to print your images larger than A2 size or want to see a certain level of detail in your prints, it’s preferable to get a camera with a sensor that’s at least 24 megapixels. However, it’s worth noting that most APS-C (cropped sensor) DSLRs, mirrorless and compact cameras will produce an image suitable for printing A4 size.
  3. Often considered the best choice for professionals due their high quality design, professional model DSLRs are built for daily use. Some DSLRs are also weather sealed for use in inclement conditions.
  4. Full manual controls = more creative control. Shoot in full manual mode to control the shutter speed, ISO, and aperture exactly how you like! Don’t worry, though; most DSLRs come with other modes so you don’t have to shoot manually. This effectively means you can choose a camera that can grow with your skill. Automatic and semiautomatic shooting options allow newbies to get up to speed without feeling overwhelmed, while the provision to go full manual when you’re ready will mean you won’t outgrow the camera too quickly.
  5. Optical Viewfinder (OVF): due to the design of the DSLR, what you see in the viewfinder is what you get. 
    Optical viewfinders provide much better clarity, better dynamic range (roughly, ability to resolve scenes with extreme differences in brightness) and an instantaneous view of the action lacking the delay found in some electronic viewfinder (EVF) systems. 
    (It’s worth nothing that there are two types of viewfinders: optical (OVF) and electronic (EVF). Electronic viewfinders use a tiny electronic display much like the larger LCD screen on the back of most digital cameras, whereas optical viewfinders use mirrors and prisms to represent the view of a scene.)
  6. Longer battery life = more shooting time! That is, approximately 1000 shots per charge. DSLR batteries typically last a lot longer than other types of digital camera batteries, as a DSLR camera ‘sleeps’ whenever your finger isn’t on the shutter button. It can shoot without using the LCD screen or an EVF, both of which consume a lot of power. However, we’d always recommend always having a spare battery in your back pocket, no matter which camera you buy. 

The main downsides to owning a DSLR are:

  1. Size and weight. Due to their design, DSLRs and their lenses are typically much more robust but also larger and heavier than other types of cameras and lenses. While a DSLR produces beautiful images, if it’s uncomfortably heavy to carry around, you’re less likely to get out there and actually use it.
  2. Cost. Typically DSLR cameras are more expensive than their mirrorless counterparts.  

Examples of DSLRs on the market today:

Full Frame Sensor

Full Frame Sensor

Crop Frame Sensor

Full Frame Sensor

Full Frame Sensor

Crop Frame Sensor


What Are Mirrorless Cameras?

The biggest difference between mirrorless and DSLR cameras is that mirrorless cameras have (you guessed it) no mirror. Mirrorless cameras use electronics rather than mechanics like DSLRs do.

Mirrorless cameras are a great choice for those wanting an interchangeable lens camera, but not the size and weight of a DSLR. We’ve met many professional photographers who have made the switch from DSLR to mirrorless camera systems because of the smaller size and weight.

High end mirrorless cameras are just as capable as DSLRs of creating beautifully polished images, so it’s worth bearing in mind that a high end mirrorless camera would give you as much room to grow as a DSLR would. As with everything in photography, it’s about what works best for you.

How does a mirrorless camera work?

Compared to DSLRs, mirrorless cameras work quite simply. 

Without a mirror or pentaprism, mirrorless cameras do not use an optical viewfinder. This allows for smaller camera bodies and (usually) more compact lenses. Instead of an optical viewfinder, mirrorless cameras feature a high resolution electronic viewfinder that takes a live feed directly from the mirrorless camera sensor itself.

When the camera’s shutter button is pressed, the shutter opens to reveal the sensor and the image is then captured on the camera’s sensor.

What sort of photography can I create with a mirrorless camera?

Since you can change the lens at any time, mirrorless cameras are great all rounders. As with DSLRs, the type of photography you can create— be it portraits, wildlife, sports, travel, architecture, landscapes or street photography—depends largely on the lens you use.

Who should buy a mirrorless camera?

Mirrorless cameras are great for those who want to have creative control over their photography but less size and weight than a DSLR. 

A variety of skill levels are suited to mirrorless cameras as they often have both full manual controls, and auto mode.  

Some of the main advantages of the mirrorless camera system include:

  1. Interchangeable lenses = creative control!
  2. Smaller size and weight than a DSLR = more portability. Without a mirror, mirrorless camera bodies are smaller in size than DSLRs, which makes them great for travel.
  3. A great step up from a compact camera due to the bigger sensor and interchangeable lenses.
  4. Autofocus systems improving all the time—in some models, better than that of a similar spec DSLR.
  5. Mechanically simpler than DSLR (fewer moving parts inside the camera).
  6. Full time ‘live view’ with fast autofocus. The camera will give you an image preview on the screen, and the electronic viewfinder (EVF) simulates the optical viewfinder of the DSLR.

The main disadvantages of the mirrorless camera system are:

  1. Some models aren’t built as robustly as some DSLRs, even at entry level. Generally speaking, the most robust cameras are professional quality DSLRs.
  2. Shorter battery life – approximately 400 shots per charge. Unlike DSLRs, mirrorless cameras need to constantly power the EVF and the LCD screen when shooting. That said, we’d always recommend having a spare battery in your back pocket, no matter which camera you buy. 

Examples of Mirrorless cameras we love that are on the market today:


What Are Bridge Cameras?

Bridge cameras are a great choice for the photographer who doesn’t want to have to worry about changing lenses – just grab the camera and you’re good to go!

Bridge cameras have built-in zoom lenses, offering flexibility while keeping the camera and lens size smaller than a DSLR.

These cameras are often referred to as ‘fixed lens’ cameras. Their name comes from bridging the gap between compact cameras and DSLRs.

What sort of photography can I create with a bridge camera?

Who should buy a bridge camera?

Bridge cameras are great because they often have super zoom lenses. Capture birds and wildlife, take it travelling or out to the markets on the weekend, or photograph your kids and pets.

Bridge cameras are great for beginners as you don’t need to worry about changing the lens, and often they offer a variety of auto modes.

A bridge camera is a great choice because:

  1. It’s a ‘Do it all’ camera, with super long zoom lens built in = very versatile
  2. It often have DSLR style controls and features  
  3. It’s a big step up in quality from a compact
  4. Bridge camera = bang for buck! Great value as you don’t need to buy lenses separately.

The main disadvantages of a Bridge camera are:

  1. Their autofocus systems rarely match those of DSLRs in terms of responsiveness and speed.
  2. Sensor size is smaller than that of a DSLR and can limit image quality.

What Are Compact Cameras?

Compact cameras are characterised by their small size, and their ‘all in one’ build with lens attached. These cameras are often referred to as ‘fixed lens’ cameras, as you can’t take the lens off.

There’s a wide range of compact camera models to choose from; however, at CameraPro we only stock the best quality compact cameras with excellent picture quality (some entry level compact cameras aren’t really better than your mobile phone). Top quality compact cameras will produce images as good as you’d get from some entry level DSLRs.

What sort of photography can I create with a compact camera?

Who should buy a compact camera?

Compact cameras are versatile; use them while travelling, do street photography or take them to a party on Saturday night. Some models are also waterproof—perfect for snorkelling trips (or Saturday night parties).

Anyone wanting a small sized camera to put in your back pocket. Compact cameras are also good for beginners as they have fewer buttons, and often have a variety of automatic modes.

Main advantages of a compact camera:

  1. Great step up from your mobile phone or action camera: larger sensors (and therefore higher picture quality), more exposure control.
  2. Smaller and lighter than DSLR, mirrorless or bridge cameras, they’re easy to hold so you’ll be more inclined to take them with you. As the photographer’s saying goes: the best camera is the one you have with you!
  3. Some compact cameras have super zoom lenses, making them very versatile.
  4. Can sometimes shoot in RAW file format.
  5. Often can shoot HD (or sometimes even 4K) video.
  6. Great as a second camera when you don’t want to carry a DSLR or mirrorless camera.

Some disadvantages of a compact camera are:

  1. Inability to change lenses.
  2. Can sometimes be more expensive than some bridge cameras.
  3. Battery life is generally shorter than that of a DSLR or mirrorless camera.

What Are Action Cameras?

Want to capture all the adventures life throws at you, no matter the conditions? An action camera could be a great choice for you.

Action cameras are typically very small in size and built to withstand the harshest of conditions.

What sort of photography can I create with an action camera?

Who should buy an action camera?

Capture the action with a super wide angle view! Take it snowboarding or attach it to your dog’s collar.

Action cameras are great for beginners as they are easy to use (though they create a very different look from a standard camera due to their fixed wide angle view and limited manual controls). Action cameras are also a good choice for anyone starting out with capturing video.

What makes action cameras a smart choice?:

  1. Easy to use—with fewer manual controls, action cameras are very simple to use.
  2. Ability to capture still images and video. Shoot HD or in some cases even 4K video.
  3. Super great for travel as they’re very small and lightweight.
  4. Take them with you anywhere! Attach your action camera to your skateboard, bike helmet, surfboard, or dog’s collar.
  5. Affordable compared to other categories of camera.

The main disadvantages of an action camera are:

  1. The lens is fixed, often extreme wide angle – meaning you can’t zoom in or out
  2. Little to no control over exposure. Due to action cameras’ compact design, there aren’t a lot of options for creative control.

What now?

As you can see, the right camera for you is a blend of many factors including your intention, experience and budget.

This post covers the basics of choosing which one is right for you. However, if you have any questions, we’re always happy to advise; at CameraPro we are all about helping every photographer, no matter where you are in your journey.

Want a simple explanation of what camera exposure settings mean?  Check out our blog article, Playing with Light: Exposure 101.

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