There's a digital camera for photographers of all skill levels
Whether you're a novice photographer or a seasoned pro, there's a compact digital camera that's right for you. Luckily, you don't have to break your budget to capture impressive photos and videos, tests show. Good budget-priced cameras can be had for under $200, while full-featured digital cameras start at around $450.
There are three main types of cameras:
- Digital cameras. These pocket-sized workhorses deliver better-quality photos than under-$200 point-and-shoot cheap digital cameras (which we cover in a separate category). They can handle challenging situations -- dim light, super close-up macros and fast action -- that stymie cheaper cameras. They'll also give you more control over settings, so you can get creative with your shots. Expect to pay $450 to $750, depending on whether you want advanced features like full manual video controls. (Note: Most of the cameras in this report have up to 12x zoom lenses, with some exceptions. Longer zooms are covered in our report on ultra-zoom digital cameras.)
- Compact interchangeable-lens cameras. Also known as mirrorless cameras, these have swappable lenses like bulky digital SLR (single-lens reflex) cameras, but in a scaled-down package. Most are about the size of an index card, and less than 2 inches thick, so they're more discreet and portable than a DSLR. You can get a good one for about $800 with a versatile zoom lens included, but for DSLR-like blazing speed and stunning images, expect to pay $1,000 to $1,400.
- Budget cameras. Cheap digital cameras are good for beginners -- or anyone who wants a pocket-friendly, user-friendly point-and-shoot that won't break the bank. These cameras are truly tiny -- a little bigger than a business card, less than an inch thick and, well, cheap. Every camera in this category costs less than $200. Although no cheap camera can compete with advanced cameras, you can get decent-quality photos if you pick the right one.
To find the best digital cameras, professional testers shoot photos and videos in all kinds of situations -- glaring sun, murky darkness, fast-action sports, intense close-ups -- and then inspect them closely for telltale flaws. They take note of how easy the cameras are to use, how durable and how full-featured. The editors examine reviews from several excellent photography websites, including DPReviews and Amateur Photographer magazine. Owner reviews are key, too; sometimes real-life use reveals flaws the pros don't find. We scour reviews to find out which cameras satisfy experts and owners best.
Best Digital Cameras
Sony and Ricoh models win out in the best-reviewed digital camera category
The intended audience for the cameras in the best digital camera category range from beginners to photography enthusiasts, sometimes in the same camera. All three of these cameras are customizable, to varying degrees, so you can configure them to your own shooting style.
Our Best Reviewed digital camera is the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 II (Est. $630). The DSC-RX100 II builds on the success of the previous model, the original Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 (Est. $440), which is still available and a runner up in this category. On its release, the original RX100 was lauded as "the best pocket camera ever made," by The New York Times' David Pogue, and Time magazine named it as one of the best inventions of 2012. The DSC RX100 II model has a lot to live up to, and it does beautifully.
There's strong agreement among reviewers that the image quality of the RX100 II is the best in the compact camera class. The new backlit sensor is especially effective in low-light conditions and at high ISO speeds. The JPEGs have good color and clear detail, but the video receives average reviews. Although the RX100 II is aimed at the more experienced photographer, and there's enough opportunity for customization to support this, there are 11 pre-optimized scene settings for those who prefer just to point and shoot.
The body of the RX100 II is of the same solid construction as the first RX100, but there are some flimsy parts that may cause difficulties -- namely, the pop-up flash and the battery door. It's also a little slippery to hold. This camera can grow with its user's needs as the hot shoe allows for the addition of accessories that include an electronic viewfinder and a remote trigger.
The question that many reviewers ask is whether the added features of the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 II are worth the added cost over the original DSC-RX100 model. Many answer that it's up to the individual to decide, but some say that it's worth it for the Wi-Fi connectivity, an improved sensor, a tilting screen and a hot shoe for accessories. If these features aren't that important to you, then consider purchasing the original Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100. You'll still get a large sensor for excellent photo quality, 20 megapixels and a 10 frames per second burst rate. The RX100 is also designed for enthusiast photographers, and less experienced users may have difficulty customizing the menu for the physical buttons.
A close runner up to the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 II is the Ricoh GR (Est. $750) digital camera. Although long popular in Asia, this is one of Ricoh's first forays into the U.S. market (the company purchased Pentax). Reviewers place the Ricoh GR in a niche for enthusiast photographers who want a pocketable camera with a wide-aperture lens. The range of advanced features, extensive customization and accessories (optical viewfinder, external flash, etc.) offer lots to play with for the knowledgeable user. Experts agree photos produced by this camera are "near DSLR" quality, with the JPEG images having an impressive level of detail. But it's with RAW images that the Ricoh proves its worth, with well-controlled noise and no banding. The Ricoh GR is best suited for those shooting stills as its video capability is good but limited.
Best advanced digital cameras
If you've outgrown your digital camera but don't want to move into the DSLR arena, then a bridge camera may be what you're looking for. Fitting in between compact cameras and full-blown DSLRs, bridge cameras offer some of the same user friendliness and accessibility of point-and-shoot models yet encompass some of the manual settings and physical controls of a DSLR. Admittedly, bridge cameras usually aren't pocket-size, but they're still smaller and easier to handle than a DSLR camera.
Our Best Reviewed advanced camera is the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 (Est. $1,000). Experts find the DSC-RX10 difficult to categorize beyond it being a bridge camera, but they're in agreement that it's unique and unlike anything else on the market. The DSC-RX10 is not a small camera, as it has to hold a large sensor and a significant 8.3x super-zoom lens. The RX10 is highly customizable -- although there's only one dedicated custom button, many others can have different functions assigned to them. But it's the image quality of the RX10 that earns it rave reviews. Still images are on a par with those from DSLR cameras, especially in RAW mode. And, unlike any other digital camera, the RX10 also produces truly excellent quality videos. There is a great selection of supporting features to let you make the most of your videos, including step-less aperture control, headphone and microphone sockets, and a full array of HD frame rates. This is a premium bridge camera that videographers should consider.