These days, fewer people invest in cameras because the camera they already have in their pocket—the one built into their smartphone—is “good enough” for most day-to-day shooting. But smartphone cameras have their limitations. If you want to take more than snapshots, the best camera isn’t the app on your iPhone; you will want to step up to a DSLR, mirrorless or even a point and shoot camera.
If that sounds like a lot of options, it is. People have long relied on cameras to document their lives and express their creativity, but these days your choices are more diverse than ever. Instant cameras are great for people (especially the younger set) who want to recapture a bit of the Polaroid craze from the last century with honest-to-goodness old-fashioned film. Alternately, you can choose a point-and-shoot camera to improve the image quality without learning the nuances of exposure settings. DSLRs are what many serious traditionalists turn to for the ultimate in photo quality, but mirrorless cameras now offer most of the advantages of the single lens reflex camera in a lighter, smaller body.
And don’t forget about action cameras, which you can use to capture whatever crazy activities you spend your time with, from biking to drone flying to skydiving. Or even camera drones, which can follow you around as you hike or rock climb on your next vacation. With so much variety, you might need some help picking the best camera for your needs. We’ve rounded up a dozen of the very best cameras you can get today.
Best Instant Camera
Polaroid Originals OneStep+
Type: Instant film | Resolution: n/a | Zoom: None | Video: n/a
Instant cameras have come back in a big way, and you can now shoot on film that develops more-or-less instantly instead of writing to a memory card. The Polaroid Originals OneStep+ looks like it popped out of a time portal from 1977, but has modern flourishes as well. If you connect the OneStep+ to your smartphone via Bluetooth, for example, you can use your phone as a remote trigger, perform double exposures and paint with light in long exposures.
But at its heart, this is a simple point and shoot instant camera with a big red shutter button and two modes: portrait and closeup photography, and a standard shooting distance from three feet to infinity. There are a lot of instant cameras out there, but we’re especially partial to Polaroid for its large 3-inch-square prints.
Best Point & Shoot Camera
Canon PowerShot ELPH 180
Type: Point & Shoot | Resolution: 20 megapixels | Zoom: 8x | Video: 720p
If you’re looking for a simple point & shoot camera that handles all the exposure decision-making but includes a handful of scene modes for more creative moments, this is the camera. It’s a 20-megapixel model with an 8x optical zoom and 720p video recording, all for a very modest price that’s only a little north of $100.
There are some tradeoffs. The ELPH 180 doesn’t have a lot of light sensitivity (it has a maximum ISO of 1600), a relatively small 1/2.3-inch sensor and doesn’t capture full HD video, to say nothing of 4K. But it’s easy to use and has cool extras like a face self-timer (it waits to see your face before taking the picture) and scene modes like portrait, fisheye, fireworks and long shutter. Bottom line: It’s a great alternative to using your smartphone.
Best Mirrorless Camera for Beginners
Sony Alpha A6100
Type: Mirrorless | Resolution: 24.2 megapixels | Zoom: n/a (interchangeable lens) | Video: 4K
Novice photographers coming to the Sony A6100 might not appreciate how compact and light it is, because they don’t have a ton of experience lugging around a DSLR to compare it to. Nonetheless, this is a perfect camera to start a photography hobby; in the slight camera frame lives a formidable 24 megapixel sensor and the ability to shoot 4K video.
In addition, the camera has all the modern luxuries, including a responsive touchscreen display that tilts to any angle you need, pop-up flash and an excellent, easy-to-use interface. But perhaps the best reason for a beginner to choose this camera is the fast and accurate autofocus that can detect faces and focus on eyes—both in people and animals. Combined with a shooting speed of up to 11 frames per second, this is a beginner-friendly camera that can serve you well as you learn and grow as a photographer.
Best Mirrorless Camera for Enthusiasts
Type: Mirrorless | Resolution: 20.9 megapixels | Zoom: n/a (interchangeable lens) | Video: 4K
Mirrorless is poised to be the future of serious photography, and the Z50 is an excellent starter camera for getting your feet wet in the world of mirrorless photography without spending a fortune.
The Z50 shoots 20.9 megapixel images on the somewhat smaller APS-C sensor, so the body is small and fits easily in your hands. It has the ability to shoot a blazing fast 11 fps, can record a full 4K video, and has a large, articulating 3.2-inch touchscreen monitor in addition to an electronic viewfinder. It can use any lens in Nikon’s Z-series, and this particular model comes with two kit lenses: a wide angle 16-50mm and a generously deep 50-250mm lens. There’s enough here to carry any beginner well into advanced photography before feeling the need to upgrade.
Best DSLR for Beginners
Type: DSLR| Resolution: 24.7 megapixels | Zoom: n/a (interchangeable lens) | Video: 1080p
This compact and lightweight DSLR is a great example of why it still makes sense to buy a single lens reflex camera in 2021 when there are so many mirrorless alternatives available. It can muster over 1,500 pictures on a single charge, which puts most mirrorless cameras to shame, and the APS-C sensor captures 24.7 megapixel images.
This is an entry-level DSLR, though, and makes some compromises. The max continuous shooting rate is a sluggish 5fps, for example, and video recording is limited to 1080p HD, so if you want to record 4K you’ll need to look elsewhere. The LCD monitor isn’t a touchscreen, either. Otherwise, this camera is able to handle pretty much any enthusiast needs, with an integrated guide mode built into the interface to help beginners. The camera also includes Bluetooth to wirelessly transfer photos—not as fast as Wi-Fi, but welcome nonetheless.
Best DSLR for Enthusiasts
Type: DSLR| Resolution: 20.9 megapixels | Zoom: n/a (interchangeable lens) | Video: 4K
The D7500 is an impressive DSLR that is a significant step up in a lot of ways from most beginner bodies. Not only is it rugged and made to take a beating in the field, but it has a lot of the same high-end internals that you’ll find in a pro-level camera like the D500. The solid glass pentaprism trumps the dimmer pentamirror you’ll find in a camera like the D3500, and the 51 point autofocus system is fast and accurate—which enables you to shoot at a maximum speed of 8 frames per second, indefinitely. And when we say this camera is fast, we mean it; it can lock focus in 0.05 seconds. And it’ll take its first shot in less than a quarter second after powering it on.
The rear has a convenient tilting touchscreen LCD display and you get both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity to transfer images wirelessly. In addition to the 21-megapixel stills, it can shoot in 1080p or 4K. There’s only one thing we don’t love about this camera, and that’s the lack of dual memory card slots.
Best Rugged and Waterproof Point & Shoot Camera
Olympus Tough TG-6
Type: Point & Shoot| Resolution: 12 megapixels | Zoom: 4x | Video: 4K
Ruggedized cameras are a special subcategory of point & shoot models, and they’re relatively rare. The Olympus Tough TG-6’s name tells you everything you need to know: It’s shockproof, dustproof, crushproof, and even waterproof to a depth of 50 feet. If you’re a snorkeler or a diver, you can use this camera without an underwater housing on shallow dives, which is an enormous convenience. If you thrive in the great outdoors, few point & shoot cameras are as well equipped for the rough-and-tumble as the TG-6.
The camera is a modest performer, though. The optical zoom is just 4x and you only get 12 megapixel images, which is pretty small by modern standards. But the camera can shoot as fast as 20fps and it records 4K video. Throw in the camera’s many shooting modes and scene selections, and you have a real workhorse for documenting adventures.
Best Full Frame Mirrorless for Advanced Photographers
Type: Mirrorless | Resolution: 24 megapixels | Zoom: n/a (interchangeable lens) | Video: 4K
You can spend a small fortune on mirrorless cameras—the Sony A7S III, which captures relatively small 12 megapixel images, lists for $3,500 for example. But the Nikon Z5 is proof you don’t need to take out a second mortgage. This excellent camera looks and feels like a pro model. It’s fully weather-sealed and sculpted from a rugged magnesium alloy frame. It has dual card slots because many photographers write to two memory cards simultaneously for security, and the full-frame sensor can capture more light for better low light photography.
The camera also features an integrated 5-axis vibration reduction mechanism and a highly effective 273-point autofocus system. It can capture up to 4.5fps of continuous shooting and the ISO ranges from 100 to 102,400. Do you shoot video? If so, you’ll be happy to know this camera can capture 4K at up to 30fps. It also supports wireless image transfers using Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
Best Full Frame DSLR for Advanced Photographers
Canon EOS 6D Mark II
Type: DSLR| Resolution: 26.2 megapixels | Zoom: n/a (interchangeable lens) | Video: 4K
The Canon EOS 6D Mark II is not a high-end professional-only model; instead, this DSLR is is an approachable compromise that incorporates a full-frame sensor with more modest features and costs only a little more than entry-level DSLRs. Make no mistake: You can spend three times this much money on cameras from Canon, Nikon and Sony that take incrementally better photos. But unless you have some very specific needs (like the ability to capture 4K at 60fps or need a much broader autofocus coverage area for action photos) then this is a great choice.
Here’s what you do get: a full-frame 26.2 megapixel sensor with a 45-point autofocus system (which, as alluded to earlier, is mostly clustered towards the center of the frame), an excellent secondary autofocus system for the live view mode in the LCD monitor, and integrated GPS for geotagging your photos. There’s also Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity so you can use your phone as a remote trigger or to download images. Pros might not appreciate the limited top ISO of 40,000—which produces above-average noise at higher levels—but overall, this is a camera to be reckoned with, especially considering the price.
Best Action Camera
GoPro Hero 9 Black
Type: Action| Resolution: 23.6 megapixels | Zoom: None | Video: 5K
Action cameras like the GoPro have come a long way in the last few years. If the latest model, the GoPro Hero 9, were a person, it would be the life of any party. Not only can it shoot 23.6 megapixel stills and 4K video at 60fps, but you can actually dial the resolution up to 5K, though it’s limited to 30fps (which isn’t ideal for a lot of the action footage you probably want to use it for). If you’re willing to drop down to 1080p, you can record at a blistering 240fps for awesome slow-motion.
A first for GoPro, the lens cover is removable on the Hero 9, so you can simply replace it if it gets scratched. You can also attach other lenses if you’re not happy with the default GoPro field of view. The camera also has dual LCD monitors now—the large rear sensor is now joined by a smaller display in front so you can frame your shots without resorting to pulling out your phone to see what you’re shooting. The Hero 9 has about 4 hours of battery life per charge, which isn’t amazing, but you can swap batteries mid-day if needed.
Best Camera Drone
DJI Air 2S
Type: Action | Resolution: 20 megapixels | Zoom: 3x | Video: 5.4K
There are a lot of excellent quadcopter drones out there you can use to shoot video of scenic vistas and take selfies while you go rock climbing. Many of those drones—if not most—come from DJI, and the DJI Air 2S is currently among the most advanced and affordable camera drones you can buy. Not only does it fold up compactly for travel, but it has a large 1-inch CMOS sensor that can shoot 4K video at 60 fps or even 5.4K at 30fps.
All that is not to mention the Air 2S’s HDR, low-light photography and the ability to crisply capture video at night, as well as hyperlapse and panoramic shooting. And you can put all those camera capabilities to good use; the drone has AI-based flight modes called MasterShots in which it can employ any of 10 different maneuvers to smartly keep the subject in the center of the frame while flying autonomously. And it’s almost impossible to crash the drone thanks to obstacle avoidance in all directions, not just forwards or backwards.
Best Point & Shoot for Vloggers
Type: Point & Shoot| Resolution: 21 megapixels | Zoom: 3x | Video: 4K
Sony’s ZV-1 is just short of genius. While vlogging has exploded as a career choice in the last few years, there are surprisingly few cameras made expressly for that purpose, and vloggers tend to make do with ordinary point and shoot or DSLR cameras. If you’re looking for a camera that’s designed from the ground up with vlogging in mind, the Sony ZV-1 is one of your few choices. Thank goodness it happens to be a great choice.
So what makes the ZV-1 a vlogging camera? For starters, the articulating LCD monitor flips down to face front, so you can frame your shot easily while keeping on your mark. It also has a larger recording button, which might sound like a small thing, but is actually quite handy while shooting. And for anyone who knows how poor Sony’s camera interface used to be, the software improvements here can’t be understated. Besides usability, that software also adds neat new features like Product Showcase mode, a great vlogging feature which disables face priority focusing and locks onto the product you’re discussing. It also has improved audio recording thanks to a trio of microphones.
All that said, while it takes 21 megapixel images and can record 4K video, this camera isn’t a good general purpose point & shoot snapshot camera. The battery life is anemic, for example, and there’s no electronic viewfinder—just an LCD monitor.
How to Choose the Best Camera
Before you consider specific models—like the Nikon D750 versus the Nikon D3500, for example—you should decide what kind of camera you want. And there are more kinds of cameras than ever: instant cameras, point & shoot, DSLR, mirrorless and action cameras, to list the most common. So where to start? It all begins with what you want to do with the camera.
For example, are you looking mainly for a camera for snapshots or do you want to approach the craft of photography with an eye towards controlling exposure setting? While instant and point & shoot cameras are great for snapshots, for anything else you’ll want to look to DSLRs and mirrorless models.
Also consider your budget and skill level. Not only are intermediate and pro-level cameras much more expensive, but if you get one as a beginner you might be buying features you don’t need. Of course, specific models also come with any number of capabilities that could come in handy—like super high frame rates to capture fast-moving action and the ability to wirelessly transfer photos to your phone or PC.
Mirrorless vs DSLR vs Point-And-Shoot
This is the most important decision you will make when choosing among the various kinds of cameras. The super-short summary is this: Get a point and shoot camera if you want a small and lightweight camera for casual snapshots. If you are more serious about the nuts and bolts of exposure, creative control and composition, get a mirrorless or DSLR. DSLRs have been around for decades, have a traditional form factor and are compatible with a large number of lenses; mirrorless cameras are the future of photography, but have fewer lenses to choose from—right now.
Point and shoot
One step up from the camera app on your phone, point and shoot cameras generally offer better image quality, more shooting options, and, depending on the model, sometimes even a fairly amount of exposure control. It’s a good entry point into the world of standalone cameras if you want to keep it both inexpensive and casual.
For half of a century, SLR (Single Lens Reflex) cameras were the most common tool for serious photographers. They had a lot of advantages. They were interchangeable lens cameras—you could swap the lens in seconds to go from a wide angle to a telephoto focal length. They offered complete exposure control. And the reflex mechanism—a mirrored prism that let you see what was in the lens through the viewfinder, but rapidly swung out of the way to expose film when you pressed the shutter button—enabled you to see exactly what you were about to take a picture of.
These days, DSLRs are exactly that, only they use digital sensors (hence the “D”) instead of film. DSLRs have been the choice of serious (and aspiring) photographers for decades, but they’re heavy and bulky. And most DSLR lenses are pretty big too.
Mirrorless cameras are sort of like DSLRs, without the SLR part. By which we mean that there’s no mechanical mirrored prism mechanism that needs to move when you take the picture—the camera is a true digital device, and simply sends the same signal to the electronic viewfinder and the sensor that records the image. This lets mirrorless cameras—and their lenses—weigh in much smaller and lighter than DSLRs.
There’s little doubt that mirrorless cameras are the future of photography and will someday completely replace DSLRs, which are still rooted in the pre-digital world. Mirrorless cameras are incredibly convenient, but have some trade-offs. They often suffer from much shorter battery life than DSLRs, for example, because they rely on electronic viewfinders rather than the optical ones in DSLRs. And at least for now, the lens selection is often much more limited.
Should I Buy a Lens?
If you own an interchangeable lens camera—namely, a DSLR or a mirrorless camera—you might wonder if you should purchase additional lenses and what advantages they might bring. If your camera came with what’s often called a “kit lens”—a lens that comes bundled with the body—it might be all you need for all-around photography, especially when you’re first starting out. But there are some excellent reasons to consider upgrading.
A kit lens is usually a zoom that covers a range of common focal lengths, but you might want a separate lens to take certain kinds of photos. For example, you can get a super-wide-angle lens to capture a much wider field of view in landscape photos. Kit lenses never come that wide, so you would need to buy it separately. The same is true of a telescopic zoom to pull in distant subjects.
Another thing to consider is that your kit lens is probably pretty “slow.” Lenses are generally referred to as “fast” or “slow” according to the the maximum aperture. Apologies that this might get a little math-y for a moment, but the lens’s “f-stop” indicates the size of the aperture; the larger the aperture, the more light that gets in. A lens with a large maximum aperture can shoot in low light situations or at faster shutter speeds—this is called a “fast” lens and is indicated by an f-stop with a small number. (F-stop is a ratio, so the smaller the number, the larger the opening. A lens with a maximum f-stop of f/2 admits much, much more light than f/4 or f5.6, for example.) Kit lenses are generally fairly slow, so if you want to do low-light photography, you may need to invest in a faster lens.
There are other reasons as well. Most kit lenses are zooms, and zoom lenses generally are never quite as sharp as a “prime” lens—a lens with a single focal length. And there are specialty lenses out there as well, like macro lenses that you can use to take close-up photos of very small subjects. Do you need to buy a separate lens? It depends; if you’re perfectly happy with your kit lens, probably not. But when you find that you simply can’t capture a photo you are trying to shoot, you’ll know you’re ready to buy a new lens.