best canon camera for intermediate photographer

Lots of people will tell you DSLRs are old-fashioned and that mirrorless cameras are the future, but DSLRs still have a lot to offer, including chunky, grippable bodies, clear optical viewfinders, great battery life and good value for money. Canon’s DSLRs are split into APS-C cameras aimed at beginners and enthusiasts, and full frame cameras aimed at experts and pros – and we’ve picked out the Best Canon Camera For Intermediate Photographer models for you.

Best Canon Camera For Intermediate Photographer

1. Canon EOS Rebel SL3 / EOS 250D

Brilliant for beginners, this Canon has plenty for enthusiasts too

Type: DSLR | Sensor: APS-C | Lens mount: Canon EF-S | Screen: 3in vari-angle touchscreen, 1,040,000 dots | Max burst speed: 5fps | Max video resolution: 4K UHD at 25p

US$479VIEW AT AMAZON

US$549View at Amazon

US$599View at AmazonSee all prices (5 found)A lightweight, intuitive DSLRSuperb Live View shootingLarger than mirrorless rivalsRelatively few AF points

The pint-sized Canon Rebel SL2 (or EOS 200D) was a really big seller (you can still get it, in fact), but its successor the Rebel SL3 (aka EOS 250D) improves on it in every way. In fact we believe it’s the best Canon camera for beginners you can buy right now. Canon’s top-of-the range APS-C sensor with 24.1MP of resolution delivers excellent image quality, and Live View shooting with the LCD screen so easy and intuitive, with such good autofocus, that we’d actually say this is one of the only DSLRs where composing shots with the screen is as easy as with a mirrorless camera. Canon also packs in 4K video, which was missing from the previous SL2, wrapped up in an ergonomically designed DSLR body that’s just about the smallest on the market.

Read more: Canon EOS Rebel SL3 / Canon EOS 250D reviewImage 1 of 5

(Image credit: Canon)
(Image credit: Canon)
(Image credit: Canon)
(Image credit: Canon)
(Image credit: Canon)

2. Canon EOS 90D

The EOS 90D has the highest resolution yet in an APS-C camera!

Type: DSLR | Sensor: APS-C | Megapixels: 32.5MP | Lens mount: Canon EF-S | Screen: 3.0in touch, pivot 1,040,000 dots | Viewfinder: Pentaprism | Max burst speed: 10fps | Max video resolution: 4K | User level: Enthusiast

US$1,199VIEW AT AMAZONUS$1,318.99View at Amazon

US$1,449View at AmazonSee all prices (5 found)Tremendous valueFully articulated touchscreen
Pixel count causes noise issuesUnimpressive buffer capacity

The Canon EOS 90D is an astounding APS-C workhorse of a camera, available for a fantastic price. It combines the highest resolution yet seen in an APS-C sensor of 32.5MP, with high-speed frame rate of 10fps, and it also manages glorious uncropped 4K video – none of that irritating crop that has plagued Canon cameras in the past. Its handling and ergonomics are a joy, reminding us of why shooting on a DSLR is such an enjoyably tactile experience, and it’s available for a welcome enthusiast price point – not to mention the fact that you get an optical viewfinder, which many people still prefer to the electronic viewfinders on mirrorless cameras. Rumours of the DSLR’s death will have been greatly exaggerated if Canon keeps on producing models as good as this.

3. Canon EOS-1D X Mark III

The archetypal pro DSLR comes back with a bang for 2020

Type: DSLR | Sensor: Full frame | Megapixels: 20.1MP | Lens mount: Canon EF | Screen: 3.2in fixed, 2,100,000 dots | Viewfinder: Pentaprism | Max burst speed: 16fps / 20fps | Max video resolution: 4K | User level: Enthusiast/ProfessionalUS$6,324.87VIEW AT AMAZON

US$6,499View at AmazonSee all prices (3 found)Super-fast, reliable shootingUncropped 4KFixed LCD screenExpensive, of course

The amazing Canon EOS-1D X Mark III turned out to be much, much more than we were expecting. Not only is it an update to the 1D X workhorse series beloved by professionals worldwide, it’s also an important step forward for DSLRs generally, boasting deep-learning AF, uncropped 4K (something that had been missing from Canon cameras for quite some time), a revamped control system and much more besides. If you need a camera that just shoots and shoots, with whip-smart AF and an indomitable burst rate… well, you probably don’t need us to tell you twice. But we’ll do it anyway: the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III is an astonishing camera.

4. Canon EOS 6D Mark II

An affordable entry into full frame photography, and feature packed too

Type: DSLR | Sensor: Full frame | Megapixels: 26.2MP | Lens mount: Canon EF | Screen: 3.2in touch, pivot 1,040,000 dots | Viewfinder: Pentaprism | Max burst speed: 6.5fps | Max video resolution: Full HD (1080p) | User level: Enthusiast

US$1,179.99VIEW AT AMAZONUS$1,199.01View at Amazon

US$1,399View at AmazonSee all prices (31 found)Fully articulated touchscreenNovice-friendly but powerful too
Full HD video not 4KBulkier than the EOS RP

The EOS 6D II is Canon’s cheapest full frame DSLR and the next step up from the EOS 90D. It might be affordable, but it’s far from basic. The advantage of a full frame sensor is that it gives superior image quality, partly because you tend to get more megapixels, and partly because the pixels (photosites) are bigger and can capture more light. The 26-megapixel sensor in the 6D II offers a useful advantage over 24-megapixel cameras, it has a powerful 45-point AF system for viewfinder shooting and Canon’s Dual Pixel CMOS AF for live view photography, and it has a decent 6.5fps continuous shooting speed. What we really love is the streamlined handling and control layout and the fully articulating rear screen. If you can afford the extra over the APS-C format EOS 80D (above), the EOS 6D II would be our top recommendation as the best Canon camera for enthusiasts.

5. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

It’s the camera countless pros use as their day to day workhorse

Type: DSLR | Sensor: Full frame | Megapixels: 30.4MP | Screen: 3.0in fixed touchscreen, 1,620,000 dots | Viewfinder: Optical | Max burst speed: 7fps | Max video resolution: 4K | User level: ProfessionalUS$2,049VIEW AT AMAZON

US$2,490View at AmazonUS$4,599View at DellSee all prices (29 found)Great 61-point AF system30.4MP sensor
Burst speed an average 7fpsBig crop factor for 4K video

While the EOS R (below) is in many ways like a mirrorless 5D Mark IV, the DSLR design still has lots of advantages – including a lag-free optical viewfinder, better handling with bigger lenses, and much better battery life. While it’s not technically a professional camera, pros have long embraced this workhorse and it’s likely to be one of the best cameras for professionals for some time to come. It’s not a specialist camera designed to do a single type of work, but a robust all-rounder that can turn its hand to almost any assignment. The 61-point autofocus system is fast and powerful, and Canon’s Dual Pixel CMOS AF technology makes Live View AF fast and snappy too. The 30.4-megapixel resolution isn’t the highest, but it gives a great balance of resolution and low-light, low-noise performance.

Read more: Canon EOS 5D Mark IV review

CANON MIRRORLESS

As with its EOS DSLRs, Canon now makes mirrorless cameras in two sizes. This time, though, they use different lens mounts and are aimed at very different users. The smaller APS-C EOS M cameras are for non-professional hobbyists and beginners (though they also appeal to bloggers and vloggers). The newer, full frame EOS R models use a new RF lens mount and are designed for professionals (EOS R) and advanced amateurs (EOS RP).

It’s too soon for us to pass judgement on the brand new Canon EOS R5 and EOS R6, but we have had our hands on these cameras and can tell you exactly what we think of them so far. In the meantime, here are Canon’s existing mirrorless models.

6. Canon EOS M6 Mark II

The M-series gets M-serious with a contender for your primary camera

Type: Mirrorless | Sensor: APS-C size | Megapixels: 32.5MP | Screen type: 3in tilting touchscreen LCD, 1.04million dots | Viewfinder: No | Maximum continuous shooting speed: 30fps | Max video resolution: 4K | User level: Beginner

US$849VIEW AT AMAZON

US$849View at AmazonUS$1,099View at AmazonSee all prices (9 found)Amazing 14fps /30 fps burstImpressive 32.5MP APS-C sensor
No built-in viewfinderEF-M lenses still limited

The EOS M series has in the past often felt a little like the unloved child of the Canon family. Happily, with the advent of the EOS M6 II, the firm can finally be said to be taking its APS-C mirrorless line seriously. The M6 Mark II sports a powerhouse of a sensor in the form of a 32.5MP APS-C chip, and can burst-shoot at 14fps or up to 30fps in RAW Burst mode. Then there’s also uncropped 4K video, an expandable ISO maximum of 51,200 and a high-resolution tilting touchscreen. M-series cameras in the past have been appearing to attempt to carve out a niche as decent second cameras, but the M6 II makes a convincing case to be your primary camera, and it’s really only the slightly meagre M-series lens selection that holds it back.

Read more: Canon EOS M6 II reviewImage 1 of 5

7. Canon EOS RP

Full frame mirrorless cameras don’t come much cheaper than this

Type: Mirrorless | Sensor: Full frame CMOS | Megapixels: 26.2MP | Monitor: 3-inch vari-angle touchscreen, 1,040k dots | Continuous shooting speed: 5fps | Viewfinder: EVF, 2.36 million dots | Max video resolution: 4K UHD | User level: EnthusiastUS$958.35VIEW AT AMAZON

US$999View at AmazonUS$999.99View at AmazonSee all prices (8 found)Size, weight and low costFully articulating screen1.6x crop and no Dual Pixel AF in 4KWeak battery life

The EOS RP is Canon’s second full frame mirrorless camera, and it’s smaller, lighter and a lot cheaper than the first, the EOS R. It’s designed to be a compact, affordable and easy to use entry point into Canon’s full frame mirrorless system, and it succeeds brilliantly. Its small dimensions mean it can sometimes feel overbalanced by larger lenses, though, and the 4K video mode comes with some caveats – the image frame is cropped by a factor of 1.6 and you can’t use Canon’s speedy Dual Pixel CMOS AF system unless you drop the resolution to full HD. On the upside, the pictures are clear and sharp, the vari-angle touchscreen display is a real advantage for both stills and video, and the inclusion of an EF lens adaptor means you can use existing Canon DSLR lenses alongside the new but growing RF lens system. What a great camera! Is this the best Canon camera for enthusiasts? It’s right up there with the EOS 6D Mark II DSLR.

Read more: Canon EOS RP reviewImage 1 of 6

8. Canon EOS R

Canon’s first full-frame mirrorless camera is steadily falling in price

Type: Mirrorless | Sensor: Full frame CMOS | Megapixels: 30.3MP | Monitor: EVF, 3.69m dots, 100% coverage | Continuous shooting speed: 8fps | Viewfinder: EVF | Max video resolution: 4K UHD | User level: Enthusiast/professionalUS$2,499VIEW AT AMAZON

US$2,499.99View at Amazon

US$2,699View at AmazonSee all prices (4 found)Great in low lightDual Pixel AF
No in-body image stabilisationSingle card slot

The EOS R has met with a mixed reception, perhaps because it’s going to take time for users to figure out where it fits in, but we reckon with its combination of resolution, features, pro build quality and keen pricing, it’s going to make its own gap in the market! On paper, it looks a bit like a mirrorless version of the Canon EOS 5D IV digital SLR (above), but there are some important differences. One is that it has a much more advanced autofocus system with an amazing 5,655 focus points, another is that it has a brand new lens mount bringing the promise of new and exotic lens designs. What we really like, though, is that Canon has also made lens adaptors that let you fit your existing Canon EF and EF-S lenses, so it’s easy to add the EOS R to an existing Canon system.

Read more: Canon EOS R review

CANON COMPACTS

DSLR and mirrorless cameras are great, but sometimes you need something smaller, cheaper or just a bit simpler to use. These are our top three Canon compact cameras right now, aimed at three different kinds of photographer.Image 1 of 5

(Image credit: Canon)
(Image credit: Canon)
(Image credit: Canon)
(Image credit: Canon)
(Image credit: Canon)

9. Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark III

A pocket-sized camera with a flip-over screen for selfies and vlogging

Type: Compact | Sensor: 1in | Megapixels: 20.1MP | Lens: 24-100mm (equiv.) f/1.8-2.8 | LCD: 3in tilting touchscreen, 1,040k dots | Maximum continuous shooting speed: 30fps | Max video resolution: 4K UHD | User level: Beginner to intermediateUS$654.99VIEW AT AMAZONUS$679.99View at Amazon

US$699.95View at AmazonSee all prices (14 found)Uncropped 4K with livestreamingLarge-aperture zoom lensA little priceyNo viewfinder

When the Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark II proved unexpectedly popular with the vlogging community, Canon went all in and produced the G7 X Mark III, adding full uncropped 4K video and a 3.5mm microphone port. These features beautifully complimented lots of the strengths of the Mark II, which included a flip-out screen and a beautiful 24-100mm equivalent f/1.8-2.8 lens, making for an extremely solid all-around compact that’ll do everything most vloggers need it to, and indeed many photographers, though the lack of an eye-level viewfinder is a bit of a shame. The Mark III is arguably still a little expensive, but if you can afford the outlay, you’ll find it an extremely capable compact for video and stills alike.

Read more: Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark III reviewImage 1 of 3

10. Canon Ixus 185 HS

The perfect point and shoot family camera that’s smart and affordable too

Type: Compact | Sensor: 1/2.3in | Megapixels: 20MP | Lens: 28-224mm f/3.2-6.9 | LCD: 2.7in, 230k dots | Maximum continuous shooting speed: 3fps | Max video resolution: 1280×720 (HD) | User level: BeginnerUS$172.84VIEW AT AMAZONSee all prices (2 found)Very easy to useSlender bodySmall, low-resolution rear screenAverage image quality

Not everyone needs professional features, full frame image quality, 4K video and interchangeable lenses. Sometimes you’re just looking for a decent, simple and effective (and cheap!) little camera you can slip in a pocket and which the whole family can use. The little Ixus 185 certainly passes that last test, and yet delivers some rather impressive specifications at the same time. One of the key advantages of a compact point and shoot camera over a smartphone is that you get a zoom lens, and the one on this camera has a massive 8x range, from 28-224mm. It uses a small 20-megapixel 1/2.3-inch sensor, so the picture quality is going to be adequate rather than great, but it’s fine for family snaps and it can go up to ISO 1600 for shooting indoors or in low light. It even looks pretty smart, so the Ixus 185 is a really appealing (and did we mention cheap?) little snapshot camera.

Basics of photography

Every camera, from the tiny webcam embedded in your laptop to the full-frame pro cameras built by Nikon and Canon, operates under the same set of basic principles. They come from the very name of photography, the roots of which are the Greek photos, meaning light, and graph, meaning to draw or record — ergo, a photograph is essentially a map of light. When you take a picture of your favorite cityscape, you’re not actually documenting the streets, or the skyscrapers, or the milling crowds — you’re drawing up a recording of the light reflecting off of them.

The most common technique for making this recording is by channelling light through a lens onto a photosensitive material that soaks it up and turns it into an image. That light-absorbing canvas was once film, which has since been replaced by electronic sensors in modern digital shooters. In either case, initiating the light capture is done by opening a shutter in front of the photosensitive surface. By adjusting how long that shutter stays open (shutter speed), the sensitivity of the digital sensor (ISO), and how much light passes through the lens (aperture), you can control exactly how your image appears.

Since light is the only information your camera collects, it should come as no surprise that well-lit scenes typically come out looking sharper and nicer than dark and moody shots illuminated only by a streetlight — more light just gives you more information to work with. When shooting in the dark, the camera must work either harder (with higher ISO) or longer (with a slower shutter speed) to properly recreate the image in front of it. That’s where the flash comes in, a strobe of white light synchronized with the opening of the shutter. It comes with tradeoffs of its own, though: the strength of the flash can wash out fine detail in nearby subjects or lead to the infamous red-eye effect. Tripods are also invaluable in counteracting the blur caused by shaky hands. Unfortunately, they can do nothing about motion within your composition, and they aren’t exactly portable.

Ultimately, the number one lesson in photography is that there are always tradeoffs. If you want the best possible image quality, you’ll need specialized, expensive, bulky equipment. Should portability be your highest priority, you’ll have to accept that some photos and creative ideas will be beyond your reach. There are a number of other considerations to take into account when composing an image — and, consequently, choosing the best camera for the job — which we’ve detailed below. Once you’ve wrapped your head around what they will mean for your intended photography adventure, you should have a good idea of the kind of camera that will best suit your needs.

The key settings

If you’re new to digital photography, the three things you should acquaint yourself with first are the ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. The three work in concert, and if you can manipulate and control them all, you’ll take fabulous photos without even touching the rest of your camera. Together, they’re known as the Exposure Triangle, because they control how much light you’re exposing the camera to (aperture), how sensitive the camera is to that light (ISO), and how long your exposure lasts (shutter speed).

For some help calculating the depth of field for your chosen camera, aperture setting, and focusing distance, you can use Simple DoF on iOS or DoF Calculator for Android.

ISO

Coming from the International Organization for Standardization, ISO (it’s not an acronym) describes the light sensitivity of your camera’s sensor set against a common standard. It was originally known as “film speed,” as it was a static measure of the amount of light a given type of film could absorb, but in modern digital cameras ISO can be adjusted up and down. Higher ISO means a brighter image, which is achieved by digitally amplifying the information collected during exposure. It’s an imperfect process that generates errors, which become apparent in your pictures as discoloration and noise — the unattractive speckling effect you usually see in low-light photos.

The quality of your camera’s sensor and noise-reduction processing will affect the maximum ISO at which you can produce images that are still worth using. From among the cameras we’ve tested ourselves, Canon’s 5D Mark III and Nikon’s D4 are the best in that respect. They can shoot at ISO 12,800 the way most cameras perform at ISO 1000, allowing you to keep shooting in significantly lower light.AS BRUCE DICKINSON MIGHT SAY, I’VE GOTTA HAVE MORE LIGHT!

APERTURE

Measured using the horribly confusing f-number scale, the aperture is another dead-simple setting saddled with obtuse nomenclature. Basically, most lenses have the ability to constrict the light that passes through them using an internal element (called a diaphragm), which can be extended and retracted using controls on the camera. If you want more light in your image, you pull that diaphragm back as far as it goes, or if you need less, you extend it and limit the incoming rays to a narrower, more focused hole. Aperture, therefore, is just a relative measure for the diameter of your lens opening. Lower f-numbers indicate a wider aperture, with f/2.8 and below being the extremes, while higher ones signify that more light is being blocked.

One side effect of a wide-open lens is that it lets in a lot of unfocused light rays. The result is a shallow depth of field, meaning anything in front of or behind the area on which you’re focusing will appear blurry. Wide aperture settings tend to constrict the in-focus area to a razor-thin sliver, particularly on nearby subjects, giving you the much-desired soft background “bokeh” effect.

When you want a larger focus, the obvious countermeasure is to tighten up the aperture to f/8 or narrower — it bundles up the incoming light into a more focused beam, which will result in greater depth to your focus area. The most extreme depth of field effects are the exclusive preserve of large-sensor cameras; you simply can’t achieve the same defocusing effect with smaller sensors, which retain a generous in-focus depth even at f/1.4.

SHUTTER SPEED

Shutter speed controls how long the camera spends collecting light, as opposed to ISO and aperture, which direct how much light is absorbed at once. It’s measured in fractions of a second, so a shutter speed of 1/125 means the shutter is open for one 125th of a second. Higher shutter speeds mean the camera captures a shorter period of time, which is key for getting blur-free action shots, while lower speeds allow you to soak up more light, albeit at the risk of blurry results if your camera and subject aren’t still.

Of course, you don’t always have to fear motion blur. Strap your camera to a tripod and you can exploit the blur to your advantage — that’s how the pros create those pictures of highways decorated by streaks of light or waterfalls that look like they’re composed of cascading wisps of smoke instead of frozen drops of water. Most of the time, you’ll want to match your settings to your circumstances, but it’s also good fun to sometimes start with a given set of attributes and rearrange your scene to match them.

Other features that matter

The trifecta above represents the most important controls on your camera, but there are other attributes you need to be mindful of in the pursuit of the best image quality.

LENS SHARPNESS

You can tweak your settings as much as you like, but without a truly sharp piece of glass to filter light through, your pictures will never look their best. The distinction between sharpness and softness in imaging is one of detail: sharp photos retain a clear separation between edges and colors right down to a pixel level.

Unfortunately, nobody has yet invented an easy metric for quantifying lens quality, so you won’t be able to simply walk into a store and order up the Superlative Edition of your favored lens. Part of the problem is that lens performance varies both with aperture and zoom level. The sharpest lenses at f/4 are typically f/1.8 or f/1.4 lenses that have been pulled back from their highest setting. Similarly, lenses start to exhibit distortion at the extreme wide (16mm and lower) and telephoto (135mm and above) ends of their zoom range, which some cameras are able to automatically correct for with software.LENSES ARE LIKE SUNSCREEN: ALL-IMPORTANT

There are a couple of easy guiding principles that can steer you in the right direction. First: construction materials matter. Canon’s L series of lenses and the higher end of Nikon’s Nikkor line are both built out of real glass on the inside and extremely robust materials on the outside. The kit lenses bundled with DSLRs and the non-removable lenses on cheaper cameras are made from plastic both on the inside and out, which makes them less reliable in the long term and less impressive when you come to review your results. That’s not a universal rule — there are some exceptionally good lenses with plastic optics — but generally, you’ll be able to tell a good lens by its considerable weight and durable feel.

The second point to remember is that prime lenses — those without a zoom function, whose focal length is fixed — tend to perform better than zoom lenses thanks to their simpler construction. For the absolute best results, you’ll want a camera capable of exchanging lenses, along with wide-aperture lenses at each of the most common focal lengths: 24mm, 50mm, 80mm, 100mm, and 200mm, for instance. That’s more than a backpack’s worth of gear to heave around with you (and quality glass weighs quite a bit anyway), so do it only if you’re unwilling to compromise a little sharpness for a lot more flexibility.

AUTOFOCUS

A common misconception is that shutter lag actually has anything to do with the shutter. Sure, there’s a minuscule delay between the instruction to open and the shutter actually opening, but the lion’s share of lag actually comes from the automated focusing and metering systems. Metering is where the camera judges how long it needs to expose the image for, while autofocus is a little more self-explanatory. Cameraphone makers have gotten wise to the fact that people want to see the picture taken the moment they press a button, so we now have phones that continuously refocus and re-meter the scene so as to be ready at a moment’s notice. Samsung even features a “Best Shot” feature on the GS4, which takes a dozen photos while you’re focusing and firing and then chooses the best one automatically.

Every phone and camera maker is trying to dodge the problem of focusing speed, but the only true solution is more focusing points on your camera combined with a faster focusing motor for the lens. The reliability and speed of autofocus, particularly in low light, is one of the ways in which professional cameras still stand head and shoulders above the rest. Canon’s EOS 1D-X packs in a whopping 61 AF points, 41 of them of the more precise cross-type variety. Stick a fast-focusing lens on that camera and you can bid adieu to shutter lag.

Focus-points-800
Focus-points-8001

STRAYING BEYOND 8 MEGAPIXELS IS OVERKILL FOR ALL BUT THE PROS
Url-28Highres-pen_e-p5_silver_back_2_1366982150WHETHER OPTICAL OR ELECTRONIC, A GOOD VIEWFINDER IS WELL WORTH HAVING

SENSOR SIZE

If there’s one rule to follow in photography, it’s that bigger sensors mean better photos. That’s a generalization, of course, but it’s based on a very basic empirical truth: the bigger the photosensitive surface area, the more light is taken in at a time. Practical evidence for this is abundant, from the Nikon 1 series that disappointed everyone with its undersized CX sensor, to the Nokia Lumia 1020, the best cameraphone on the market largely thanks to its enormous 1/1.5-inch sensor.

Full-frame cameras derive their name from the size of their sensors, which match the “full frame” of 35mm film, and are predictably the professional’s favorite option. With a full-frame camera, a 24mm lens gives you exactly that focal length, whereas with smaller sensors, you’re subject to a crop factor that tends to turn everything into a slightly more zoomed-in version of itself (i.e. if the sensor is 1.5 times smaller than full-frame, as with Nikon’s popular DX format, you get 1.5 times the focal length; with a 24mm lens; that’d mean an effective focal length of 36mm).

Alas, price and sensor sizes scale rather proportionally, so medium format and full-frame cameras are usually outside the reach of most enthusiasts, which is why the most popular digital SLRs like the Canon Rebel T4i today feature the APS-C format. It’s a happy compromise.

MEGAPIXELS

Strictly speaking, a megapixel contains 1 million pixels, but it’s somewhat meaningless to know that your camera shoots 10 million pixels at a time. What you want to know, and what the megapixel count truly tells you, is how big you can make your image without having to enlarge it digitally (and suffer the resultant degradation in image quality). A 3-megapixel photo is more than dense enough to be printed out at the US standard 6- by 4-inch size at 300ppi, while 9 megapixels get you closer to a regular sheet of paper at the same density. Compromise a little on the pixel density, say down to 200ppi, and you’ll get massive printouts from a humble old 12-megapixel shooter. Now, there are no guarantees that the actual photo would look good — megapixel numbers only measure the number of data points recorded by the camera — but at least you’ll be able to do it.

Practically speaking, however, you’re not likely to need such huge images. Most digital imaging ends up being consumed on computer screens, and if all you need are new profile shots for Facebook even a solitary megapixel will suffice. If you’re shooting for billboards, murals, or other enormous photo sizes, you should get all the megapixels you can (like the whopping 36 from the Nikon D800) but for the average photographer, other specs matter far more.

VIEWFINDER / LCD

Optical viewfinders are a funny thing. Until you use one, you wonder why everyone bothers with the effort, then you get your first DSLR and suddenly you can’t live without one. Mirrors in SLR cameras reflect the exact image that will be imprinted onto the sensor through a sort of porthole atop the camera: that’s your viewfinder. Once again, the more expensive models offer a more luxurious experience, with the Canon 7D and Nikon D700 featuring bigger, more comfortable viewfinders than entry-level DSLRs. Electronic viewfinders (EVF) are getting much better and starting to compete, particularly in Sony’s line of single-lens translucent (SLT) cameras like the A77, and they offer helpful guides and more information to make your shot better anyway. It’s features vs. accuracy, and while the purists tend to stick with optical viewfinders, the electronic variety is catching up quickly.

If your camera doesn’t have a viewfinder, then you’d better make damn sure it’s equipped with a good LCD. You’ll be using it to both frame and review photos, so any shortcomings in terms of color fidelity or resolution can force you into a guessing game you don’t want to play. LCD resolution is measured in dots, with 230,000, 460,000, and 920,000 being the typical values. The more dots the better, obviously, but do take a moment to check out the quality of the screen as well. Sony and Samsung are using OLED displays in some of their latest cameras, which look fantastic. Touchscreens are finally starting to get good, too, from the tap-to-focus features on the Olympus PEN E-P5 to the completely touch-friendly Canon T4i — they’re not essential yet, but are increasingly a great thing to have.

WHITE BALANCE

Like a big-name actor who’s too important to sit in the middle of the cast list but not so crucial as to headline the show, the camera’s white balance (WB) gets a dedicated slot at the end. This is the function that everyone leaves on auto, which is why the majority of indoor pics on Facebook look yellow. In simple terms, cameras are a bit dumb. If you don’t tell them that you’re under incandescent lights (which cast a yellow hue), they won’t account for it and will try to balance the colors before them based on their presets. All modern cameras have a WB preset for artificial lighting, but only the more professionally inclined ones give you granular control over white balance and the ability to easily tweak it on the fly.

The best solution we’ve found for overcoming unnatural color tinging is to feed your camera a sample image. The majority of DSLRs now have the option to set WB by taking an image of something that you know is white under the particular lighting conditions you intend to shoot in. Thus, when the camera snaps a nice white sheet of paper under the lurid orange and violet lights of a trade show floor, it’ll calibrate itself to know that white looks a little different at that spot.

VIDEO CAPABILITIES

It was only a few years ago that video recording was considered a novelty in still cameras, but today HD video is a standard, and assumed, feature. Still, there are pitfalls to beware, such as a selection of cameras that will lock the focus and zoom when video recording starts (for example, the otherwise excellent Canon S95), significantly limiting your options. Reliable autofocus, in the cameras that are capable of it, remains a mirage. You’ll do well to learn to love manual focus if you want your videos to be free of the irritating focus jumps that cameras do when they get confused as to what you’re trying to film.

Cameras with larger sensors make capturing video a harder process compared to simpler point-and-shoots, owing to their greater sensitivity, bulkier bodies, and typically mechanical zoom and focus mechanisms. They give you more to worry about, as lens operation noises are often picked up by the integrated microphone. However they also provide access to a range of cinematic effects that smaller cams can’t touch. Want to start your movie masterpiece with a gorgeously circular bokeh that gradually comes into focus on your leading man? You’ll need something in the class of a Canon 60D with a wide-aperture lens to match.Zoom-comparison-5602Zoom-comparison-5604Zoom-comparison-5603Zoom-comparison-5601FIGMENTS OF MARKETING IMAGINATION: DIGITAL ZOOM AND DIGITAL IMAGE STABILIZATIONPanasonic-fz70-top2-800

ZOOM

Zoom is a simple concept — it’s how close you can get to whatever you’re shooting without having to physically move closer — but it’s not always obvious what you’re really getting. The actual x-multiple of your zoom is much less important than the angle measurements at the widest and closest settings, which measure how much you can fit into your photo. A camera that starts at 28mm and has 10x zoom will ultimately get closer (280mm) than one that begins at 24mm (240mm when zoomed in), though the tradeoff is a slightly smaller field of view when you’re zoomed out. If you want to be as close as possible to your subject, the most important number is the telephoto angle — more so than the x-multiple.

But be warned: cameras with huge zoom tend to be hard to hold steady when zoomed in, so getting sharp photos might be tough even with the best image stabilization. Additionally, as we’ve mentioned, great zoom comes with image quality dropoffs — lens makers have to compromise on something, so if you’re going after a massive zoom range, it won’t deliver sublime images the way a fixed focal length might.

When it comes to zoom operation, fixed-lens cameras have the upper hand. They usually have powered zoom mechanisms, allowing you smooth control at the press of a button. Interchangeable lenses are more fiddly for the newcomer, as their zoom is usually (but not always) controlled mechanically with a ring around the body of the lens. That gives more granular control to those who want it, but can be off-putting to the casual user.

Finally, do yourself a favor and ignore the very idea of a “digital zoom.” It’s done either by enlarging the picture (and reducing its quality) or cropping down to a smaller area of the sensor, both of which you can do much better with dedicated post-processing software on your computer — a few phones like the Lumia 1020 offer clever ways to zoom and re-process on your device, but they can’t match Photoshop or even your average desktop viewer.

IMAGE STABILIZATION

As with digital zoom, digital image stabilization (IS) is more of a marketing ploy than a useful feature. The optical stuff, however, is a whole other story. Lenses with optical IS are equipped with internal elements that move in the opposite direction of any small movements you make, steadying the image that arrives onto the sensor. Nikon’s “Vibration Reduction” is particularly effective, allowing you to shoot at two or three steps slower shutter speed than you usually would be able to without motion blur. For example, if 1/40 shutter speed is your floor before you start seeing blurring on a regular lens, its VR version will move that down to 1/25. Canon’s version of this is called the “Optical Image Stabilizer,” Panasonic’s is “MegaOIS,” and virtually every other camera and lens maker has its own variety too.

Sony and Olympus have made a habit of building image stabilization right into the body of their DSLRs, simplifying lens design and reassuring users that all of their lenses will be stabilized. Ultimately, whichever system you choose, each serves the purpose of reducing the deleterious effects of unintended motion and should be considered highly desirable in a camera. If you’re going after a shooter with a long telephoto zoom, optical IS should be the first thing you look for.

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