Types Of Digital Cameras
I am going to ignore most film camera types, since this is a book on digital photography. I will mention some camera types that are film only, because I believe all photographers should at least know about the existence of these types of cameras.
The biggest difference between cameras is how you look through them.
A Digital SLR camera, or DSLR, is one of the most common types of camera. They are widely used by professionals and hobbyists alike
SLR stands for Single-Lens-Reflex. This means there is a mirror in the camera that bounces light from the lens up to the viewfinder. Thus, the name. Single lens for the one lens - used for both the image sensor and the viewfinder - and reflex, because the mirror bounces the light up to the viewfinder.
When you take a picture, the mirror swings up and out of the way, revealing the image sensor to your image going through the lens.
The biggest advantage to these types of cameras is when you look through the viewfinder, you know exactly what your photo will look like1. It’s easy to compose your image, because you have a perfect sense of what is in and what is out of the image frame.
The downsides to DSLR’s is their size. They need room for the light to travel, and for the mirror to swing up and down. There is a hard limit to how thin these cameras can get - and it’s not terribly thin, especially compared to some of the newer mirrorless2 camera models.
The added size means that the designers have room to work. There is plenty of space to put large LCD screens, lots of buttons and knobs, large battery compartments (for large batteries), hot shoe mounts, comfortable grips, fast processors, video support, and more. DSLR’s are certainly not the largest digital cameras available - some Medium format systems can be massive, although I think electron microscopes, space telescopes, or laser imaging systems count as larger cameras.
Canon and Nikon are known for their DSLR cameras, and “Canon or Nikon?” is how many photographers greet each other. Both companies are making phenomenal cameras and lenses with lots of support. They both have huge followings and both create products that cover the spectrum from babies-first-point-and-shoot to full blown professional devices. Samsung and Sony both have solid contenders in the DLSR market, and other companies like Olympus or Fuji (more known for mirrorless) arn't to be overlooked. I won’t tell you which company is better3, or which system to buy. The camera landscape is evolving quickly, and any advice may not be applicable a year from now. But more importantly, Gear doesn't matter.
Sony, Samsung, and other manufactures offer their own recent additions to the DSLR playing field, and - to be honest - they can kick some serious butt. Writing in 2015, some Samsung cameras have absurdly good weather-proofing, and Sony’s image sensors are perhaps the best in the not-a-scientist world. Consider them when shopping for a DSLR.
One last note about DSLR's. In order to measure the light while bouncing ("reflexing"?)it to the viewfinder (ie: not a thing that can measure light), most DSLR's do a really really nifty thing. The mirror is just a little bit transparent. Behind the mirror is a setup that can measure the the light it see's. This is why, if you look at a Canon 5D (for example), you will see 2 mirrors in the mirror mechanism. The second mirror is bouncing the light that goes through the first lens down to a light sensor. This fact will not make you a better photographer, but just take a moment to revel in how clever these cameras are.
One day, somebody was playing with the live-view feature of their DSLR. This feature flips the mirror up out of the way, and sends the image sensor's data to the LCD screen continuously. Not only do you not need to use the viewfinder, you can't! The mirror is 'up' and light isn't reaching it.
This person, looking at this viewfinder - and looking at a compact point-and-shoot, which used an LCD screen as it's only viewfinder... they realized they could make a high quality camera that didn't need a mirror. It could be smaller and lighter but feature just as nice an image sensor, and interchangable lenses.
Well, it took a few years - the first mirrorless cameras were pretty bad, and EVF (Electronic View-finder) tech had to catch up. But, along with the introduction of the Micro Four/Thirds format, Mirrorless cameras found a market.
EVF stands for Electronic View Finder. It's just an LCD (or OLED or whatever) screen, but in the form-factor of sticking the camera against your eye. They often cleverly detect when your face is near the camera, and only turn on then. This saves battery life, but sometimes means a slight jarring lag between putting the camera to against face and being able to see anything. If you're looking to by a mirrorless camera a few years back, consider the quality and ease-of-use of the EVF as a major factor.
Nowadays, mirrorless go toe-to-toe with DSLR's. Professionals are switching from Canon or Nikon systems to systems like Fuji's. Manufacturers invented the term 'Prosumer' to explain why people were buying amazing image sensors in cheaper camera bodies.
Long story short, Mirrorless cameras are here, and manufacturers finally figured out who was buying them - photographers who know what they are doing. Mirrorless cameras designed to be easy are still being made (They always will be. Thanks, Kodak), but manufacters are competing to add in proffesional features - flash support, competent wifi usage, sturdy and weatherproofed enclosures, better4 auto focus, and more.
The biggest drawback is battery life. Every mirrorless shooter I've met carries a handful of spare batteries with them. One of them used an old travel photographers belt where one used to hold film, he was holding rows of small batteries. "I can shoot for a week" he claimed, proudly. "So can I" I said, holding a DSLR with a Battery Pack handle attatchment. My reasonably sized Cropped-sensor DSLR dwarfed his mirrorless.
Running an LCD display (even a small EVF one), takes a lot of power. Not to mention all of the processing takes place within the little computer chip - mirrorless camera's speed and 'laggieness' are very dependent on their computer chips, and running faster chips takes more battery life. Manufacturers are trying to find the right balance of features vs. batteries. Personally, I think once you accept carrying a few small batteries with you, then turn on the features and uses that make the camera easy to use.
Rangefinders are like the film equivalent of mirrorless cameras. Except, here's the thing. Not at all. Rangefinders came first!
Compact - No viewfinder
Compact cameras do not have mirrors. They are mirrorless. But when we talk about cameras, mirrorless refers to more competent and [usually] interchangable-lens systems full of professional features. Compact cameras are all about portability.
"The best camera is the one with you" is a common quote [SOURCE], and compact cameras are the Kodak Brownie of today. They are available, cheap, take good-enough photos, and everybody has one in a drawer somewhere.
You probably should avoid them for learning photography. If you have one, I mean, don't throw it away. I have a handful of small old compact cameras I carry with me all the time. I've taken amazing photographs with 'crappy' cameras, and they really arn't all that crappy. Usually the perception of the quality of images they take is influenced by two things - a low resolutions LCD screen which makes any image look like junk, and a tendency to want to turn the flash on at the slightest hint of low-light-ness - like when your finger covers an external light sensor.
Grab your compact camera, turn the flash mode to "OFF!" and stick it in your pocket. If you are looking for a camera to carry with you everhwere - it's a good way to go.
Some of the best and most well designed and easy-to-use 35mm film cameras ever designed were 'compact'. My Olympus XA is in my top 3 of favorite cameras of all time.
Lets talk getting into digital medium format systems. Don't. If you're reading this book, you arn't ready. I'm not going to teach you how to drive in a porche or mercedes or moon-lander. Too expensive. If you are going to disagree with me, then you probably know enough to do so competently. Go ahead. PhaseOne and
If you're starting with film, on the other hand, look into medium format systems like the 500 series from Hasselblad or Minoltas offerings. These were very well made cameras. In fact, my Hasselblad 500c is still probably, objectively, the nicest camera I own. I'm biased away from digital (which need regular upgrading5 and like to make beeping noises6)
The Polaroid Instant
The design of polaroid cameras have a huge impact today - I mean, Instagram’s logo is based on an old polaroid camera! What impact!
Literally a Truck
This guy converted a truck into a camera. The entire cargo area is light-proof. Don’t feel locked into the choosing a different type of camera. One can make a pinhole camera out of just about anything! Even watermelons!
1 Except for the Depth-Of-Field. The aperture stays all the way open until the moment you take a photo. This ensures there is enough light reaching the viewfinder, and you can see what’s going on. Some DSLR’s have a Depth-Of-Field preview button, usually along the bottom in the front of the camera, which will stop the aperture down to the current setting. The viewfinder will get darker, because there is less light, and you will be able to see what the depth of field looks like. 2 Figuring out why Mirrorless cameras are called mirrorless I will leave as an exercise for the reader. 3 Gear doesn't matter! I'm a gear head. I have a masters degree in being a gear-head ('emerging media'). Trust me. [THIS SHOULD BE AN ESSAY, LINK TO IT 4 In some cases, mirrorless autofocus features are absolutely insane. 5 Show me a digital camera made 50 years ago that is 'good'. You can't. They literally don't exist. 6 The short version of this book: buy a camera and turn off the beeps. No it won't annoy everyone in earshot, and you'll actually use the camera more, thus: learning.