The Photographer’s Guide to the Different Types of Cameras
Cameras allows us to capture the world in much the same way that books don’t. For nearly three centuries, humans have used these devices to record life around us, from weddings and wars to people and pets. But while the passion and curiosity for photography has remained steady, everything else has changed so much that Nicéphore Niépce wouldn’t recognize any part of it.
We no longer have to wait hours for the image the be properly exposed, nor do we struggle to find a way to show our work to people. Nowadays it just takes a fraction of a second and a stunning photography website to get the job done. The same can be said for cameras, which have gone from a wooden box, to a device that’s a few meters long, to one the size of a button.
But with great power comes great responsibility. Likewise, this incredible development has made it harder than ever for photographers to figure out which equipment to use and what to use it for. If you’ve ever felt confused about gear, don’t panic! This simple guide to the different types of cameras will teach you all you need to know about what they are and when to use them.
Photography as we know it started with film cameras. Classic 35mm film cameras brought this art to the general public, allowing them to explore the world through their unique perspective. Film cameras owe their name to the film roll used to record the images, which also determines the ISO value of the exposure.
Also known as analog cameras, there is a wide variety of devices that would fall under this category. Essentially, “film cameras” is an umbrella phrase under which we can find several types of analog cameras such as medium and large format, SLR, rangefinder, disposable, compact, etc.
While the usage of this type of camera saw a steep decline after digital gear entered the market, film photography is currently living a second golden age. Newer generations are going back to film in search of organic “filter” results and vintage-style images. Running, in a sense, away from the perfection digital cameras aim to achieve.
Among all types of cameras available nowadays, digital single-lens reflex (DSRL) is the most popular one. Since digital photography came into play, DSLR cameras have been the preferred choice of shutterbugs as soon as their photography skills surpassed that which automatic modes can offer. Their name comes from the use of a mirror inside the camera body to send the image to the viewfinder.
Unlike many other digital options, DSLR cameras allow photographers to seamlessly change their lenses, making them highly adaptable to any genre. Due to their popularity and longevity in the field, the number of lenses available is nearly endless and unmatched by any other type of camera.
There are two types of DSLR cameras, based on the size of their image sensor: crop sensor (APS-C and micro 4/3) and full frame (35mm). The most noticeable differences between the two come down to the field of view and the dynamic range, as crop sensors multiply the focal length of the lens used and have a poorer light performance.
Because of this, those aiming to becoming a professional photographer usually prefer to invest their money in narrower full frame equipment rather than a wide shelf of lenses and camera accessories for their crop sensor gear.
Many believe that mirrorless cameras are to DSLRs as video was to the radio star. While it’s very unlikely that DSLRs will be completely killed off, their market share is expected to drop significantly in the following years.
The reason behind this is that mirrorless cameras are, essentially, a lightweight version of the DSLR resulting from the removal of the optical viewfinder. This seemingly small change allows manufacturers to build much weightless body without restricting the available camera settings, image quality, or lens interchangeability capabilities.
Mirrorless cameras are also known as EVIL, not because of their impact on DSLRs sales but for the acronym Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens.
Also known as adventure cameras, these pieces of gear are designed to capture action scenes while being wrapped up in them. They’re much smaller and tougher than other types of cameras, which makes them easy to use in extreme conditions such as underwater photography and skydiving.
Due to their size, action cameras have a small sensor and do not have interchangeable lenses - with some of them also missing a viewfinder altogether. The most common settings include high-definition and slow motion video recording, as well as photo burst and time-lapse modes. While some models are inherently waterproof, others might require external accessories to be able to function under water.
Although action cameras were initially created for sports photography, their usability has gained them a place in pretty much all of the different types of photography. It’s now common to see them being used in weddings, family outings, self portraits, and travel videos.
Medium format camera
This type of camera is out of most people’s price range and commonly used in only a handful of photography careers. But just because they cannot be found among the gear list of your average professional photographer, it doesn’t mean that they don’t play a significant role in the industry.
Medium format cameras provide a surface frame up to four times bigger than the standard 35mm film. Originally these devices used 120mm films, which were eventually replaced by digital sensors of an equivalent size.
The most common uses of this type of camera are fine art photography and advertising work, as they require very high resolutions for printed imagery.
One of the most famous photography quotes of all times claims that “The best camera is the one you have with you.” Before mobile phones evolved into tiny computers with powerful cameras, the only way to to take pictures whenever your photography inspiration found you were compact cameras.
Also known as point and shoot, this type of camera was created as a cheap, small, and lightweight alternative to professional-level gear. As smartphones entered the market, however, manufacturers realized that compact cameras should offer much more than simply zoom capabilities and automatic settings.
Nowadays, there are numerous compact cameras that offer advanced settings and larger sensors. From fully manual modes, to RAW files and slow motion videos, this type of camera has come a long way from its early days.
For centuries, humans have dreamt of being able to fly. Examples of this include the waxed wings of Icarus, da Vinci's ornithopter, and the $250,000 prize for the first human-powered helicopter that can stay airborne for 60 seconds. It all seemed to suggest that humans would never get to experience what it’s like to see the world from up above.
But then came technology, and with it unmanned aerial vehicles and tiny cameras with professional results. We realized that maybe we don’t need to take our feet off of the ground to see what it’s like to fly after all. In recent years, the entry barrier for aerial photography has nearly dropped to the floor due to the rapid evolution of user-level drone cameras.
Nowadays, drones are used for media creators of all kinds in a wide range of genres and styles. Images once deemed impossible, are now available on pretty much any photography Instagram account you’ll set your eyes on.
It's been two decades since the first camera phone was released. Yet from looking at the current offerings, one could think it’s been two centuries. In this somewhat short period of time, smartphone cameras have gone from an almost anecdotal addition to one of the main features of mobile devices. So much so that they have become the center of attention of most reviews and advertising efforts.
Despite being incredibly small, smartphone cameras are now able to capture 16 megapixels photos, allow manual setting controls, and offer great low-light capabilities. They are one of the biggest photography trends of 2019, and it is more and more common to see them used in professional projects such as wedding photography and even full-length films.
Don’t let the name fool you, this type of camera can be used for much more than just landscape photography. Bridge cameras were designed to serve as a middle ground between amateur compact cameras and professional DSLRs (hence the name). They’re smaller and lighter than DSLR cameras, yet still pack some of the same manual settings.
Bridge cameras come with a fixed lens, usually covering every focal range from wide-angle to super-telephoto. Having such a powerful zoom at an affordable cost is possible thanks to the small sensor of these cameras. Because of this, they are considered a great choice for those who want to enter the world of sports or wildlife photography without investing thousands of dollars upfront.
Despite their versatility, however, bridge cameras are still behind DSLRs and mirrorless cameras in several areas, especially those which require specific types of camera lenses. Such is the case with macro shots, extra-fast apertures, and ultra-wide angle fields, among others.
This type of camera uses self-developing film to produce a printed image shortly after capturing the picture. They’re commonly known as “Polaroid” cameras, as it was this corporation who first introduced instant cameras into the market.
Before the digital era, instant cameras were used as a way to have an immediate visual reference. For example, script supervisors used them to keep track of sets’ designs and characters’ appearances. Also, medical professionals demanded pictures of accidents sites for their patients in order to have a better understanding of their needs.
Instant cameras are now primarily used in event photography, as it allows guests to easily take some memories home in the form of snapshots. Furthermore, the unique look and feel of instant images has led to the development of numerous photography apps which aim to replicate the results in digital form.
This is the type of camera everyone should use at least once in their life. Yes, that includes people who aren’t so much not into photography. A pinhole camera is basically a compacted version of the camera obscura where you capture the image on paper rather than using it as a viewing or drawing aid tool.
As a photographer, building and using a pinhole camera will allow you to get a much clearer understanding of how photos are captured. Furthermore, it’s trial and error method will help you strengthen your domain over the photography exposure triangle. All you need is a light-proof box, a light-sensitive film, and a thick piece of foil with an extremely small hole in it. The smaller the hole (aperture), the longer it will need to be uncovered (shutter) for the image to be captured properly (exposure).
Pinhole cameras have an almost infinite depth of field, no distortion, and require really long exposure times. As a result, everything is focused, the scene remains perfectly rectilinear, and moving elements do not appear in the image.
For many, this type of camera was the first contact with photography. That is, way before any adult deemed you responsible enough to let you hold a device not meant to be thrown away. Disposable cameras are meant to be used only once, hence their name, and commonly offer 24-36 exposures. After the roll is finished, they are returned to the store or sent to a lab for the images to be developed.
While nowadays it is hard to imagine people living without any sort of camera, there was a time where photography was a luxury that not everyone could, or wanted to, afford. Disposable cameras were the way to go for those who simply needed a way to capture their travel pictures or family events.
Disposable cameras were created for amateurs, and have nearly disappeared since the introduction of digital photography and smartphones. However, some are still used nowadays by professionals aiming to bring their wildest creative photography ideas to life, as well as by newlyweds who want their guests to capture snapshots of the celebration for them.
By Judit Ruiz Ricart
Editor of the Wix Photography Blog