"What's the best digital camera?"

This is the most common question we're asked in our photography courses, so we've put our recommendations here. The list is based on how well we see cameras perform in the hands of the 9,000 people who've been on our photography courses. Think of these cameras as "safe bets" that also give plenty of room to grow.

Just because a camera isn't here doesn't mean it isn't good; it might just mean that we haven't seen it yet to review it. We'll update this page as we see new cameras... on average, over 3 new camera models are released every week. See the health warning at the end of this page for more information about how we put this list together, and the biases in it.

Before buying a camera, I'd strongly recommend that you try out a few models in the shop. Here's an article on what to look out for when you're shopping for a new camera.

We've split the recommendations into the following groups based on size and price. For the same price, physically bigger cameras are generally better. Smaller cameras lose out either in features, picture quality or price, but they're so much more convenient. Since last year, small cameras have become cheaper as competition hots-up from camera phones, but bigger cameras have become pricier with the sliding Aussie dollar.

Current recommendations (last updated 15th December 2016)

Cheapest camera

Canon Ixus 175 compact camera. Photography courtesy Canon

Canon Ixus 175, $149. A versatile little camera, with a modest 8x zoom range. It's not really fast enough for action shooting - that's where bigger cameras shine. But it's good at landscapes and travel photos. There are more flexible cameras out there for a bit more money, but it's a good all-rounder and a much better alternative to a "toy" camera for a child who'll look after it.

Small compact cameras $150-$550

Fits in your pocket, and you can carry it anywhere... but you've probably already got a phone camera that does that too. But these cameras still have one advantage over phone cameras - they have a 'proper' zoom, giving you access to a range of different looks to photos without the pantomime of changing lenses.

Panasonic Lumix digital camera. Photography courtesy Panasonic

Panasonic TZ80, $500 (up $50 from the previous model) Packs a huge zoom, good viewfinder and great night shooting into a small, easy-to-use package with a touch screen and wifi. Has super-duper 4k video, and an amazing mode that lets you focus after shooting (it really works!), quick focus and extremely fast shooting. If you currently take most photos with your phone and don't want to lug around a big camera, this is a huge step forward. You'll be able to get all kinds of pictures that phones can't yet do, and the quality of the pictures is fabulous for a camera of this size. Battery life is its Achille's heel, so get a spare before you go on holiday.

Sony HX90V compact digital camera. Photography courtesy Sony

Sony HX90V, $500 (down $50 from June). Simply a joy to use. With its great 30-times zoom, pop-up viewfinder, lovely sweep panorama (also called "drive-by shooting mode" on our courses!) and clear pictures all in a compact package. Like all small cameras, it's not brilliant indoors without the flash, but it's competent.

Bigger compact cameras $400 - $800

The main reason to consider a bigger compact camera is for its extra zoom range. And these cameras offer truly staggering zooms.

Nikon P900 digital camera. Photography courtesy Nikon

Nikon P900, $770. This camera has one big gimmick: an enormous zoom. And it’s so much fun. You can fill a picture with the moon. I can’t print the words that Steve Parish used to describe the zoom when he saw the results on our courses, but it translates to “Gosh! That’s impressive”. And it has a good image stabiliser so you can often hold it steady. Other than the zoom, it’s a solid but unremarkable camera with a slightly quirky menu system. But everyone with a P900 on our courses has a permanent grin - it makes photography fun again and leaves you feeling like a kid. If you’d prefer to be sensible and mature, get the Panasonic FZ300. But life’s too short for that.

Panasonic compact digital camera. Photography courtesy Panasonic

Panasonic FZ300 $610 (down $70 from October). If you don't want to go the extra step to an SLR with its interchangeable lenses and low-light shooting, get this instead. Sporting a fabulous lens, it sees four times more light than most compact cameras, making all kinds of photo easier to take. It shoots 12 pictures per second, focuses quickly, takes good video, shoots well at night, has a genuinely effective "Intelligent Auto" mode and it's weatherproof. It doesn't have the over-the-top zoom range of the Nikon above, but it's big enough for almost everything. Alternatively, the heavier, more expensive, non-weatherproof FZ1000 ($900) trades off some zoom reach for better overall picture quality.

Waterproof Cameras

Panasonic Lumix FT-6 digital camera. Photography courtesy Panasonic

Panasonic FT6 - $380 (up $50 from October). Waterproof to 13 metres and shockproof, yet it still has a reasonable 4.6x zoom range and good features, so it doesn't feel like you're using a whale for normal photography. It's easy to use and has one of the clearest screens in bright light (you wouldn't call it easy to see, but it's better than most). Great for kids and worry-free holidays.

If your holidays resemble Navy SEAL training, consider the first interchangeable lens amphibious camera in over 20 years: the Nikon 1 AW1 ($700), waterproof to 15m. It only has two waterproof lenses currently available, but it's compatible with all of Nikon's normal 1-system lenses too. Obviously, it's not waterproof when using a normal lens.

Bigger cameras with changeable lenses (SLRs and "Compact System Cameras")

If you can spend $600 or more on a camera and don't mind the size, think about getting a cheap digital Single Lens Reflex (SLR) or "mirrorless" camera instead of a compact camera. Just to confuse things, "mirrorless" cameras also go by the name of "micro four-thirds" or "compact system cameras".

What's an SLR? This page explains the differences between SLR cameras and the rest. In brief, SLRs cost more, are bigger, heavier and noisier. BUT they focus and shoot much faster, take clearer pictures, give much better quality photos in poor light (often even indoors WITHOUT flash). They also let you put the background totally out-of-focus if you want to, and you can change their flash and lenses for different effects.

What's a mirrorless camera? It's the new kid on the block. They offer a Goldilocks mix of SLR quality, compact-camera size, and changeable lenses (that are smaller and pleasingly lighter than SLR lenses). They're taking off slowly here in Australia, but now that every major manufacturer offers them, we predict that they're the beginning of the end of the SLR.. After consistent price drops and improvements to quality, we're finally recommending them here, especially if you're travelling. But SLRs are still better for shooting action, including wildlife.

I'd suggest getting the cheapest camera body you can get away with, and the best (yup, read “most expensive”) lenses you can. This combination will give you more versatility, and the best long-term investment. Your camera is going to be comprehensively superseded by a new model in 18 months, but your lenses won't be. You might already have some lenses from a film SLR camera that you can use. The article linked in the button below explains which lenses might work with a modern digital SLR or mirrorless.

Many people ask which brand is the best. Unlike cars, there's little difference between any of the major camera brands - try them and see which one fits your hand the best. Or see which brand your friends have so you can swap lenses between you. My ideal camera would have a Fuji sensor in an Olympus body with Nikon autofocus and flash and take Canon lenses, if only they would fit together! There is no single best system. Right now (2016), Sony, Nikon, Fuji and Pentax (who all use Sony sensors in their cameras) give photos that are more 'editable' by computer - you can brighten and darken them more than other brands. This is great if you enjoy editing photos by computer, and irrelevant if not.

Bigger cameras with changeable lenses (under $1,000)

We'll start this section by recommending reliable second-hand models. While the Aussie dollar is weaker you can probably get a bargain on a very worthwhile used classic, such as the Canon EOS 600D, 50D or even a semi professional 7D. This could be tempting if you don't need the peace-of-mind and benefits of handling a camera at a bricks-and-mortar store. If you are keen on second-hand, ask the seller how many photos it's taken - it's like the mileage of a car, and these cameras are rated for 50,000+ photos. Check that the sensor is clean, as it's about $100 for a professional to swish away the dust, check that the flash does pop up, and budget for a new battery as the existing one will be tired by now. If it's expensive enough that you'd consider getting it repaired if damaged, ask to see the Australian warranty documents (even if it's expired) to prove that it was bought in Australia. Manufacturers will only repair items bought in Oz.

Nikon D3300 digital SLR camera. Photography courtesy Nikon

Nikon D3300 - $550 with an 18-55 lens (up $50 from 2015). The best affordable digital SLR – get it while it’s cheap and avoid its replacement (the less-capable D3400) which has a flash 3x weaker and also lacks sensor cleaning. Small and light for an SLR, the D3300 gives lovely results even in dim light. When you get it, see page 227 in the manual to set "Auto ISO Sensitivity" to let you shoot easily indoors without the flash. As a shameless plug, our workshops include full instructions to make the most of every camera, without having to refer to the manual. If you like to shoot action or in dim light, consider the next model up: D5500 ($990 with 18-55 lens) which has vastly improved focus (almost professional level) and fabulous low-light sensitivity.

Canon EOS 1300D digital SLR camera. Photography courtesy Canon

Canon EOS 1300D - $500 with an 18-55 lens (up $100 from the previous model, but down $50 from Oct). The entry-point to Canon's dazzling array of interchangeable lens cameras, it's a jump up in performance from all the compact cameras above for image quality when the light gets dim. Canon are the biggest brand so we felt compelled to include a Canon, but at this price, unless you have Canon lenses already, I'd recommend the Nikon above or the Pentax below instead. The next model up, the Canon EOS 750D, is much better, but at $1,000 with a lens (up $250 from December) I'm reluctant to recommend it.

Pentax K-50 weatherproof digital SLR camera. Photography courtesy Pentax

Pentax K-50 - $800 (up $100 from June) with a weatherproof 18-55 lens. A fantastic camera with high-grade weatherproofing against rain, splashes and dust. It gives great results in bright and dim light and it's relatively small for an SLR. For $200 extra, add the 50-200 weatherproof zoom. We were recommending this camera when is was $200 more expensive. It's now a bargain, and with a new K-70 just announed, may get even cheaper.

Olympus OMD E-M10 camera. Photography courtesy Olympus

Olympus E-M10 - $750 with 14-42 lens (up $100 from 2015). As long as you don't shoot sports regularly, you really need to try this camera. It’s what many people have always wanted: small, light, easy to use (once set up), quick, and it shoots good pictures in any light. It's a 'mirrorless' camera that gives almost full SLR quality in a package smaller than any SLR. You can still take manual control too, including advanced stuff like using flash off the camera, and the lenses are small enough to fit in your pocket. Taking pictures becomes fun again, especially with the app that lets you shoot wirelessly through your phone. Try the new E-M10 Mk2 ($890 with lens) for more video options, awesome quality time lapse and better battery life. These 14-42 lenses aren't the best quality, but there are good alternative 'micro four-thirds' lenses available - you get what you pay for with lenses.

Sony alpha 6000 mirrorless digital camera. Photography courtesy Sony

Sony alpha 6000 - $800 with 16-50 lens (down $100 from Oct). A love-it-or-hate-it camera that has impressed us on two fronts. First, it can shoot clear pictures in very dim light... so clear, that for casual shooting you'll only need photographic 'stuff' like tripods and special lenses in extremely dim light. Second, it has outstanding focus - quick enough for sports and the equal of good-quality SLRs. And it's small and light. Downsides? The rest of the camera is unremarkable - the standard lenses aren't too great, and the interface is a bit daunting to some. It's a muscle-car of a camera - unprecedented performance at the price, but not everyone's cup of tea. Try before you buy. The new a6300 is better but currently vastly overpriced at $1700 - get the a6000 and spend on lenses instead.

Bigger cameras with changeable lenses (over $1,000 with a lens)

The SLRs above all give outstanding results, and few people will need more. But are you curious to know what you can get if you do spend more?

The cameras below offer faster shooting, faster autofocus, better build quality and a microphone input for professional video sound. They're more weatherproof than all but the Pentax above – but few of their lenses are so you still need to be careful. To a lesser extent, they will offer better image quality when shooting in the darkest conditions. If you are beginning in photography, I'd suggest getting one of the SLRs above, and spend the extra money on lenses, rather on one of the cameras below.

Nikon D7200 digital SLR camera. Image courtesy Nikon

Nikon D7200, $1,060 without lens (down $90 from Oct). A semi-professional camera at a reasonable price. It's not that it offers any one outstanding feature; it's more the lack of weaknesses. Fabulous low-light focus and shooting, great handling, great image quality, and excellent video (including professional touches like a headphone jack for checking sound while recording). I recently bought its bigger brother the Nikon D750 ($2,100) with a sensor that's twice the size, giving essentially twice the quality if your lenses are up to it. Both cameras give photos that are extremely flexible to edit by computer - you can get away with horrendous mistakes in your camera settings and no-one need ever know after a few seconds' work on the computer. It feels like cheating. Don't tell my clients I said that.

Canon EOS 70D digital SLR camera. Photography courtesy Canon

Canon EOS 80D, $1,300 without lens (down $300 from October). A lovely camera with a nice, articulating rear screen. It gives excellent quality pictures indoors without flash, takes over 7 pictures per second, and focuses quickly, even with video. The screen on the back is a joy to look at, and it has built-in Wi-Fi to share pictures quickly or control the camera from your smartphone. An excellent choice for video. The old 70D (still available at $1,000) is a bargain now, but its files aren't as flexible to edit by computer.

Canon EOS6D digital SLR. Photography courtesy Canon

Canon EOS 6D or Nikon D610 - $1,620 and $1,480 respectively without lenses (Canon down $220; Nikon down $270 from Oct). If you want detailed pictures without paying professional prices, these cameras deliver. Their "full-frame" sensors are twice the size of the sensors in the cameras above, giving better results especially in poor light. With sensors evolving every year, a more expensive full-frame camera buys you 3 to 4 years' worth of better image quality before cheaper half-frame cameras will be up there with them.

Speed freaks: Cameras for wildlife, sports and action

These are cameras built for shooting action, including wildlife, sports or children playing spontaneously. To make the most of their speed, you’ll also need good (expensive!) lenses. We’ve chosen “cropped” or “half-frame” cameras, making them smaller and faster per dollar than “full-frame” cameras. While this means they’re not quite as good in dim light, their new sensors bridge most of the difference:

Nikon D500. Photography courtesy Nikon

Nikon D500 - $3000 plus lenses. A 100% professional camera that’s shrunk. The fastest and best autofocus system in any camera at any price, fabulous picture quality and insanely fast. If you can afford it, buy it – there is no better camera for action without spending 2.5x the price and nearly doubling the weight.

Canon EOS 7D MkII

Canon EOS 7D MkII - $2100 plus lenses. The latest version of Canon’s hugely popular professional half-frame camera fixes all the focus woes of its predecessor, and leaves a hugely capable camera with access to Canon’s unmatched lens range. A great alternative to the Nikon above.

Nikon D7200. Photography by Nikon

Nikon D7200 ($1,060 plus lens, details in the section above), or if you’re tighter for money, Nikon D5500 ($800 plus lens). Pair either of these with a good lens, and you’re set for great sports photos with few compromises. If you're stuck deciding whether to spend on the lens or the camera, get the better lens and one of these cameras for a future-proof investment.

Lightweight mirrorless cameras that can keep up with action

Mirrorless cameras aren’t as good as digital SLRs for action because their electronic viewfinders trail behind reality by a few milliseconds, making it hard to follow action especially with burst shooting. Their tiny, lightweight bodies and lenses are truly liberating for urban travel, but they eat batteries over 5 times faster than DSLRs, so carry lots of spares if you’re out bush or away from power. So far, only two mirrorless camera series focus quickly enough for sports, and while they’re similar inside, their interfaces couldn't be more different:

Sony alpha 6000 mirrorless camera. Photography by Sony

Sony Alpha 6000 ($700 plus lens), Alpha 6300 ($1,600 plus lens), [and probably the upcoming Alpha 6500 ($2100)]. A modern interface houses a stunning sensor and great autofocus. As you go up the range, focus speed and responsiveness increase. The 6000 gives by far best performance per dollar (which is why it's also in our general recommendations), but it’s slower than the others to show you what you’ve shot, making it harder to use for sports.

Fuji X-T2 mirrorless camera

Fuji XT-2 - $2100 without lens. Blends traditional control dials like your dad’s SLR with the latest technology inside. It’s not for everyone. Fuji makes great lenses: even the standard zooms are super crisp. And until January, they’re all discounted. Try it and see if you get hooked like I did.

Huge, state-of-the-art cameras – over $3,000

I've put this here purely so that you know what the state-of-the-art is. Anyone buying one of these will be doing some serious research into their business plan first.

Nikon D5 professional digital SLR camera. Photograph courtesy Nikon

Nikon D5, $7,800 without lens or flash (down $1,100 from Oct). The current state of the art. 8 years on, I still get excellent service from an old Nikon D3. It gives unprecedented picture quality in one hundredth of the light needed by the compact cameras above. This means that I can shoot in the murkiest venues without flash and still get shots that clients love. Nine pictures every second. Weaknesses? It weighs 3kg with a professional lens, and the most sensitive autofocus sensors are clustered in the middle of the picture – just where I don't want them. The biggest downside is its size: it's so big that it cuts you off from the people you're photographing. So I often start a session with smaller cameras (by Fuji) that aren't a barrier. The smaller Nikon D750 is a more sensible buy for 99% of people - just a bit slower and less solid.

For the ultimate in picture quality from cameras of this size, Canon's 5DS ($4,600), Nikon's D810 ($3,400), Sony's tiny A7RII ($4,000) and Pentax K-1 ($2,800) can capture unprecedented detail. But you'll need top-notch (expensive!) lenses, very steady hands, and no caffeine if you want to see much difference. The Sony A7RII and A7SII are interesting because they're designed to work well with lenses from other manufacturers through an adaptor. So if you've got lots of expensive Canon lenses, the Sony could still be your next camera. And a Nikon lens adaptor is due soon.

Canon and Nikon still rule the roost for these professional workhorses - not because they're better than other brands, but because you can rent, service and repair their cameras and accessories almost anywhere, and because they have a staggering range of accessories and lenses. But if your livelihood doesn't depend on it, all brands offer similar quality.

If you need even more quality (for billboards or demanding commercial assignments), you're looking at a “medium format” camera or even a “large format camera” – about $5,000 for film or $40,000 for digital. Happy shopping!

Health warning - how we put this list together

We only recommend cameras that we've actually used or taught beginners how to use. Just because a camera isn't here, doesn't mean it isn't good... it might just mean that we haven't seen it yet to review it. We update this page as we see how people go with new cameras. Note that the photos on this page are not all to the same scale.

Megapixels don't feature on this page, because all new cameras have more than enough megapixels for 99% of people. See this article to find out why megapixels really don't matter anymore.

The prices are in Australian dollars and come from web searches for cameras that have full Australian warranties, from retailers that have actual stores unless otherwise noted. You can get them cheaper online if you're prepared to forego the manufacturers' warranties and service support by buying "grey imports". Many stores in Brisbane have slightly higher prices, which is justified if you're going to spend time trying the cameras, which we would recommend, and many offer good pre- and post-sale support. Some shops may match others' advertised prices too.

Our biases are:
  • Fail-safe cameras, rather than whiz-bang with the latest things
  • Versatile cameras, rather than cameras specialised at just one thing
  • Proven cameras. We may not have seen the latest ones yet.
  • Easy-to-learn cameras that perform well for beginners as well as enthusiasts.

For the record, our current cameras include Nikon and Canon professional digital SLR cameras, Olympus and Fuji mirrorless cameras, Canon, Olympus and Panasonic compact digital cameras, and a range of film cameras including Hasselblad. And 23 lenses between them!

So far, the 13 major camera companies have created over 2,000 digital camera models between them, with over 150 brand-new ones announced each year. Web sites such as dpreview.com keep up with the deluge, and have an encyclopaedic database featuring almost every camera, with recommendations from experienced reviewers. If you understand the camera jargon (or want to learn it), those web sites have heaps of information.