"What's the best digital camera?"

This is the most common question we're asked in our photography courses - here are our answers.

Now that all the new camera systems have been announced, it's safe to get a camera again now we know that today's lenses will work on tomorrow's mirrorless cameras.

Prices are much lower than this time last year, with genuine deals if you shop around.

Be aware that there’s a revolution about to hit cameras called “computational photography”, and if you're considering a camera with swappable lenses (a "DSLR" or "mirrorless" camera) it might change the camera you choose to buy. It will boost the quality of future cameras so much that there will be less of a reason to get bigger cameras with bigger lenses. I'm slowly changing to smaller "half-frame" cameras from huge "full frame" cameras.

Taking all this into account, here are our recommendations today. They're based on how well we see cameras performing on our photography courses. Think of them as safe bets - great cameras with room to grow.

Current recommendations (last updated 14 December 2019)

Cheapest camera

Canon Ixus 185 compact camera. Photography courtesy Canon

Canon Ixus 185, $130 (down $10 from Oct). 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. Note that you need to turn off the "Easy Auto" mode (hold the up arrow) to be able to use any of its good features. If getting it for a child, consider spending an extra $60 for the Ixus 190 with a bigger zoom range and wifi for putting photos straight onto your phone.

Small compact cameras $150 - $550

A endangered species of camera, almost killed by phones. Models with big zooms are the only survivors today. Great for travel without the pantomime of changing lenses on a bigger camera.

Panasonic Lumix digital camera. Photography courtesy Panasonic

Panasonic TZ80, $370 (down $70 from Aug) online or TZ90 (almost the same but with a tilting screen) $445 (down $55 from Aug). Both pack a huge zoom, good viewfinder and great night shooting into a small, easy-to-use package with a touch screen and wifi. Great 4k video, and an amazing mode that lets you focus after shooting (it really works!), and extremely fast shooting. A huge step forward from phone shooting without lugging a big camera. Battery life is its Achille's heel, so get a spare before you go on holiday.

Bigger compact cameras $400 - $900

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, $650 (up $60 from Aug). 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. Don't be tempted yet by the currently-overpriced, enormous P1000.

Panasonic compact digital camera. Photography courtesy Panasonic

Panasonic FZ300, $600 (up $30 from Aug). 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 ($780) trades off some zoom reach for better overall picture quality.

Waterproof Cameras

Olympus TG-5 waterproof digital camera. Photography courtesy Olympus

Olympus TG-6 - $580. Pricey, but worth it. It just works and gives great results. Quick, easy to use, with a reasonable zoom for a 15m waterproof camera, and niceties like an anti-fog lens so you can forget about treating it nicely. There are heaps of accessories to keep enthusiasts happy too, including compatibility with Olympus' off-camera flashes. You really can just PLAY with this camera. Great for worry-free holidays.

Bigger cameras with changeable lenses (SLRs and "Mirrorless 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. What you lose in compactness you get back in speed, clearer pictures, and much better quality photos in poor light. 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.

Mirrorless cameras offer a Goldilocks mix of SLR quality, changeable lenses and quietness without the bulk. They're slowly replacing SLRs. Until recently, they were too slow to shoot action and had poor battery life. But the latest are now competitive with SLRs... only smaller.

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 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. See which brand your friends use so you can swap lenses between you. My ideal camera would have a Sony 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 (2018), 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)

First, some second-hand options. A Canon EOS 750D, 70D, a semi professional 7D or a Nikon D7000 are now bargains at between $400 and $800 for extremely competent cameras. If you don't need a warranty, second hand offers much better value than new. 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.

Here are the best new options:

Canon EOS 1300D digital SLR camera. Photography courtesy Canon

Canon EOS 1500D - $580 with an 18-55 lens. 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. Shop around, as prices vary on these cheaper DSLRs. If you can stretch to it, the Nikon below is convincingly better.

Nikon D5600 digital camera SLR. Photography courtesy Nikon

Nikon D5600 - $750 (down $150 from August) with 18-55 lens. Dollar-for-dollar it has the best focus, best image quality, most editable pictures, and also adds great battery life in a mature traditional body with access to Nikon's huge range of accessories. It was our runner-up camera of the year for 2017, and now far cheaper (we've seen it for $620 - if you see one this cheap, just buy it!) it's the best camera in this group for shooting pretty much anything. Highly recommended.

Panasonic G85 mirrorless camera. Image courtesy Panasonic

Panasonic G85, $770 without lens (down $330 from Dec last year now that the almost-identical G90 is out). Small enough to take on holiday, easy to use one-handed, great results, quiet (silent if you want), robust and weatherproof, fabulous on auto yet it can take you as far as you want to go into photography. Choose from small cheap lenses or gorgeous “serious” Leica lenses. It’s comfy to use with glasses, easy to focus and has a stabiliser so good you can have an extra couple of glasses of wine. There are better cameras for specific things, but as an all-rounder this is the closest we’ve seen to perfect. Loved by everyone we’ve seen own one.

Olympus OMD E-M10 camera. Photography courtesy Olympus

Olympus E-M10 MkIII - $900 with lens. If size is a consideration and you shoot anything except sports, 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. Almost full SLR quality in a package smaller than any SLR - it's what mirrorless cameras should be. 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. The 14-42 lens isn't the best quality, but there are good alternative 'micro four-thirds' lenses available - you get what you pay for with lenses.

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

The cameras 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, more weatherproofing and a microphone input for professional video sound. 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.

Canon EOS M6 MKII mirrorless camera. Photography courtesy Canon

Canon EOS M6 MkII - $1,430 with lens and viewfinder. Skip the Canon EOS 90D while it's an eye-watering $1,800 and go for the old Canon EOS 80D ($1,200 without lens), or our pick - the new mirrorless EOS M6 MkII. It's everything from the EOS 90D, but much smaller, lighter, cheaper and without the mirror. Frankly, it's better. Excellent quality pictures, super-fast, great focus for photos and video. Lovely flipping screen and access to Canon's huge range of EF lenses, or newer, smaller EF-M lenses.

Nikon D750 digital SLR. Photography courtesy Nikon

Nikon D610 - $1,300 (down $600) or Nikon D7500 ($1,090, down $650). The recent price drops make both of these cameras highly recommended. The newer half-frame D7500 is much faster to focus and shoot especially in low light. The slower full-frame Nikon D610 excels at picture quality - you can mess up the settings and still get wonderful pictures on the computer. Or get the Nikon D750 which has the best of both ($2,100). The "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 full-frame camera used to buy you about 4 years' worth of better image quality before cheaper half-frame cameras catch up, but the note at the start of this page explains why we expect it to only be about a 2 year advantage today.

Fuji X-T3 mirrorless camera. Photography courtesy FujiFilm

Fuji X-T3 - $1,450 without a lens (down $750 from Dec last year) or X-T30 - $1,150. The weatherproof X-T3 was our 2018 camera of the year, and the X-T30 is almost as good, without the weatherproofing. They're both a joy to use - I bought the X-T3 the day I tried it, and I'm tempted to get a second. Fast, small, light, silent, robust and reliable with a full system of professional lenses and a separate range of more affordable lenses. Put everything on Auto and shoot away or experiment with the dials on-by-one for easy learning. The focus is incredible for photographing people. They're good - but not great - at sports and wildlife, but for everything else these are gems.

Sony a7 III mirrorless camera. Photography courtesy Sony

Sony a7 III - $2,200 (down $550 from Dec last year). The start of a revolution. A small, full-frame mirrorless camera that beats all similarly-priced DSLR cameras in almost every way. Fabulous focus that locks onto faces instantly, silent (if you wish), outstanding quality, reasonable battery life, and quick. Drawbacks? The lenses are as large as normal DSLR lenses, and anecdotally it's not as robust as similarly-priced DSLRs. Works well with ALL your old film lenses too with an adaptor, so our top pick for using old lenses.

Cameras for travel

Size is everything when you’re carrying a camera all day. From biggest to smallest, we recommend these cameras for holidays:

Sony a7r III mirrorless camera. Image courtesy Sony

Sony a7rIII, $3,600 (down $1300 as the new $4,700 a7rIV is out) outstanding picture quality from a camera that isn't enormous. Overkill for 99% of people. Save $1.4k and get the a7III instead.

Olympus E-M1 MkII mirrorless camera. Image courtesy Olympus

Olympus OMD E-M1 MkII, $1,960 (down $240 from Oct) or Panasonic G9, $1,380 (down $500 from Dec) - small, professional, tough, weatherproof and the only cameras I’d take without a tripod - their stabilisers are incredible.

Panasonic G85 mirrorless camera. Image courtesy Panasonic

Panasonic G85, $770 (Down $330 from Dec) without lens. It travels well - see the details in the "under $1000" section above.

FujiFilm X-E3 mirrorless camera. Image courtesy FujiFilm

Fuji X-E3 $950 (down $100 from Oct) without lens. Small, discreet, with olde-worlde styling: many people actually like being photographed by it. Has instant printers which transform your holiday. I use its bigger brother (X-Pro2) professionally, and it feels like play, not work.

Panasonic TZ110 compact camera. Image courtesy Panasonic

Panasonic TZ110 $690 (down $110). The best affordable, quality camera that fits in a pocket. Based on the TZ90 from the "$150-$500" section above, but with a bigger sensor giving better all-round quality at the expense of zoom reach. If you want the absolute best, the $2,000 Sony RX100 MkVII is a faster, luxury version that is a joy to use.

Samsung S8. Image courtesy Samsung

Any good phone. Phones excel at travel photography... their cameras are built for landscapes and storytelling photos. Small, discreet, light, and good enough quality - even for night photos with the right apps or the latest phones like the Google Pixel 4 or iPhone 11. If you don't need to sell the photos and can put up with the lack of a meaningful zoom, consider travelling just with the phone camera and a battery pack. It's liberating compared to lugging a big camera.

FujiFilm Instax SP-2 portable printer. Image courtesy FujiFilm

FujiFilm Instax SP-2 Printer. $120 (down $100) and $1/print. Think seriously about bringing this pocketable instant printer, especially if you don’t speak the local language. It’s a fabulous way to give photos, not just take them, and lets you have fun with people everywhere. The Fuji Instax SP-2 works with any smartphone or Fuji camera, and the delight of watching the picture appear in front of you (Polaroid-style) is pure magic. I won’t leave the country without one.

Why these cameras? The most common regret we hear from travellers is taking too much heavy gear. The second most common is wishing they’d taken a better camera. So we’ve recommended small cameras that are good quality, light and easy to use. They all happen to be mirrorless cameras which eat batteries, so bring a few batteries if you’re going to be away from power for a day or more. Many people want a big zoom for travel… they’re fun and good at picking out details and patterns. But they struggle in low light, they’re heavy, and give a flat style of picture. Consider if the tradeoffs are worth it for you, and if so, have a look at “superzoom” cameras like the Panasonic FZ1000.

Cameras for family or a new baby

From budget to splurge:

Canon EOS 60D digital SLR. Image courtesy Canon

Second-hand Canon EOS 70D or Nikon D7000 with a 50mm f/1.8 lens - $400-700. Tough, weatherproof, fast, built to use one-handed, huge battery life and way better than any new camera at the price. Leave it switched on somewhere quick to grab, and you're all set to capture the joy in your house.

Canon 50mm f/1.4 lens. Image courtesy Canon

50mm f/1.4 lens ($500 new, $300 second hand). Upgrade your lens to the f/1.4 version from Nikon, Canon or Sigma before you upgrade the camera. It's quicker to focus, lets you shoot in almost darkness, blurs the background beautifully, and resists ghosting from bright lights. The ultimate indoor lens to shoot children.

Nikon D5600 digital SLR. Image courtesy Nikon

Nikon D5600 or D7500 with 50mm f/1.4 lens ($1,100 or $1,600 respectively). Quicker and better than the second-hand options above, especially in dim light, and both connect to your phone for remote shooting or sharing photos instantly. But still not silent.

Sony a6000 mirrorless camera. Image courtesy Sony

Sony a6000 with 50mm f/1.8 ($1,050) or Panasonic G85 with 42.5mm f/1.7 ($1,300). The Panasonic can be completely silent - a huge plus for family shooting, especially with a sleeping baby. The Sony is still much quieter than any SLR, or upgrade to the Sony a6500 for an extra $400 for total silence. They all connect wirelessly to your phone for instant sharing.

Sony a9 mirrorless camera. Image courtesy Sony

Fuji X-T3 with 50mm f/2 ($2,000) or blow the budget with a Sony a7III with 85mm f/1.4 ($4200). Silent, quick, small, wireless and great at focusing on eyes.

Why these cameras? 90% of the priceless family memories happen at home. This is your home camera. It has to shoot a moving target instantly in dim light without flash and without changing settings, all one-handed. You won’t have both hands available for months. It has to blur the background, as the house is going to be a tip for years. You don’t need a zoom as much as you need low-light ability, and you can’t have both affordably. Small size is an expensive luxury for this camera.

Can your phone do it?

Only for the first 9 months of a baby's life. Once your baby is mobile, even the best smartphone can’t come close to an SLR for these pictures, and that includes the latest twin-camera phones. You’ll miss too much. Phones pick up too much background, can’t freeze movement in dim light, and force you to shoot too close to your baby because their zooms don’t work in low light.

These may be the most precious photos you take, and you’ll only get one chance. Your grandkids will want to see these pictures. Don’t mess around here - get the right tool for the job.

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 $1,000 from Aug and dropping fast as it's about to be replaced). Or Canon EOS 1DXII ($6,200, down $1,800 and still dropping as it's about to be replaced) or Sony a9 ($4,500). The current state of the art. 9 years on, I still get excellent service from two old Nikon D3s. They give great picture quality in one hundredth of the light needed by a compact cameras. This means that I can shoot in the murkiest venues without flash and still get shots that clients love. Weaknesses? They weigh 3kg each 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 slower and less solid.

For the ultimate in picture quality from cameras of this size, Canon's 5DS ($3,300), Nikon's D850 ($4,000), and Sony's tiny A7RIV ($4,700) and Fuji GFX50R ($6,000) or Fuji GFX1000 ($16,500) 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 a7III, a7RIV, 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.

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 demanding commercial assignments, you're looking at a “medium format” camera or even a “large format camera” – $16,000 to $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 25 lenses between them!

So far, the 13 major camera companies have created over 2,500 digital camera models between them, with over 40 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.