With so many new cameras on the market we're often hard pressed to place them in a category we understand, and if they don't fit any category they deserve a new category of their own.

You could write a book about all the different camera types and what makes them fit the category, so I'll stick to several of the types we're most familiar, especially where they tend to be confusing and mistakenly identified.  There are many I won't list either because they're specific to professional photographers or because they're no longer made and aren't really germane to the average amateurs needs.

SLR  -  An SLR is easy to identify.  SLR stands for Single Lens Reflex and denotes a single lens camera with a reflex viewfinder, which is basically a mirror box that takes the image from it's normal upside down view, and through the use of mirrors turns it right side up again which increases user function.  With an SLR you're looking 'through' the lens at your subject.  The term SLR's were coined back when we only had film cameras.  35mm (36x24mm) SLR's were the most popular, but the Pentax 6x7cm SLR was also popular with professionals.  SLR's are best known for their interchangeable lenses (though plenty were made with fixed lenses), quick focusing, and fast frame rate.

 

SLR  -  An SLR is easy to identify.  SLR stands for Single Lens Reflex and denotes a single lens camera with a reflex viewfinder, which is basically a mirror box that takes the image from it's normal upside down view, and through the use of mirrors turns it right side up again which increases user function.  With an SLR you're looking 'through' the lens at your subject.  The term SLR's were coined back when we only had film cameras.  35mm (36x24mm) SLR's were the most popular, but the Pentax 6x7cm SLR was also popular with professionals.  SLR's are best known for their interchangeable lenses (though plenty were made with fixed lenses), quick focusing, and fast frame rate.

 

DSLR -  This is the same as an SLR but uses a digital sensor.  There are many DSLR's on the market and books have been written on the different types. The most popular sensor sizes are APS-C (1.5x (23.6x15.7mm) and 1.6x (22.2x14.8mm)), full frame, and now the new Leica S2 with an even bigger sensor (30x45mm).

 

DSLR  -  This is the same as an SLR but uses a digital sensor.  There are many DSLR's on the market and books have been written on the different types. The most popular sensor sizes are APS-C (1.5x (23.6x15.7mm) and 1.6x (22.2x14.8mm)), full frame, and now the new Leica S2 with an even bigger sensor (30x45mm).  DSLR  -  This is the same as an SLR but uses a digital sensor.  There are many DSLR's on the market and books have been written on the different types. The most popular sensor sizes are APS-C (1.5x (23.6x15.7mm) and 1.6x (22.2x14.8mm)), full frame, and now the new Leica S2 with an even bigger sensor (30x45mm).

 

 

Rangefinder -  A rangefinder is most easily identified with Leica, but was in fact a popular camera type made by many manufacturers.  It's called a rangefinder because the viewfinder has an actual rangefinder function which aids focusing. As you look through the viewfinder you'll see two images, as you focus the camera the images will come together, one on top of the other, and when perfectly matched the camera is in focus and you can read the 'range' or what we know as ‘focal distance' which you can read about here.  This is different than focal length explained in this article

 

Rangefinder  -  A rangefinder is most easily identified with Leica, but was in fact a popular camera type made by many manufacturers.  It's called a rangefinder because the viewfinder has an actual rangefinder function which aids focusing. As you look through the viewfinder you'll see two images, as you focus the camera the images will come together, one on top of the other, and when perfectly matched the camera is in focus and you can read the 'range' or what we know as ‘focal distance' which you can read about here.  This is different than focal length explained in this article.

 

If the camera doesn't sport a 'rangefinder' then it is not a "rangefinder", which is important because a new genre of cameras (mirrorless) are purposely designed to take advantage of the rangefinders popular legacy appearance which they think will sell more cameras.  Rangefinders of the Leica genre are best known for their rugged go anywhere durability and precision engineering and before SLR's became available were even more popular.  Today they're popular with those who want a high quality reasonably sized travel camera and a host of extremely high quality lenses are available from several manufacturers.  Rangefinders have traditionally been film 35mm (36x24mm), but the Leica M8 (23.6x15.7) and M9 (36x24mm) digital rangefinders are available and have been met with mixed feelings.

Compacts  -  There are hundreds of current models available, and maybe a thousand more you can find which aren't current.  The proliferation of digital compacts started in 1997-8 and hasn't abated since.  Several times a year manufacturers release dozens of new models trying to sell more than the other guy.  The compact genre has spawned several sub-genres such as superzoom compacts, pocket compacts, bridge compacts, and more.  These typically have very small sensors and limited image quality, but their small size and easy to use user interface coupled with their cheap prices have made them the go-to camera for the average camera user for over the last decade.  Recently though, the compact cameras reign has been challenged by an unexpected newcomer, the camera phone. Sensor sizes for compacts range from smaller than 1/2.5" through 1/1.7". Not very big.

 

Compacts  -  There are hundreds of current models available, and maybe a thousand more you can find which aren't current.  The proliferation of digital compacts started in 1997-8 and hasn't abated since.  Several times a year manufacturers release dozens of new models trying to sell more than the other guy.  The compact genre has spawned several sub-genres such as superzoom compacts, pocket compacts, bridge compacts, and more.  These typically have very small sensors and limited image quality, but their small size and easy to use user interface coupled with their cheap prices have made them the go-to camera for the average camera user for over the last decade.  Recently though, the compact cameras reign has been challenged by an unexpected newcomer, the camera phone. Sensor sizes for compacts range from smaller than 1/2.5" through 1/1.7". Not very big.  Compacts  -  There are hundreds of current models available, and maybe a thousand more you can find which aren't current.  The proliferation of digital compacts started in 1997-8 and hasn't abated since.  Several times a year manufacturers release dozens of new models trying to sell more than the other guy.  The compact genre has spawned several sub-genres such as superzoom compacts, pocket compacts, bridge compacts, and more.  These typically have very small sensors and limited image quality, but their small size and easy to use user interface coupled with their cheap prices have made them the go-to camera for the average camera user for over the last decade.  Recently though, the compact cameras reign has been challenged by an unexpected newcomer, the camera phone. Sensor sizes for compacts range from smaller than 1/2.5" through 1/1.7". Not very big.

 

Camera Phone  -  Virtually every phone on the market today has some form of a camera phone, and many have video cameras.  These used to be of marginal quality, but lately the iphone specifically and many of the newer smart phones are coming with quite capable cameras.  Many would be surprised with how nice the images from an iphone are.  Industry insiders predict camera phones will supplant the compact camera sooner rather than later.  This makes sense, all a compact camera user really wants is a decent snapshot.  This can easily be done with a quality phone camera. Camera phones have compact camera size sensors.

 

Camera Phone  -  Virtually every phone on the market today has some form of a camera phone, and many have video cameras.  These used to be of marginal quality, but lately the iphone specifically and many of the newer smart phones are coming with quite capable cameras.  Many would be surprised with how nice the images from an iphone are.  Industry insiders predict camera phones will supplant the compact camera sooner rather than later.  This makes sense, all a compact camera user really wants is a decent snapshot.  This can easily be done with a quality phone camera. Camera phones have compact camera size sensors.

 


Mirrorless  -  This is the elephant in the room, the new camera genre which bridges compacts and DSLR's.  On the most basic level a camera is classified as "mirrorless" if there are no mirrors involved in the cameras viewfinder or livefinder system.  Some are designed as "compact system cameras" which like a SLR/DSLR could have different lenses, flashes, and other system orientated accessories. CSC cameras are the most popular of the mirrorless genre.  Removal of the mirrors allow the camera to be much smaller by placing the lens much closer to the sensor.  Popular mirrorless sensor sizes are Micro 4/3's (17.3x13mm) and APC-S (23.6x15.7), but some new sizes are coming down the pike soon like the Canon G1X (18.7x14mm).  Mirrorless cameras are now firmly entrenched in the market and gaining a larger and larger market share.  Users like the smallish size and great image quality made possible with the large sensors.  Mirrorless cameras were exactly what the doctor ordered for a huge number of amateurs straddling the DSLR/Compact camera fence.  Most recently the Canon G1x with a industry first for mirrorless cameras, a fixed zoom lens, and the soon to hit the shelves Fuji xPro1 with it's hybrid viewfinder and interchangeable lenses promise to be the hottest mirrorless models of 2012. Look for them.

 

Mirrorless  -  This is the elephant in the room, the new camera genre which bridges compacts and DSLR's.  On the most basic level a camera is classified as "mirrorless" if there are no mirrors involved in the cameras viewfinder or livefinder system.  Some are designed as "compact system cameras" which like a SLR/DSLR could have different lenses, flashes, and other system orientated accessories. CSC cameras are the most popular of the mirrorless genre.  Removal of the mirrors allow the camera to be much smaller by placing the lens much closer to the sensor.  Popular mirrorless sensor sizes are Micro 4/3's (17.3x13mm) and APC-S (23.6x15.7), but some new sizes are coming down the pike soon like the Canon G1X (18.7x14mm).  Mirrorless cameras are now firmly entrenched in the market and gaining a larger and larger market share.  Users like the smallish size and great image quality made possible with the large sensors.  Mirrorless cameras were exactly what the doctor ordered for a huge number of amateurs straddling the DSLR/Compact camera fence.  Most recently the Canon G1x with a industry first for mirrorless cameras, a fixed zoom lens, and the soon to hit the shelves Fuji xPro1 with it's hybrid viewfinder and interchangeable lenses promise to be the hottest mirrorless models of 2012. Look for them.  Mirrorless  -  This is the elephant in the room, the new camera genre which bridges compacts and DSLR's.  On the most basic level a camera is classified as "mirrorless" if there are no mirrors involved in the cameras viewfinder or livefinder system.  Some are designed as "compact system cameras" which like a SLR/DSLR could have different lenses, flashes, and other system orientated accessories. CSC cameras are the most popular of the mirrorless genre.  Removal of the mirrors allow the camera to be much smaller by placing the lens much closer to the sensor.  Popular mirrorless sensor sizes are Micro 4/3's (17.3x13mm) and APC-S (23.6x15.7), but some new sizes are coming down the pike soon like the Canon G1X (18.7x14mm).  Mirrorless cameras are now firmly entrenched in the market and gaining a larger and larger market share.  Users like the smallish size and great image quality made possible with the large sensors.  Mirrorless cameras were exactly what the doctor ordered for a huge number of amateurs straddling the DSLR/Compact camera fence.  Most recently the Canon G1x with a industry first for mirrorless cameras, a fixed zoom lens, and the soon to hit the shelves Fuji xPro1 with it's hybrid viewfinder and interchangeable lenses promise to be the hottest mirrorless models of 2012. Look for them.

 


In Summary  -  a camera falls into a "category" by specific features such as the type of viewfinder, sensor/film type, arrangement of lenses, the focusing type (rangefinder, autofocus, ground glass, reflex focusing, etc), and less often by metering type.  As new camera types are released on the market it's natural to try and assign them to existing categories based on looks or specific function, but we need to be careful to understand the functional differences so as to get the most out of the camera.