Types of camera: a field guide

National Photography Month continues as we catalog an array of common (and uncommon) camera categories. Round out your awareness and revel in the rich diversity of these machines.

In the days of drug-store photo labs and manual enlargements, just about everyone knew (or was) a shutterbug. As technological applications have increased and sensor/lens combos become more efficient to produce, the ubiquity of cameras has only increased, and now you’ll find them in everything from rear bumpers to doorbells to “smart refrigerator” doors. The guy whose freezer was always full of film, the gal obsessed with German and Japanese glass-making techniques, the parents who never covered a lot of ground on vacation because every five feet another “Kodak moment” presented itself—these stereotypes have little relevance in the modern age, as the increased accessibility of high-quality image creation has made it so everyone spends at least a little time as a photo nerd. Huzzah!

That being said, popular knowledge is very rarely complete knowledge, and sometimes terms like “ILC” or “bridge” might mean nothing to the very people for whom they were made. There’s certainly not room here to provide an exhaustive guide, but I hope this helps fill in some of the gaps!

Primitive Cameras

We’ll start with a little historical context.

The Camera Obscura

What’s a camera without film or a sensor? It sounds like a joke, but the term “camera” actually came to us from the name given to just such a device in the early 1600s.

Humans have observed for quite some time that an inverted image of an object may be produced on the other side of a tiny hole, given the right lighting conditions. In fact, the earliest written record of the phenomenon dates back to almost 500 BC. Over the first half of the second millennium AD, opticians and tinkerers alike applied this intriguing property in areas ranging from pure entertainment to physical analysis of light. Around the time that artists en masse realized the value of this kind of projection for drawing and painting, Johannes Kepler coined the term we still use today for both the optical phenomenon and the device used to produce it: camera obscura. Literally translated from Latin, the phrase means “dark room,” in reference to the literally darkened rooms often used to house the projected images. These images lasted only as long as the light outside, as photosensitive film (and a new meaning of “darkroom”) was a long way off. Artists had to act quickly to preserve what they could.

Yes, that means we walk around calling light-capturing devices “rooms.” Isn’t language fun?

Pinhole cameras

Over time, much smaller devices were created for the convenience of artists, consisting of a dark chamber, a pinhole to let in the image, and a mirror reflecting the image onto a glass viewing surface. As photosensitive materials were developed, these “pinhole cameras” were adapted to record the light rather than reflect it. Metal, glass, and eventually paper sheets could be exposed, then removed from the camera in the darkroom and developed. Today, you might still encounter the pinhole camera as a home craft project or as part of a photography class.

Before there was film: a note on daguerreotypes, tin types, etc.

Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, a Frenchman, introduced the first widely-available photographic process in 1839. He developed a method to chemically treat silver-plated copper plates so that they would be light sensitive, revealing latent images when fumed with mercury vapor later. He named the process after himself, naturally.

The unprecedentedly-accessible method to preserve images directly from life was as popular as you might imagine, and the daguerreotype enjoyed two decades of practically unrivaled popularity over the 1840s and 1850s. As the 1800s progressed, optically-superior glass plates and tintypes became dominant, until the first flexible (though highly flammable) film was finally developed by George Eastman in the mid-1800s.

Daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, tintypes, and other obsolete processes are still practiced as fine arts by a select few today, as evidenced by these tintypes by Salvage Sparrow in northeast Georgia. If you ever run across someone doing these, don’t miss out!

Photo by ashcatblue

Film Cameras

Flexible photo-sensitive film revolutionized the industry, vastly expanding ease of use as well as and types of equipment. This section is no longer historical—we still process, scan, and print from almost any kind of film! Click here to learn more about our services, including mail-in developing.

View Cameras (the kind with the bellows)

Evolving naturally from the pinhole camera, the view camera sports features like a lens and the ability to adjust focus by altering the distance between the lens and the imaging plane but operates on essentially the same principle. Following the same simplistic naming convention established by Kepler in 1604, this type of camera allows the photographer to view the image on a ground glass plate before inserting the imaging substrate and exposing it. (Think back to cartoons in which the photographer is hiding under a sheet, and it might make more sense now—if you think your phone’s screen is hard to see in the sun, imagine trying to see an available-light projection clearly!) This is the kind of camera that was used for daguerreotypes, and it’s used in more or less the same form to expose large-format film today.

The “Brownie”

The Brownie, released in 1900, deserves special mention for its explosive popularity. Though developed by Frank Brownell, the Brownie series of cameras was ostensibly named for the benign spirits of Scottish folklore. The first release, priced at $1 (~$25-30 in 2019 dollars), exceeded all expectations and brought photography to the masses in ways never before seen. Though that first model used a film format no longer widely available (117), the Brownie No. 2 (released in 1901) introduced the most popular medium-format film of all time, 120.

Twin-Lens Reflex

As early as 1870, photographers who were tired of the hassle of swapping back and forth between viewing and imaging plates realized that having a second (“twin”) lens with a dedicated viewfinder saved a great deal of time. The view through the second lens is visible from above as a reflection in a small mirror—hence, “reflex.” This methodology offers a huge step up in convenience and usability from view cameras and is mechanically simple (and therefore durable), but isn’t exactly an efficient design and inherently limits lens choice—if the lenses are interchangeable at all.

The reflective viewfinder.

For what it’s worth, I’d call the twin-lens reflex the most beautiful variety of camera. If you can get lost in one deep, dreamy pool of glass, you can get even more lost in two.

Twin-lens reflex cameras are not to be confused with film cameras offering more than one lens on a rotating plate, though this type of camera may include a separate viewfinding lens. The different zoom levels would be marked by lines on the viewfinder.

Rangefinder Cameras

First marketed to the public in 1916, rangefinder cameras offered a new way to achieve carefully-focused images. Rather than including a second lens that duplicated the view of the primary objective directly, a rangefinder camera includes a rangefinder (again, very literally named), which is an optical device allowing one to determine the actual distance of a subject from the home point, enabling accurate focusing of the lens. The device was originally a separate device mounted on top of the camera, requiring framing in one eye-hole and focusing in another, but it was soon integrated into the viewfinder. In trade for improved focusing ability, rangefinder cameras’ viewfinders tend to be very simple, little more than a box cut out with approximately the same field of view as a lens at a particular focal length. This makes lens interchangeability tricky, though still less limited than it is for twin-lens reflex cameras.

Digital “true rangefinder cameras” are uncommon and generally expensive, though most digital cameras actually use an optical rangefinding technology to autofocus. In modern terminology, the term “rangefinder style digital camera” is often used to refer to a camera with an offset electronic viewfinder (EVF). The most obvious recent example is the difference between the Fujifilm GFX 50R (for Rangefinder) and the Fujifilm GFX 50S, which takes its design cues from the…

SLR (Single-Lens Reflex)

Although the first single-lens reflex camera was invented in 1861, the style did not became popular until after the integration of the pentaprism. The mirror in twin-lens reflex viewfinders corrects the vertical orientation of the image, but the horizontal orientation is still reversed, which requires a certain amount of mental flexibility at all times and complicates photography of any moving subject.

The designer who ensured the dominance of the SLR in “serious” photography for decades to come placed a moveable mirror between the film and the lens. The mirror redirects light to the viewfinder through a pentaprism, which delivers the image to the viewfinder in a natural orientation—up is up, left is left, right is right, and down is down. For exposure, the mirror flips out of the way, then returns to its former position for resumed viewfinding. Since the mirror is in the same path as the film, the view is from exactly the same angle as the final image. It’s a quality we take for granted these days, but it was revolutionary at the time it was introduced. SLRs can usually be identified by their uneven profile, with a protrusion in the middle-ish of the camera’s bulk housing the viewfinder and pentaprism.


Not everyone wants to have to take full advantage of their equipment, and advancements in camera tech have allowed not only improved features but also their automation. “Point-and-shoot cameras” are cameras designed to do just that: point at the subject, shoot the photo.

One of the earliest examples was the Kodak No. 1, introduced in 1888 and designed to be usable by “anyone who could push a button,” offering no manual adjustment whatsoever nor even a viewfinder. Fixed-focus or “focus-free” lenses (lenses relying on a wide depth of field to eliminate the need to lock onto a subject) have been widely employed in the category to keep simplicity high and cost low. Size has also been a factor, historically. Limiting certain features allows the production of smaller cameras, which in turn enables more people to carry them on a regular basis. Point-and-shoots have been made to shoot a wide variety of film, from disc to 120, but they all share a bare-minimum feature set (relative to contemporaries) designed with snapshots in mind.

Automatic exposure capabilities (and, later, automatic focus) were a huge milestone in the democratization of photography. As these features filtered down to less-expensive, less-complicated cameras, the masses could photograph day-to-day life in a variety of lighting environments more effectively, without needing to understand the scientific or mathematical components of the art.


Sometimes called “disposable cameras,” that name is misleading, as most are recycled or reused after processing. (Plus, you wouldn’t want to throw away your most important memories, would you?) These ultra-cheap cameras come pre-loaded with a roll of film and are returned intact to the local film lab. Lenses are rarely anything more than a decently-manufactured piece of plastic, and film quality can range anywhere from fine to offensively bad. (Protip: having had nearly a decade of lab experience, I can tell you that the single-use cameras branded as “wedding cameras” are almost universally abysmal. Some are loaded with nearly-expired strips of film spliced together with tape.) Unless you shoot very, very few photos, an inexpensive compact digital camera (or even a point-and-shoot film camera and some cheap film) is a better option. That being said, single-use cameras are great in the following situations:

  • No other camera is available—the best camera in the world is the one you have with you!
  • Underwater—if you’re only likely to want to shoot underwater once in a while, single-use waterproof cameras are an excellent option.
  • Experimental photography—if this is your scene, the more expired, the better, eh? And if you like those kind of effects, you’ll probably love…

Toy Cameras

Although the Diana was originally marketed as a novelty item and used for a variety of promotions, many other “toy cameras” are not strictly toys, but rather extremely inexpensive plastic cameras. Classics like the Holga and LOMO were originally produced for markets with very limited consumer access: China and the USSR. In attempting to create a “camera for the people,” these manufacturers created a whole new type of camera!

The low prices of these cameras come at the cost of an equivalent sacrifice—namely, less-strict standards of manufacture and lower-end materials used in production. Unpredictable light-leaks and the edge softness attendant to the plastic meniscus lens used by many of these cameras are instrumental qualities of a look prized by thousands of lo-fi shooters across the globe. This style is noteworthy for being instantly recognizable yet extremely difficult to recreate digitally. (Many cameras’ creative modes do include a “toy filter”—which is fun to play with—but it’s still pretty easy to tell the difference.)

Digital Cameras

The first photo-sensitive CCD chips were developed in 1969, and imaging has never been the same. Quality continues to improve as digital photos are shared instantaneously on platforms visible to hundreds of millions of people.

Compact Digital Cameras

Also referred to as “point-and-shoot” cameras, following the nomenclature of the film era, the most widely-produced digital cameras are the pocketable kind designed for everyday life—”vernacular”—photography. The concept is pretty intuitive: these cameras are designed to take digital pictures… full stop. (The scale has changed over time, of course, as illustrated by the fact that the 0.3 MP Sony Mavica FD5 floppy disk camera is slightly larger and heavier than the modern RX1R, a 24 MP full-frame, fixed-lens camera which was released as a “compact camera.”)

The “compact” designation really came into vogue at the beginning of the 2000s when Casio’s Exilim line was born, sporting cameras a full 10–15mm thinner than their competitors. Casio is no longer in the camera industry, but the legacy of the race-to-be-tiny they kicked off lives on.

The last few years have seen a significant decline in popularity for the most basic compact cameras (more on that later), but the shift has led to a new emphasis on quality in the manufacturers’ battles and the growth of four subcategories of the “compact digital camera.”

Bridge Cameras—bigger body, outrageously-long zoom

One of the first liminal categories to develop in the digital age—too good in certain ways to be a point-and-shoot, but not a DSLR—is that of the “bridge camera.” The term is usually applied to cameras that combine the smaller sensor of a compact digital camera with the form factor of a DSLR to house a high-quality lens with incredible reach. The current longest-telephoto champion is the Nikon P1000, which sports an astounding 125x zoom (equivalent in field of view to a 24-3000mm lens on a 35mm film camera), but Panasonic, Canon, Sony, and others are no slouches in the category either.

Superzoom Cameras—compact body, reasonably-long zoom

Every technological development will eventually be made smaller and more cheaply, and cameras with as much reach as past-generation bridge cameras in much smaller bodies with little to no loss in quality are now commonplace. These are known as superzooms—pocketable cameras with lenses that generally magnify 25-30x from their widest setting and sometimes make it as far as 40x, like the Canon SX740 (24-960mm equivalent). These cameras developed in response to a sizable demand for the long reach of the bridge camera from those unwilling to invest the space necessary to carry one, and are perfect for the traveler who never wants to miss a shot but also doesn’t need a whole gear bag, given how the photos will realistically be used.

Rugged Compact Cameras—basic features, indestructible body

Several manufacturers provide lines of “rugged” cameras: compact cameras comparable in quality to basic point-and-shoots, but waterproof, freezeproof, and shockproof. They’re not completely indestructible, but, anecdotally, I can say that I’ve seen one of the Tough line run over by a car and emerge in perfect working order. If you think you need one of those incredibly-protective cases for your phone, this might be the category for you.

Advanced Compact Cameras—”compact” body, big image quality

Other models have been developed to improve just about every other aspect of compact performance aside from zoom:

  • sensor size, replacing the most common 1/2.3″ sensors with others ranging from 1″ to the aforementioned full-frame sensor (24×36mm)
  • manual controls (I fondly remember learning about the exposure triangle on my dad’s Canon G3, predecessor to the PowerShot G3 X)
  • compatibility with accessories (like flashes, polarizers, and microphones)
  • high-end processors allowing for features like noise reduction, 4K video, time-lapse video, and more

Whether it’s optical zoom, optical stabilization, or a big ol’ sensor, demonstrably improved quality has been critical to the survival of point-and-shoot/compact digital cameras. Why?

Smartphone Cameras

Certain mavericks in the quest for slimness in compact digital cameras realized they could create something 0mm thick by integrating it into another device which most people carry around anyway. As smartphone manufacturers have improved the cameras built into their products, working in ever-closer collaboration with venerable digital camera manufacturers, smartphones have become ubiquitous and even artistically-viable image production devices. A significant percentage of a day in the life of a Mike’s Camera imaging specialist is spent helping people bring their phone photos to life in print, and the results get better every year!

DSLR Cameras

The generally-accepted first digital SLR camera was a 1987 integration of a 1.3 MP sensor into a Canon F-1 film SLR body—more of an experiment than a consumer product, but a definite model for the category over the next few decades. While the compact digital camera has gone through a wide variety of creative manifestations, trying to find its place in the world, the DSLR is defined primarily by its stability as a concept. It’s an SLR camera… but with a digital sensor instead of film! This is not to say that there has been little development in the category—as the long-time go-to for professionals, image quality and ease of manual manipulation have been continuously improved in DSLRs, and features like live-view and video capability have proven revolutionary—but rather that the focus of these models has been in enabling the performance of techniques long-established in the field.

DSLRs sport the same mirror/pentaprism setup as their film-shooting ancestors and are identifiable by the same central-ish bump. They all sport interchangeable lenses, and many use mounts created in the film days, so decades of lenses remain compatible with even the most modern cameras.*

*The most notable exception is that some older lenses are not capable of resolving light clearly enough for the highest-resolution sensors of modern cameras. Many lens manufacturers have released second-generation versions of their most popular lenses to allow working pros and enthusiasts alike to take full advantage of their sensors.

DSLT Cameras

Very similar to DSLR cameras, “digital single lens translucent” cameras provided an early method of continuous automatic focus in a DSLR-style body, which was not possible in a true DSLR due to the need to flip the mirror out of the way for each shot. The DSLT design replaces the mirror and optical viewfinder with a prism that redirects some of the light to a focusing sensor. An electronic viewfinder displays the view as seen by the imaging sensor. This static arrangement provides an always-on phase-detection autofocus capability, but at the cost of about 30% of the light that comes through the lens.

Mirrorless Cameras

Only 15 years have passed since the very first mirrorless camera hit the market—the Epson R-D1—and it’s barely been ten years since the current market-leading mounts were released—the Olympus/Panasonic Micro Four Thirds mount and the Sony E-mount—but the development of mirrorless cameras has changed the way we take photos forever. These cameras have no mirror (obviously), no pentaprism, and some don’t even have a viewfinder aside from the large screen on the back. While many have objected to the loss of an optical viewfinder, the tradeoff is that an electronic viewfinder/LCD screen provides true WYSIWYG feedback (“what you see is what you get”) as the EVF is displaying precisely what the sensor is picking up. Improvement of on-sensor focusing technology has significantly closed the gap between DSLR focusing capabilities and those of mirrorless cameras in the last few years.

Sometimes referred to as MILCs (mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras) or EVILs (electronic viewfinder interchangeable lens cameras), mirrorless cameras began in a very different position from the one they occupy today. Sporting large sensors and relatively svelte frames, they were marketed as a small, easy way for point-and-shooters to point and shoot with a camera that would offer much higher image quality than their compact digital camera could offer… at least until more advanced photographers compared the weight of these cameras with their DSLRs and made it known that they, too, would appreciate a diminutive option. Over time, manufacturers of mirrorless cameras have come up with extremely capable versions which are used as traveling, secondary, and (increasingly) primary bodies by pros and high-level enthusiasts.

They definitely look a little smaller compared to lenses!

Aside from their reduced size and weight, these cameras are also capable of using the lenses of any other camera with a greater flange distance with the use of an adapter, allowing for gradual system transitioning and/or an unprecedented type of creative freedom. While lacking some traditionally important features, the pure tech capabilities of mirrorless cameras have tended to be a little more developed than those of DSLRs, offering more robust video, a variety of creative processing options, and pioneering features like sensor-shift high-res shooting. With several completely new full-frame mirrorless systems released last year, there is no doubt that this sector will continue to develop rapidly in the near future.

Specialized Cameras

Certain types of cameras are totally inappropriate as “daily drivers,” specialized for a singular purpose. Simply because it’s so exciting to see all the different ways photography gets used, I’ll briefly cover a few of these purpose-built devices. Did I forget any? Let me know about your specialty in the comments!

Instant Cameras

It’s hard to beat the simple joy of an instant camera. These cameras, both film and digital (or, in the case of the Fujifilm SQ-10 and SQ-20, film and digital), provide prints immediately after you shoot the photo, which has unique benefits. (For example, my wife and I carry an Instax on road trips and make sure to leave a group selfie with any friend(s) we meet along the way.) The iconic name in instant cameras has even been resurrected by enthusiastic fans: that’s right, Polaroid cameras and film are available once more!

Action Cameras

Speaking of being “in the moment,” action cameras are cameras geared towards accompanying you under even the most extreme conditions. Like rugged compact cameras, they are typically waterproof (sometimes requiring an extra housing), shockproof, and freezeproof, but optimized for passively recording extreme physical activity with an ultra-wide lens and compatibility with a wide variety of mounting options. Examples include the iconic GoPro, Sony Action Cam line, Nikon KeyMission line, and the brand new DJI Osmo Action.


Dash-cams are similar to action cams in terms of image quality and form factor, but are less durable and designed to be permanently mounted to your windshield or dashboard in case of emergency.

360°/VR Cameras

Also related to action cameras (in some cases, even crossing over), VR cameras are designed with multiple lenses to capture a 360° image in an instant. The results can be displayed as an extra-long panorama photo or as a digitally-interactive VR experience. VR video capture occupies an exciting place on the cutting edge of consumer technology: watch for great things to happen there in the near future in games, movies, art, and more!


Yes, scanners are cameras too. By stabilizing both your subject and camera in a light-controlled environment, your scanner can capture an extremely high-resolution, faithful image of whatever that subject might be… provided you don’t get a little creative and start moving anything around during the scan. Varieties range from general “whatever you can get on the bed” models to high-end wet-plate drum scanners, with further-specialized versions available for speed, size, or resolution in scanning both prints and film.

Light-Field Cameras

Very few light-field or “plenoptic” cameras are available on the consumer level, but the technology is developing. Optically, these cameras record information about the path of light rays in addition to the intensity of light in a given photo. In practical terms, that means that the focal point and depth of field of the photo can be adjusted after the photo is taken.

Stereoscopic Cameras

This 3D imaging methodology achieved peak popularity with the ubiquitous View-Master®. A stereoscopic camera takes two images at the same time from slightly different perspectives, with each perspective intended to be viewed, using a stereoscopic viewer, with a particular eye. It’s a very direct and very effective way to replicate the way our eyes work in tandem to observe a three-dimensional world.

Fun fact: 10,000 Days by the band Tool was released with a booklet of stereoscopic images and a viewer built into the packaging.

Technical imaging systems

We tend to focus on the fun, arty applications of photography (being fun, arty photographers), but you might be surprised how often you can spot technical products by the same consumer brands you know and love. Watch for brand names at doctors’ offices, office buildings and so on. Share your field-spotting results in the comments!

Security Systems/CCTV

Another kind of technical imaging system, CCTV is worth mentioning for a few reasons:

  • security cameras are simultaneously great for security from a police officer’s or business owner’s perspective but with the potential to be dangerous from a privacy perspective; it’s a very practical double-edged sword
  • like dash-cams, the software and usage scenarios for these are massively different from “normal” cameras
  • most importantly: no, there is no “enhance” button!

Process Cameras

At the intersection of technical and “fun and arty,” process cameras are a very specific kind of camera used for analog graphical reproduction, especially in lithography and related fields. Prior to the advent of computer-based graphic design, mass printing of newspapers, magazines, packaging, greeting cards, and more—almost anything, really—would have been totally impossible without photography.

Thanks for reading about the state of the industry up to now. I’ll do my best to keep you up to date as new and exciting changes come along—subscribe to the blog, below!

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