The main question when most people are shopping for a camera these days is "Will this be better than using my phone?" The answer, especially with the quality of the latest generation of flagship phone cameras, seems to get murkier every year.
At the very top end of cameras, figure $2,000+, it remains a fairly easy answer in the camera's favor, where smartphones are really starting to apply pressure is on cameras under $1,000. However, there is still a crop of really excellent cameras that not only provide results that your iPhone could only dream of, but allow a shooting experience that's more engrossing, more satisfying and more fun than tapping on a glass screen.
A Quick Editor's Note: We focused on cameras that could be had *with a lens* for less than $1000, if your budget of $1000 is strictly for a camera body, also consider the Fujifilm X-S10 and the Canon EOS RP.
Best Compact Camera for Most PeopleSony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 VA Read More
Best Interchangeable for Most PeopleFujifilm X-T30 II (w/XC 15-45mm f/3.5 Lens) Read More
Best Compact for the PuristRicoh GR III Read More
Best Interchangeable for the Deep DiverSony Alpha A6400 (w/ 16-50mm Lens) Read More
Best DSLR Under $1000Canon EOS Rebel T8i (w/ 18-55mm Lens) Read More
What to Look for
Sensor Size: Camera sensor size can be a tough spec to grasp, but generally, just think 'bigger is better'. Sensor size and lens size/complexity are the key factors to outperforming your phone's camera. An iPhone's sensor is (relatively) quite tiny, which hampers things like background blur and low light performance (it's why phone makers have had to use software trickery to help these). The sensor sizes you'll most often encounter when shopping for a camera around this price range are 1" (good), APS-C (better), and Full Frame (best). The naming conventions of sensor sizes are seemingly tailor-made for confusion — we've found that this diagram from Shuttermuse.com helps.
Lens Ecosystems: An often-repeated fact of photography gear is that the lenses are where you should be spending most of your money. They hold their value well and (generally) have a greater influence on overall image quality than camera bodies. If you're looking at a camera with interchangeable lenses, it's worth spending some time thinking about how deep you might go into this whole "photography" thing. All the brands on this list make great lenses, but it's worth doing some fun window shopping and thinking about if you were going to upgrade your camera and which brand's high-end body you might want. Once you pick an ecosystem, it's far more cost effective to stay in it as you upgrade.
Photo/Video Balance: This one's a little bit more straightforward, but certain cameras (and brands generally) will heavily emphasize video features (Sony often comes to mind). If you think you'll be using video heavily, make sure you're looking at the video specs, but if you're in it mostly for stills, it might be worth looking at brands that don't emphasize video as much. This isn't to say that the video features will necessarily take away from stills features, but brands like Fujifilm, Ricoh, and Nikon are generally more stills-focussed than Canon, Sony and Panasonic (this is a gross generalization, but use it to guide your research).
Terms to Know
Viewfinder Quality: Since nearly all viewfinders these days are really just small electronic screens, you'll want to prioritize this spec. Bigger, higher-resolution, higher-contrast, and higher-refresh-rate viewfinders are all going to be immediately noticeable.
Fixed Lens vs Interchangeable: Fixed lenses provide compactness and you (usually) get a better lens for the money, but there are obvious drawbacks in terms of flexibility and upgradability. This is mostly about how you want to use your camera and how small you want it to be. Want to be able to shoot all kinds of subjects at all kinds of distances and don't mind carrying lenses around? Go interchangeable. Want to take great photos at normal "walking around" distances and want something pocketable? Go fixed.
Portability: It goes hand-in-hand with the above, but size can vary wildly with cameras (though, luckily all of the cameras we picked are pretty small). Its a photographer cliche, but "the best camera is the one you have on you", and a camera's no good if you're leaving it in the hotel because it's too heavy.
User Interfaces: Certain brands (Sony) rely more heavily on screen-based menus in the name of compactness — other brands (Fujifilm) use more physical dials and controls to make frequent adjustments more intuitive. Eventually, you'll learn any system, but try and get hands-on with these cameras to see which you prefer. An impressive feature list is useless if you don't know how to use the camera.
The Best Cameras Under $1,000
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 VA
The various versions of the RX100 have been a staple recommendation for a decade, and for good reason: it's just an overall great camera for the size and price. The VA edition is effectively the RX100 V, but with some small internal improvements. It's ultra-compact and paired with a fast, normal-zoom Zeiss lens that should cover most situations - from an ultra-wide landscape to a more close-up portrait. It's got snappy autofocus, a pop-up viewfinder (and flash), built in ND filter (so you can shoot at wider apertures more often), and solid connectivity to your phone. The 20.1 megapixel, 1" sensor is very good but a bit smaller than the APS-C sensors you'll find in the rest of this list, but it's in the name of keeping the camera compact. The user interface is still a bit clunky and will take some time to really get the hang of, but once you do, the RX100 VA is the perfect camera to pocket and take anywhere.
Fujifilm X-T30 II (w/ XC 15-45mm f/3.5 Lens)
If you're looking for an interchangeable-lens camera that takes great photos, looks fantastic and allows you to grow into a system, look no further than the X-T30 II. It's classically handsome, compact, plastered with useful dials on the exterior and it uses Fujifilm's excellent XF lens ecosystem. The 26.1 megapixel APS-C sensor performs well and pairs with a very-good hybrid autofocus system that can track both faces and eyes across the entire frame. The exterior dials for shutter speed, exposure compensation and shooting modes (along with control dials on the lenses) make this camera really easy to shoot well and the small but crispy OLED electronic viewfinder is really solid for the price. The included lens is better than it has any right to be, but you'll definitely soon want to wade into Fujifilm's excellent prime (non-zoom) lenses like the 35mm f/2.
The Ricoh GRIII is a camera nerd's compact camera. It's about the same size as the Sony but eliminates a lot of the Sony's creature comforts to make room for pure performance. A large, gyro-stabilized 24.2-megapixel APS-C sensor is crammed into the tiny body and placed behind a non-zooming 28mm f/2.8 lens (about the same field of view as your phone's normal camera). You don't get a viewfinder, you don't get zoom, and you don't get very much video functionality. In exchange for those compromises, you get the absolute best image quality per cubic inch available. For the barebones photographer who just wants high-quality images, there's no better choice.
Sony A6400 (w/ E PZ 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS Lens)
Sony's A6400 is a direct competitor with the Fujifilm X-T30 II, and offers some solid performance gains for the photographer willing to nerd out a little. Buried behind a slightly unintuitive user interface and a compact but sometimes weird-handling body is a 24.2-megapixel APS-C sensor, incredibly good autofocus with face and eye detection, and a stacked suite of video features, including 8-bit 4:2:0 4K recording (or 4:2:2 if connected to an external recorder). Generally, it's worth looking at the Sony over the Fujifilm if you're looking for more robust video features, a slightly more compact body or the absolute best price/performance ratio despite some clunky handling. Sony's EF lens ecosystem is also insanely large, with options at every price point and from great 3rd party manufacturers like Sigma.
Canon EOS Rebel T8i (w/ EF-S 18-55mm f/4-5.6 IS STM Lens)
If your idea of a "nice" camera still centers around SLR tech, then the best game in town is still the Canon EOS Rebel line, specifically the T8i. The T8i is one of the last SLRs in an increasingly mirrorless world, but it does offer some distinct advantages if you're willing to put up with some distinct disadvantages. The Rebel is great for its crisp, non-electronic viewfinder, great battery life and massive array of lenses, but it trails very far behind all of the above mirrorless options when it comes to autofocus speed, burst shooting, and video capture. However, if you're willing to put up with those caveats, the 24-megapixel APS-C sensor is very good and it's one of the more pleasant on this list to actually tote around and shoot. Somewhat unfortunately, the DSLR is becoming a bit of a dinosaur, but luckily the Rebel is just good enough to put off extinction for a few more years for the everyday photographer.