Which camera to buy? When my editor challenged me to come up with the three best cameras for under $1,000, I somehow thought it would be the easiest assignment in the world — just pick the most expensive model under $1,000 from the top three makers, Canon, Nikon and Sony. Right?

But as I mulled the prospect, a multitude of variables emerged. I wanted to ensure that every camera could be purchased at that price with a good lens; it’s a decision that essentially took most pro-level full-frame cameras out of consideration. I also wanted to be sure that several user types would be considered – serious amateur photographers who don’t mind larger rigs and might upgrade their lens options later on, or trigger-happy enthusiasts shooters who want a compact camera, equipped with easy Wi-Fi transfer capability to smartphones. (“Easy” being the keyword here.)

On this hunt, I couldn’t ignore my own experience. First, I tend to believe that if you’re investing more than $500 in a camera, you should really consider an interchangeable-lens model rather than a point-and-shoot, even if the latter comes with a big zoom. This allows you to expand your capabilities with a few extra lenses as your interest grows, but it still leaves you with a perfectly great camera if you use the same lens for the rest of your life. There are exceptions: If you know you want great image quality but need a compact form, any point-and-shoot from Sony, Leica, Panasonic, Fuji, Canon, Olympus, or Nikon that costs at least $400 will likely be great for you.

Word of warning here, however: Be extra careful of those big zooms. The greater the advertised optical zoom in a camera, the smaller the sensor that’s needed to accommodate it. For some folks, it may not matter – and it’s hard to argue that the Queen Mother of optical zooms in point-and-shoot cameras, the Nikon P1000 with its 3000mm zoom lens, isn’t an extraordinary achievement. But the bottom line is that that camera and others with big on-board zooms use tiny sensors – often the size of smartphone camera sensors – thereby diminishing image quality across the full range. Alternatively, you can make up a lot of ground here simply by cropping in images taken with a camera equipped with a larger sensor and smaller zoom, and have a better overall product.

This brings me to my second bias: Sensor size. Try, if at all possible, to buy a camera with a sensor that’s at least one-inch in size. Unfortunately, the photography industry uses the most illogical, random, and, frankly, utterly asinine labeling system for sensor sizes (1/2.3-inch, Full-Frame, APS-C, Medium, for example, along with the worst of them all, micro four-thirds), but generally you want to target micro four-thirds, 1-inch, APS-C, or full-frame sensors. These generate the best image quality and give you the most data to work with while editing.

Okay, so at long last, what are these three mythical beasts I deem so worthy in my unassailable wisdom?

Sony a6400 (w/ 16-50mm Lens)

Why we picked: Sony’s sensors are unmatched in the industry, so that’s my first motivation for choosing this model. The A6400’s 24.2-megapixel sensor produces outstanding images, thanks to its robust image processor. (It also cranks out great 4K video.) The second reason I chose it is that it’s mirrorless, meaning it has no mechanical mirror that flips out of the way with every shot. As a result, it’s more compact and has a digital viewfinder that shows the scene as it would be captured in the shot. Finally, it uses E-Mount mirrorless-specific lenses, so if you eventually upgrade to a full-frame Sony, you’ll still be able to use those lenses, as well. But ultimately, this is an incredibly versatile and capable camera with automatic eye-tracking to ensure people are in focus, fast autofocus, and 11 frames-per-second shooting for action sequences. It’s a great camera, and the best camera you can buy short of a full-frame model.

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Fujifilm X-T30 (w/ 14-45mm Lens)

Why we picked: Camera aficionados revere the Fujifilm brand with good reason: The cameras continue a rare tradition of stellar mechanical build quality, even when the mirror action is replaced with a mirrorless configuration. The smartly organized and tactilely satisfying dials provide instant access to key setting controls that you can usually manipulate without looking. It’s a classic form-follows-function design, and the overall look and feel of the Fuji is fantastic. It will make you shoot more just so you can experience holding the thing in your hand. When you actually look at your images, you’ll be just as thrilled. The quality from its 26.1-megapixel APS-C sensor is top-notch, and it has such photographic grace-notes as a rear touchscreen that helps not just navigate menus quickly, but also set exposure and focus. It’s kind of a pity that the best-designed products are the ones geared for professional users, but this is a great example of a camera that delivers that quality for non-pros, too.

Nikon D5600 DSLR (w/ 18-55mm and 70-300mm Lenses)

Why we picked: Sometimes you just want to tell camera critics to stick it in their sensor holes. I get that. Snooty writeups can be off-putting when you’re really looking for a great value and a great range of capabilities—nuances of button placement and mirror use be damned. Having used this camera extensively, I can attest to its raw potency as great, versatile, and affordable camera. It has a solid 24-megapixel sensor, Wi-Fi connectivity for quick mobile transfers and even remote camera control, a swiveling touchscreen, and a huge range of lens options. In fact, you can buy this camera body and two key lenses (18-55mm and 70-300mm) for less than $800. That initial versatility in its own right makes it a huge win.

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