One of the questions I find myself being asked all the time is “What camera should I buy?” Given that it’s the holiday season as I write this, and we are at the doorstep of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, I felt it would be a good time to share some thoughts on finding the right camera for you. First, we will explore some questions you should ask yourself before making a camera purchase decision, and then I will go over the three major types of cameras that we have available to us and some of the pros and cons of each. I have also shared some notable models for each type; these are basically the models I have a tendency to recommend to people.
Questions to Ask Yourself
Before asking anyone what camera to buy, or even trying to make the decision for yourself, you really need to assess what you want or need. The following questions are what I use to help narrow down what a camera purchaser should be looking for and what will be the best match for them. Even if you don’t plan on picking the camera yourself, having the answers to these questions before you go shopping can really help make a sales associates job easier and better enable them to set you up with the right gear.A Hermit crab I found in Cozumel, Mexico and photographed with the Olympus Stylus Tough TG-1 iHS point & shoot.
What am I shooting?
Before picking the right camera for you, you really want to have an idea of what you will be shooting and the general conditions you will be shooting in. Will I be photographing just my friends and family on special occasions or when we go out? Am I shooting sporting events or concerts? Am I going to shoot landscapes and cityscapes? Do I need a camera to take with me when I go snorkeling or skiing?
Some cameras are better suited for different types of actions you might be trying to record, and others will excel in different shooting conditions. Write these items down, as they will have an impact on some of the other questions you’ll be asking yourself.
Why am I shooting it? What Will I do with the photos?
Understanding what you are going to do with the photos when you are done shooting them is the next important point I would ask you to thinks about. Am I just going to share the shots on Facebook (or my social network of choice)? Will I be getting 3X5 prints made of the images? Do they need to be used for a website, poster, or billboard? Am I just saving them for yourself and sharing them on your TV or computer when people ask to see?
Know what you intend to do with the photos can impact a few of the factors I will discuss later, so write that down too.
What size camera am I comfortable with?
This may not seem like an issue at first thought, but cameras can vary greatly in size (duh).What do I feel comfortable carrying around with me? Do I need something that will fit in my pocket? Do I need something I can carry around in my bag? Do I mind a little extra weight when I’m going around shooting?
The size and weight of your camera can have a really big impact on how much you really feel like using it. Think about how often you’ll be using your camera, and how that will impact the other things you carry around with you. Also consider how it might affect what you plan on shooting; people may not feel as comfortable if you are carrying a huge camera around trying to take pictures.
Do I need video?
This might seem like a strange question to some people, but with the advancements we have seen in stills camera recently, most we see today have the capability to shoot HD video. One of the questions you need to think about is how much you would really be using the video functions on your camera. Will I be recording video every time I go out to shoot or is the camera primarily being bought for video? Do I not care about video at all? Is it just nice to have the option? Relevant to you or not, make sure you have a sense of if you want video capabilities, or if they are an absolute requirement.
How much do I have to learn? How much am I willing to learn?
Ok, I am not going to beat you over the head with this, but you really need to assess how much you know about shooting already, how much you need to learn, and if you actually have time to learn. Decide: Am I a beginner, an intermediate, a hobbyist, or professional?
I see beginners as people who are really just starting out, you may have used a camera before, but you have a lot to learn and you don’t really understand it. Intermediates know their way around a camera and may know more about cameras and photography, but still have a lot more knowledge to gain. Hobbyists have a tendency to know a lot more about what they are doing from longer exposure to photography. These folks are willing to learn or teach themselves more about the craft and fully immerse themselves in it. Professionals need no explanation and probably stopped reading this post at the first sentence; they are out shooting now. There is a lot of gray area between these, but generally I think most people have a sense where they stand on this already. Think about this when looking at what cameras have to offer you. If you don’t have a clue what the features listed for a camera mean, you may be overstepping your comfort zone, or you may be giving yourself a challenge to step up to.
What’s my budget?
One of the most important questions you can ask yourself: How much am I willing to spend?Cameras very greatly in price and depending on how much you want to spend, it can dramatically change what cameras you really can look at.
Now that we have some of those primer questions out of the way, I’m going to explore three major camera types (point & shoots, mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras, and DSLRs), and help you understand how they can relate to the questions I asked you to think about. T
Point & ShootsA few cops in Baltimore playing with a DSLR. Shot with the Olympus XZ-1 point & shoot.
Point & Shoot, or compact, cameras are probably the easiest to understand and start using for beginners. Their simplified controls and generally streamlined designs make diving in and starting to shoot a lot easier. Generally speaking, point & shoots take care of focusing and setting exposure, the amount of light reaching the sensor, for you. Most if not all of these cameras also have built-in flashes. In a sense, a lot of point & shoot cameras take most major controls out of the hands of users, allowing that user to focus solely on composing their photographs.
Some “advanced” point & shoots offer a greater level of manual control, allowing users to set options like focus, exposure, and even aperture. These cameras are perfectly suited for people that aren’t quite ready to dive into the world of interchangeable lens cameras, but still want to learn more about what different camera settings do.
Point & shoot cameras are generally the smallest of the three types of cameras I am covering here. This allows them to be the easiest to carry around and the least threatening to those who you will be shooting. These cameras are great for documenting everyday life and outings with friends and family. Generally the quality from these cameras is good enough for smaller prints, and for sharing online.
A few drawbacks with these types of cameras including the general lack of manual controls, smaller sensors, and “slower” lenses. Even with some of the “advanced” models, the control dials and buttons aren’t best suited for quick changes and fine-tuning. Generally these cameras have smaller sensors, resulting in lower image resolution and, sometimes, visual clarity.
For the most part, these cameras have “slower” lenses. Lens speed refers to the maximum aperture, or minimum f-number, of a lens; “faster” lenses have a higher maximum aperture, lower f-number, which allows more light to reach the focal plane. The more light allowed in lets you to shoot at a faster shutter-speed… I’m just going to dumb this down a bit, slower lenses increase the likelihood of blurring when photographing fast action. Using a flash can help prevent this blurring, but it can also throw off the feel that you are hoping to get from an image. For a better explanation of lens speed and aperture check out Photography Bay’s simple exploration of the subject.
Current Notable Models
- Canon Powershot S120
- Nikon COOLPIX P310
- Olympus Tough TG-2 (Waterproof/Freezeproof/Shockproof)
- Olympus XZ-2
- Sony RX100
Mirrorless System CamerasOlympus PEN E-PL1, micro four thirds mirrorless system camera, with Minolta MC Rokkor-X PF 50mm f/1.7
Mirrorless system cameras provide a bridge between point & shoot and DSLR cameras. These cameras debuted in the mid-2000s and allow users the option of having a compact camera with interchangeable lenses. Some notable lines of these cameras include the Sony NEX line, Micro Four Thirds (produced by Panasonic and Olympus), and the Nikon 1 line. I really see these cameras as great for intermediate photographers who have a grasp on photographic principles, but aren’t quite ready for a DSLR or for those that may still think a DSLR are too big. These cameras can also be good for beginners as most provide easy and direct ways to see photographic principles in action, making it easier to learn what settings do what.
Right now it is hard to accurately place these cameras more towards any particular skill level. With the number of these cameras that we see today, some make for really good backup or even main cameras for professionals, solid everyday cameras for hobbyists, and great learner cameras for intermediates and beginners. Additionally, depending on what models you get, more of these cameras are starting to be produced with environmental or water sealing, making them more viable in inclement conditions. The feature sets and image sensors that these cameras are being equipped with make them pretty solid all around for different photographic subjects, and improvements in the output from these cameras makes them friendlier for those looking to make prints.
One drawback for these cameras can be the price. The main problem is that they generally start around the same price as an entry-level DSLR. Some older models can be bought for cheaper, putting them more in the point & shoot price range. That said, the relationship between size and quality is the major advantage, you are getting a camera with near, or on par with, DSLR quality that is a little bigger than a point & shoot, making it an ideal camera for travel, get-togethers, and general day-to-day shooting. With these cameras you don’t have to worry as much about fatigue because of the size and weight.
Price can also be a drawback when it comes to lenses. Although these cameras are great for learning about different lenses and getting a handle on what they do, some of the better lenses for these cameras rival DSLR lenses in price. This is not to say they aren’t worth it, but you definitely should take this into consideration before buying.
Another potential con with these cameras is the level of control they allow for. Some of these cameras, models more suited for the professional end of the spectrum lend themselves very well to quick and fine tuned adjustments, but because of their size, many of these cameras don’t have the space for buttons or dials to make certain adjustments, and bury commonly used camera settings in hard to navigate menus.
Current Notable Models
- Nikon J1
- Canon EOS-M
- Panasonic Lumix GF6
- Olympus E-PL5
- Fujifilm X-Pro1
- Olympus OM-D E-M5
- Sony NEX-7
- Sony Alpha 7 (On par with pro DSLRs)
DSLRsCanon EOS 7D DSLR with Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM.
Digital single-lens reflex cameras are pretty much the top of the consumer range when it comes to photography. Of the camera types covered, these are generally the biggest, heaviest, and most expensive, but have the best imaging sensors and highest resolution, largest selection of lenses, and most versatility throughout various shooting conditions.
Although point & shoots and mirrorless cameras can also shoot video, a lot of care has been taken in enhancing the video functionality of DSLRs over the last few years. In my office we actually use DSLRs far more than camcorders for HD video recording. If video is an important feature for your camera to have, make sure you take a look at what recording options the camera has and what formats it records in. You want to make sure that your camera records in a way that you are comfortable editing later. You may also want to look into what options you have in terms of microphone and headphone jacks.
DSLRs are capable of being used by photographers of all skill levels, and camera makers have positioned different models in their lines to appropriately fit these skill levels. Cameras like Nikon’s entry-level D3200 has a guide mode that actually helps teach you how to shoot and use the cameras settings. With DSLRs it is very important to know your limitations and to not buy “too much camera” for yourself. Until you have a good handle on how each of the major photographic principles work and how to set them in camera, I would stay away from higher end DSLRs.
Current Notable Models
- Nikon D3200
- Canon EOS Rebel T3i
- Nikon D5300
- Canon EOS 60D
- Nikon D610
- Canon EOS 5D Mark III
- Sony Alpha 99
One Last Type: Fixed Lens Digital CamerasJoey Bada$$ shot with the Sony DSC-RX1 full-frame fixed lens digital camera.
I won’t go too in-depth on this last type, but fixed lens digital cameras have been growing in popularity. These cameras pretty much position themselves as digital range finders, providing one focal length but generally having fantastic image quality due to expert pairing between the lenses of the cameras and the imaging sensors. The cons for these cameras are the lack of focal versatility, you really have to be willing to move around to get your shots withe these cameras, and price, which can easily be seen as high given that lack of versatility. I generally only recommend these cameras to advanced shooters or people who mostly want to shoot street photography.
Current Notable Models
Final Thoughts: Buying a Brand…
You really won’t know what camera is best for you until you try them out. Fellow photographer, Nick Perrone sums it up nicely:
Although I’ve been a long time Canon user, I have to commend Nikon for their entry-level line. Canon’s market is utterly saturated with carbon copies of the T2i (which is a fantastic camera nonetheless). My first DSLR was a Canon T2i. I chose this camera because my friend had just received a T2i, I had shot with it and was used the button layout. After using this camera for a good two years, I know it’s tipping points and I know it front to back. This is especially helpful since more recently I’ve been moving to more professional quality work. In the end it’s about what camera feels good in your hands. Nikon and Canon have good cameras, but if you’re trying to get into photography then Nikon is probably the better way to go in terms of megapixel count, photo quality, sensor size, etc. You will most likely get fewer features on a Canon if you compare it to its Nikon competitors.Dpreview is a good site to use when you want to compare cameras.
If you’re not wishing to do solely photo and you want to throw a bit of video in there, then the Canon entry levels are probably a good fit. Canon has been known for including some great video qualities in their products. That’s not to say that Nikon video is bad, it just seems like Canon has spent more time and energy developing their video capabilities, while Nikon has been focusing on mastering photo.
You also need to remember lenses. A camera body is useless without quality lenses and luckily both sides are very successful in this department. You obviously won’t be shelling out $2k for a Canon 24-70L f/2.8 right out of the gate, but it’s nice to compare higher quality lenses as well because let’s be honest, you’ll want to upgrade sooner or later. Both companies also have amazingly cheap 50mm lenses, which are great for getting into portraiture work.
Overall, try out some cameras! Do not just look at a picture of the camera on Amazon and suddenly decide that is the camera for you. You will only know what you like and dislike when you try those cameras out. Once you hold those cameras in your hand you will know which is better for you.
For my DSLRs I shoot Nikon. Always have, and, until the F-Mount changes, I always will. Having used Canon’s at work, I can say that Nikon gives my still photography the feel I want, I prefer the user interface, and ergonomically I like the way it feels. But that is me; you don’t have to tether yourself to a brand right out the gate. So many stores are selling cameras now that you can go down the street and test out a few now if you wanted. If you have friends who have cameras, ask to try theirs out. Nikon, Canon, Panasonic, Olympus, Pentax, Fuji, and Sony all make some amazing cameras. Find what makes you feel the most comfortable and will let you shoot the way you want. Remember, you won’t know which one is right for you until you try them.