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This is part one of a three part series of articles I’m offering in answer to the most often asked question here at This Week in Photography; “What camera should I buy?” I know that beginners especially want this question answered. They are more likely to think that it’s the camera that takes the picture, not the photographer. Unfortunately for them, that’s not the case. And there’s no secret, magic or special camera that will make you into Ansel Adams. But since we get this question all the time, I decided to write this response.

Let’s start with goals. What goals do you have with your photography? Photographing the kids is much easier and less expensive than photographing wildlife. Making studio portraits will require a different kind of camera than that used by sports photographers. Do you want to turn pro or just make pictures you’ll share with your immediate family? Understand this simple truth: There is no perfect camera. And not all cameras are designed for all types of photography. Many photographers have more than one camera, depending on how many photographic pursuits they are engaged in at one time.

You’ll need to take into account a wide variety of factors when selecting a camera, and the first is budget.

Good equipment can sure make it easier to capture great shots, but you do not have to be Bill Gates to afford good quality equipment. Depending on the kind of photos you want to make, and how accessible your intended subjects are, you should be able to get a good camera outfit for less than $600. But if you want to specialize if wildlife or sports photography, that budget will increase. If you want to specialize in food, medical, aerial, high fashion, again – the budget will increase.

Regardless of budget, you’ll need to start with some basics. And I am making some assumptions here. I am assuming you are looking for a digital camera. Few film cameras are sold these days. And the focus of our show is digital photography, so I am not going to cover film. If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t know what kind of camera you want, a film camera is the wrong choice almost all of the time. (You film purists out there flame away, because I’ll just ignore you.)

Now if you are serious about producing quality photography, you’ll need to invest in a 35mm single-lens reflex camera with at least one lens. Commonly referred to as DSLRs, these cameras offer speed, choice, and control. The convenience of smaller format SLRs, combined with their ability to work with affordable lenses, make 35mm SLRs the a good starting point for most types of photography.

Point-and-shoot cameras USUALLY don’t deliver enough control or digital data to deliver professional quality photos. You can get some decent images with the higher-end digital point-and-shoot cameras, and as time goes by, you’ll see more published images come from these cameras, but generally, they don’t have sufficient focal length, response or image quality. Another problem with point-and-shoot cameras is that they are often too slow for some types of photography.

Therefore, I highly recommend 35mm format DSLR. Medium and large format cameras are also an option, but not a practical one. Digital 35mm cameras offer a wider range of lenses, are usually less expensive, easier to carry, easier and faster to operate, and provide the most flexibility to photograph a wide range of subjects.

In the next installment of this article, I’ll focus on some exact points to consider like shutter lag, metering, lenses and more.

Join the conversation! 29 Comments

  1. Are most of the DSLRs still referred to as 35mm SLRs, considering their sensor sizes are not 35mm?

  2. Are most of the DSLRs still referred to as 35mm SLRs, considering their sensor sizes are not 35mm?

  3. @mrkgoo that’s how I refer to them.

  4. No offense, Scott, but for people that know you, that may be fine, but the vast majority of people read “…you’ll need to invest in a 35mm single-lens reflex camera…”, they’re going to think you’re trying to sell film-based cameras in 2008. Then you say “The convenience of smaller format SLRs…” which I assume is referring to small, medium, and large format, but again, the assumption is going to be crop-sensor dSLRs.

    I’m not trying to be overly critical, but I think the term “35mm” should strictly refer to film (or focal length). I think photography experts will have no trouble understanding your article, but then photography experts don’t really need help choosing a camera, do they?

  5. This is/has been the most difficult question to answer every time I am asked by my firends. It is so complicated sometimes I cop out, and just tell them to buy whetevr they like, they are all the same.

    It is like asking what vehicle to buy. Way to hard to answer.

    Good luck scott

  6. This is/has been the most difficult question to answer every time I am asked by my firends. It is so complicated sometimes I cop out, and just tell them to buy whetevr they like, they are all the same.

    It is like asking what vehicle to buy. Way to hard to answer.

    Good luck scott

  7. I realize this is may be a rabbit hole you may not wish to go down, but mrkgoo does bring up a fair question for those that don’t really understand. (and if I am incorrect on this please feel free to kill this comment). Since the question is “what camera should I buy” I am tailoring my opinion based on it not being a “pro” photographer.

    Full Frame Sensors – Yes, there are cameras that have full 35mm sensors. They are expensive to say the least, and the investment in lenses needs to be greater because there is no sense in using Glass that cannot actually shoot full frame (this was covered in One TWIP episode). There is no conversion needed here as it is a true 1:1 ration, thus no effective focal length needed. If you can afford that sort of investment great, but most of these cameras are a bit over the head of a beginning photographer.

    APS-C (and/or APS-H) Sensors – This makes up the majority of dSLR sensors. But even here there are two classes, the “older” CCD sensors, and the newer CMOS sensors. CMOS sensors produce far less noise (in most cases) than their CCD counterparts. While not “really” a 35mm camera, they are still referenced in 35mm terms, which is why you see the conversions (or effective Focal Lengths) listed on the lenses for these cameras.

    4/3 Sensors – Currently championed by only Olympus and Panasonic as far as I know (well, plus Leica which makes lenses for Panasonic Cameras, often referred to as Leicasonic lenses). These are smaller sensors than APS-C. This smaller chip allows the manufacturers to create smaller and lighter cameras, but there are two trade offs. One is that the Effective Focal Length is 2:1 (as opposed to something like 1.6:1 on APS-C). The other trade-off is that the smaller sensor (as has been discussed on TWIP frequently) forces smaller light sensors for equal resolution, which means the image usually isn’t as good, and because of the buildup of heat is often noisier than a larger sensor.

    That is not complete details on the sensors, but I think it gives the Newbie an idea.

    Of course, this could be an episode of TWiP all by itself.

  8. Scott,

    Thanks so much to you and your team for the great podcast. It’s very helpful, especially for a newbie like myself.

    One thing I wanted to point out – new Nikon D40 with 18-55 kit lens can be EASILY found under $499. For example, it costs $459 on Dell.com. It can also be bought on my favorite site bhphoto.com for $479. For only $429.00 one can get it on Adorama factory refurbushed, which typically means that it was returned by a customer to the store, sent back to manufacturer, re-tested and now re-sold at a significant discount.

    It’s a perfect camera for a newbie to SLR world – small, light, very easy to use (non intimidating for a beginner unlike more advanced Nikon and Canon models), great IQ, a fast 0.18 second startup, bright and hi-res 2.5″ screen, 6MP is more than enough for 95% of a typical non-pro needs, 2.5 FPS, it works with all Nikon lens, old and new (although it only meters, but doesn’t autofocus with some of the older lens), excellent battery light (1000+ Normal Large JPGs), works with all Nikon Speedlight flashes..

    Best,
    Mark

  9. Scott,

    Thanks so much to you and your team for the great podcast. It’s very helpful, especially for a newbie like myself.

    One thing I wanted to point out – new Nikon D40 with 18-55 kit lens can be EASILY found under $499. For example, it costs $459 on Dell.com. It can also be bought on my favorite site bhphoto.com for $479. For only $429.00 one can get it on Adorama factory refurbushed, which typically means that it was returned by a customer to the store, sent back to manufacturer, re-tested and now re-sold at a significant discount.

    It’s a perfect camera for a newbie to SLR world – small, light, very easy to use (non intimidating for a beginner unlike more advanced Nikon and Canon models), great IQ, a fast 0.18 second startup, bright and hi-res 2.5″ screen, 6MP is more than enough for 95% of a typical non-pro needs, 2.5 FPS, it works with all Nikon lens, old and new (although it only meters, but doesn’t autofocus with some of the older lens), excellent battery light (1000+ Normal Large JPGs), works with all Nikon Speedlight flashes..

    Best,
    Mark

  10. I´m very happy with my Rebel XT.

  11. I think 35mm is an appropriate label. The cameras share the same form-factor 35mm film cameras and use the same lenses. These cameras are designed to have the feel as 35mm film cameras and be familiar to anyone who uses 35mm film cameras. Indeed, some of the DLSRs actually do have 35mm sensors.

    I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve tried to have this DSLR conversation with people. For example, I heard many people identify an EVF point-and-shoot as an SLR or the Canon G9 as a “DSLR hybrid”. There is a lot of confusion among first-time camera buyers exactly what is a DLSR and what isn’t.

  12. I think 35mm is an appropriate label. The cameras share the same form-factor 35mm film cameras and use the same lenses. These cameras are designed to have the feel as 35mm film cameras and be familiar to anyone who uses 35mm film cameras. Indeed, some of the DLSRs actually do have 35mm sensors.

    I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve tried to have this DSLR conversation with people. For example, I heard many people identify an EVF point-and-shoot as an SLR or the Canon G9 as a “DSLR hybrid”. There is a lot of confusion among first-time camera buyers exactly what is a DLSR and what isn’t.

  13. @JayMonster your discussion of sensors is something I had planned to cover in part three – but since you did it here for me…I’ll write something else.

    @Joe since you’re speaking for the people – would you mind telling me what term I should use?

  14. Hopefully the nitpicking and pixel peeping won’t confuse beginners reading this. Given the fact that I said 35mm format DSLR (the D standing for digital) and given that I specifically said the article is about digital not film cameras, I assume that’s pretty clear. If anyone has a legitimate question as to my meaning rather than a nitpick over my wording, please feel free to post it and I’ll try to clear it up.

  15. Hopefully the nitpicking and pixel peeping won’t confuse beginners reading this. Given the fact that I said 35mm format DSLR (the D standing for digital) and given that I specifically said the article is about digital not film cameras, I assume that’s pretty clear. If anyone has a legitimate question as to my meaning rather than a nitpick over my wording, please feel free to post it and I’ll try to clear it up.

  16. @Mark my $600 price point assumes serious photography requires either an additional lens or flash or tripod, hence $600.

  17. Too bad that like so many things on the Internet – this great advice is in danger of being hijacked over minutiae. No matter what terminology Scott uses, I am pretty sure most people do in fact understand what he’s saying. And what about the rest of the article? Is that the only thing people walk away with? I for one appreciated the discussion about P&S v. DSLR and hope to see more of that.

  18. I can’t decide between Nikon D40 or D60? Advice please.

  19. I can’t decide between Nikon D40 or D60? Advice please.

  20. Apologies, I didn’t mean to pick at terminology – that wasn’t my intent. I just wanted to know if there was correct terminology. I did understand Scott’s meaning and intent. On that note, I agree entirely with the post.

  21. Apologies, I didn’t mean to pick at terminology – that wasn’t my intent. I just wanted to know if there was correct terminology. I did understand Scott’s meaning and intent. On that note, I agree entirely with the post.

  22. i think an even better post would be on “what lens should i buy?” becuase that is a waay harder question that lots of people must be asking

  23. i think an even better post would be on “what lens should i buy?” becuase that is a waay harder question that lots of people must be asking

  24. Hi Scott, interesting article so thanks for preparing it.

    One point I didn’t understand – and maybe this is just a confusion in terminology – but when you say 35mm do you mean full frame?

    Surely you’re not saying you only recommend a full frame dslr? Or are you?

  25. @Scott Like I said, I just think most people will forever associate the term “35mm” with film, so the term should be avoided. Also, you mention “smaller-format SLRs,” but not medium or large format. Granted, I don’t think medium- or large-format cameras need to be discussed in an article like this. Many people who would be reading a “What camera should I buy” article won’t know that medium and large formats even exist, and they’ll be thrown off by the mention of small format.

    I love the podcast, and I have great respect for you, Scott. I’m only trying to offer criticism that I hope will benefit everyone.

  26. This is a big and as it appears an emotional subject. Kudos to Scott for taking it on! Part two was really good also and I’m looking forward to reading part three.

    @ Alvin, there is always differences in opinion to what would be the “best” subject to write on.
    If you ask politely maby Scott can make the choice of lens easier for you in a coming article.
    First of all you need a camera to put the lens on. So I kind of think he started at the right end =)

  27. This is a big and as it appears an emotional subject. Kudos to Scott for taking it on! Part two was really good also and I’m looking forward to reading part three.

    @ Alvin, there is always differences in opinion to what would be the “best” subject to write on.
    If you ask politely maby Scott can make the choice of lens easier for you in a coming article.
    First of all you need a camera to put the lens on. So I kind of think he started at the right end =)

  28. @Joe and yet you STILL haven’t offered an alternative. I appreciate that you have an opinion. I see that a few people share it. As many or more posting here do not. MY point is that this is minutia. And it ends up hijacking the broader discussion. I’d also like to offer that waiting until the whole series was posted might also have been more appropriate. That’s partially my fault. I should have turned off comments until the series was completely up. I’ll do that next time.

  29. I’d just like to throw the Sony A200 out there for those looking in the $500 range. I picked mine up for $530 and I think it’s a strong option compared the D40 or Rebel XTi. You can use most if not all Minolta AF (Maxxum) lenses. The only downside is the proprietary hot shoe but the Sony flashes tie so well into the camera I’m not sure I’d buy an off-brand flash even if I could.

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