PUBLISHER’S NOTE: This post is an updated compilation of several shorter posts I wrote in the past trying to answer the question, “What camera should I buy?” It includes some new cameras in the recommendation section. But please note: The newest camera is NOT always the best camera.
It’s still the most popular question I am asked. “What camera should I buy?” Lately there’s a new twist to the question…”Is this brand camera better than that brand camera?”
No matter how hard I try to tell people that there’s no perfect answer, they keep asking. So since I can’t convince anyone otherwise, at least know the answers to THESE questions before you ask me YOUR question.
- What subject(s) will you photograph most often? Weddings, portraits, wildlife, sports, landscapes, still lifes, food, fashion, etc.
- What gear (if any) do you now own?
- If you had to choose between ease of use and power, which would you select?
- Do you want a compact pocket-sized camera (point and shoot) or a DSLR?
- On a scale of 1-10 (10 being a working pro and 1 being someone who usually shoots with a disposable camera) how would you rate your skill?
- What is the MOST money you’d be willing to spend on a camera?
- How long do you think you might keep the camera?
- What do your friends use?
- Do you have a local camera store that can offer you support?
If you have thought carefully about these questions and have the answers – you should then be closer to knowing what the perfect camera for you might be.
Hopefully, your interest in photography is strong enough that you’ll read this entire article. That will give you the best chance of making the right decision. If you’re just not that interested, scroll all the way to the bottom to see some of the popular cameras that I recommend.
For Those Who Stuck with Me
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.
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 $500-$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 Photofocus.com 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. (There is one exception to this rule. The newer 4/3 Micro format cameras like the Olympus E-P2 aren’t technically DSLRs. They don’t allow you to look directly through the lens. They have larger sensors than most point and shoot cameras but smaller sensors than most DSLRs. There may be some professionals who could get buy with a micro 4/3 camera system.)
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, dynamic range, 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 for most due to their cost, size and learning curve. 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.
Why DSLR over Point-And-Shoot?
Shutter lag is the interminable span of time between the moment you trigger the shutter and the moment the camera actually captures the image. You won’t face this problem on a high-end SLR but point-and-shoot cameras are commonly slow. If your goal is to capture spur of the moment and candid opportunities, you’ll have far greater success with the SLR. This is especially important in wildlife, sports, baby and some other forms of photography. It’s impossible to calculate the number of times I’ve waited for a subject to move just a few inches this way or that. Having access to instant response in the shutter release is absolutely essential in such cases.
TTL or through the lens is the term used to describe what happens when you look through the viewfinder of an SLR. You’ll see the actual composition recorded on the sensor. With point-and-shoot film cameras (most digitals have an LCD view screen), you’re usually looking through a viewfinder and not through the lens itself. This factor can introduce something called parallax error, a visual distortion resulting from the difference in apparent direction of an object as seen from two different points. In other words, you’ll photograph a slightly different picture than what you saw through the viewfinder. Parallax error increases as distance to your subject decreases. This makes photographing close-ups without TTL problematic. While many newer cameras use “live view” to show you what the lens sees on the camera’s LCD, this is hard for some people to get used to, so TTL is the best choice.
- Lenses – With SLR cameras, you have a wider range of lenses available. Whether you need a macro lens for close-ups or long telephoto lens to pull in wildlife, you’ll be able to attach one to your SLR body. This is something you can’t do with a point-and-shoot camera. Yes, there are macro attachments and digital zoom available on point-and-shoot cameras, but they are almost always for appearance sake and are quality compromises due to low-quality optics.
- F/stops – By using a variety of interchangeable lenses, you’ll have a wider range of available f/stops to work with, giving you greater creative control with depth of field.
- Shutter Speeds – SLR bodies also offer a wider range of shutter speeds, often from 30 seconds to 1/8000 of a second, as well as bulb setting. A wide range of shutter speed settings is a requirement for good general photography. Most point-and-shoots have a very limited shutter speed.
- Metering – SLR bodies have more sophisticated metering systems. They also give you the choice between different metering patterns such as matrix metering, spot metering, and center-weighted metering. Many even permit you to shift the point of focus.
- Auto focus – SLR bodies will give you faster auto focus. This is especially useful if you want to include fast-moving subjects in your photography. Most point-and-shoot cameras won’t permit manual focusing, something that is essential for landscape and close-up photography.
- Filters – Lenses on many P/S cameras don’t allow for the use of filters. At a minimum, you’ll need to be able to attach a polarizing filter.
- Flash – A modern SLR camera body gives you much greater creative control when using flash. You’ll be able to use more than one flash, and you’ll have other creative controls, such as rear-curtain sync and repeating flash.
- Depth of Field Preview Button – A main reason I recommend the SLR camera over a point-and-shoot camera is the depth-of-field preview button. The DOF preview button shows the effect of your chosen f/stop on your image. You see what the film or sensor will see. This way you can fine-tune your image before pressing the shutter and avoid unpleasant surprises in the final image. I don’t know of any point-and-shoot camera that features a depth-of-field preview button, but most midrange to pro-level SLRs offer one. If you’re serious about any sort of outdoor or nature photography, I don’t recommend buying a camera without this feature.
All that said, there are some very good compact cameras out there. And while they will not deliver the image quality or flexibility of even an inexpensive DSLR, they can make great – even salable images.
Assuming you want a DSLR, here are some specific features to look for in a digital SLR camera body.
- Depth of Field Preview button. In my opinion, this is essential but Live View may make this less important.
- High ISO noise reduction.
- Full range of shutter speeds, from 30 seconds and bulb to at least 1/2000 second.
- Spot meter capability.
- Full range of exposure mode options, including manual, aperture priority, and shutter priority.
- Continuous auto focus and focus tracking.
- Capability of using a cable release. This reduces photographer-induced vibrations.
- Multiple focus and spot meter points.
- Motor drive. Most new cameras can achieve at least three frames per second.
- Custom function capabilities that allow you to configure the camera for the way you like to work.
- Built-in or add-on vertical grip with shutter release. This feature makes holding the camera in vertical orientation much more comfortable and makes working in the vertical orientation easier and more efficient, particularly for photographers with bigger hands.
- The camera body feels right. This is very subjective. You should hold the camera in your hand and decide if you like the way it fits.
What haven’t I talked about? Sensor size for one. Most cameras costing $500 or more have very high-quality sensors that deliver more than enough information to make large prints. Do note that simply having more megapixels doesn’t mean better image quality. You want the physically largest sensor you can afford, not the one with the most pixels crammed on it. This is why even cheap DSLRs tend to deliver better picture quality than compact cameras. The sensors in the DSLR are physically larger than the sensor in the compact camera.
I haven’t talked about battery life, since most modern cameras have batteries that last a long time. I haven’t covered other technical or specialty features because frankly, if you’re reading this with interest, it’s probably because you’re new at this. That means you should stick with the basics for now. Later on, you’ll know what to look for when the time comes to upgrade.
Should you buy Canon or Nikon? Olympus or Pentax? Any current, brand-name camera system on the market today will give you good results. Some things to take into consideration when choosing a brand are availability of lenses. Someday, you may want to add to your collection. Also consider things like image stabilization, ruggedness, custom features, and how easy it is to use.
What are your friends using? If many of your friends are using Canon, and you buy Canon, you’ll have a ready-made “technical support” group (as well as sources for borrowing lenses.) Likewise, if all your friends are using Nikon, buy Nikon for the same reasons.
One point here to consider. When it comes to DSLRs, Nikon and Canon together have more than 90% of the market. That means it’s probably going to be easier to find accessories, educational materials, support, etc., when using these brands.
There are lots of choices out there. If you stick with big brands that offer large lens lines, you’ll be fine. Don’t agonize over this decision. Remember, you can’t go to the store where Stephen King buys his pens, and expect to write great novels. You can’t go to the art supply store where Van Gogh bought his paints and brushes and expect to make great paintings. And you can’t expect to buy cameras with secret powers either.
Photography is about having a vision, a good eye, passion for the subject, great light, access, storytelling and heart. The camera equipment is just a tool designed to help capture the rest. I don’t know a single professional photographer who’s ever told me an editor refused to buy an image because the photographer used the wrong camera. It’s your eye, your vision, your ability to tell a story with the camera and your desire that matter most.
Now just go out and buy the camera, whichever one it is, and start shooting. Good luck.
If you just want to know what cameras I like, here’s the list.
EDITOR’S NOTE: I am not saying these are the only cameras I like, or that other cameras aren’t good. I am saying that based on price and performance, these are MY safe picks in each category. I own almost all these cameras. I have no bias against or for any of these companies since I own and use so many different brands. None of these companies sponsor me here or anywhere else. Ignore brand loyalty debates. Just pick the one that seems to fit your needs.
Compact And Pocket Cameras
Panasonic Lumix LX7
Panasonic LUMIX DMC-LX7K
Nikon Coolpix P7800
Nikon COOLPIX P7800
Canon PowerShot G16
Super Budget DSLR
Canon EOS Rebel T5i Body Only
Canon EOS Rebel T5i
Nikon D7000 Body Only
(Yes I am recommending the D7000 over the D7100 because of the megapixel madness Nikon used to double the pixel count on the APS-C sensor.)
Olympus OM-D E-M5 *Note I have not tested the newest Oly camera body – until I do I’m sticking w/ EM5
Olympus OM-D E-M5 with 14-42mm Lens (Black)
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3
I have added the GH3 because while it’s a very good micro four thirds mirror less stills camera, it’s an AMAZING video camera.
NOTE: I almost pulled the old D600 from my recommended list because the camera had a high failure rate. Nikon has addressed those issues and the D610 is a safe bet now.
Canon EOS 70D
Nikon D800 – E (If you do macro work, or product/food photography I’d choose this body due to the detail but otherwise I prefer the D700)
NOTE: I know this is a controversial choice but I had a chance to play with this camera briefly and while I do agree it’s overpriced, I think that it is what the D800 should have been. Image quality is tremendous and I am a real fan of all the dials. I am old and this cameras ergonomics more closely match the style I am used to. It barely makes this list because of its high price but, it does make the list.
Canon 5D MK III
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
Canon EOS-1D X
NOTE: I realize this will be controversial but I am sticking with the Nikon D3s over the D4 and the Nikon D700 over the 800 (with one exception as noted above.) Generally speaking, I don’t think the D4/D800 warrant spending money on the upgrade. I’d wait for the D900 and/or the D4s/5.
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