Which camera should I buy? As a photography teacher, this is one of my most asked questions. Unfortunately giving a camera recommendation is not easy or straightforward. Choosing a camera is a personal decision with a lot of factors to consider, so it is important to know your goals for your photography and to understand the pros and cons of different types of cameras. I’ve written some blog posts in the past on buying a camera and choosing between and SLR and Compact cameras, but I wanted to update that advice with information about some of the newer options and terminology being used to describe the different types of cameras, and for this year’s students. Warning… long blog post ahead.. because not all things can be explained in under 140 characters.
There are lot of different types of cameras available these days, with different manufacturers using different ways to describe the cameras in their line-up. I’m going to try to simplify those choices as much as possible while talking about the pros and cons of some of these options.
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In our photography program at Nashville State Community College, we require our beginning photography majors to have an SLR camera. Traditionally, SLR cameras have been the choice of professional photographers. Nikon and Canon have been the primary players in that field. While many other camera manufacturers make quality cameras, if you want to expand your system or need maximum compatibility with professional lighting gear and accessories, more options are available for Canon and Nikon shooters.
SLR (single lens reflex) camera design includes a mirror and pentaprism at the viewfinder, so that what you see through the viewfinder is exactly what the lens will capture. When taking a picture, the mirror moves up out of the way to allow the light to hit the sensor (or film) plane. That reassuring sound you hear when pressing the shutter release button is usually more the sound of the mirror than the actual sound of the shutter. Unfortunately, these mirrors make the camera body bulky.
Within the SLR category, cameras manufacturers tend to offer 3 levels of cameras.
Entry Level: designed for the beginning amateur photographer. Lowest cost, usually comes with kit lenses as part of a package. Available everywhere, good deals can often be found online and at the big box retailers. Many students start with these, and they’re perfect for learning camera controls. However, if you’re serious about being a professional, you’ll quickly learn the limitations of these cameras, and the kits lenses that they came with. If entry level is all that’s in your budget at this time, then definitely get started with one of these cameras, they are great cameras to learn on!
Mid-range: designed for advanced amateurs and professional shooters. Higher cost than the entry level, with more advanced features. Camera bodies are usually designed to stand up to a bit more wear and tear. Kits and packages are also available for these cameras, and often the lenses sold in the package are slightly better than the ones sold with the entry level cameras. (see below about lenses)
Professional: designed for professional shooters. Are often full frame sensors, more advanced features and weather sealing. Priced accordingly.. If you’re in the market for one of these, then this blog post is probably not for you.
Camera models are constantly being updated, so I’m not mentioning specific models in this blog post. DP Review is my recommended source for camera reviews.
Factors that impact image quality:
Sensor Size: SLR cameras typically have two sensor size options. APS or Full frame. Full-frame refers to a sensor that is the same size as a 35mm piece of film, this made for an easier transition for pros switching from film to digital. Lenses designed for their film cameras worked the same on their digital slrs. The APS sensor is smaller than the full frame sensors and results in magnification of the lens. The exact magnification factor varies slightly with different cameras, but is roughly 1.5. What that means is that a lens with focal length of 50mm on a full frame sensor acts like a 75mm on an APS sensor. While there is debate over how much sensor size impacts image quality there are a few aspects of the full frame that professionals love, images can be enlarged to a larger size without pixelation, or you can crop the image more and still retain a high resolution image. Micro-Four-Thirds sensors are even smaller than the APS sensors, resulting in an image magnification factor of 2x. There are several Micro-Four-Thirds cameras on the market that are getting awesome reviews and many discussions about the fact that size is not everything when it comes to the sensors.
Lenses: It is important to realize that the quality of the lens is a huge factor in the sharpness and quality of your images. Lenses that have wider apertures (like f/1.8, f/2 or f.2.8) allow you to shoot in lower light without having to raise the ISO, which reduces image quality. These lenses are also often made with higher quality glass and are sharper. Lenses that have a fixed focal length (prime lenses) also tend to be sharper than zoom lenses. Upgrading beyond the “kit” lens is usually the first place I tell students start before upgrading camera bodies.
Operator Knowledge and Vision: All those buttons, bells and whistles don’t mean a thing on any camera, unless the photographer knows how to optimize the settings to take control of the image making process. Shutter speeds to control motion, f/ stops to control depth of field, lens choice to determine field of view and compression or distortion of subject, etc… The reality is the level of control that the photographer wants over the image making process and the willingness to learn are factors in image quality. It’s also important to note that great photos can be made with any camera, the photographer’s vision is the most important aspect of the creative process. See my Philosophy on Gear.
Mirrorless or MIL Cameras
Mirrorless cameras have removed the mirror and pentaprism, making the camera bodies smaller and more lightweight. There are some really good options on the market. Most compact and point and shoot cameras that many of us have used for years are mirrorless, as they use an LCD screen on the back instead of a viewfinder. In the last several years there has been a rise in popularity among professionals for the MIL or Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens camera systems, that have much of the same functionality of the SLR camera without as much bulk or weight.
Within the MIL systems there are several options with different sensor sizes available. Sony offers a lineup with full frame sensors, Fuji’s system has APS sized sensors, Panasonic and Olympus have a line up with Micr-Four Thirds sensors. More and more professionals are switching to these systems, but as mentioned above, there are often limitations of accessories compatible with these systems especially for studio lighting. As a travel photographer, this will be the next upgrade I make to my camera system.
If looking at a mirrorless camera, I would go for one that also has a viewfinder. On bright days, it can be hard to see the lcd screen and being able to look through a viewfinder can really help tighten up your compositions.
Bridge or Superzoom Cameras
Cameras in this category often have similar styling to DSLR camera, but do not have interchangeable lenses. With only one lens available, this lens often has a large zoom range from wide angle to telephoto. It’s important to understand that optical zoom is really all that matters when looking at the zoom capability, digital zoom is the same as cropping the image on the computer. Speed of the lens is an important factor, lower numbers ie f/2, f/2.8 allow you to shoot in lower light without raising the ISO. Most of these cameras have the functionality of an SLR, allowing the user to shoot in manual mode, and priority modes. Some of them allow users to shoot with RAW files as well. Ease of use and accessing the controls is an important consideration when looking at cameras in this category.
Compact and Advanced Compact Cameras
Compact cameras are often referred to as point and shoot cameras, when in Auto mode, the user should be able to just pick up the camera then “point” and “shoot” to take a picture. The obvious advantage of these cameras is size and ease of use. The standard point and shoot cameras are designed with ease of use in mind, and don’t allow much control for the photographer. There is a range of these cameras often referred to as advanced compact that have manual controls built in, some of them even allowing the user to shoot RAW files. Again, lens quality and speed of the lens will have a major impact on image quality with these lenses. I personally have one of these that I love to take when I’m traveling. Sometimes after lugging the heavy SLR camera around all day, I just want to go out to dinner and relax, but hate to leave the camera at home.. a good advanced compact camera can fill in nicely, allowing a bit more control than the camera phone.
When purchasing a camera, how it feels in your hands is an important consideration, so nothing beats hands on experimenting with the camera. In Nashville, Dury’s pro camera shop is the best option as the sales people there are very knowledgeable about their cameras, and they have a wider range of options than are available at your big box stores.