Okay, so you’re thinking about a camera – you use the camera on your phone, and it does a fair job, but you want to get the shots that photographers can achieve. So what do you buy? The following is a brief introductory guide to help you start your research and choose a camera/camera package.
Deciding factors in no order of priority:
- Primary purpose? (Sports, portraits, landscapes, nature/bird, weddings)
- What are you going to do with the images afterward? (Print, store digitally, use on social media)
If you think you will find a camera that will do everything, you will be disappointed. My most expensive full-frame professional will not do everything as well that my lesser expensive camera bodies will do. For example, my Canon 5DIV is my powerhouse, high-end camera. It is awesome. Great for weddings, portraits, low-light – but the frames per second are maxed at about 7fps. That’s okay to good for action sports, but my lesser expensive crop sensor Canon 7DII does up to 10fps. That’s a big difference in the capture potential for a client. (So while some salivate over my cameras, what I really want is the Canon 1DX Mark III which does 16-20fps – but at $6500 – I still have to wait – even then – My 5DIV is better for portraits and weddings and is less than half the price)
However, suppose you are expecting professional results. In that case, professional gear DOES help – but only if you are not willing to learn what your camera can do and how it works, otherwise you will never be happy with your photographs no matter how much you spend.
Analogy – if you buy an electronic keyboard and expect to play like Elton John but refuse to use anything other than the present songs, you are only going to get so much out of the keyboard. Don’t get me wrong, full-Auto (green box) mode has its place, but you will almost certainly never get the consistent quality shots you could be getting if you spent some time practicing.
In my opinion, the three most prominent brands are Canon, Nikon, and Sony. There are others like Fuji, Hasselblad, Olympus, and the like – and they have their place, but most will start and be perfectly happy with the three I mentioned first.
First, you can pick any of them. You will see debates and articles claiming why one is better than the other. That’s up to you. I am most concerned with quality, application, accessories, customer care, and availability for this read. Canon and Nikon have the most lenses and best availability along with a long history of quality. Over the past decade, Sony has become a tremendous player, especially with mirrorless – and is excellent.
I am with Canon because I am so heavily invested in lenses and other complimentary gear that it isn’t financially sensible to switch now. However, I would purchase either Nikon or Sony if I were to start over again.
Camera Phone vs. Compact Camera/Point & Shoot vs. Mirrorless/DSLR
Quite honestly, given most situations, most people with a newer smartphone have more of a camera than they will ever need. If your camera has a “Pro” mode, start there. See what you learn with that. If anything, you will get used to changing settings, which will help you if you do ever get into a dedicated camera body like a DSLR or mirrorless.
Why stick with a camera phone:
1. You don’t like carrying anything more than something that will fit in your pocket.
2. You know you will only use the “Auto” mode on any camera you were going to buy.
3. If you never plan on printing anything larger than an 8×10.
Why get a compact or “point and shoot” camera:
(these cameras are the ones with a single built-in lens that are NOT interchangeable)
1. You want something better than your phone but don’t want to carry all the gear that comes with a DSLR or mirrorless.
2. You want a better optical zoom option than the camera phone.
Why get a DSLR or mirrorless camera:
1. You want great optical lens options.
2. You plan to make large prints.
3. You want supreme controls over the settings
4. You will take a lot of action shots and require high frames per second (6 images or higher)
5. You will be taking shots in low-light and want as little noise in the images as possible.
DSLR vs. Mirrorless
Greatest difference: size and weight. The quality is comparable in most cases.
What’s the difference? One has a mirror (DSLR) used to reflect the image you are trying to capture into the viewfinder. Once the shutter button is pressed, the mirror rotates, and the sensor then captures the image. Essentially, the shutter noise is the mirror moving. The mirrorless camera forgoes the mirror allowing the sensor to take in the direct image and instead of an optical view of the targeted scene you get a digital one.
It may make one think – “well, isn’t that better to have less in the way with NO mirror?” It mostly has to do with autofocus and from my perspective, the years of research in the traditional approach still have DSLRs with the advantage – but the newest models (albeit, the most expensive) have started to integrate ways to adapt better.
There are other nuances. Some argue the ergonomics are better on DSLRs than mirrorless. Others say the lighter weight of mirrorless makes it better for prolonged use. However, the quality of the images is comparable. Debatable, yes – but similar by price point.
One drawback is that you typically must choose one and stick with it because most lenses are only compatible with one or the other. There are adapters available, but you typically lose some sort of functionality.
Lenses. WTF is 18-135mm? What the hell is f2.8? Holy Crap – I GIVE UP!
Personally, I think this is the most confusing part of camera gear. You hear about the “speed” of the lens or its “focal length” and whether it fits a cropped APS-C or Full-Frame….don’t forget the image stabilization!!! Ugh!!!
So let’s start with:
1. “focal length” – Think of it this way – the smaller the number, (6mm) the more of the scene the camera will see. The greater the number – the more zoomed in the scene (200mm). The 18-135mm in the header of this section means that the lens and complimentary camera will pick up a range from wide landscapes (18mm) to beginning telephoto for portraits (50-80mm) and action photography (135mm).
2. “f2.8″ or Aperture – this is the “speed” of the lens. It can be a fixed number or a range. Lenses can range from f1.2 to f32. All have their purpose and reason for being. With that said, those lenses that have the capability to get the smaller number like a f1.2 or f2.8 tend to be more expensive and heavier. Essentially, the smaller the number the greater the amount of light that is allowed in by the lens. So, my powerhouse workhorse of a lens – Canon 70-200mm f2.8 III – can let in more light into the camera taking cleaner/ faster (because the autofocus can work better) than lesser expensive Canon 70-200mm f4 or 75-300mm f/4-5.6.
Some lens have an aperture range. Canon has a lens that I just mentioned – the 75-300mm f/4-5.6. This means as you zoom the lens and camera will limit the smaller end of the abilities of the lens because of the build of the lens. Lenses that have a “fixed” aperture are more desirable because they can hold the aperture throughout the zoom range. The drawback is the amount of glass, engineering, and weight of that lens which drastically increases the cost.
3. Not all lenses of a given company will fit all of their cameras. You have to be aware of the mount and sensor of your camera. If your camera is a “crop sensor”/APC-S, it is typically limited to a model range of lenses. Same with “full-frame”. However, some cameras can receive either – but the perspective will be different between the two. This link to SLR Lounge will explain this very well.
There are so many features on the bigger cameras, how can I learn to use it properly?
1. Do no wait until you need a great picture to learn how to use it.
2. Learn about the “Exposure Triangle.” If you do this early on, it will help you to understand the camera much better.
3. Use “M”anual Mode as much as possible. OR any of the LETTER modes: “P, A/Av, S/Tv, M or B” modes. But “M”anual is where you have full control over all aspects of the shot.
Yeah, this is all fine and good – but what do I buy?
You have to have an honest conversation with yourself about how much you will use the camera and how willing you are to learn how to use the camera. If you answer that first, then my next best advice would be to buy the best package you can budget for. There are significant differences in build quality between cameras in the $400 range and the $1000 price point. Once you get between $1000-$2000, you get higher frames per second, better ISO (noise) ranges. When you get into the $2000 range, you get a full-frame (larger image sensors) camera with very low noise, very high frames per second (12+), and professional durability.
However, for as much as you can spend on a camera body, the real investment is in the lenses. My recommendation would be to start with a mid-level camera body (Think Canon Rebel T7i or Nikon D7500) – they would run $500-$1000, but there are always promotions with lens packages available. Many of the “kit” lenses are quite serviceable. Still, these cameras can also fit the pro-line of their respective company’s lenses, and it’s recommended to upgrade lenses first before the body.
Other useful accessories:
The best direct investment outside of the camera and lens would be a tripod and then a flash. Also, always clean optics with a lens cloth. Always.
Suggested companies to purchase photography equipment:
Of course, living in Rhode Island and trying to support local businesses are essential, so places like Hunt’s Photo on North Main in Providence is a great choice.
You can get great cameras at Walmart and Best Buy as well, but you will probably get the best deals at places like Hunt’s as well as a phenomenal company in NYC called B & H Photo. Additionally, Adorama is another excellent option.
B&H and Adorama have excellent turnaround times and customer service. And the more you get into photography, the more you will appreciate good customer service.
Keep in mind that the more you spend, especially in the photography world, the more you get. Like anything else – there is diminishing returns – especially if you do not put the time in to learn. But whether you get bored or hopefully – OUTGROW your gear because you are getting that awesome and want to upgrade, keep these few things in mind:
1. Camera bodies depreciate like automobiles. Even if you spend $4000 on a camera body, within two years, it will lose 50% or more of it’s initial value. So use it. A lot.
2. Lenses, especially pro-lenses, can hold onto their value pretty well. However, because they can be very expensive, make sure you will really use it so you get your money’s worth out of it. Odds are though that you will have your lenses much longer than your camera bodies. In all the years of my photography I have only sold off my kit lenses (ones that came with a camera bundle) and one professional lens. I have kept most of my professional/niche lenses because I love having them on hand because I never know when I get inspired and need them.
3. Get good cases for the gear you want to make sure you don’t want to get ruined by drops, storage or weather. Nanuk and Pelican are expensive – but I have never been disappointed. At the least, get good soft cases. My go to travel bag is by Lowepro and cost just over $300 but it’s also last 8 years and it still has at least a few years to go. For storage I purchased large storage boxes (HUSKY/RIGID) at Home Depot and try to make sure I put my gear in there when I am not using them.