Gear Envy: Five Things to Consider Before Buying Your First Camera

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GearEnvy 1

1. The Ol’ Gear versus Photographer Chestnut

What’s the best camera and lens you can buy when you’re starting out?

  • Anything by Nikon
  • Anything by Canon
  • Nikon and Canon are overrated; Pentax is what all the cool kids are using
  • Do the best you can with what you can afford right now

A photographer went to a socialite party in New York. As he entered the front door, the host said “I love your pictures – they’re wonderful; you must have a fantastic camera.” He said nothing until dinner was finished, then: “That was a wonderful dinner; you must have a terrific stove.” – Sam Haskins

Believing a great camera will make you a great photographer is like thinking Roger Federer’s tennis racquet will make you a world champion tennis player. Um, it won’t – I’ve tried. I’ve also worn the same jeans as Gisele Bundchen and they didn’t make me a supermodel. Cooking with Wolfgang Puck’s saucepans didn’t make me a master chef either.

Great gear won’t make you a great photographer. Great lenses, however, can improve the sharpness of your images, and great lights and accessories can improve their quality. But all of that can be undone with poorly executed or sloppily composed images.

Just because something’s technically perfect doesn’t necessarily make it great or even good. A good photo should inspire an emotional reaction, and no camera or lens available today can achieve that for you.

I’m blown away daily by evocative photos on Instagram, 500px, and Flickr. Eighty percent or more of these images are taken with smart phones or entry-level cameras with kit lenses. When I share my images online, I get just as big a response from images taken with my iPhone as I do from images taken with pro gear. Because of the Internet, there’s never been a greater time in history to have your work seen and loved, or to inspire a reaction.

The best first camera you can buy is the one you can afford right now.

2. What are you shooting?

GearEnvy 2

Next, you should ask yourself what your your gear is for? Where will you use it and how often?

  1. I only take my camera to church on Sundays.
  2. I’m going to document my trek to the summit of Mount Everest, rodeo rides and my next Tough Mudder event.
  3. I photograph sixty weddings a year.
  4. I’m still learning, but I love to take photographs every opportunity I get.

Are you planning on taking your camera to rugged subzero locations? Will you be shooting thousands of images a day or only taking photos on special occasions? This is the first question to consider before purchasing any new gear – what will you use it for?

If your answer is #2 or similar, you may want to consider a heavy duty pro body that’s built to take rough and tumble handling and extreme weather conditions; a cheaper lightweight camera may not withstand the wear and tear or hold up to the elements.

If you plan on taking thousands of frames daily or weekly, it may be more cost effective to invest in a mid-range camera that’s built to shoot more frames. The shutter on a cheap camera usually rolls over and dies after about 100,000 frames, so spending a few hundred extra may give you more longevity.

The subject matter you’ll be shooting will also influence your choice of lens. For example, if you’re planning on shooting a lot of portraits and head shots, many fashion and portrait photographers use long fixed focal lenses or zoom lenses. If you’ll be doing a lot of weddings, professionals stock their kits with wide and long lenses and lenses that are somewhere in-between. If you’ll be shooting a lot of scenery, landscape photographers get more use out of wider lenses. And lastly, if you plan on shooting a lot of food or products, you may want to consider adding a macro lens to your kit.

3. Brand loyalty. Which brand should you buy and why?

With cameras there’s no definitive answer to this question. Nikon appears to have a slight edge over all the other SLR brands, but there are advantages and disadvantages to each.

I spent the first 15 years of my career shooting with Nikon because both my brother and my first mentor used them. I loved my Nikon and never dreamt of swapping over. I initially invested in secondhand bodies and prime lenses and after I had saved enough coin to buy new, I stayed loyal to Nikon. Later when I switched over to digital, I continued my Nikon love affair.

The decision to convert to Canon was made for me by the lack of decent Nikon upgrades on the market in 2004-2005 and by the fact that Canon’s 1DS MKII blew anything Nikon made that year out of the water. I switched to Canon and invested in two new camera bodies, new lenses, speedlights and accessories.

Fast forward 10 years and you could argue that Nikon now makes better bodies than Canon, and that Canon makes slightly better lenses. For better or worse, I’ve made a commitment to Canon, and I’m sticking to that – for now. I still suffer the occasional bout of gear envy, but hey, I’m only human.

My advice is to test out each camera on offer in your price range. You’ll find that some cameras are more comfortable to use than others. Also factor in the warranty, general after-sales service, and how easy it is to have the brand you’re looking at serviced or repaired in your area. Another good indication of quality is the camera’s resale value. If your potential camera is flooding the low-end of the secondhand market, it may be a good indication you’re about to buy a lemon. Finally, check out camera reviews and look up discussions about the model you want to buy on forums. The photography community is incredibly thorough and generous with information.

4. Holy crop! Does size matter?

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I bought my first digital Nikon 13 years ago and paid $17,000 AUD (approx. $14,000 USD) just for the body. It took 256 MB memory cards and produced raw image files that were around 6 MB. I used that camera to shoot hundreds of covers, poster shots, magazine spreads and advertising campaigns, and nobody ever questioned the file size.

Today my iPhone takes 8 MB photos. So, does that mean my iPhone camera is better? Umm – no. It’s not the quantity of the megapixels that count; it’s the quality of the megapixels and the size of the sensor. Cramming lots of megapixels onto a tiny sensor decreases image quality, making grainier looking files.

So how big are the sensors in the various cameras on the market today? A camera phone sensor is the size of a tic tac, a compact camera sensor is the size of an M&M, an entry-level SLR sensor is the size of postage stamp, and a pro level camera sensor is the size of a 35mm film frame.

So how many megapixels are enough and what’s the best size sensor for you? Well again, the answer comes down to what the output is going to be.

If you plan on shooting images that are going to end up on billboards or really large wall prints, then a full frame sensor that produces raw image files that are larger than 20 MB is ideal. An entry-level camera can produce large enough files to create billboard size images; they just won’t look anywhere near as good.

If you plan on printing midsize images — A4 (8.5×11″) or smaller — then an entry-level to mid-range camera will achieve really good results.

Finally, if you’re mostly going to share your images online, you can get away with a smart phone or compact camera, but any of the above will do the job, as well.

5. Physical size and weight

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Does this camera make my bum look big?

This factor is often overlooked until you get home and pull your new camera out of the box and use it a few times. You may think you want the biggest, heaviest camera and the longest lens, but four hours into an eight-hour mountain hike, you may change your mind.

I currently use two different bodies: the 1DS MKIII and the 5D MKIII. My 1DSIII weighs twice as much as my 5D and produces better quality images, but I’m prepared to take a hit in quality when I’m travelling because I know I’ll shoot more if I’m carrying a lighter camera. Having to schlepp a heavy camera around makes me think twice about bringing it out in the first place.

A good camera should feel comfortable and be like a natural extension of your body. Test out how easy it is to change settings with one hand; believe me, this will get frustrating if it’s a difficult process.

Have I missed anything you feel is worth considering? Do you have anything to add to the discussion or have any questions? I’d love to hear from you.

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Gina Milicia has been a professional photographer for more than 25 years. She has photographed some of the world’s most high-profile people including royalty, billionaires and A-list celebrities. Often travelling the world, Gina also runs photography workshops and private mentoring sessions. You can sign up for her free ebook on "Portrait and Post Production Essentials" and see more of her work here. Check out her podcast “So you want to be a photographer” on iTunes.

  • I totally love that pentax

  • Jovanni Molleda

    Oh thank you! I already think of those things! The mirrorless, the not so complex cam and even buying a second hand camera. 😀 I was thinking of buying Pentax Q7 or NikonD3100. I’ve done some review on these cameras and I really think that their features suits to what I want and to what I need. (Sigh) I really wish I could have one soon. Ahaha, after I finish my college, I would definitely buy one!

  • Bill Woodson

    Many professionals use the 5Dmk3 so I don’t think you would go wrong with that camera. And actually depending on the price point you are looking for there are other models like the 7D that would be good for these uses too. The 7D is a crop sensor so that is the down side, if you consider it so. I have both and love them both. Lens selection would probably be the most important for wedding and child portraits. Something that has a wide aperture (fast) would give good depth of field blurring and low light abilities that you might want for weddings. Many people like prime lenses for this, I personally like to have some zoom so I invest in L series telephotos, but those are more expensive.

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  • Joe Hamblin

    look up reverse lens macro, it can be done with a kit lens, and though it can be a little hard to get used to, it can produce incredible results, the adapter costs 5-10 dollars.

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  • Eric Lyons

    I shot minolta so the digital switch to Sony made perfect sense. However I now shoot Div. 1 roller derby and Sony had the proprietary hot shoe mount and no compatibility with the off camera flash accessories I desperately needed. (Shooting extremely fast action in roller skating rinks is not for the weak at heart or those lacking in their own source of light). Switched to Canon and havent looked back, could have easily gone with Nikon. Best to consider add ons as well as just the body depending on what you are going to shoot

  • Shirley Lockwood

    What’s ur take on canon t5i. It’s my first dslr camera. I also have the 18-135 , 10-18, and 75-300 lens. Still learning, but so far I like it.

  • RP

    “It’s not the quantity of the megapixels that count; it’s the quality of the megapixels and the size of the sensor” Yes! It cracks me up a bit when people think their iPhone is better than some DSLRs. Sure, I have a recent DSLR, and I have an 11-year-old DSLR too; and the old one, crop-sensor and all, still takes better quality shots than my phone with the same “megapixels.”

    Brand loyalty is a funny thing. I was handed a Nikon the first day I ever used an SLR in the 80s, at high school. When I went shopping for my own, I bought what most closely matched what I was using at school (I was using an FE2 there, and bought a used FE to start my Nikon collection). Before that–and since–I’ve never cared for any brand versus another, I just became a Nikon guy and that’s that; had I been handed a Canon that day in the 80s I might well be a Canon guy today.

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  • pete guaron

    LOL – Gina, have you ever considered a career in comedy? You have a delightfully wicked sense of humor – I love it, especially the Sam Haskins story.
    Having come from a family with a deep involvement in photography stretching back to 1850, I’ve been immersed in cameras since I was a small child – a VERY long time ago. With the “end” of the analogue era, I’ve made a conscious decision to make a fresh start and immerse myself in digital – doing a complete re-equip.
    So I sat down and worked out what I “need” – rather than “Oh, wouldn’t THAT be nice!” I did a mental review of the photos I’ve taken over the past 60 years (I started young remember?), the equipment I had, what I used most and what I used least, and based my decisions on that. NOT on “what’s new”, or what someone else had.
    While I may have more gear than some, I surely have a great deal less than a lot of others. And there’s a reason for each item – reflecting the nature of the photos that I take.
    It’s very refreshing to see someone like you produce so many sensible comments, to guide people who are starting out. And very good of you to spare the time, make the effort, and share your knowledge and experience, so that less experienced or less knowledgeable photographers can spend their time and money enjoying their cameras. I look forward to seeing more of your articles.

  • pete guaron

    Choo, what you are describing is a specific need that YOU had. Yes in your case, you needed the full frame and the higher quality lens. I have them too – but I also have a half frame with a kit zoom, which is a very fine camera in ITS field of use – and – shock horror! – a compact that I slip into my pocket whenever I go out, to make sure that I am never caught without any camera at all. And it takes quite good photos too.
    Of course, the half frame and the compact aren’t competing to meet your client’s requirements. But that’s not really what this is all about. Your client’s needs are very specific, from your description. Which doesn’t make all the other cameras “wrong” – it means no more than what you said about them, that they were not suitable for the job you were seeking to do.
    And your D810 and Zeiss lens would not be suitable for other jobs, that someone else wants, too – sports or bird photography, for example.
    The D4 has been a favorite of many pro photographers for years, and with good reason – it suits THEIR requirements, even if it doesn’t suit someone else’s. And that’s the whole point of this discussion – finding what you NEED, rather than “whatever money can buy”.

  • Navam Pirashanth

    Nothing here, go for the best camera of the year. then u can have a lot.

  • pete guaron

    It depends HOW interested you are – really! I’m nuts about macro, but I’d never recommend you buy the gear I’m using unless you are equally seriously afflicted, afritsch. I haven’t considered a macro zoom, though – dunno that I really see the point of a zoom, for macro work – each to his own, I guess.

    There’s a 5 times macro put out by Canon, which is “interesting”, although I’ve never used it. My cam’s a Nikon, so I can’t even dream about that one. Anyway, it is too specialised for my purposes.

    You already realise that your first choice is “which camera”? And that’s going to affect the range of lenses that you can choose from.

    The accepted standard is a 1×1 macro, and the general advice is to use a 100 mm lens, to start. How wide? – my personal view is that’s not important, because wide aperture costs valuable depth of field, and flash or floods are a better choice than wide aperture.

  • Daren Fawkes

    The two pictures accompanying this article show a Pentax K1000 film camera which wikipedia states ceased production in 1997 ie not really a camera ‘to consider before buying your first camera’. Also, the article talks a lot about Canon and Nikon mirror DSLRs, and for balance, could have talked about other manufacturers (eg Olympus, Sony, Panasonic, Fujifilm) and types (eg compact system cameras with fixed or interchangeable lenses, and mirrorless DSLRs).

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