A Beginner's Guide to Buying a Camera

A Beginner’s Guide to Buying a Camera

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iPhone camera

Sadly, you may one day grow out of your cell phone camera.

So you’ve decided it’s time to buy a real camera? Maybe the cell phone camera just isn’t cutting it anymore, or you read an inspiring travel blog bragging about how they quit their day job, and now roam the planet selling snapshots they take along the way.

Either way, the decision has been made, and now it’s time to take the next step and figure out what gear you’re going to need to support this new endeavour.

The photographic gear market isn’t lacking in options, and it’s all talk about megapixel this and shutter speed that, but without a bunch of technical experience, how do you know where to start? There really isn’t a one-camera-fits-all option or we would all be using it.

Let’s take a look at some of the considerations you are going to want to keep in mind as you attempt to navigate the consumer minefield of cameras and photographic equipment when selecting and buying a camera. We will look at the major features shared among most cameras, and how they may influence your decision.

Price

Expensive camera equipment

Brace yourself: High-quality photography equipment often requires a significant investment.

That’s right, cameras all cost money, and sometimes lots of it. This is a logical place to start, unless, of course, money is of no consequence, in which case order a couple of Leica M Series cameras – one for you and one for me.

The easiest approach to budget is to come up with as narrow a budget window as possible. If you think you want to spend under $1,000, you will likely be overwhelmed with choices, while if you decide to look at the $800-$1,000 range, your options will be much more manageable to compare.

While you’re mulling over your photography budget, note what other accessories you may need or want. Don’t blow your entire budget on a camera body with no lens to mount on it. Do you want to acquire a tripod, external flash or even extra batteries and memory cards?

Types of Cameras

Generally speaking, there are point-and-shoot style cameras, mirrorless cameras and DSLRs (digital single lens reflex), but keep in mind that the lines can be pretty blurry between these.

Nikolaj F. Rasmussen

By Nikolaj F. Rasmussen

Point-and-shoot cameras are mostly compact and convenient. The constant with them is that the lenses are built-in and non-interchangeable, but usually cover a wide zoom range. Quality-wise they run the gamut from cheap with uninspiring quality, to pretty sweet ones like the Canon G1.

Mirrorless systems are all the rage and most of them have interchangeable lenses like the big DSLRs, at a smaller size. They are a great compromise of quality and versatility. Some are super classy like the Olympus OM-D and others deliver high resolution like the Sony A7S.

DSLRs are the classic, fancy-looking cameras, with all the buttons and big lenses (sometimes). Lower-end ones offer good quality, and give users a ton of control. There is a mind-boggling assortment of lenses and flashes available, as well as a myriad of other gadgets to achieve all sorts of creative effects.

Sensor

This is the part of the camera that replaced the film. The reason we care about these is because they range in size, resolution (megapixels) and sensitivity to light.

ZEISS Microscopy

By ZEISS Microscopy

As you’ve probably already deduced, big sensors with high resolution that are more sensitive to light are pricey. The biggest sensors in the camera types we are talking about are called full frame, and are the size of a 35mm negative (film). The majority of cameras on the market use a variety of smaller versions that we usually call cropped frame (DX for Nikon and APS-C for Canon). There are other size but these two make up the lion’s share of the market.

Right now camera companies are in a death match to out-resolution one another. While the average camera might boast 16-20 megapixels, some models are double that.

What do all those megapixels get you? You can think of it as the same as film grain, or the resolution of your TV. If you have a 36-megapixel camera, you can crop out 2/3 of the photo taken with that camera and still have a 12-megapixel photo. Higher resolution=finer grain.

Sounds like the more the merrier, but not necessarily. Lower-megapixel cameras are often more sensitive to light and work better in dark conditions. Also, resolution is directly correlated to file size so you will fill up your memory cards, and computer hard drive much quicker. Often times lenses for full-frame cameras are more expensive as well.

Memory cards

High-megapixel cameras come at a price as they eat up storage on your memory cards and hard drives.

ISO

This may sound familiar because when you had a film camera (if you are old enough) you probably used 400 ISO film. This is a measurement of the sensor’s sensitivity to light (short meaning, the long one is very technical).

If you want good results shooting in low-light conditions without a flash, you want to look at cameras that not only shoot at high ISO (1600 or greater), but can do so while producing decent shots. The Fujifilm X-T1, Nikon D800, Canon 5D Mark 3 and Sony RX100 get high marks in this category, but be warned, it’ll cost you.

Lenses

A sensor is only as good as the lens that you put in front of it. I just made that up but it’s true. Everything has to pass through the lens to get to the sensor.

If you’re going to go with a point-and-shoot camera, compare the zoom range (a number in millimeters) between several cameras. There are some that cover ridiculous ranges like the Nikon Coolpix P610 which zooms from 24-1,440mm. However, don’t be fooled by big numbers as you may never need that kind of range and another camera may have other features that are more useful to you.

 

The Fujifilm X100T's lens

Some cameras are equipped with a permanent fixed-focal-length lens like the Fujifilm X100T. Some photographers prefer simplicity.

Be aware that there are two types of zoom: optical and digital. Optical zoom is what the actual lens is capable of, while the latter digitally crops the photo and image quality is degraded significantly.

Some cameras like the Fujifilm X100T and the Sony RX1 are quality cameras which have permanently attached 35mm lenses. No changing lenses, no zoom. Some people love them, some people think it’s a stupid idea. In the end, it depends on your shooting style and your personal preference.

With DSLRs, the options for lenses are nearly endless. Original manufacturers make plenty, third party brands abound, and you can even get adapters to attach almost anything to almost anything else. Many DSLRs are offered as kits that come with the camera body and lens. Usually the lenses are of lower quality but can certainly produce good results.

canon-current-EF-lineup-2012

Image courtesy of Canon

Some lenses are big and expensive because they let in a lot of light and work better in low-light conditions, produce very sharp undistorted images, have long focal lengths allowing you to take pictures of far away subjects, and are built to more exacting and durable standards or any combination of these features.

The lens department is where mirrorless cameras fall a little short. For most casual photographers, there are enough good choices to fulfill your needs, but fewer choices for professionals, or those wanting to focus on niche genres like macro or sports.

The Other Stuff

I know you wish the things mentioned thus far were the only things to consider, but there is plenty more. With so much competition out there, even simple cameras keep getting more complex. On that note, if you find a camera you’re interested in, find out how long that model has been on the market as the manufacturer might be about release a new version.

Raymond Bryson

By Raymond Bryson

Other features to look for in a camera:

  • WiFi connectivity
  • Built-in flash
  • Hot shoe (for an external flash)
  • Touch screen
  • Articulating screen
  • Dual memory card slots
  • Image stabilization (in-camera or in-lens)
  • RAW file support (gives you more control in post-processing)
  • Video capabilities (HD, 4K, etc.)
  • External microphone support
  • Shooting speed (frames per second)
  • Minimum focus distance or macro mode
  • Shooting modes (for creative effects)
  • Weather sealing
  • Battery life
  • Weight

Conclusion

Of course this is not an exhaustive list, but it’s a good place to start. These days there are cameras as varied as the photographers using them so it will really pay off to do your research.

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Jeremie Schatz is a freelance photographer, photojournalist, journalist, copyeditor and videographer for a variety of clients and companies in the United States and Thailand. Find his portfolio of colorful images and more of his writing at Exposed World Photography and on Facebook.

  • Blake Lewis

    Best advice is to basically ask if you want high power (DSLR), small form factor (P&S) or a combination of the two (mirrorless). Then, choose your budget. Then, pick up cameras within that budget and buy the ones that meet your basic needs.

    Assuming you stick with it, you’ll learn the problems with the camera you bought, and then can seek advice on what camera will resolve those problems. You’ll end up buying and selling a few until you get the perfect one.

    I’m on my fourth camera, and planning to pick up a second one for other purposes. The first was a P&S that didn’t have the manual controls. The second was bad in low light. The third one was great, but I wanted more megapixels from it so I could shoot farther away and crop in without losing fidelity, as well as a FF sensor.

  • Didn’t even get a mention: good riddance, bridge cameras.

    I always disliked them and thought they were a horrible compromise – but if your main interest is a massive zoom range with (optional) more advanced controls all in a relatively compact and affordable package, they’re arguably still the most viable option,, I guess.

    I’d never recommend one to anyone now that DSLRs are so small, light and affordable, and 18-300mm lens an option.

  • I went second hand on my first DLSR (Nikon D70s) after doing a little research. It was a great way to dip my toe in the water before I knew if it’s what I really wanted, and could have easily made the switch to another brand at any time, losing little on the investment selling it on.

  • Jeremie

    Personally, I agree 100% and have had great luck buying second-hand equipment for years. Although some people want that new-camera-smell and will shy away from this option, as you say, it is a great way to test a camera. Renting can be another viable option.

  • Jeremie

    Unfortunately, you are right. As nice as it would be to buy a camera and know it’s the perfect one for you, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence and many photographers will lie awake at night wondering what they are missing out on until they break down and buy a different (or an additional) camera.

  • True, though renting can get pretty expensive pretty quickly, especially if you want to compare different makes/models, but if you’re looking at the higher end of the market it’s definitely a solid option.

    Your suggestion leads to another idea… if you have a very kind friend with a DSLR/mirrorless they might be open to lending it out for the weekend 🙂

  • Blake Lewis

    In my case it was more a case of using a camera long enough to recognise what flaws were holding me back, and replacing the device to resolve the issues. The P&S didn’t have the quality or the manual controls. The bridge couldn’t go over 400 ISO without destroying the images, and my chosen field (live music photography in dingy bars) demands excellent low light capabilities.

    The d5100 resolved a lot of those issues, then I got the d800 because the higher MP rating meant I could shoot from farther away (necessary in music venues sometimes) where a zoom lens was banned or impractical, without sacrificing quality when I cropped in as needed. Better ISO ratings meant I could shoot up to 6400 ISO at a pinch without vomiting, and the FF sensor made using the Nifty Fifty a lot easier in close quarters.

    So that’d be my other advice. Buy for your budget and immediate needs, upgrade or replace only when you know why you need to, not because you think you have to.

  • Bill Halsall

    It is important to know something about the various cameras available, but even more important is knowledge of the person wishing to buy a camera.

  • lbrilliant

    Been taking pictures for almost 50 years now. I have been asked MANY times to recommend. I always tell people to borrow, rent or buy OLD used equipment for a couple bucks and use the heck out of it. Then make a list of everything you think needs changing and look for a low end camera that will do it and repeat the critique. Only then will you have a truly good idea of what specific features to look for in your ideal camera. Then buy it and sell the old stuff or keep it for backup. I know there are a few specific things that I look for in a camera so I have gone from Pentax to Praktika, to Minolta 35 to Fuji, to Olympus then to Sony as my needs have changed over the decades.

  • Jeremie

    Solid advice for those who aren’t attached to the idea of having the latest features.

  • Joey Taylor

    I am satisfied with my Sony DSC-RX100/B camera now. A decent little camera that can be considered one of the best cameras for both size and quality of photos. See from: http://www.consumerrunner.com/top-10-best-cameras/

  • Bill Noblitt

    Have the Sony a3000 and I am absolutely satisfied with the quality of the photos.

  • Chiyaa.Pasal

    While this is a nice breakdown of the technical aspects of cameras, there is at least one set of questions that is missing and which I always ask people when I am ask what camera (lens, insert any piece of photo gear here) should I get. It is particularly relevant for beginners. “How do you plan on using the camera?” or “What are you planning on doing with the camera?” “What time of photos / photography do you want to take / get involved with?” For the majority of people, it is simple snapshots of family, friends and events. A good and truthful (not wishful) answer to that question helps put everything else into perspective.

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