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

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

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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?

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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.

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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.