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How to Choose Your Next Camera – What and Where to Buy

Wondering How to Choose Your Next Camera? In this post Kim Brebach from Get the Picture shares some advice on the topic.

As on any journey, the next step depends on where you start. If you’re a pro shooter, you won’t be reading this because you’ll know what you need or want. If you’re a serious amateur, you’ll also have an idea of what camera you want next but you may still be looking for some clues. If you own a Point & Shoot you bought 2 – 3 years ago and now want something more serious, you’ll find this useful too.

Built-in Obsolescence

We hear this so often. Obsolete means disused, discarded, antiquated but, chances are, the camera you bought 2 – 3 years ago probably still works fine. The most likely reason you’ll discard the old camera is that you’ll replace it with a newer one that offers much more. So it’s really you who’s making the old one obsolete, isn’t it?

I’m just making a point: as long as the gadget performs to specs, it hasn’t lost it’s intrinsic value. When it’s overtaken by more advanced technology, it simply loses its market value. That’s where the obsolescence idea comes from – your friends have newer cameras and make you feel embarrassed. Then again, you may have progressed and need a camera with more functionality or one that delivers better image quality.

Digicams

They’re at the head of the obsolescence curve because the models change as often as most people change clothes. And since these cameras cram everything into a fixed package, you can’t keep any part of it. The best you can hope for is that one of your family can use the discarded camera. The list below shows current model digicams in the higher end of the price range (US dollars)

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Source

Where you’ll feel the most pain in changing over is with high-priced fixed-lens cameras like the bottom six on this chart. Why? Because you’re shelling out DSLR type money ($500 +) and there’s nothing you can salvage when you want to upgrade. And, by the time you’ve decided to do that, you won’t get much for it on eBay any more.

My advice is: don’t spend too much on a pocket camera. You don’t need to. What you need to work out is the kind of camera you really need, and then see how little you can get away with spending. These are the key criteria for most buyers:

  • Size – ranges from shirt pocket to mini-DSLR size
  • Optical zoom range – mega-zooms now go to 20x
  • Build quality, ease of use, controls (from auto to full manual)
  • Speed of focusing, shooting and refreshing
  • Image quality, ability to shoot RAW, ‘speed’ of lens for low-light shooting
  • Importance of video, and type of video capability (HD/fps etc.)

Megapixels haven’t mattered since 6mp sensors became common, and the smart makers no longer push megapixels. Panasonic’s Lumix DMC-LX3 was the image quality king until Canon released the S90. Both use f/2.0 lenses and 10mp sensors, giving us flexibility for shooting in less than perfect light. Sense is returning to a patch that was as free from it as a frog is from feathers.

Work out what you need and do your homework, read reviews, read between the lines, look for clues that hint at sluggish operation, clumsy navigation or feature overload. Check out these sites which list digicams in several convenient categories with brief summaries here, here and
here.

Super compacts

DSLRs lenses don’t become obsolete as they’ll work on your next camera body – if you stay with the same brand. DSLRs are quite a leap in size from pocket digicams but a new category has been created by the Micro four-thirds contingent, led by Olympus and Panasonic. Their new compact designs with interchangeable lenses don’t use an SLR type see-through-the-lens arrangement with penta prism or mirrors. Instead they make do with an optional electronic viewfinder and a live view screen.

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These cameras are a lot smaller than DSLRs, and the Olympus E420 in the photo is one of the smallest on the market. The lenses are smaller too because of the smaller 4/3 sensors which are less than 2/3 the size of the APS-C sensors that grace consumer and prosumer DSLRs. And they do video just like consumer DSLRs, or better.

Several models are made by Olympus (E-P1, E-P2) and Panasonic (GH-1 and GF-1). Samsung has announced the NX10 which uses the same design concept but a bigger APC-s sensor, and Sony has foreshadowed its intention to do the same.

These new designs fill an obvious gap in the market, and offer lens interchange options between 4/3 brands, but lens choices are limited. Other problems are:

  • ‘designer’ prices in the $1,500 – $2,000 range, expensive add-ons
  • slow focusing and shooting, electronic viewfinders
  • Compact size still doesn’t fit into pockets

Olympus has just seen the light on price and introduced the E-PL1 at a much more reasonable US$600, with built-in flash and improved navigation. The other makers will no doubt follow suit on price as this market niche grows into a more competitive one.

Ricoh came up with a more radical concept for its new GXR compacts: interchangeable lens/sensor units. Every lens unit includes sensor, shutter, aperture, processing engine and AF & zoom motors. The body provides the screen, card slot, controls and flash.

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One advantage is that each sensor/lens combo can be optimised for its task – using a small digicam sensor, for example, to keep the size of zoom lenses small. The obvious downside is the built-in obsolescence of the lenses, since they contain sensor and processing electronics. Here, Ricoh’s GXR concept stands in sharp contrast to DSLR systems where the lenses keep their value for decades (and sometimes increase it).

DSLRs

The new compacts may be trendy chic but they’re up against strong competition. A Nikon D5000 can be had for about the same money as the Olympus E-PL1, and it’s a very capable camera with a bigger and better sensor and wider choice of lenses. Same goes for Canon’s EOS 500D and the Pentax K-x, which all offer well-priced twin-lens kits. That’s the best way to buy them unless you already own the lenses you need.

If you’re buying a DSLR for the first time, take your time choosing the brand you select because you’re committing to a proprietary system. You might start with a single or twin lens kit but you’re likely to end up with more lenses if your photo passion persists. Once you have more than a couple of kit lenses, swapping brands becomes painful.

Why would you swap brands? A few years ago, Canon was the king of this heap. Then Nikon caught up and surged ahead in certain areas. A pro shooter friend had a Canon system probably worth $25,000 with all the pro lenses. For his type of work, Nikon turned out more suitable lenses than Canon after a time, so he swapped systems. No doubt the order will change again, and Sony or Pentax might even crash the party.

The good news is that you can easily sell Canon and Nikon DSLRs and lenses on eBay. That goes for other brands too but may take more time and effort. There is a fair bit of work involved in doing this, and you won’t get all of your money back, so I repeat my advice: choose you brand carefully when you’re buying a proprietary DSLR system. Just why camera makers haven’t standardised on lens mounts and basic electronics for ‘plug-and-play’ ease is a question for another day.

Line-up of Lenses - by canonsnapper

Line-up of Lenses - by canonsnapper

There are lots of options from third party lens makers, but they too are made for particular lens ‘mounts’. Questions about image stabilisation and AF motors – in-body vs in-lens – are less important because the brand you choose determines the answers.

Canon began putting AF-motors into its lenses decades ago, Nikon only after the millennium. Canon’s full frame EF lenses can be mounted on EF-S (APS-C sensor) bodies (images will be cropped), but EF-S lenses cannot be mounted on EF bodies.

Nikon does a better job here as it’s full frame FX cameras have a DX setting for using the smaller lenses. You can use full frame lenses on DX cameras too but here you need to do more homework to understand Nikon’s schizophrenia. Older and dearer Nikon bodies still have AF-motors, but recent consumer models like the D40, D40x, D60, D3000, D5000 don’t and will only autofocus the newer AF-S lenses, which have the AF motors built-in. Virtually all Nikon lenses made in the last decade are AF-S.

APS-C or Full Frame?

If you’re pro shooter, you’ll buy a full frame camera. Full Stop. You need the bigger sensor and the fast shooting and the robust body and the superb poor light performance. Unless your work demands Hasselblad kit with a bigger sensor again and 60 megapixels and a price tag to match, that is.

If you’re an amateur but still have a set of good lenses from the 35mm days, you’ll want to buy a full-frame camera to use those lenses. At present, full frame cameras start at US$2,000 with the 24 megapixel Sony Alpha 850. Canon’s EOS 5D Mk II and Nikon’s D700 cost another $500. Pentax and Olympus don’t make full frame cameras yet and Olympus probably has no plans to do so.

If you’re an enthusiast and don’t own any lenses, and don’t plan to print your photos bigger than 3’ x 2’, there’s little point in shelling out for a full frame body. You won’t see enough difference in image quality or general performance, and the heft of the camera tends to match the price, and that goes for the lenses as well. I’ve written in more detail about the practical aspects of full frame here.

At present, the sub-$1,000 twin lens kits offered with cameras like the Canon 500D, Nikon D5000 and their Sony and Pentax equivalents (A350 and K-x) are superb value and are a huge leap forward from digicams in the areas of speed, operation, flexibility, image quality and more. The leap from here to full frame is a much smaller one.

Where are the best places to buy your camera kit?

I’ve always preferred specialist shops to the depressing sameness and vastness of the Walmarts and Bunnings of this world. Sadly, there aren’t many left – even in a city the size of Sydney, you can count them on one hand. There are camera chains like Adorama and B&H in the USA, or Teds and Paxtons here. If you live in America, count your blessings: you enjoy the lowest prices on the globe.

In Australia and New Zealand, we pay the highest. In a previous article, I recounted how I bought a lens I couldn’t get in Australia from Adorama and still ended up with a bargain despite the exorbitant shipping costs. I’m not sure if camera makers ever had control of their distribution channels, but they’ve sure lost it. If you live in ANZ, key ‘Nikon D5000, shopbot’ into your browser and you’ll see this:

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The last entry here is the first one offering Australian stock and a warranty to match, the others are ‘grey’ importers. You’re paying almost 50% extra for local stock, and Ryda’s are about the lowest prices. Chains like Camera House ask close to $1,500 for the same kit, almost twice the lowest price here. And while I know nothing of Blue Fly Mobile, I can vouch for DD Electronics and DWI (no. 2 & 4 on the list), and so can a few of my friends. They’re just as efficient as Adorama and B&H, and just as cheap.

Of course you take a risk when it comes to warranty issues but, with quality camera kit, you’d have to be unlucky. On the other hand, I’d probably buy pro lenses and expensive camera bodies from a reputable local source with local warranty and use shopbot.com to negotiate a better price. Bear in mind that, with goods exceeding $1,000, the genuine internet dealers will charge GST and customs duty for shipments to Australia which takes the edge off their big item ticket prices.

These tax and duty issues will vary from country to country, and I can’t do more here than suggest you check out the rules in your part of the world. As I said before, you’re blessed if you live in the USA where the chains offer very competitive prices along with Amazon and its competitors. And frequently you get free shipping thrown in.

To get the best price, it pays not to be in a hurry. While you do your homework, sign up for email newsletters from the most likely sources – that way you’ll know about their specials as soon as they come up. And they do, at Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, end of financial year, summer vacations and for all kinds of other reasons.

There’s always eBay, of course, where GST is not an issue and prices can be attractive but new risks rear their heads. Clearly you need to stick with sellers who have a track record, and very close to a 100% rating. Ken Rockwell has written a very useful piece on how to play the eBay game.

I can’t add anything useful to Ken’s piece except that buying in your own country keeps the freight costs down and makes it easier to deal with any problems that arise.

Further Reading on How to Choose a Camera

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Kim Brebach
Kim Brebach

is a marketing professional whose experience spans over 3 decades in the IT industry. His interests include photography, cool technology, great music, theatre and books, wine and food, tennis and chess. You can find his photo blog at Get the Picture.

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