One of the questions I am asked the most is, “What camera do you recommend?” or “How should I go about picking out a camera?” First of all, there is no perfect camera… at any price point. When you let that sink in, you realize that it’s more about what negatives are you okay living with and the reason behind wanting a camera in the first place.
So, I decided to write this post in two parts. The first is a camera buying guide with more timeless factors to consider when picking out a camera. This part will help you to sort out your priorities and make decisions on what to look for in your new camera. The second part will categorize the cameras I recommend into different groups based on manufacturer (in case you’re already committed to a particular camera system) and feature set (like a priority on video).
One of the first considerations is budget. This will help to limit the number of available options and help you to make a responsible selection. I highly recommend setting a hard limit for yourself before starting the research process, because you can easily slide upward beyond your financial ability by justifying small increases in price. So, pick a hard upper limit that represents what you are willing to spend… then adamantly stick to it. Also, don’t forget to set aside some money for a memory card (most cameras don’t come with one), an extra battery (always carry a spare), and a good bag.
Every camera has strengths and weaknesses, and it is this unique combination that makes each camera ideal for different kinds of photography. Decide what you primarily want to capture and how—landscapes, portraits, events, products, or video etc.
Landscapes require higher resolution sensors and image quality overall, but good low light performance isn’t really necessary. For portraiture, skin tone reproduction is deceptively hard but very important to the color in the final image—ensuring that your subject doesn’t come out green-ish or purple-ish. Event photography typically requires excellent and noise-free low light performance and perhaps even good video features. Video is a category all of its own and has a number of factors important to making your still camera a useful video capture device, like clean HDMI output, 4K and high frame rate options, and the ability to capture video in raw format or with a gamma log option.
I often tell my students that the only useful camera is the one that you carry with you. Having a professional camera isn’t helpful if you are always leaving it at home because of its large size. Try to get a feel for the size of camera you are comfortable carrying with you on a regular basis. Personally, I have a larger full-sized DSLR for my professional sessions and serious work and a mirrorless camera that I like carrying with me on vacations, etc. Everyone has a different preference here, and some people with back problems may not want a larger and significantly heavier camera system (don’t forget to think about the size and weight of the lenses too).
Another important quality of any camera is its extensibility—how much you can customize and add onto it. Every camera is a part of what is termed a “system.” The camera’s system would consist of any lenses, flashes, grips, batteries, filters, etc. that are available for that camera. All cameras within a particular system typically share the same lens mount, making lenses interchangeable from one camera to another. This also makes your investment in your gear more worth while, as you can upgrade your camera without needing to buy new lenses or flashes and visa versa.
Thinking about the system that the camera is a part of is often more important than considering the camera’s individual specs, because you are essentially buying into that system. Cameras may come and go as technology moves forward, but the system of lenses and accessories you will start collecting make switching systems more difficult as your hobby/art progresses.
This is so important that I would recommend looking at camera manufacturers, what kinds of markets they cater to and the kinds of products they produce, and only afterwards select the camera you will buy. Selecting your camera isn’t as important as choosing the system it’s a part of.
Image quality is at the heart of the photographic process. There’s a lot that can be said here (far more than could fit in a blog post), so I will try to summarize some of the high points.
Most people think that the camera’s quality is directly related to its megapixel count, although this is absolutely wrong. Image quality is typically related to the physical size of the sensor, so the larger the sensor, the better the resulting image quality. This is why full-frame cameras are the tool of choice by most professionals.
It used to be that utilizing a full-frame sensor meant carrying around a very large DSLR. Gladly this is no longer the case! Camera makers like Sony have released full-frame (or even larger in Fujifilm’s case) mirrorless cameras that combine very large sensors in very small cameras, giving photographers a camera body with high image quality, low weight, and great portability.
Another aspect of image quality is low light performance. Every imaging sensor will perform differently when the sensor is gained up (increasing the ISO), so I recommend taking a look at some example RAW files taken in low light with high ISOs and playing with the files in Lightroom before purchasing a new camera.
The Canon 5D Mark II started a revolution among the filmmaking community because it offered high-quality video with a full-frame sensor. This gave its footage an extremely good cinematic look with narrow depth of field that could only previously be achieved with very high-end cinema cameras. Now this Hollywood-grade cinematic filmmaking potential is available on nearly all DSLRs! However, some are set apart as superior through several factors.
Resolution is the biggest issue with video. If you need 4K resolution, your options are more limited. With 4K, keep in mind that with that extra quality and size comes increased storage requirements (4K video rapidly fills up everything!) and processing speed on the computer you will use for your post-production work. 4K isn’t just about capture, it’s about the entire production and post-production pipeline and infrastructure.
A well-built camera should be more than capable of taking a beating as you use it to capture images in a variety of adverse conditions. The problem is that not all cameras are built as equally well. Some cameras only offer plastic housings or even plastic lens mounts. Plastic is very soft and doesn’t hold up well to long-term use. The material to look for in a camera body is a magnesium-alloy frame or housing. This will add a lot of support to the high-stress areas of the camera’s build (like the lens mount, hot shoe, and tripod socket) and decrease the flex and creakiness of the camera. I wouldn’t even consider a camera with a plastic lens mount; those should be banned.
Hopefully, you enjoyed this first post and perhaps even learned about some things to consider when shopping for a good camera. Feel free to reach out to contact me if you have any questions or would like some more specific help.
I will be following this post up with another that gives specific camera recommendations broken down by category, so stay tuned!