“The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it!” ~Ansel Adams
Yes, Ansel Adams was right. It doesn’t matter what kind of camera you own. It’s all about the photographer. You’ve heard it time and time again: the best camera is the one you have with you. And I’m about to prove that.
By far the most frequent question I am asked as the photography department coordinator at Sawtooth is, “What kind of camera should I buy?” I hate that question. I really do. I have no clue what kind of camera will suit your needs or anybody else’s. It’s all a matter of personal taste, really. And even the most expensive camera might not meet your needs. So that’s the focus (no pun intended) of this blog: what are your photographic needs.
First I will start with a comparison of images. One is shot with an iPhone, one with a small mirrorless camera, and one with an expensive DSLR camera. All were set on Program mode and no edits were made in Photoshop except cropping. Click on the image below and see if you can guess which camera produced what image:
Tricky, eh? The truth of the matter is that you can pay $6000 or $600 and your images will be about the same. It’s what you do with your camera that counts. It’s what you know about light, shadows, composition, motion, depth of field, etc. that counts, not what you use to get the image. And this isn’t a new phenomenon brought about by the digital age. It’s always been that way. It’s always been more about creativity and knowledge of light and composition, not what you use to take the picture.
But that doesn’t answer your question, does it? What camera should I buy? Let’s go back to what your needs are and take it from there.
Here are my top 10 tips for choosing a camera based on your needs:
1. Megapixels. Most people think that the more megapixels you have, the better your camera. Not true. For 10 years, I shot weddings professionally. During that entire time, I first used film cameras, then switched to a 6 megapixel Fuji S2 Pro which you can now pick up for about $150. The digital age was new, and 6 megapixels was as high as you could go. Were my photos good enough with such a low pixel camera? Yes, they were beautiful. I could even blow up images to 16 x 20, though that was pushing it a bit. But with some creative editing, 6 megapixels was plenty. I now have a Nikon D800 that shoots 36 megapixels and I rarely use all 36, but usually shoot around 20 megapixels and sometimes 9 megapixels. What good are megapixels then? Megapixels are only truly useful when you are enlarging your images or cropping them. The smaller your megapixels, the smaller the print size. This being said, most cameras on the market today have plenty of megapixels to fit your needs. My very first digital camera–way back when–was only 1 megapixel. ONE! From that camera, I was able to print beautiful 5 x 7 prints. Most people only need about 3-4 megapixels max. 3 MP gets you a good 5 x 7 print. 5 MP gets you a good 8 x 10 print. 6 MP gets you a good 11 x 14 print. 8+ MP gets you a good 16 x 20 print. So as you can see, most consumers don’t need a 36 MP or even a 12 MP camera. Most people don’t even print their photos anyway, so needn’t be too concerned with megapixels.
If, however, you like to crop your images, megapixels DO matter. If you like to shoot full-frame, then crop your images, the more megapixels you have, the better off you’ll be as more detail will be retained when you crop. But again, there’s really no need to worry unless you are a professional. Most cameras on the market today have plenty of megapixels for most peoples’ needs.
2. Sensor size. A camera’s sensor is roughly equivalent to the film we used to use, as it determines how much light we use to create a photo. A larger sensor gains more information than a smaller one, so typically a camera with a larger sensor has lower noise (grain) and better low-light sensitivity. So cameras with larger sensors are better in lower light situations than cameras with smaller ones. This is particularly helpful if you are a wedding photographer who shoots receptions or wedding services in low light without a flash. That’s why it is usually recommended for wedding photographers to use DSLR cameras. They typically have larger sensors and are faster, which leads me to my next topic, speed.
3. Speed. Are your subjects typically still, like flowers? Or are your subjects moving around at top speed, like race cars or toddlers? (yes, I compared toddlers to race cars!) If you typically shoot fast-moving subjects, you’ll want a camera that can handle that. If your child is a soccer player, for example, you are going to want a camera that can capture all of that action without frustrating you. So you’ll need to take a look at how many FPS (frames per second) your camera is capable of. Most cameras on the market have a continuous shooting mode, which allows you to take bursts of shots at 3 frames-per-second or higher. If you shoot fast-moving objects on a regular basis, then pay close attention to this. If you shoot mostly flowers or posed family shots, then there’s no immediate need to worry about how fast your camera is.
4. Weight and Ease of Transportation. One of the reasons that I am no longer a wedding photographer is that my back can no longer handle carrying around all of my heavy equipment for 8+ hours. My Nikon camera is heavy. Add a long lens and several lenses in my bag and I have a camera that can really do some damage to my shoulder or back. This past autumn I participated in one of our photography expeditions here at Sawtooth. I thought I was packing light, with my Nikon D800 and two lenses, but by the end of the day and 7 miles later, my back was killing me. The truth of the matter is that some DSLRs are heavy. And if that is a factor, it is something to definitely consider when buying a camera. Hold the camera before you buy it and think about how that camera would feel on your shoulder several hours later.
Also, consider portability when purchasing a camera. Do you travel a lot? Then perhaps a smaller camera would be better for you. On my first trip to England, I took my DSLR camera and two lenses. On my subsequent 6 trips overseas, I took my Canon G9 point-and-shoot and was a much happier camper and had images that were equally as beautiful as the ones I took with my DSLR. Mirrorless cameras are of really good quality now and are much smaller and lighter than DSLR cameras, so for travelers, they are a great choice. Plus, they are easy to carry on planes. Here is a photo from one of my England trips, taken with a simple, inexpensive point-and-shoot camera:
5. Depth of Field. Depth of field refers to the area of focus of your photograph and is controlled by your camera’s aperture. If you want to take some stellar macro shots and have most of your photo blurred with only the subject in focus, then you’ll have to invest in a good macro lens for your DSLR. See the comparison below. The first shot is taken with my Hasselblad Lunar mirrorless camera using its macro mode. The second is taken with my Nikon D800 and a 105 macro lens. The difference is quite evident:
Macro modes on point-and-shoots or mirrorless cameras can get you close, but not as close as a true dedicated macro lens. So if your primary goal is to take macro shots or to have complete control over your aperture, then I would go with a DSLR camera and a good macro lens capable of shooting with an aperture of at least 2.0. Remember, you don’t need a super expensive DSLR to do this; however, you might need a super expensive lens. Which brings me around to lens choice…
6. Lenses. Much more important than what kind of camera you have is what kind of lens you have or want to have. Let’s look at a small camera, a mirrorless Fuji X-T1. The camera body itself is around $1300 and the 60 mm f2.4 lens is another $650. My Nikon D800 body is now around $1800, but the 105mm lens I use for my macro photography is another $750. Good lenses are not always cheap, but are well-worth the price. So if good lenses are your passion, then make sure you get a camera body that has a lot of lens options with it. You may like to shoot wildlife, which means you will need a good zoom lens. Or you may prefer to shoot macro shots of flowers, thus needing a good macro/micro lens. It doesn’t have to be a DSLR. Mirrorless cameras also have lens options. But before you buy, make sure it has the lens available that suits your needs. One thing I will say about Nikon DSLR cameras is that they will accept older Nikon lenses. So you can purchase a Nikon D90 used, for example, and an older Nikon 60mm f/2.0 micro lens used for a total of $575 for both and have a crackin’ camera and lens to take macro photos with. You’ll be amazed at the results, trust me. So it’s not necessary to spend a lot of money once you know exactly what you’re looking for.
7. The Big Canon vs Nikon Debate. I respond to this debate with a resounding…whatever! They are equally good in my book. I went with Nikon because I had Nikon film cameras and Nikon is great about keeping their lens mounts the same (Canon, not so much). So all of the expensive lenses that I used with my film cameras I can still use with my Nikon digital cameras. End of story. Buy what you like, not what someone tells you to buy.
8. New vs Used. When I was a wedding professional, I bought all of my equipment used from either eBay or KEH.com. I prefer KEH because of the guarantee, but I never had a problem with either. I don’t believe you have to get something brand new for it to work well. Just be careful where you buy it. You can also rent equipment to try it out to see if you like it from places like www.borrowlenses.com or Biggs Camera in Charlotte, http://biggscamera.com/rental.html
9. Smart Phones. Smart phones have virtually eliminated the need for point-and-shoot cameras given their high resolution and improved shooting capabilities. I have to admit I was skeptical in the beginning. I never thought I would hear myself say, “You know, I actually like using my iPhone to take pictures!” But the truth is, I do like using my iPhone to shoot with. I always have it with me (remember, the best camera…) and it takes lovely photos. PLUS, there are some amazing photo apps out there that are fun to use and produce wonderful results. In fact, I recently picked up a copy of Black & White Magazine (not to be confused with Black + White Magazine) and the portfolio that I chose as my favorite was taken with an iPhone and the Hipstamatic app (which I love). The other portfolios were taken with either film cameras or expensive digital cameras, but the photos that I thought had the most beautiful and genuine mood were taken with an iPhone. Go figure. There is no shame in being a smart phone photographer. It still takes skill to compose and light an image, regardless of what you use.
10. Know the Basics of Photography! I should have put this at #1 because it is the most important thing to remember when choosing a camera. As I’ve said, it’s not so much the equipment that’s important, but what you do with it. So whether you are shooting with a plastic camera, a box with a hole in it, an iPhone, an expensive digital camera, or an 8 x 10 film camera, if you don’t have a good working knowledge of photography, then it doesn’t matter. Knowing how to manipulate light and compose an image are the keys to any successful photograph, regardless of what is used to take the photo.
If you don’t know what camera to buy, then start out small and work your way up. Consider renting equipment or buying used equipment. Don’t start out with something that has too many bells & whistles on it or it will frustrate you and make you give up on photography too soon. When I was 12 years old, my first camera was a Polaroid 600. It was the perfect first camera, as all I had to do was to look through the viewfinder, push a button, and my feedback was immediate. I never got frustrated and it fueled my desire to learn more about photography. As I got better, I got better cameras. If you don’t feel the need to start out with something fancy, then you’re much more likely to continue shooting. I’ve seen many frustrated folks in our Digital I classes who started with complicated cameras and wanted to give up because they couldn’t figure out how to use them. Photography should be fun, an extension of your thoughts and emotions. It shouldn’t be rocket science.
For more reading on the subject of what makes a good photo regardless of the camera you have, check out Ken Rockwell’s blog: http://www.kenrockwell.com/tech/notcamera.htm
Hope this was helpful! OH…and the images in the beginning of this blog? The one on the left was shot with a DSLR, the middle one an iPhone, and the one on the right a mirrorless camera.
Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for your camera!