Which camera should I buy?

Which camera should I buy?

As you may know, we get around. Displaying my photographs and being helpful, you get to talk to a lot of people. We often talk to people who are thinking of upgrading their camera to a ‘better’ one. They could be upgrading from their smartphone or from their entry level camera to something with more features. It’s not unusual for people to ask me what they should do.

There are two important things to remember when you’re looking for a new camera.

1. You cannot buy a bad camera these days.

2. There is no, one perfect camera for anyone.

3. Someone will tell you that you should have bought a <<insert camera make, model, or type here>>.

The first thing we’ll look at is the main types of digital cameras. We are talking digital here.

Types of digital cameras

There are five categories of camera. Each has its pros and cons of course. Let’s look more at each type.

The smartphone camera

Most people have a smartphone. Most of those people take photos with their smartphone and there are some great reasons why you could continue to use your smartphone.

Smartphone cameras have seen significant gains over the last few years. Combined with advancing technology in terms of low-light performance, camera apps, and post-processing apps, your phone is a pretty powerful little device.

Pros

It’s always with you. Well, most of the time anyway.

The image quality good enough for what most people need such as sharing on social media or making smaller prints.

With the right settings, apps etc., you can easily and instantly backup you photos.

They makes it an excellent learning tool for developing a photographer’s eye.

A variety of accessories are available to improve the lens limitations.

Cons

Fixed focal length - there is no ‘proper’ zoom in/out except by using your feet. There is digital zoom where the camera magnifies part of the frame, but the quality becomes very poor when you do this.

They are always wide-angle, so that they can capture a wide scene. This might be OK for capturing architecture, landscapes, but makes decent portrait photography almost impossible

Image quality is overall poor

Focusing speed is slow.

Ergonomics are also poor

Point-and-shoot cameras

Also known as a compact camera, either name speaks for itself. They’re very easy to use, you just point your camera at the subject and press the button and they’re nice and small.

These cameras were very popular a few years ago. With the advancement of technology in smartphones, popularity is decreasing but they are a great option for anyone who doesn’t want to or can’t use the camera in a smartphone.

Smaller cameras are easy to carry around. Here a point and shoot is being used to take a photo.
A point and shoot camera is small and light.

Pros

They are small and light

Most point-and-shoot cameras are quite affordable

Standalone camera means more battery life - so if your phone goes out, you can still take pictures.

They have ‘proper’ optical zoom meaning the lens adjust to bring the image closer.

Possibly the best option if you want a truly waterproof camera without having to buy accessories.

Cons

Outpaced by development in smartphone technology.

Image quality is not really exciting. It is still good for the happy snapper who only wants digital files.

Autofocus speed is quite slow.

You cannot achieve some artistic effects, like background blurring due to the physics behind the lens.

No interchangeable lenses

Is a point-and-shoot camera the right choice for me?

This camera is for you if you want a few more camera controls and an improved ability to zoom.

Bridge cameras

Bridge cameras offer similar controls to mirrorless or DSLR camera. The ability to easily change aperture, shutter speed, and ISO gives you more creative control over how your images will look.

What’s more, they often have excellent zoom lenses that give you incredible focal range (even up to 80x), even if the image quality isn’t that great. That’s because many bridge cameras utilize the same 1/2.3-inch sensor that many basic compact cameras have.

Bridge cameras even look a lot like DSLRs because they have a bigger body, a good grip, and similar buttons and dials as you’ll find on a DSLR camera body.

Bridge cameras are being overtaken by smartphones. A Nikon bridge camera sits on a table.
A Nikon bridge camera (photo by Phani Chandra)

Pros

DSLR-like controls for a cheaper price.

Smaller size and lighter weight than a DSLR (with some exceptions)

Large optical zoom range

Good compromise between easy operation and manual setting options

Ergonomics tend to be better.

Cons

Many bridge cameras have tiny sensors that degrade image quality.

No interchangeable lenses

Lower image quality compared to DSLRs and mirrorless system cameras in some situations such as low light.

Not much cheaper than a mirrorless system camera

Is a bridge camera the right choice for me?

This camera is for you if: You want DSLR type controls without the DSLR budget. It’s a good choice for beginners who aren’t ready to invest in a DSLR or mirrorless system.

Mirrorless cameras

The name “mirrorless” comes from the fact that these cameras don’t have the mirror found in a DSLR, and likewise also don’t have an optical viewfinder. Instead, mirrorless cameras are always in live view mode, whether you’re looking at the LCD screen or through an electronic viewfinder (EVF).

There are different formats of mirrorless camera just like there are different format of DSLR camera. I’ve lumped them here as we’re talking more about mirrorless in general that specifics.

Mirrorless cameras are available in two formats or sensor sizes. There are full frame mirrorless which offer many of the advantages and disadvantages of DSLR cameras and there are full-frame mirrorless which have similar advantages and disadvantages to bridge format cameras.

A Sony mirrorless is a great choice for a camera these days. Here a man takes a photo with one.
Sony mirrorless (photo by Kaique Rocha)

Pros

Good to excellent image quality

Interchangeable lenses

Ability to shoot with manual settings and external flashes

Better autofocus system

Good alternative to DSLR for the enthusiast or professional.

Cons

Their ergonomics of micro four thirds format cameras may be limiting factor for prolonged use.

Limited selection of lens choices although this does depend on the make and model and is changing all the time.

Higher battery consumption due to electronic viewfinder

If you’re taking photographs and they're in RAW format images, the files sizes can be quite large.

Unless you’re taking JPG format images, the files sizes can be quite large.

Is a mirrorless camera the right choice for me?

If you just want to point and shoot with your camera and you’re fine sticking to the automatic mode, then there’s no need to buy anything other than a micro four thirds format mirrorless camera.

If you’re interested in becoming an enthusiast and want the ability to create higher end photographs, then a full-frame mirrorless system camera is a great choice.

Digital single-lens reflex cameras (DSLR)

DSLR cameras have long been the choice of many professional and semi-professional photographers because of two main reasons: interchangeable lenses and big image sensors. Over the last few years, this has significantly changed due to the availability of better mirrorless systems.

As with mirrorless cameras, DSLRs can have one of two categories of sensor size. Cropped or APS-C sensor or full-frame sensor.

A Nikon DSLR is an option when choosing a camera.
Nikon DSLR (photo by jeshoots.com)

Pros

Excellent battery life.

Mid-range and top DSLRs are built to survive in rough environments, such as rain, snow, cold, dust and heat

Better ergonomics including the menu systems

The autofocus speed is quite fast but does depend on the quality of lens

The choice of lenses you can get is enormous

Cons

The size and weight of a DSLR set may be a burden if you have other things to do except taking photos

Most people use Auto mode because the range of settings can be daunting.

Unless you’re taking JPG format files, you need additional software to create usable photos.

Unless you’re taking JPG format images, the files sizes can be quite large.

Is a DSLR camera the right choice for me?

A DSLR is a good choice if you want to take your photography to a higher level. Particularly for the range of lens’ available. Look carefully at the other options though. A full-frame mirrorless is worth considering.

The biggest downside for most people is the bulk of a DSLR. Compared to mirrorless cameras, DSLRs are bigger and heavier (although, depending on the lens used, mirrorless cameras can get up there in weight, too).

Beyond the marketing

When you’re reading reviews, talking to shop staff, or getting advice from friends, you be told smaller is better or bigger is better. What’s not talked about is why. In section we’ll break down some of this.

Sensor size

Sensor size IS THE ONE AND ONLY defining factor in image quality especially in low light situations. In this section, we’re talking about the physical size of the sensor. Not the megapixel size.

Of the types of cameras we’ve talked about, the following graphic shows you the relationship of each sensor.

When choosing a camera, sensor size can affect the image quality. This diagram shows relative sensor sizes for the cameras we talk about.
Sensor sizes for five camera types.

Remember, small sensor, lower image quality, smaller print size, more noise in low light situations, relatively cheaper.

Larger the sensor, better image quality, larger print sizes, less noise in low light situations, more expensive.

That means if you’re ready to jump into photography as more than a hobby and will be selling images or prints, a full frame or APS-C camera might be the way to go.

Megapixels

When you’re reading reviews or looking at cameras in store, one thing that will be pushed in front of you is the number of megapixels a camera has. The more, the better. That’s actually sales bullshit. You should only consider a high megapixel count if you’re planning to print your photos big. Like, big big. Even then, you can use a technique to capture the scene in multiple photos and stitch them together to make large prints.

6 megapixels are more than enough for the average amateur photographer. You can print a 6 megapixel photo on A4 paper and it will be acceptable. Anyway, how many people actually print their photos?

Another thing to think about is the more megapixels, the larger the files and therefore you will need more storage space.

Handling the camera

This is an understated element of cameras. If at all possible, try before you buy. Make sure a camera fits comfortably in your hand and that it’s not so heavy that you won’t want to carry it around with you. The camera you buy should offer quick accessibility to the most commonly used functions, and menus should be simply structured, logical, and easy to learn.

Touchscreen models can allow for a familiar user experience, but at the same time can be frustrating if the controls and menus are poorly organized or the screen can’t be calibrated to your touch.

Afterword

Don’t get caught up in the Canon vs. Nikon vs. Sony vs. Anything else debate. Remember rule no 1? You cannot buy a bad camera these days.

And also remember rule no. 2.

When someone recommends a camera for you, ask them why they think it will be good for you.

Take the advice given here as simply that. Advice. My opinion.

Lastly, I hope this article has been helpful. I would be very interested in hearing about your favourite camera and why. Leave a comment below.

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