How to Choose a Camera and Not Regret Your Purchase
The moment you decide to buy a new camera or upgrade from your existing one is an exciting time. You start imagining all the great photos you will take with the new camera and planning shots in your head. You can’t wait to see what the new camera can do. Then you come to the realization that there are so many different cameras to choose from how can you be sure you make the right choice and not regret the one you purchase? Don’t do what I did for my first camera and buy the “expensive one” that’s on sale just because it was expensive at some point. I ended up with a Nikon V1 Mirrorless camera because it was on sale for half price. All I saw was a $1000 camera on sale for $500. How could I go wrong? So while I still have, and use my V1 in certain situations, I wish I had gone a different route in the beginning. Hopefully, this article will guide you through the steps of choosing the best camera for you and help you decide what you need in a camera in order to take the type of photos you want to take.
The best camera… for you
One of the most commonly asked questions I see asked is “What is the best camera?” It’s often asked by someone looking for a new camera or looking to upgrade to a new one and they want to get the best. Of course they do, we all want the best of the best. But the best camera for me isn’t necessarily the best camera for you. Every camera has features that meet a specific need so there is no such thing as the best camera. It’s like asking “What’s the best car?” Someone might tell you the best car is a sports car because it’s the fastest, but if you do a lot of off-roading, that car is not the best for you. You might have 4 kids, so the best car isn’t a 2 seater sports car either. Cameras are the same, depending on what you want to shoot, your budget, your own personal needs for comfort, all play a part in choosing the best camera for you.
Any camera can take great images
You will often hear across the photography realm that “It’s not the camera, it’s the person using it”, followed by “It’s not the camera, it’s the lenses.” Both of those statements are absolutely true. I have seen work produced by cell phones that are better than the highest price DSLRs. The final image is dependent more on the light, the settings, and the glass than by the camera body itself. So then why are we so obsessed with bigger/better camera bodies? Because while any camera can take a great photo, different bodies make it faster, and easier to capture those images or offer other features that may benefit the photographer. An easy example would be to take a Nikon D3300 camera and a Nikon D7200 camera. Both these cameras have almost identical sensors and produce the exact same resolution and image quality. If you use the same lens and settings in the exact same situation you will get a near identical photo. Yet the D7200 is more than double the price of the D3400. That’s because the D7200 has additional features, such as more external buttons for quick control, weather sealing, a built-in focus-motor so you can use older Nikkor lenses, a faster frame rate, etc But the photos that you take will be the same. If you just want to take great photos you usually don’t need the most expensive camera, you just need the best camera for you.
Determining the best camera for you.
The first step to determining the best camera for you is to determine your wants and needs as a photographer and your priorities among those wants and needs. If you are a new photographer you may not know what those wants and needs are yet, in which case I wouldn’t recommend investing too heavily into a system until you have a clearer direction on your goals as a photographer. While you can always sell your gear and get what you need it’s easier to know ahead of time. So here are a few things to consider as you try to figure out what you need in a camera.
The first thing we all think about when it comes to any purchase is the cost. How much are we willing to spend on a camera? Price is important and it’s often the first thing we decide on before even looking at our options. For example, you might say to yourself “I want a new camera, and it has to be under $1000. So you purchase a camera for under $1000, only to realize that for $1050 you could have met more of your needs than the $1000 one. Yes, it is more expensive than the one you purchased, but if the extra investment allows you to take your photos easier, or meets your needs, it is better to invest than be frustrated while you shoot and then spend even more money later when you finally realize you made a mistake getting the cheaper one. So before you set a hard limit on cost lets figure out the other things you need first, and then figure out how much it will cost you to get those things and if you can’t afford everything with those features then figure out a way to either come up with the money to do it, or decide which features you can live without in order to reduce the cost to what you can afford.
What do you want to shoot?
Knowing where your photographic interests lie is probably the most important thing you need to ask yourself when investing in a camera. Once you determine what you would like to shoot you can then figure out what is needed for those type of shots. For example, if you want to shoot weddings and events then you don’t really need a camera that can fire off 14 frames per second. I’m going to outline a number of the key features below to help you in determining whether you may or may not need them. But for now just have some idea of what you would like to do, and it’s also ok if you want to shoot everything. As I mentioned above, any camera can shoot just about anything.
Key features to understand before deciding.
There are many features that cameras present you with that can make deciding which one to get a challenge. Some of them are quite small and specific, such as a built-in intervalometer. I could go into detail on every single feature like that but then this would be a book, not a website post. But there are a number of key features and differences that you should know before deciding on what camera to get. I want to outline some of them and give a few examples of advantages and disadvantages of each.
Sensor Size – Full frame, Crop Sensor, Micro 4/3, Medium Format.
The size of the sensor is probably the biggest factor to consider when deciding on a camera. Many people will tell you that professionals only shoot full frame or medium format. Don’t listen to them. There are plenty of people making money from each of these formats. Understanding the difference between them though is important. Sensor size is obviously the size of the sensor in the camera. The most common sizes are Full Frame (aka 35mm) and APS-C (aka DX, Crop sensor). Other sizes include the Medium Format which is larger than a full frame sensor and smaller sensors like Micro 4/3 and CX. The size of the sensor will have some impact on the overall image but it is not as important as some would have you believe.
The largest differences between the sensors are ISO performance and depth of field. A larger sensor will produce a shallower depth of field using the same settings and focal length because you can be closer to the subject than if you were using the same settings on a smaller sensor camera.It's a little complicated to explain, but if you want very thin depth of field portraits with super soft bokeh then larger sensors will create this easier than smaller sensors. Larger sensors, of the same generation, will also generally perform better in low light or high ISO settings. Meaning you can shoot at Higher ISOs without as much grain in your images with a larger sensor.
But that’s doesn’t mean larger sensors are better than smaller sensors. Smaller sensors are often cheaper than their larger sensor counterparts. Full frame sensor cameras are cheaper than medium format, and APS-C cameras are cheaper than full frame. Smaller sensors also give you an added crop factor, meaning you get more focal length or zoom/reach from using the same lens. This can be very advantageous for wildlife and sports photography where you can photograph subjects that are much further away.
There are some great articles already on Improve Photography that go into the difference between crop sensor and full frame that you may want to check out. Here are some links.
Body Type – DSLR vs Mirrorless vs Compact Cameras
After sensor size then hottest topic today is Mirrorless vs DSLR cameras. There was a time when to be a professional photographer you had to shoot with a DSLR. But now Mirrorless cameras are growing in popularity among professionals and enthusiasts for a number of reasons. They are generally lighter, shoot at a higher frame rate, give a live representation of the image in the electronic viewfinder as you change the settings. But they also come with some drawbacks such as battery life and a limited lens selection. Jim Harmer has written a great article on choosing mirrorless that may be of interest to you here https://improvephotography.com/44636/mirrorless-vs-dslr/
In addition to Mirrorless vs DSLR there are also many digital compact cameras aka point and shoot or bridge cameras available. The advantage of these is you don’t have to worry about changing lenses; they often have a wide zoom range and are usually cheaper. You can even get these types of cameras with APS-C and full frame sensors in them. But without the ability to change lenses you also have less variety in the type of photos you can take. But for many people, a single compact camera may be the best for them.
Nikon, Canon, Sony, Fuji, and others are all competing for your investment. Each brand as certain features and benefits over the others and some are showing more innovation and adding new features. Rather than go into all the fine details between brands Jim Harmer has already done this for me. Here is the link to his recent article on the difference between camera brands and his ranking of them https://improvephotography.com/48617/best-camera-brands/
When you are taking photos in a low-light environment, or even indoors, you often have to increase the ISO to get a proper exposure. Shooting at Higher ISO means you increase the amount of Noise in your images. Different cameras and sensors give varying amounts of noise, generally, newer sensors of the same size outperform their older counterparts, and often larger sensors outperform smaller ones in this area. This isn’t the exact case for all sensors and there are exceptions, especially when you compare newer dx sensors to older full frame ones. But there are plenty of resources online such as https://www.dxomark.com/ that compares sensor performance and DP Review’s image comparison tool that lets you compare most cameras at various ISOs so you can see the difference and decide for yourself. https://www.dpreview.com/reviews/image-comparison/
The next major selling feature for cameras is the frame rate or burst rate. This is how many photos a camera can take in a second. Frame rates for modern cameras vary from 3 frames per second to 60 or more per second. Even though 3 frames per second might seem like a lot, if you are shooting portraits or events it probably is, but for a wildlife photographer trying to capture a birds wings in the right position, or a baseball photographer who wants a photo of the bat connecting with a ball, 3 frames per second will make getting those shots very difficult. Of course, cameras with faster frame rates tend to be more expensive so the frame rate is often an area when many photographers compromise and get a camera with a mid-range frame rate of 7-10 frames per second because that meets most of their needs without having to spend more money.
Dynamic range means the cameras ability to capture a range of tones from bright to darks without losing detail. Think of a bright sky and dark shadows in a landscape photo for example. Different cameras have different abilities to capture the wide range of tones in a scene without losing the details in the highlights and shadows. Dynamic range also tends to decrease as you increase the cameras ISO. So choosing a camera that can capture a wide dynamic range, at higher ISo's could be important. Of course, there are ways around the dynamic range limitations of cameras for some situations such as taking multiple exposures and different levels of brightness and combining them in post-processing or using graduated filters to keep the sky from becoming overexposed while getting a proper exposure of the foreground. But this may not work in all circumstances. So a camera with the ability to capture a higher dynamic range may be more beneficial to you.
Megapixels the ultimate measure of a camera. The more the merrier. Higher megapixels mean a better camera. Or at least that’s what they would have us believe. For years we have been told that the more megapixels your camera has the better it is. But this is not always the case. Yes, higher megapixels will create a sharper image and are great for landscapes. But generally, the higher megapixel cameras also have much larger file sizes, which means the frame rate generally has to be slower and the buffer may fill faster. It also means there may be limitations on the ISO performance, as historically higher megapixel cameras produce more noise at high ISO. This is one reason why Nikon’s flagship D5 is only a 20MP camera. They wanted to offer the 14 frames per second with a large buffer and improved ISO performance. So depending on the type of photography that interests you, megapixels may not be a high priority. For wildlife and sports, having the high frame rate may win out over megapixels, but for landscapes and portraits, the megapixels may have priority over speed.
The final major thing to consider when choosing a new camera is the level of external control you want. Most cheaper cameras only offer a limited amount of buttons to control the camera settings externally and quickly. Whereas the higher end enthusiast and professional bodies will have much more control at their disposal. This means they can change the ISO, shutter speed, aperture, white balance, frame rate, shooting mode, metering mode, exposure compensation, image quality and more without having to go into the menu of the camera. Having easy access to all of those controls means you can quickly make changes and adjustments to your image without having to slow down.
There are also a large number of additional features you may want to consider when deciding on your next camera. Some of those are:
Number of focus points: Many higher-end camera bodies have more focus points that you can move around in the viewfinder so that you can tell the camera specifically were to focus. This would be important for different types of photography, including wildlife and sports, but is also beneficial in portrait work where you can focus on the eye easier. There is an option of focus and recompose you can use if your camera doesn’t have the number of points you need though. See here for info on how to focus and recompose https://improvephotography.com/216/photography-focus-recompose-compose-portrait/
Video: Not all cameras shoot video, and different cameras shoot different quality video. Some shoot 4K, others 1080p and lower quality. There are also some limits on how long you can record for. If video is important to you then be sure to consider this feature as well.
Weather sealing: Most entry level cameras have little to no resistance to rain or dust. If you plan to shoot outdoors, on a beach or desert where the elements may factor in then you may want to look for a camera with weather sealing.
Buffer size: This is how many photos you can shoot in burst mode before the camera slows down while it writes the image data to the memory card. Some cameras will slow down after only a few images others will allow you shoot many more. Depending on your style you may want a camera with a large buffer. This is particularly useful for sports, action, or wildlife.
Number of Card Slots: Most cameras have either one or two card slots. For many people, one slot is more than enough. But memory cards have been known to fail on occasion. And if you are doing paid work and don't want to risk losing all your images to a failed card, then having two slots and making the camera record to both is a good risk management strategy.
Ability to shoot in Raw or JPG only: most digital compact cameras only have the ability to shoot in jpg while almost all DSLR and Mirrorless cameras allow you to save and edit the raw file. If you want full control over the editing process with all the available data then you want a camera that can shoot in raw. If you only want to be able to copy your photos from your camera without worrying about editing then you don’t need one that shoots Raw and JPG only will be fine.
Weight: Cameras and lenses can get quite heavy, if you plan to spend long days carrying your camera then weight might be a factor to keep in mind when trying to decide.
Auto modes/Scene Modes: If you are still learning, or want to have access to auto modes such as landscape/sport/portrait modes on your camera then be aware than many higher end professional cameras do not have these modes.
On camera flash: Not every camera has a built-in flash. Higher end camera bodies generally do not have a flash built in. So if you want a flash you would either have to get an external one or a camera with one built in. Personally, I rarely use my camera's flash and prefer to use off-camera flash https://improvephotography.com/5862/understand-how-to-use-off-camera-flash-in-10-minutes-or-less/
Built-in focus-motor: Some entry-level DSLRs do not have a built-in focus motor, which means that some older autofocus lenses will not be able to autofocus on that camera. Some people keep this in mind because older lenses can be more affordable on the used market, so they want a camera that will allow them to use those lenses. If you plan to purchase older used lenses to save some money, you may want to invest in a camera with a focus-motor built in.
Hopefully, now you have some understanding of many of the major features available on most camera systems. Now you have to ask yourself which features are most important for you as a photographer, which ones are you willing to pay for and which ones can you do without or make other compromises on.
For example, If you are a new photographer, and still want access to the auto and scene modes while you learn how to take more control over your photos then an entry-level APS-C camera might be the way to start. If you want to shoot wildlife or sports then a camera with a high framerate, lots of autofocus points, a large buffer and good high ISO performance is key. If you want to shoot weddings or family photos, then you don’t need speed and a smaller, lighter body, with good ISO performance and resolution would probably be a better choice for you.
After you have some idea on the features you want in a camera it’s time to start looking for a camera with those features. You could ask in an online forum for recommendations on a camera, but if you do please indicate what you want to shoot and your budget range to help people narrow down the recommended options. You will still likely get a list of every available camera on the market though, so keep that in mind.
Test a few: Once you know the type of camera you want, and have a few options in mind, I suggest going to a local camera store and trying a few out, hold the camera in your hand, see how it feels. Is it too heavy, is it awkward to hold, can you access the buttons easily while holding the camera. If possible even take a few test images on your own memory card so you can see how they look on your computer.
Before you buy
Before finally pulling the trigger on buying a new camera there are a few additional things you may want to consider.
Lenses: Lenses can be expensive and not every brand of camera has appropriate lenses for every type of photography. Sony for example (in 2017) doesn’t have a long telephoto lens for sports and wildlife. Lenses for full frame cameras are more expensive than lenses for APS-C cameras. So if you don’t want to make a large investment at this time then choosing an APS-C or smaller sensor camera may be the best direction to go instead of jumping into a full frame camera right away.
Used or New: I’m a strong advocate for if you can get something used then why pay full price for it. Buying used camera gear is a great way to get bodies and lenses for a reduced price, but you also give up any warranty. So if that is a concern then used gear may not be for you. My rule of thumb is if the camera or lens is a stepping stone, as in I will likely upgrade to something better when I can, then I will buy used, and then resell when I am ready to upgrade. But if it's something I want to keep or a large investment that I want a warranty with I buy new. If you think used is an option for you then check out our article on buying used gear. https://improvephotography.com/47970/buy-used-camera-gear-confidence/
We also recently launched a camera gear buy/sell page so check out some gear here too. https://improvephotography.com/BuySell/
Before you upgrade.
As I noted above, you can take great photos with any camera. There seems to be a culture in the photography world that you have to have a full frame camera, or the newest camera to take the best photos. New photographers want to upgrade to full frame, or even a “better” APS-C- body all the time. Whenever a new camera is released everyone wants to upgrade because newer is always better. For some photographers that may be the case, they may have hit the limits on what they can do with their current body. But for most photographers, you will get a better improvement in your photos by upgrading your lenses before you upgrade your camera. So I would encourage anyone thinking about upgrading their camera to have good lenses first. And if you need help choosing a lens, then here is a great article to help you there. https://improvephotography.com/48777/choose-next-lens/
Choosing your new camera can be quite exciting, but if you spend your money on a camera that doesn’t meet your needs you may end up regretting your decision and then have to go through the added time and expense of selling the one you bought and getting the one you should have bought the first time. At the same, time there is no real need to waste money for features you will never use. So finding the right balance between necessary features and ones you don’t need that fit within your budget is the ultimate goal of choosing a new camera. Therefore, it is important to know what you are getting in a camera and how those features will improve your photography, or how they make your life easier while you capture your images. Hopefully after reading, this you can make a well informed decision on your next camera. But if you have any other questions on choosing your next camera then please leave a comment below or post your question on our Improve Photography Facebook Group.