This is a question that I get asked frequently…
Opinions, opinions, opinions. If you ask this question online, you will get a lot of different responses. Photographers are very loyal to ‘their’ camera brand and will often recommend what they are familiar with over the other manufacturers. A classic case is Canon vs Nikon. Nobody wants to hear that the camera that they have just bought is not as good as someone else’s, that is why they want you to join their camp.
Why should I listen to you then Ben?
Well, I too am slightly biased towards the brands that I own, but luckily for you I have too many cameras and I have tried out a fair few over the years. But I am going to steer clear of making this piece all about brands and model numbers and cover the important specs and features that you should be looking for, rather than coming across like an advert for Jessops.
Important questions you need to ask yourself…
What type of photographs are you looking to take? Is it a specific type of photography or a broad range of genres & activities? Do you already have a camera, but it is a few years old and you feel like an upgrade? Do you only want to post images to social media or is it important to have prints and memories offline? If you have a camera in mind, have you ever held it? There is no substitute for actually holding the camera and trying it out in a shop. A bit like mobile phones, they got smaller and smaller to the point that you could no longer use the buttons and that is when people started asking for phones to be bigger. This is where we are with camera technology at the moment. Cameras have become small enough to hang around your neck comfortably or fit inside a large pocket. Only you can decide whether a small camera body like this is right for you.
Cameras vs phones
For most people, the camera built into your phone will do the job. The saying goes, “the best camera is the one that you have with you,” and people aren’t often without their phones. It is connected to the internet and it has apps on it to edit the photos on the go; ready to share on social media. Of course you can also take selfies, something that is only becoming common place in cameras now, via a flipping out screen to the side or above the lens. When people ask me which camera they should buy I ask them what they intend on shooting and what their budget is, as well as what features their phone is lacking. Most of the time they have seen awesome images online and think that they way to take incredible photos is to buy a 'bigger ‘more professional-looking’ camera, and the rest will take care of itself. I won’t shatter their dreams here, but there is more to it than owning the best camera. I remind people that a ‘proper’ camera is not necessarily going to fit in the pocket/purse and that they are going to have to remind themselves to take it with them. If you get the smallest, best camera on the market and don’t take it out with you, then there is no point in having it. Cameras are there to be used, so make sure that you are buying it for the right reasons and that you will take it with you.
“I want to take photos on my nights out”
Low light photography is a challenging situation for most cameras, and only the best cameras and technique will reward you with attractive images in a bar or a club. Most of the time the light levels will be so low that your camera will recommend using flash. This will kill all the mood in your photo and the pop up flash needs to be avoided at all costs. You know the images that I am talking about, you and your friends brightly lit in a black room and you can see the sweat shining on your forehead….hmm not the image that you had in mind. The solution to this is to move to where the lighting is better, because the technical solution is to stick an external flash on top of your camera and bounce the light off the walls - but now you look like a professional photographer and you were supposed to be out enjoying your evening! For this genre of photography you will need a camera that has good high ISO capabilities and a ‘fast’ lens. What this means is a lens with a large aperture that lets in a lot of light, which are typically more expensive and heavier due to the amount of glass in them. You should be looking for a lens that has an aperture of f2.8 or lower, they typically go down to f1.4.
What are your friends shooting with?
Photography is an expensive past-time, so it is well worth considering what cameras your friends have and whether you can borrow their gear if you ever need it. Most camera brands have backwards compatibility with lenses, batteries, flashes, filters etc. If you are in the Canon eco-system for example, you can use lenses that are decades old and they work just fine on a modern Canon DSLR.
‘Point and shoot’ cameras
I put this in air quotations, because they don’t really exist anymore. Cameras in mobile phones improved so much that there was no need to carry around another small camera around in your pocket - and sales figures meant that they had reached the end of their life span. They have evolved into ‘compact cameras’ that are just about pocket-able, and provide you with more creative control. In order to make these cameras small they have small sensors and lenses that pop out when you switch the camera on, some of them have massive zooms on them, but generally the longer the zoom range the worse the optical quality. Point and shoot cameras used to be dirt cheap, but compact cameras are still into the hundreds, depending upon which model you go for.
You get what you pay for…
The next big step up in quality from a compact camera is a DSLR. It is what we all think of when you hear the word camera. It has a camera strap, a lens that can be swapped over and a screen on the back. Models range from a few hundred pounds to a few thousand pounds, so it is important to know what the difference is so that you don’t pay for features you don’t need or are missing ones that you do need! As with most things, the more money you spend, generally the better the camera. But depending upon your needs, a camera that is several years old will do everything that you need it to. Most of the images on my website were taken on a Canon 5D mark 2, which was released in 2008. The images don’t suffer as a consequence of the camera being ten years old, so bear this in mind. You might be better off getting an older model that has a better spec than the latest bottom of the range model. I don’t do analogies, but if I did, it would be similar to buying a car that is a few years old. You will get leather seats, alloy wheels and parking sensors, whereas, this years release you will be looking at the bottom of the range for the same price.
You will also read ‘full frame’ and ‘cropped sensor’ on the internet a lot. Full frame is the equivalent size of a traditional film strip (35mm diagonally across). As a general rule, the larger the sensor, the better image quality, better low light performance and the more you can blur the backgrounds. Lenses also play a massive role in the quality of the final image, more so than the camera. If you gave me the option of a great lens on an entry level camera OR a cheap lens on a high end camera, I would choose the better lens on cheap camera.
You can, of course, look into buying second hand. Locally to Brighton there is one of the largest suppliers of second hand cameras and accessories (MPB.com) who thoroughly test and rate all of their equipment, plus provide a warranty - which is much more reassuring than buying on eBay. I have had a great experience buying from them in the past.
Investing in lenses
Lenses hold their value much better than cameras and electrical items. If you buy good lenses now, they will (fingers crossed) be compatible with future cameras and won’t need upgrading for a long time. If you buy a DSLR or an interchangeable lens mirror-less camera, then you open up a lot of creative possibilities, whereas smaller cameras struggle to blur the backgrounds when taking portraits (exactly what you experience when taking photos on a mobile phone). Luckily, to save you some money, 3rd party companies make very good compatible lenses for well known brands, some of them even out perform the brand lenses. I can only recommend Sigma, as I have first hand experience with their lenses, which are awesome and considerably cheaper than Canon’s offerings.
If you google ‘camera to buy 2018’ you will inevitably see a lot of talk about mirrorless cameras. This isn’t a fad, it is the next step in camera technology, and quite simply it does away with the eye piece in the camera which uses a periscope type arrangement within the camera with a mirror; so that you see what the camera sees. Once you remove the mirror out of the way, you are then left with a screen that shows you exactly how the photos will look when you press the shutter . You should try one out to see if this is something that you can get a long with. If new to photography, you won’t know any different - so it will be fine. Mirrorless also provides other helpful features to tell you when the image is too bright, too dark, out of focus, and they are quieter and faster in some instances. But because this is relatively new technology, only the most recent models are rivalling the traditional DSLR. Battery life and focusing have been a sticking point over the years, but these issues are now ironed out. Since they are new though, this comes with a price tag, and they are generally £500 plus for a compelling model.
Don’t forget about video…
Most camera companies throw in video functionality into their cameras now, and that too varies between cameras. If you intend on making videos for fun, then you will be more than content with HD video. Higher end models will provide 4k video, built in stabilisation and external microphone inputs; but these specs will only become necessary if you are serious about video. A forward facing screen though is going to be much appreciated if you want to be in the shot.
Christmas is coming…get to the point!
Well, the good news is that you have plenty of options. And they don’t really make bad cameras anymore. Once you have answered the question in the first section you should have prioritised what you need from a camera. If it is size, then you need to be looking at a compact camera, which will have a fixed lens that may have a 2 or 3 times zoom. It will be OK in low light conditions, and give you ‘nice’ looking photos and video. You won’t have much luck creating portraits where the background is lovely and soft though, as this is a limitation of the camera size. Had I written this 6 months ago, I would have gone straight to a DSLR recommendation, however now that Canon, Nikon, Sony, Fuji, Panasonic and Olympus (there are others) all have mirrorless models with new lens mounts, I question the life span of DSLR’s now. If you are looking for a safe bet, a DSLR will last you for a good 5 years, Canon alone have sold 130 million EF lenses, so there is no shortage of compatible accessories for a DSLR. However I suspect that technical support and newer releases on the DSLR front will slow down as they try to move everyone across to mirrorless. There are some absolute bargains to be had with a second hand DSLR and lenses, and they will be around for a long time yet. DSLR’s start at a few hundred pounds for the entry models, up to a few thousand pounds, their quality and features reflect their price tag.
If you want to move with the times, and feel confident in your new purchase, you can’t go wrong with a latest generation mirrorless camera. I have been assisting Gordon Laing of Cameralabs.com in testing the latest and greatest camera releases, and I have seen first hand how technology has progressed in the last year. For in depth scrutiny of every camera worth noting, I have put a link below to Gordon’s website, and he has his own recommendations for which camera to buy. Canon and Nikon have just released their first full frame mirrorless cameras, but they still have a way to go. I personally would wait for later models if going full frame with Canon or Nikon. Sony are the market leader when it comes to full frame mirrorless, and Panasonic & Fuji have great offerings with slightly smaller sensors.
I hope this has shone a bit of light on the mine field that is choosing a camera in 2018. Check out Gordon’s website below (click on the below image or visit www.cameralabs.com) for lots of shiny gadgets, and if you want to buy any of them use the amazon links on his website so that he can feed his coffee addiction!
Thanks for reading.