CHOOSING THE CAMERA THAT'S RIGHT FOR YOU
Originally posted on August 13, 2018 - Updated March 13, 2020.
Nikon D7000 + Nikkor 300mm f/4D IF-ED AF-S
EXPLORING YOUR OPTIONS
If you've just discovered the joys of photography and you'd like to get a little more serious about the equipment you use, you've probably looked for good camera deals and read many reviews on the internet. You may have discovered that there are a number of camera manufacturers and camera models, sometimes varying in price dramatically. Why are they so different in price, why are there so many of them and which one should you choose?!?
Before making a final decision, here are a few questions you should ask yourself;
1.) What subject matter do you enjoy shooting the most? - Sports, Wildlife, Landscape, Portraits, Low Light, Still Life, Macro, Street, or anything and everything? Thinking about this question should help you figure out how much performance you will need either out of the auto-focus, or image sensor, or both.
2.) What is your budget for both lenses and camera? - A smaller budget + needing a high performance camera & lens = compromises.
3.) How often do you plan to shoot and where do you plan to take your camera? - Should you spend money on top-of-the-line equipment, or is something more intermediate a better fit?
4.) How much does size and weight of the camera plus lens matter to you? - How big is too big? Even if it's the greatest thing since sliced bread, will you want to carry it with you wherever you go?
5.) How much does image quality matter to you? - Do you plan on printing large 20" x 30" prints, or will you only share your photography online? Will you be posting your photos to Instagram & Facebook only, or also to places like flickr & 500px? Are you a very meticulous photographer who plans to post-process RAW files, or will you shoot JPEG only?
DIGITAL CAMERA TYPES
There are several digital camera types out there, ranging from the one in your smartphone to pocket sized compacts, to one such as the large and expensive medium format bodies.
Then there are DSLRs, mirrorless, crop sensors, full frame, micro 4/3rds, etc. It can be confusing when you're trying to figure out what you need for your specific purpose.
The main differences between all of these are:
1.) The size & type of the sensor - Medium format (digital camera backs), full frame (35mm) FX, APS-C crop sensor DX, Foveon, Micro 4/3rds, 1" inch, etc. Generally speaking, bigger sensors with lower megapixel count produce less noise at high ISO when shooting in low light and they offer slightly more dynamic range than the smaller sensors, if comparing same-generation models.
2.) Number of megapixels - 3 , 6, 8, 10, 12, 16, 24, 36, 48 and as high as 100 megapixels. How big do you want to go? Do you have a computer with enough processing power to handle large files? Do you have enough hard-drive space to store them? If not, you'll have to consider upgrading your machine along with your new camera purchase. You will also need to purchase higher-capacity SD or XQD cards, which can be costly. High megapixel sensors also demand better quality lenses in order to be able to resolve all those megapixels, which can drive the cost up even more.
4.) Electronic viewfinder (EVF) vs. Optical viewfinder (OVF) - Mirrorless vs. DSLR. EVF requires battery use while OVF does not. On the other hand, EVF may allow you to see your subject better in low light.
5.) Interchangeable lens vs. fixed lens - Being able to swap lenses or having a fixed zoom or prime lens permanently attached to the camera body.
6.) Size & weight of the body - Small enough to fit in your pocket vs. needing a separate bag or back-pack for camera + lenses.
7.) Manufacturer lens selection & cost - Small selection and high cost vs. large selection and lower cost, vs. large selection and higher cost. Each will vary.
8.) The amount of manual and auto control they allow you as an artist - Custom ISO, shutter speed, aperture, white balance, bracketing, image stacking, filters, etc.
9.) Weather-sealing vs. limited or none - Being able to use the camera in rainy or humid conditions without adverse effects.
10.) Auto-focus performance & accuracy in still photo and video mode - Is the AF fast and accurate even in low light? Does it have good viewfinder coverage? Does it track the subject well?
WHY DOES SENSOR SIZE MATTER?
The bigger the sensor is and the lower amount of pixels it has, the better it will perform in low light in image quality, but that's assuming we are comparing same-generation camera bodies. The smaller the sensor is and the more megapixels it has, the worse image quality it will produce in low light situations. Why? Because, very simply put, the bigger the sensor and the less pixels it has, the better it is able to collect more light. The more light it can collect, the less noise it will produce. Usually that also means higher dynamic range.
For example, if you compare the tiny sensor in a smartphone to a large sensor in a full frame camera and both have the same amount of megapixels, the smaller sensor's megapixels are cramped into a smaller space and therefore have more difficulty collecting light compared to the bigger sensor.
If you took a picture of the same subject in the same circumstances with both cameras, you would clearly see that the full frame sensor produces a lot less noise (or grain) in low light images compared to the smartphone.
Traditionally, larger sensor cameras have been more expensive than smaller sensor cameras, but nowadays cost for full frame sensors has gone down, making them more affordable.
Sometimes manufacturers will release a less expensive "pro-sumer" full frame body that has some limited features compared to the "professional" full frame bodies, but it still has all the image quality of the more expensive models.
Based on the type of photography you do and how much money you can spend on photography, you will have to decide what's most important; image quality, or certain improved features such as faster, more accurate autofocus.
WHY DOES SENSOR SIZE NOT MATTER (THAT MUCH )?
O.K. Now I may have confused you. You thought it mattered, and as explained above, it kind of does! But when does sensor size NOT matter?
The idea of digital cameras has been around since the 60's, came into existence in the 70's, but it wasn't until 1986 that they became available to consumers. In mid 2000s, both Nikon and Canon ramped up sales of consumer and pro digital models that up to this day still produce great results. The Nikon D3 and D700 come to mind, which are still very capable and even desirable models despite the fact that they were released more than 10 years ago!
Although the advancement of digital sensors has come far when high ISO noise, dynamic range and megapixels are concerned, many of those older models are still capable of better image quality than what we see from our smartphone and compact cameras in 2020.
That being said, along came the new APS-C (crop/DX) sensors and though they are smaller in size compared to the full frame sensors in the D3 and D700 for example, they not only have slightly more dynamic range and slightly better high ISO performance, they also feature a higher megapixel count! When comparing sensor performance across an entire decade, a bigger sensor does not necessarily mean better image quality.
What's more is that if you shoot in RAW instead of JPEG alone, new post-processing software gives you a lot of flexibility. It makes it easy to clean up high ISO noise or use different photographic techniques to enhance images even if you're shooting with a smaller sensor, or an older full frame sensor, and that is why sometimes sensor size does not matter.
If you only share your images on facebook or places like Instagram and if you don't crop drastically into your images, sensor size barely matters, because your images will be down-sampled to a lower quality anyhow.
Most of us are going to be constrained by how much we can spend on a hobby, or something that could potentially become a professional or semi-professional endeavor. We need to keep a level head here and think rationally.
If budget is of no concern to you, I suppose it won't matter greatly what you choose to shoot with, but you could still save yourself some weight and size by choosing to go with something that suits your shooting style better.
When thinking about your budget, you also have to think about the cost of lenses and accessories, not just the camera body. The camera body is a one-time cost, but the lens collection could eventually become very expensive, not to mention the accessories such as flash, bags, filters, tripods and so forth.
Figure out what your budget is when all of these items are considered, and go from there.
WHAT DO YOU PLAN TO SHOOT?
If you already know what type of photography you'd like to get into, it will help you make the right decision. While a skilled photographer is able to make just about any camera work for him or her in any situation, there are many specialized models that simply do certain tasks better than others. Very few camera models can do it all. Those that can, will cost you a lot.
When considering your purchase based on what you shoot, here are some things to look for:
SPORTS & WILDLIFE - You need a camera that can shoot multiple frames per second (FPS), features a fast autofocus (AF), has an adequate buffer (this will allow you to shoot at least 15 to 20 shots before your camera buffer fills so that you don't miss the action) and preferably will produce good image quality in good and low light. It should have good battery life, and the camera should also have good ergonomics so that it is comfortable to hold for longer periods of time. Being able to add a battery grip to the camera is also a useful feature, because it will extend battery life and will feel more solid in your hands when a bigger, heavier lens is attached.
If you are on a tight budget but need a camera with performance, consider purchasing one of the higher-end APS-C models such as a Nikon D500 or Canon 7D Mark II. Although they produce slightly more noisy images at high ISO compared to their full frame counterparts, you will be able to get closer to your subjects with a shorter (and therefore cheaper) telephoto lens, thanks to their crop factor of 1.4x for Nikon and 1.5x for Canon.
If the Nikon D500 or Canon 7D Mark II are also a little too rich for your blood, both manufacturers offer cheaper alternatives with slightly less features that are still very capable. The Nikon D7500 and D7200 come to mind.
PORTRAIT & STILL LIFE - For slow or still subjects, almost any camera will do. The question is how many megapixels do you want, how much dynamic range do you need, and do you plan to shoot in low light without a flash?
Full frame cameras are a popular choice for portrait photographers, because with fast f/1.2 to f/2.8 lenses they are able to isolate the subject from the background and foreground better compared to smaller sensors such as crop, micro 4/3rds and so on. They tend to produce smoother bokeh (out of focus areas) at equivalent apertures.
If you plan to shoot with fast f/1.2 to f/2.8 lenses in bright sunlight, it may be better to select a camera body that can shoot up to 1/8000s, which will help you to not overexpose your subject or the highlights in your scene when using very wide apertures. While cameras with a max shutter speed of 1/4000s can also be used in this way, usually it requires the presence of a lens filter that restricts the amount of light hitting the camera sensor.
If you like to shoot small objects and make them appear bigger in full detail, you don't necessarily need very fast auto-focus. Most macro photographers prefer to use a tripod and manual focus.
A crop sensor camera such as the APS-C format, works well for macro. The larger pixel density and smaller sensor size will give you more depth of field, 1.4x or 1.5x magnification (which also means a longer working distance from your subject. This is helpful when working with shy live insects you don't want to spook), and slightly more detailed results.
Of course full frame models will also give you beautiful results. They benefit from higher dynamic range and better high ISO performance. You can make up for the shallower DOF by using a more narrow aperture, and you can make up for the shorter working distance by purchasing a longer macro lens.
LOW LIGHT / EVENTS
If you plan to shoot frequently in low light without the use of flash, you will need a camera that can not only produce less noisy images at high ISO, but also one with an adequate auto-focus module that will not let you down when contrast levels fall.
Manufacturers rate their AF modules according to EV sensitivity. You will find models that have an AF low light sensitivity of -1EV, -2EV, -3EV and -4EV. Although -1EV AF modules will do a good job if you are shooting a well-lit performer on a stage, they will struggle to lock focus in a more dimly lit venue.
Many auto-focus systems require the presence of some form of contrast to function properly. This is called "contrast-detection". If there is not enough contrast in the scene for the AF to lock onto, the camera will hunt for focus and may miss focus.
With a fast-moving musician or dancer in less-than-perfect light, you want to be armed with an auto-focus module that is rated to at least -2EV, if not -3EV, if you want most of your shots in good focus.
When shooting events, especially if people are counting on you to get the shot, you want to use a camera with very reliable auto-focus. Most cameras will do great in bright and good light, but if you are shooting indoors where the light is low and artificial, you may need a better camera.
Full frame cameras (FX) are best suited to low light photography due to their larger sensor and superior high ISO performance, but the most recent crop sensor camera models are also quite capable at high ISO and have quality AF modules that will focus fast and accurately even in low light for less money. With post-processing software becoming better every year, noisy images can be cleaned up quite effectively.
STREET / TRAVEL
Street photographers enjoy shooting with smaller, more incognito cameras that will not draw a lot of attention. Their goal is to photograph the scene as unnoticed as possible, so that they can capture candid portraits instead of posed. Smaller mirrorless or micro 4/3rds cameras with a prime lens attached are usually less intimidating compared to a big-bodied pro DSLR.
If you like to shoot street scenes at night, perhaps consider a camera that has good low light performance in regard to both high ISO and auto-focus.
LANDSCAPES - Landscape photographers who enjoy printing their images beyond 8' x 12', or photographers who know they plan on cropping down their images to improve composition after the fact, usually look for cameras that have a sensor with a high number of megapixels.
High dynamic range is also important if you plan to shoot RAW and manipulate your images further via specialized software that allows you to make shadow areas brighter and highlight areas dimmer without sacrificing too much image quality in the process. High dynamic range also means that gradients and color transitions appear smoother.
That being said, almost any camera is capable of producing beautiful landscape images, especially if the photographer is patient and willing to learn certain photographic techniques such as HDR (allows you to increase dynamic range) and panorama stitching (allows you to increase the megapixel size of the image).
Arcade Fire, Coachella | Nikon Coolpix A
HOW MUCH DO YOU LOVE PHOTOGRAPHY?
The reason I ask this question, is because camera models vary in size, weight and features. If you love photography so much that size and weight of the equipment doesn't matter to you, your options are wide open.
I'm one of those people you see at parties and bars with a big DSLR in my hands. No, I'm not there in a professional capacity. I'm doing it for fun, I look ridiculous and most of the time I don't care!
If you're the type of person who isn't willing to carry a lot of weight, you'll have to consider a camera model that is small and light enough for you to bring with you in a pocket or purse. If you purchase a model that is too heavy and big for you, you will likely leave it at home most of the time.
Maybe you've heard the saying; "The best camera is the one you have with you", which means that if you make the wrong choice, you'll probably end up using your smartphone more often than the expensive paper-weight you left at home.
"I.Q." | IMAGE QUALITY
There are those of us who are very picky about the image quality of our photos, and some of us who feel that other features are much more important to our photography.
Photographers who don't value IQ as much as I do wouldn't be wrong. I've seen plenty of beautiful photos that captured the moment perfectly, even if they were a little too noisy, or blurry, or small in size. One of my favorite shots was taken with an old iphone!
Great IQ should certainly not be the sole marker upon which we judge a photograph, but how great would it be if that wonderful moment was captured with perfect clarity, perfect color and size?
What exactly do I mean about image quality anyway?
To me there are three things to consider; dynamic range, high ISO noise performance and resolution. High dynamic range gives me more information in the shadow and highlight areas, high ISO noise performance allows me to shoot in dimly lit situations without losing much detail to grain, and higher resolution allows me to crop during post-processing, if I want to play with different framing options.
HOW IMPORTANT ARE LENSES TO IMAGE QUALITY?
Extremely. In fact when you shop for a camera, the lens should be considered more important than the camera body you choose. Quality lenses will make the biggest difference to your photography. You want to select lenses that have good sharpness at all apertures and all focal lengths, produce pleasing bokeh, produce less ghosting and chromatic aberration, and have a solid build. Sometimes you may have to sacrifice one or two positive aspects for a negative aspect to save money if you are budget-conscious.
New camera models emerge all the time and you'll likely be tempted to "upgrade" to something new within a year or two. Your lenses however (if you buy quality glass) may remain with you for decades to come.
Depending on the camera manufacturer you go with, you'll be able to continue to use them with future camera bodies. Nikon, for example, has not changed its lens mount in years and many of their legacy lenses can still be purchased and used with newly released DSLRs.
If it matters to you, lenses also have a much better resale value than camera bodies.
I enjoy post-processing my photos and therefore I am not satisfied with shooting JPEG only. The JPEG format is limited to 8bits, while some of the current sensors can achieve anywhere from 12bits & 14bits to 16bits of information in RAW format.
I shoot everything in RAW. Not only is RAW a more pliable file, but in a way, like negative film, it is future-proof. When a new post-processing program or update comes along, I love to upload my older RAW files to it and see if I can improve some aspect of the photo.
Much like developing film, RAW can become whatever you want it to be without ever losing photo quality. Processing a file in programs such as Adobe Lightroom or DxO PhotoLab is a non-destructive and fully-reversible process.
If you want to squeeze the most out of your photos and you don't mind spending a minute or 30 working on a single shot, make sure to purchase a camera model that has the ability to record RAW files, not only JPEG.
Multnomah Falls, Oregon | Nikon D750 + Nikkor 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G
WHICH CAMERA MANUFACTURER SHOULD YOU CHOOSE?
These days, you really can't go wrong with most major camera manufacturers. Whether it's Nikon, Canon, Sony or Fuji, they all produce models worthy of professional use. So how do you decide who to go with? After all, if you plan on investing in a collection of lenses and accessories, it may be very expensive to switch makes in the future.
If you're just starting out with photography, it's not as easy to figure out what's best for you, because perhaps you don't yet know what lenses you wish to own for what purpose. One of the major differences between manufacturers is the availability of native and third-party lenses, as well as their quality and cost.
The other difference between all of these is the quality of their sensors. Currently for $5,000.00 or less and excluding medium format sensors from manufacturers such as Leica, Hasselblad, Mamiya, Pentax & Fujifilm, it's Nikon and Sony who are leading the competition in high dynamic range.
Here is my limited list of pros and cons for the three most popular camera manufacturers:
- Excellent sensors.
- Great video features.
- Excellent video auto-focus.
- Full frame mirrorless models are available.
- Smaller and lighter size.
- Feature-packed professional camera models.
- Competitive pricing when it comes to features.
- Limited number of lenses available.
- Lenses are more expensive compared to Nikon and Canon.
- Poor weather-sealing compared to other manufacturers.
- Poor ergonomics due to the grip design of smaller mirrorless bodies.
- Great native and third-party lens selection.
- Lenses are less expensive compared to other manufacturers.
- Large selection of camera bodies from beginner to professional, including mirrorless models.
- Great video auto-focus features.
- Very good weather sealing.
- Excellent auto-focus in professional camera models.
- Sensors are just now catching up to other manufacturers in respect of dynamic range.
- Cannot use crop sensor and full frame lenses interchangeably between different sensor formats (DX / FX).
- Menus not as intuitive.
- Excellent sensors.
- Large selection of native and third-party lenses.
- Full frame and crop sensor mirrorless models are available.
- Great backward-compatible lens selection for DSLRs and mirrorless (mirrorless models require an adapter due to their larger Z mount ).
- Great ergonomics.
- Very good weather-sealing.
- Big selection of beginner and professional camera models.
- Excellent auto-focus in mid-range and professional camera models.
- Very good battery life.
- Competitive pricing of camera models.
- Native lenses are slightly more expensive than their Canon counterparts.
- Over-all lens selection not as plentiful as Canon.
- Poor video auto-focus features on pre-2020 DSLR bodies. New models such as the D780 & D6 are changing that.
- Z6, Z7 & Z50 mirrorless bodies do not focus as fast as some of their competitors.
All of these manufacturers produce excellent products, but as with any mass-production item, they've all had issues that sometimes require a recall or service advisory. Read their warranty policy to learn more about returns and repairs.
If you don't mind spending a little more for peace of mind, purchase your equipment from a trusted dealer that offers a fair return, exchange and repair policy.
While purchasing refurbished or used items is usually a safe bet, many of them do have limited warranties. If anything goes wrong, the money you saved when you bought the item refurbished or used, may need to be put toward future repairs.
If you live and buy in the U.S., Nikon has a strict policy against "gray market" items for example. If there is a warranty or repair issue with your camera or lens, U.S.-based Nikon Service centers will refuse to touch the items and you will either need to get them fixed in the same country you bought them from, or you will have to pay out-of-pocket to a third-party camera repair shop.
Pronghorn Male | Nikon D500 + Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR
If you're just starting with photography and you are on a budget, don't be tempted to spend thousands of dollars on equipment in the first go. Start slow with a beginner / intermediate camera that allows you to adjust settings manually, and work from there.
Once you get to know the way a camera works and once you figure out what you enjoy shooting most, plan your next purchase accordingly.
Please keep in mind that the photographer is always more important than the camera. Yes, cameras are becoming more advanced and making things easier on us, but a good photographer can overcome any tech shortcomings with skills, composition and proper timing. Usually practice is the only way to achieve those skills, and we don't need $6,000.00 in gear to do that.
I hope you've found this information useful. If you still have questions or maybe suggestions, you may contact me via e-mail.