I’ve decided to make this a permanent guide on my site, so you’ll be able to find the latest version here: Which Camera Should I Buy?
Being the “photographer” among my friends and day-job colleagues, I get asked that question regularly.
My initial response to the inquiry begins with two questions of my own. First, how much money do you want to spend? Second, what types of photographs are you interested in making?
The answer to the first question is generally easy, and it is usually less than a functional DSLR kit, but we’ll get to that later. The second question, however, involves much deeper analysis. So lay back on the couch, put your feet up, and let’s explore your inner photographer.
In most cases, the person asking the question already has a camera. Maybe it’s just their iPhone, but usually they have a point & shoot camera made within the last few years. The next question, then, is what can’t that camera do that you’re trying to do? Or, what problem are you having with your current camera that you think a new camera would solve?
In my experience, that last question is the one that really gets to the root of the problem. There is something they are trying to do and they are not getting the results they want, and most of the time, it involves taking pictures in low light and seeing a lot of noise in the image, or getting blurry pictures when there is a lot of movement in the scene. Specifically, in most of the circles I travel, it’s the age where we each have at least one young child running around the house, and the point & shoot works great outdoors but when they try to capture Johnny chasing after the dog, they wind up with a blurry, grainy mess.
I decided to put this guide together to, first, provide some basic information you’ll want to know when purchasing a camera. I tried to provide some practical, non-technical definitions for a lot of the terminology you are likely to encounter, and to approach the guide from the point of view of a novice that wants to venture out a bit further in the photographic world. Since DSLRs are relatively cheap these days and available at stores like Target and Walmart, a lot of people buy the camera without having any idea on how to use it. Some of the information will be useful to those people, as well.
So let’s get started. First, let’s go over some of the terminology.
The world of photography has no shortage of glossary terms and acronyms. Here are some basic terms with mostly untechnical explanations that will help make sense of the rest of the article. If you want the true technical definitions for any of these items, check them out online.
Sensor – Think of the sensor as the film in a digital camera. In a film camera, light is focused by the lens to strike the film. The film is sensitive to light, and through the magic of chemical reactions, the image was “burned” in to the film, which was later developed and printed. With a digital camera, the lens still focuses the light but, instead of film, it gets focused on to a an electronic sensor that is also sensitive to light. The sensor registers the electronic signals, some magic happens, and those signals are converted to a digital file that gets stored on the memory card that you have inserted in to the camera. Typically, the larger the sensor, the better. An iPhone has a tiny sensor, a P&S has a slightly larger sensor, most DSLRs have a larger sensor, and there are some DSLRs (called “full frame” that have much larger sensor).
Megapixel – This used to be the big buzz word in digital cameras. The more megapixels, the better, right? Well, not always. One of the key factors in the quality of an image is the size of the sensor. Without getting too technical, if two cameras advertise the same number of megapixels, but one camera (a P&S) has a smaller sensor than the other (a DSLR), the quality of the image on the camera with the larger sensor will be better. This will be really apparent in a low light situation, where the larger sensor really produces a better image. This is because in order to squeeze the same number of pixels on to the smaller sensor, the elements on the sensor that actually collect the light have to be much, much smaller and, therefore, collects less light than the larger element on the larger sensor. The point is, don’t be sold on megapixels alone. There are other factors involved.
Exposure – Exposure is the amount of light that is allowed to hit the sensor during the process of taking a picture. The three things you can control on the camera related to exposure are aperture (how much light), shutter speed (the duration), and ISO (the sensitivity of the sensor).
Aperture – Aperture refers to how wide of an opening is used to let light through to the sensor. A wide aperture is like dilated pupils and is useful in much the same situation; when there is a little light around, you want to take in as much as you can to the sensor/brain. Conversely, when it’s really bright, you want a smaller aperture just like constricted pupils, to reduce the amount of light hitting the sensor/brain. Aperture values come in “stops”, also known as f/stops. The lower the f/stop (1.4, for example, versus f/8) the wider the aperture, and the more light gets let through. You’ll see aperture a lot in the context of the maximum aperture a lens supports. More on that in the Lens section below.
Shutter Speed - Shutter speed determines how long the shutter is left open to make the exposure. Shutter speeds are expressed in terms of fractions of a second (or seconds). 1/60 is 1/60th of a second.
ISO – The third leg of the stool (as they say in the business world) is ISO. ISO refers to how sensitive the sensor is to light. With a low ISO number (ISO 200), the sensor needs more light for an exposure than at ISO 1600, but the side effect is that increased sensitivity comes at a cost; namely, image quality. More on that later. DSLRs usually have a wider range of ISO values that they support than a point & shoot camera, and because of their larger sensor, produce better results at some of those higher ISO values. with all cameras, though, some of the higher ISO values that they provide are not really usable, producing a final image that is extremely grainy.
Before we go any further, let’s define the two camera types that we’re talking about in this guide.
Point & Shoot (P&S), a.k.a Compact Camera: The beauty of the point & shoot is the ease of operation. While a lot of them provide some advanced controls, for the most part, they autofocus, automatically determine the proper exposure, and allow the user to push a button to take a picture. They typically do not have interchangeable lenses or provide for some of the fine control over an image that you get with a DSLR (below). Although camera phones might be technically distinct, for this article, I’m lumping your iPhone camera in to the point & shoot, since it has some of the same limitations.
Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) – For the purpose of this article, a DSLR camera is one where a) the viewfinder on the back of the camera looks through the lens through which the picture is taken using mirrors and b) the camera body supports interchangeable lenses. When you push the shutter release to take a picture, the mirror that was bounding the light up to the viewfinder gets lifted up, and the light hits the camera sensor to take the picture. Once the picture is taken, the mirror flips back down and again directs the light up to the viewfinder. (This is why when you take a picture with a DSLR, the viewfinder goes dark). If you’re interested in the mechanics behind how a DSLR works, check out this article. The two primary vendors for DSLR cameras are Nikon and Canon. There are other vendors, but Nikon and Canon have the largest groups of users and, as a result, the larger catalogue of lenses both from the Nikon and Canon, themselves, but also through third-parties such as Sigma and Tamron.
Ok, so should I get a point & shoot or a DSLR?
The table below represents the most common factors used in comparing a P&S camera to a DSLR. Keep in mind that the amount of X in each column doesn’t matter as much as the quality itself being compared. For example, if price and ease of use are most important to you, then a P&S is in your future.
|Point & Shoot||DSLR||Comment|
|Price||X||DSLRs are expensive, especially when you add in the cost of the lenses.|
|Size||X||DSLRs bodies are typically larger than the P&S, and some of the lenses make the cameras much larger.|
|Easy of Use||X||P&S cameras are designed to be easy to use. DSLRs are more complex, but don’t let that complexity scare you.|
|Speed||X||In this case, speed refers to the time from when you push the shutter release until the time the picture is taken. A common complaint of P&S cameras is that the camera is “too slow”, sometimes resulting in missed shots, but always a major annoyance.|
|Image Quality||X||The general optics in a DSLR are better than that in a P&S, which is reflected in the price. Also, the sensor that is responsible for capturing the image is larger in the DSLR than it is in a P&S. It’s not always about the number of megapixels; the size of the sensor plays a factor. Generally speaking, the larger the sensor, the better the image.|
|Manual Control||X||Some P&S allow for some manual control of settings, and some of the scene modes are meant to replicate different settings, but in the end, the DSLR provides for true manual mode, where you control the aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and focus. More manual control means more creative control (below).|
|Creative Control||X||Sure, some P&S cameras have scene modes, and may apply some effects to an image, but true creative control comes from having the ability to play with more advanced creative options like depth of field, shutter drag, and all of the wonderful techniques available with many of the DSLR cameras and lenses.|
|ISO Range||X||P&S cameras generally have a small range of ISOs available to them, whereas the DSLR cameras have a wider range (even if some of the values in that range are ridiculous and unusable). But having the wider range means the camera can adapt to more situations, which is always a good thing.|
|Low Light||X||The DSLR wins here for a number of reasons. First, the larger sensor results in a better image in lower light. Second, the availability of “faster” lenses on the DSLR. Finally, the wider ISO ranges means that the DSLR can capture images that the P&S may not be able to, and at those higher ISO, the DSLR will have a better quality (less noisy) image.|
|Lens Selection||X||P&S cameras do not typically support interchangeable lenses, so you are limited to the lens that is on the camera. A DSLR camera will let you change lenses to fit different types of photography and situations.|
|(Audible) Noise||X||I mentioned earlier that the DSLR takes an image by moving a mirror out of the way so the light gets directed from the lens to the sensor. Well, that causes a distinctive (and loud) click every time you take an image. Outdoors or at a hockey game, that’s probably not a big deal. But at your kid’s school production, it can get pretty annoying, especially if you’re in full-burst mode. Some of the newer cameras have “quite modes”, but there is still some noise. P&S cameras are generally silent, except for some reason manufacturers thought it was a good idea to play a click sound when you take a picture, I guess so that you feel like it’s a “real” camera.|
|Maintenance||X||One major downside of having a camera that supports interchangeable lenses is that, when you change that lens, it allows for dust and sand to get in to the camera body, eventually making its way to the sensor. That cause spots on images. Some of the newer DSLRs have a self-cleaning option, which is really nice. But for older DSLR or for stubborn spots on the sensor, professional cleaning may be necessary. It’s not horribly expensive, and lots of folks do it themselves (but if you scratch the sensor, that’s REALLY bad), but just an added cost that you don’t typically incur with a P&S.|
There are a lot of reasons to get a P&S camera, and they have come a long way in the last few years in terms of quality and features. But so have camera phones. My iPhone, for example, is a) always with me, b) has an OK camera in it, and c) has some cool apps to do some neat effects with the pictures. Oh, and d) I can share pictures with anyone at any time. For me, those factors mean I don’t need to have a P&S camera that maybe I did a few years ago. But that’s also because I have a DSLR (or three).
Chase Jarvis made popular the saying “the best camera is the one you have with you.” I always have my iPhone with me. If I didn’t have a device that I always carried that had a decent camera, I’d definitely consider a P&S camera. But for a lot of folks, that’s not the case anymore. We have smart phones with cameras capable of capturing a decent image for those “snapshot” type moments. Getting a P&S camera doesn’t really give them something that they don’t already have, and the P&S shares some of the limitations that the camera phone has. So why add another device that doesn’t solve your problem?
All of that said, if you don’t have a camera phone that takes decent pictures, and you don’t have any other camera, if you’re looking for something small and simple, you may still want to consider a point & shoot, especially if you’re on a budget. As I said, there are some amazing P&S cameras out there, so don’t jump on the DSLR bandwagon without thinking through your situation.
To answer the question, though, I would recommend figuring out the top 3 criteria that are important to you. if two of them are price and ease of use, and you aren’t shooting the types of things that a P&S can’t do, then a quality point & shoot may be just what you are looking for. However, if you’re here because your current point & shoot that you bought last year isn’t performing for you, then it may be time to take the next step up to a DSLR.
The rest of this guide is for the folks ready to take that jump.
DSLR: Nikon versus Canon – A Question as Old as Time
This is one of the most common questions that comes up after you make the decision to purchase a DSLR.
While there are certainly devoted camps of followers on both sides of the fence, there is no right answer; only the right answer for you. Both manufacturers make excellent products, and they have comparable models at every level. There are some areas where one camera might be better than another, but a lot of those get equalized once the images are loaded on to the computer and edited. The professional photographer world is filled with photographers that use both (and other) brands, so fear not, whichever path you take will provide enjoyable results.
That said, there are a few things you might want to consider if the time comes when you want to purchase a DSLR.
Owned Lenses – Do you already have lenses for Nikon or Canon (or other) cameras? If so, you may be able to use those lenses on a new DSLR. Lenses are expensive, so any head start you have in that department should be considered.
Friends with Lenses – Sometimes it’s nice to be able to share lenses with your friends, or to speak the same manufacturer language. If you have more experienced photographers in the circles you travel, there are certainly benefits to be had by having compatible gear. Minimally, you should talk to them about their experiences with the brand of camera they are using.
Lens Selection – There are some gaps in the manufacturers’ product lines of lenses. Sometimes those gaps might be covered by third-party lenses, but some folks prefer to stick to the camera brand lenses, and sometimes there is one specific-purpose lens that one brand has that another does not. It may not be apparent now if you’re just jumping in, but talk to other folks and get their take. For most common situations, though, both manufacturers (and third parties) will have you covered.
Video – Many of the newer DSLR videos also record video. There are tons of resources online that will give you more of the details, but historically, Canon has had better support for video in their DSLRs. Earlier video-capable Nikon DSLRs didn’t have the same HD resolution that the Canon cameras did, and Nikon encoded the video files in a less-than-ideal format. Also, the Canon cameras supported some different/better frame rates than the Nikon’s did (which is still the case), but the latest Nikon’s have excellent video capabilities, though arguably still not up to the Canon standardF
What about Sony? Or Olympus? Or XYZ?
There are other manufacturers that make excellent DSLRs, but the majority of the market share is held by Nikon and Canon, which means third parties tend to focus on these manufacturers more when they make lenses and other accessories.
Ok, I’ll stick with Canon or Nikon. But there are so many models? Which one is right for me?
The two big manufacturers have three different product lines for their DSLR cameras. There is a lot of overlap in functionality between the product lines, but one rule that is especially true in the photographic world is that you get what you pay for.
Here is the basic breakdown:
Entry Level DSLR
These are the lower-cost models. Generally, they have smaller, lighter weight bodies than their professional counterparts. They may also be lacking in some features that are more suited to a professional photographer, such as dual memory card slots, more autofocus points, or other such features. But they are still a DSLR, so they offer interchangeable lenses, and all of the other benefits that a DSLR offers. In general, they are a great place to start, especially if you don’t already have lenses. That’s important because on the Nikon side, for example, these entry-level DSLR don’t provide a lot of the “auto” capabilities with some older lenses, or lenses without a specific designation (for Nikon, it’s AF-S). That means if you use one of those older lenses, you won’t get autofocus, or the camera won’t be able to help you make a correct exposure.
In the old days, Nikon used a double-digit numbering system (e.g., D40, D60) and Canon used a three-digit number (e.g., 550D) in their model numbers to indicate an entry-level camera. However, recently both manufacturers seemed to change up their model numbers in a way that blends entry-level with prosumer model numbers, so you’ll need to look at the price and the features to determine what level camera you are looking at.
Mid-range or Pro-sumer (mix of professional and basic consumer) DSLR
A step up from the entry-level DSLR, the mid-range DSLR sit between the entry-level and the professional cameras. They may offer some professional features, and may have a slightly larger body than their entry-level brethren. But they will still lack some of the hard-core professional features. As they are with features, they also sit in the price range between the entry-level and professional bodies. On the Nikon side, however, these cameras do have the mechanics inside them to control the “auto” functionality on some of the older lenses, so that is something to keep in mind.
Again, in the old world, Nikon’s prosumer models had three-digit numbers (e.g., D700, D300, D300s) and Canon used 2-digit numbers (e.g., 40D).
These are really the professional-grade cameras. Solid body construction, weather sealing, and other features that a professional photography who depends on their camera to make a living really needs. Unless your primary income comes from photography, or you have a trust fund, we’ll ignore these in this guide. When you are ready to purchase one, the rule is you have to buy me one, too. Contact me for shipping details.
Nikon Camera Bodies
For a complete Nikon body rundown, check out Thom Hogan’s site here.
Entry Level DSLR
Nikon has a few bodies in this category, including the D5100 that just came out. There are two price points here. The new D5100 and D3100 (also D5000 and D3000 which are slightly older models) are the cheaper ones; the draw-back is that in order to take advantage of autofocus and stuff in the lens, you need a certain line of lenses (AF-S) that have the motor inside the lens. Those lenses are slightly more expensive than non-AF-S lenses. So you save a little on the body, but have to spend a little more on the lenses if you want autofocus.
The next step up of bodies would be ones that have those mechanics in the camera so you can use any AF lens and autofocus, auto-meter, and all the cool stuff. The two models of camera that are in that range are the D7000 (I have one of these) and the D300s. The D7000 is pretty new, and I’m playing with the video capabilities on it, but it’s a really nice every day camera. More expensive than the D5100 and D3100, but I already had some non-AF-S lenses, and I can use them on this camera, so it made sense for me.
There is also the D700 that I think technically gets qualified in this range. I have one of those, as well. It’s a little older, and for me, it does better in low light situations (like when I shoot my theater productions), but is probably overkill for most folks looking to jump in to a DSLR.
Canon Camera Bodies
I’m a Nikon shooter, so I have no experience with the Canon bodies listed below, but I wanted to provide them as a point of reference. Similar to the Nikon product lines, the entry-level DSLR (and sometimes kit) are sub-$1000, and the prosumer models are between $1000 and $2000, and the professional models are $3000 and up.
Entry Level DSLR
Canon EOS Rebel T3i
EOS Rebel T2i
EOS 5D Mark II
The camera body isn’t much good without a lens. The lens is what focuses the light on to the sensor so that you can make an image. In order to understand lenses, here are a few basic terms:
Focal Length: Outside of the technical definition, focal length determines to the field of view. A higher focal length (300mm) has a narrower field of view than a lower focal length (24mm). If you have a person standing in a field in front of you, the 300mm would zoom in so only their face was capture in the frame, while the 24mm would include the person, the field, the mountains behind them, and the bull about to charge the subject for standing in its field. If a lens has one number (50mm), it is a prime lens. That means it is a fixed focal length lens, and it has no zoom that you’re used to on a P&S camera. For a prime lens, the zoom mechanism is your legs. Walk forward to zoom in, walk backward to zoom out. If a lens has two numbers (70-200mm), that means that it is a zoom lens, with the widest focal length being 70mm and the narrowest being 200mm.
Aperture: Already mentioned above, the maximum aperture (how wide that opening can get) is determined by the lens. The number that is listed on a lens represents the maximum aperture (how wide) the lens supports. The lower the number, the wider the aperture can go (refer to the image under Aperture above). If there are two numbers, such as in a 70-200mm f/4-5.6, that means that at the widest focal length (70mm), the maximum aperture is f/4. When you’re zoomed in (200mm), the widest aperture supported would be f/5.6. That means that when you’re zoomed in, you can’t have the aperture as wide. There are zoom lenses that support the same, wider aperture for all focal lengths, such as the 70-200mm/f2.8, but those lenses are more expensive. The higher the aperture supported by a lens, the more that lens is going to cost.
Ok, terminology out the way…
What about the lens that comes in the DSLR kit?
A lot of the cameras have the option of buying just the body or a kit that includes the body and one or two lenses. The lenses aren’t the greatest in the line of lenses that the manufacturer has to offer, but they’re definitely useable in a lot of situations. They also are generally zoom lenses, giving you a bit of range for close ups and landscape shots. If you’re just starting out, the kits are usually a pretty good starting point, and some even include some nice features like vibration reduction.
That said, the kit lenses generally have some limitations. The main one being that their maximum aperture, that is, the widest aperture they support, isn’t very wide in comparison to other lenses. So if you’re trying to shoot a darker scene, you may get frustrated with the kit lens pretty early on, and wonder why you spent all that money on a camera that doesn’t take better pictures than the point & shoot you had. Fear not. First of all, you’ll probably still get a better image than your point & shoot, simply because the equipment is better, and as mentioned above, the sensor is larger in the DSLR, so relatively speaking, the resulting image will look better, but it might still not be ideal.
What to do, then?
Invest in additional lenses.
Interchangeable lenses means you can buy lenses for different situations. This includes buying lenses with wider maximum apertures, lenses that let you get really close to your subject and focus on them (macro lenses), or super wide or specialty lenses like fish-eye lenses. But going back to the most common complaint, which is inferior images in low light, you’ll want to invest in at least one lens (I recommend a 50mm) that has at least an f/1.8 maximum aperture.
Here’s the rundown of the additional lenses I recommend:
50mm f/1.8 (a must have)
Pretty small, light lens, so it’s easy to just leave it on the camera to walk around with. You can get a non-AF-S 50mm/1.8 lens for just over $150 (I have this one), which is a steal. They make a few other varieties of the 50mm, but they are more expensive. If you’re just starting out, this lens will do just fine. If you need the AF-S version of the lens for the D5100 or D3100, it’ll will cost at least double for a 50mm lens.
Edit 04/27/11: Timing is everything. Nikon released a new 50mm f/1.8 AF-S lens, retail around $200. Slightly more than the non-AF-S version, but looks like a pretty good lens for any Nikon body.
70-300mm f/4-5.6 (great if you need the zoom outdoors)
This lens is only $150, and is a nice zoom lens for outdoor shooting. Since its maximum aperture is f/4, using it when there isn’t an abundance of light is less than idea. But if you’re driving through Rocky Mountain National Park and see an elk off in the distance, this lens can capture in.
70-200mm/2.8 (great if you need the zoom indoors)
This is a more expensive lens, and it doesn’t stretch as far as the 300mm lens above, but it’s wider maximum aperture means it’s better for working indoors and in lower light situations. I use this for shooting theater productions from the back of the room. It’s also good for headshots. If you get the Nikon brand, it’s $2000. You can save ½ by getting a reputable off-brand, like the Sigma.
And in conclusion…
It’s certainly a lot of information to digest, I know. But don’t let it overwhelm you. Photography is an amazing art form, with amazing, continually improving technology. Just like computers, you’re going to feel like as soon as you buy something, it’s going to be obsolete, and that there is a better model coming up right around the corner. But don’t let the technology scare you, or keep you from making the images that you want to make.
If you want me to tell you what to buy, my response would be to buy what you can afford. If you can afford a DSLR with a 50mm lens (and maybe more), then I say go for it. Then learn as much as you can, and take pictures as much as you can. If you purchased above your skill level, you’ll grow in to it, and you’ll soon be doing things with the camera that you didn’t know you could do, and you’ll be making amazing images.
If you can’t afford a DSLR just yet, get a decent point & shoot, but do your homework to find one that is more tailored to what you need. If you do a lot of indoor or low-light shooting, there are some cameras that are better than others. And there are a lot of websites that offer reviews. Amazon, CNET, and DPReview are all great sites to see what people liked and disliked about each camera. But when you get that point & shoot, treat it like a DSLR.
Whatever you buy, take a lot of pictures, and learn as much as you can. Learn more about the elements of exposure. Learn more about composition. It’s not about the technology, it’s about how you use it. There are some folks that take amazing pictures with their iPhone, and there are gallery exhibits of iPhone photography. You can make amazing images with almost any camera, you just need to know some of the fundamentals of photography. And the internet is full of resources
I hope this helps. I anticipate this being a living, breathing document, so if you have any questions, comments, or suggestions, please leave a comment.
Revision 1.2 – 04/27/11
Revision 1.1 – 04/24/11