Camera shopping. Favorite activity of photographers with GAS (gear acquisition syndrome), and least favorite activity of pretty much everyone else. There are simply too many options, a huge price range, and without actually being a photographer it's impossible to know which camera is overkill, and which one will work. If you're nodding right now then I'm writing this blog post for you - and by the end of this post you'll have all the information you need to make an educated purchase.
The most important thing to know when you're shopping for a camera is that learning how to use the camera is going to have a bigger impact on the quality of the photographs then the camera you choose. For some reason, a mindset has been generated that high end equipment = good photography, and this couldn't be further from the truth. High end kitchen equipment doesn't make a you master chef, a racecar doesn't make you a professional racecar driver, and expensive, professional photography equipment will not make you a good photographer. Education is the most valuable tool in photography. If you don't know what lens to use and what camera settings to use, what angle to photograph from, and what to (and what not to) include in the frame then you can't create good photographs. It doesn't matter what camera you use.
That being said, a camera is obviously a necessary tool in photography, and understanding how important education is in photography doesn't make choosing a camera any easier. There are plenty of great "Entry-Level Camera Buying Guides", but unless you already speak camera-lingo it's going to be pretty difficult to figure out which camera will be a great choice for you. Before we dive into the specs that matter, and what they mean, we need to cover the different kinds of cameras you're going to run into.
Types of Cameras
Cell Phone Cameras
You're probably quite familiar with the camera on cell phone if you're interested enough in photography to read a blog post about how to buy the best camera. Cell phone cameras have become surprisingly advanced, and have pretty much erased the need for a point and shoot camera, like the one we all used in the early 2000's for our MySpace profile pictures. The advantage of cell phone cameras is that they're always with us, and it's so easy to share the images almost instantly with the world. The biggest problem with cell phone cameras is that you're basically out of luck when it comes to photographing in low-light situations, or being able to print your images larger than 8x10, or being able to zoom in at all.
Point and Shoot Cameras
Slightly better than cell phone cameras, point and shoot (or compact) cameras are slightly more powerful in each way that a cell phone falls short, but compared to DSLR or mirrorless cameras, they're not that much better. You get slightly better quality, but then have to jump over the hurdle of the dificulty of sharing the images. Download to computer, then upload, instead of being able to just upload the image on the spot. Unless you don't have a smartphone, there really is no point in getting a point and shoot camera. For a few hundred dollars more you can buy a DLSR or mirrorless camera, and you'll get a substantial jump in quality of image, control over the image, and growth potential.
DSLR & Mirrorless Cameras
Both DSLR and mirrorless cameras are the same when it comes to potential image quality, flexibility of what you can capture, and growth potential. There are different levels of DLSR/mirrorless cameras, ranging from consumer level ($400-$600), to semi-pro ($1,000 to $2,000), to pro level ($2,500 - $3,500). In this case, when I say "camera", I'm really just referring to the "camera body", as with both DLSR and mirrorless cameras the lens is a separate item from the camera body itself. Both your cell phone camera and old point-and-shoot camera were an all-in-one system, no added parts necessary to create a photograph.
Most DLSR/mirrorless cameras are sold in two ways - "body only" or "kit" (including a lens). We'll cover this more below (as well as the difference between DSLR and mirrorless cameras), but the important thing to know at this point is that the lens is a separate piece of equipment from the camera itself. The other distinct difference between DLSR/mirroless cameras, and point-and-shoot or cell phone cameras is the degree of control that you have, as the photographer. Sure, you can set the camera to "auto" and let it make all the decisions for you, but if you're going to do that you may as well just save money and use your cell phone camera. Remember how I said above that learning how to use a camera is the most important part of growing as a photographer? DSLR and mirrorless cameras have the features and give the user control over all the little things that go into creating an image, but until you know HOW to control all these different aspects you really aren't going to benefit from investing in a camera.
For the rest of this post, I'm going to assume you're serious about learning photography and becoming a better photographer, and I'm going to focus on what you need to know when it comes to investing in a DSLR or mirrorless camera. If you're nerding out right now and want to know even more about different kinds of cameras, check out this older article that briefly covers even more camera types than covered here.
what matters (and what doesn't) when you're camera shopping
Megapixels is a number that refers to the total resolution (size) of image a camera can produce. Once upon a time this was the defining factor in the quality of a digital camera, but it no longer is. We've reached a point where the most basic cameras (the camera in your cell phone, for instance) have more megapixels than my first DSLR did. Higher megapixels = bigger prints, and that is it. Even your cell phone takes pictures with enough resolution to make small prints from, so unless you're planning on printing photos the size of murals, don't waste your time worrying about megapixels.
Most digital cameras made in the last few years have around 24 megapixels, and anything around that is going to be fine. A lot of professional photographers avoid extremely high resolution cameras because they just produce larger files (which means more storage space is needed) and the extra resolution is never needed for the majority of their work. If you're shopping for a new camera, as opposed to used, chances are all the cameras you'll be looking at will be around, or higher than, 24 megapixels.
VERDICT - Megapixels are virtually irrelevant
Frames per Second
Another spec that you will frequently see is frames per second (FPS), or how many photos your camera can take one after another, in a burst. While this is a spec that is important to sports photographers who need this feature in their fast paced work, it's not usually as important for anyone else. Unless you are going to be spending most of your time photographing fast moving subjects, don't even worry about frames per second.
VERDICT - Frames per Second are virtually irrelevant
brand of camera
In general, the brand of camera doesn't matter. I know, it's basically photography blaspheme to say this but stick with me here. Remember my rant above where I said it doesn't matter what camera you get, but that knowing how to use it is what really matters? That's true when it comes to choosing a camera brand. For the average beginner photographer, brand is pretty much irrelevant. All consumer grade cameras will have virtually the capabilities and limitations. Until you become educated enough as a photographer to reach these limits, you'll never be able to take better photographs with a different camera.
With that said, there is one aspect in which the brand of camera does matter. As you grow as a photographer you'll eventually reach the point where you'll be purchasing additional lenses, and maybe even a speedlight, or other accessories. In this regard, brand matters a lot. Each different brand has different styles of connections on the camera. You can't just take a Nikon lens and put it on a Canon camera, they aren't built to attach to each other. With photography, the best investment you'll make is in the glass, or lenses, that you attach to your camera. The quality of the lens will have a greater impact on the the quality of your photographs than the quality of the camera body. Since the brand choice you make will have such a long-term impact on the lenses you can pair with your camera, if you're serious about photography then it's important to spend some time deciding on a brand.
There are many brands of cameras. You've likely heard of Canon, Nikon, and Sony, the current three biggest camera brands. Other brands include Olympus, Samsung, Pentax, Sigma, Panasonic, Leica, etc. In terms of ability to grow, Canon and Sony are the current best brands. Prior to a year ago I would have included Nikon in this list, but the digital camera world has evolved with the introduction of professional level mirrorless cameras, and Nikon isn't holding innovation ground compared to the other two brands and I wouldn't be surprised if they changed their business model completely soon. As of the writing of this post it's fair to say Nikon is still a safe purchase, but if you're leaning towards a long-term purchase with room to grow I would suggest looking at Canon and Sony more than Nikon.
The reason I'm separating these top three brands out from the rest is because most third party lens and accessory brands only build their products to fit on the most popular cameras. Buying one of these top three brands not only gives you access to reliable repair services, should they ever be needed, but it also gives you access to a wide range of third party lenses and accessories that will be vital as you grow as a photographer. I want to emphasize I'm NOT saying that Canon, Nikon and Sony cameras are better than the other brands. What I am saying is they are more flexible, and offer room to grow - which is vital for a beginning photographer. There is no "best camera", or "best brand" to create a great photograph.
VERDICT - Brand matters, to some degree
Ability to manually set the exposure
While virtually all DSLR & mirrorless cameras have the ability to manually set the exposure, this is literally the most important aspect if you're planning on growing as a photographer. "Exposure" is simply a term that refers to the combination of three different camera settings that determine the overall brightness or darkness of a photograph (you can read more about exposure in this blog post).
To be specific, the different camera settings you need control over are shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. The first hurdle all photographers go through is learning how to manually control the exposure, and understanding exposure is the key to opening up the world of possibilities available in photography (ore on this is my blog post on what to do when you get your new camera).
VERDICT - Vital, a must-have.
DSLR vs. Mirrorless
The difference between these two camera types is in how the capture the image. The quality of the images, the lens choices, and virtually everything that goes into making a photograph are the same between the two. I'll briefly touch on the main differences between the two types, as the side-effects of the technology may have some impact on your purchasing decision.
inner guts - how the image is captured
A DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) camera consists of a lens attached to a camera body that houses a sensor (what used to be film in the old days). The lens lets in the light, the sensor captures it and poof - a photograph is born. Between the lens and the sensor is a mirror, and when you look through the viewfinder of the camera, your looking down into the mirror, and out the camera lens. When you press the shutter, the mirror raises up (and in the viewfinder you'll see blackness as the mirror moves out of the way of the camera sensor) and the light its the sensor.
A mirrorless camera, as the name implies, does not have a mirror. Instead, there is nothing between the lens and the sensor! When you look through the viewfinder, you're looking at a mini-screen, known as an electronic view finder. There are pros and cons to these differences, and I'll get into the important ones below.
- Weight / size
DSLR cameras require more mechanical parts, and thus end up being a heavier and larger camera. Some people prefer this, as they think it makes them "look professional", but having such an obvious camera isn't necessarily an advantage. Besides the added weight if you're traveling, the more expensive your camera looks, the more likely it is to get stolen. Professional travel photographers often "rough up" their equipment so it doesn't scream *valuable* to any potential thieves. Additionally, it's a lot harder to fly under the radar with a DSLR. It's so funny how some beginner photographers want to "look" like a professional photographer, meanwhile many professional photographers are more interested in doing whatever it takes to not be noticed so they can capture more natural facial expressions and body language. Some professional photographers like to argue that you can't be taken seriously if you shoot mirrorless, but that is a bunch of crap. Flying under the radar provides me with so many photography opportunities at weddings that I wouldn't otherwise have, and its easier when I'm photographing out around town as well. People don't stop and pay attention to you as much when you have a mirrorless camera, making it much easier to photograph a scene or environment.
- Battery life
With a mirrorless camera, you can't just look through the viewfinder and see the scene in front of you unless you turn your camera on. Your camera has to process the scene and display it on the electronic view finder for you to be able to see anything, and this eats up battery life. Having a more mechanical system in a DSLR is actually a win in terms of battery life, as your camera doesn't need to use the battery for you to see through the viewfinder. In my opinion this is the only downfall of mirrorless cameras. As a professional wedding photographer who takes photos for 8-10 hours straight, battery life is important. That being said, the difference in battery life just isn't a big enough issue for me - there are too many other wins with mirrorless cameras. I have a second battery for each camera, and I'm in the habit of turning my cameras off. I can make one battery last an entire wedding if I have to, but that is stretching it.
bells & whistles
As with all things tech, cameras frequently come with extra bells and whistles to entice buyers. Some of these are useful to the beginner photographer, others are a waste of time. Below is a list of different features that you may find useful in a camera.
- WI-FI connectivity
- Highly recommend!
- The ability to transfer images from your camera to your phone is one of the most useful features I'll never be able to live without again.
- A moveable screen
- Highly recommend!
- The other feature I'll never be able to live without again.
- A touchscreen
- Useful in some focusing situations, but not a deciding factor in a camera. It won't effect the quality of the photographs, but depending on how you photograph it might make the process easier.
- Video ability
- Useful, but unless you're passionate about videography it's not going to be much use.
- Video files require different software than photographs to process, and if you are serious about videography than this blog post isn't the right one for you at all. Video and photography are similar, but when it comes to high-end work you end up needing different features.
additional camera knowledge
There are a few more things you're likely to come across in your research for the right camera for you, but they aren't very important at this stage in the game. You can completely skip this section and still have all the information you need to make an educated purchase. I'm not going to get too in depth, but will just provide some rudimentary background information.
There are two types of sensors found in DSLR/mirrorless cameras. Full frame sensors, and crop (sometimes called APS-C) sensors. Most consumer level cameras come with a crop / APS-C sensor and most professional level cameras come with a full-frame sensor. The difference between the two is the size of the sensor, and as implied by the names, a full frame sensor covers more ground than the crop sensor. As neither option is "better" than the other (though professional photographers love to argue this one) and there are only subtle differences in how the images look, I won't go into depth about the differences between the two. If you want more information on the differences check out this article.
In all honestly, this actually does matter. While virtually all cameras that you will come across have good auto-focus, there are differences in the speed and accuracy of the auto-focus abilities of different cameras. I'm going to stick my neck out and say that unless you're at an advanced level in photography, you're not going to be able to tell the difference. DSLR/mirrorless cameras have multiple ways to set the auto-focus, and the majority of your focusing issues will be solved by learning that, instead of trying to buy a "better" camera. The auto-focus specs are important for some sub-sections of photography (sports photography, for example) but when it comes to beginners it's not going to be as important.
Size of the screen
For some photographers, the screen size is important. While screens on cameras are all similar sizes, some photographers spend a lot of time looking at theirs and prefer a larger or smaller screen. Screen size will not impact the quality of your photograph. It is important to be comfortable using the camera, so test the cameras you're considering purchasing at your local camera shop (The Camera Exchange in San Antonio is amazing), and if the screen size bothers you it might be worth looking at other models, but it doesn't effect the quality of the photograph or your ability to create a good photograph.
Mic input, resolution, and other videography specs
If you're looking for a good camera for videography, you're reading the wrong blog post. I'm a photographer, not a videographer, and I've only experimented with videography enough to know that it is completely different from photography.
What to Get
Now that you have a new level of understanding about cameras and photography it's time to dive into different cameras to start looking at. While there are tons of different "best cameras to buy" lists, and I highly recommend you spend some time looking at the different options, I'm going to provide a starting place based on my personal preferences.
I'm a Sony mirrorless shooter, and love the cameras they produce. No, I don't get paid to say that (I wish I did) I just love their gear. All of my digital photography for the past few years is using Sony bodies and lenses. The cameras are light-weight, small, high quality and have an amazing range of professional lenses. If you are leaning more towards a mirrorless camera than a DSLR, Sony is the place to start. They are responsible for shaking the foundation of the camera industry and bringing mirrorless cameras into the professional end of the spectrum. Canon is also working on their mirrorless cameras but as of 2017, Sony is brand to beat when it comes to mirrorless.
That being said, Canon has always been a solid rock when it comes to quality DSLRs. Personally, I prefer shooting mirrorless as you may have noticed above, but since there is no quality difference between the two, it's important to pick the type of camera that you're most comfortable shooting with.
When you're camera hunting, remember that DSLR/mirrorless cameras can be sold "body only" or as a "kit". When sold as a kit, the camera will come with a lens, but it is going to be a low quality lens. With photography the lens is where you want to sink your money, but when you're first getting started it can be hard to justify spending an additional $300+ for a decent lens when you're already spending what feels like your life savings on a camera body.
When it comes to buying lenses, I'll really have to write a whole other blog post - there is just too much to talk about, and too much to go over, but there is one easy suggestion I can offer, and it's to purchase a "nifty fifty" lens instead of just accepting the lens that comes with the kit. Since the lens is one of the biggest determiners of the quality of the photograph, spend an extra $100-$200 and get a 50mm lens. You can get a decent 50mm lens for less than $300, no matter the camera type or brand you go with, and it'll be the best money you can spend when you're starting out.
There are thousands of different kinds of accessories you can buy, but there are a few that are must haves.
- Extra camera batteries. If you buy a mirrorless camera you need at least one extra battery, but even if you have a DSLR it's always a good idea to have a backup battery. Different batteries are made for different cameras so make sure you buy the one specific to the camera type you buy.
- Memory cards. You'll need one to take photographs, and I'm not going to cover which ones to buy here (from a beginner perspective it doesn't matter, unless you're shooting video).
- Lens filter. There are many different types of filters you can put on the front of your lens for different reasons, but every photographer should have a simple polarize filter on each of their lenses. Why? When you drop your camera or lens, if it lands face down it will land on the filter, and potentially crack the easily replaceable filter, instead of cracking the glass of the actual lens. Cheapest insurance you'll ever buy is a filter for your lens.\
- Adobe Photoshop / Lightroom. Okay, so this isn't so much an accessory as it is software, but for $10/month you can have professional level software. The downside is that you'll need to invest some time learning each program before they'll be easy to use, but for $10/month you have no excuses.
Sadly, photography knowledge doesn't come when you purchase a camera. The good news is there are many different places you can go to learn about photography, some free and some not.
If you're local to San Antonio ...
- Landers School of Photography, while I have no personal experience with Landers, they have a great reputation among beginner and experienced photographers alike.
- The Camera Exchange, again I have no personal experience with their classes, but their reputation is great and their employees are fantastic in-store when it comes to educating beginner photographers
If you're local to San Antonio and prefer a more personal, 1-on-1 approach, I offer training to all levels of photographers, whether you're looking for help with one specific aspect of photography, or you just are wanting to grow and don't know where to start. Reach out to me via my contact page, or message me on social media (Facebook or Instagram) to schedule a 1-on-1 session!
In person education
- Most community colleges have classes that you can take on photography, and if you're willing to spend a little bit of money and invest a semester of your life, you can learn a ton.
- Seminars / workshops are offered by professional photographers around the world, but they tend to be quite pricey and geared towards more experienced photographers.
- YouTube. A few of my favorite photography related channels are:
- DigitalRev TV - all things photography, with an emphasis on the gear end of things
- The Slanted Lens - a great resource for learning about light
- SLR Lounge - a great resource for growing as a portrait photographer
- PHEARN - all things post-production (Photoshop / Lightroom), and a little photography stuff too
- Peter McKinnon - all things photography, from post-production to tips and tricks, and general photographer stuff
- The Art of Photography - photography basis, gear reviews, inspiration, and film photography information.
- Resource Sites. I stalk these three sites:
- SLR Lounge - their professional level membership was my Christmas gift to myself this year, I've learned more from this website (before signing up to give them all my money) than any other place on the internet. Their paid membership is worth it, but you'll still have access to great information without paying.
- Fstoppers - they have everything from inspiration, to gear deals, to new software releases, to tutorials.
- Petapixel - similar to Fstoppers, they have articles on everything on their site.
Lastly, the For Photographers section of my blog is a collection of blog posts like this one, written exclusively for beginner photographers. There are hundreds of other photographers who also have YouTube channels, or who write blog posts for beginner photographers as well, so explore the internet. Education is the most valuable time and money investment you can make when it comes to being a photographer. While not all professional photographers are interested in furthering the education of others, developing a relationship with a photographer who is will be the number one best learning experience you can have.
What camera should you buy?
If you are still reading this post you deserve to buy a new camera, you're clearly serious about it and (let's be honest) that was a ton of reading! If you're just not sure where to start, here are two great cameras for beginners you can check out. You should understand, by now, that there is no simple answer to the question "what camera should I buy", and the best thing you can do to become a better photographer is to learn about photography, and how to use whatever camera it is that you have.