About once a month, someone asks me how to pick a “good camera,” making this my most frequently asked question (well, other than online dating advice :)). Most of them are either:
- having their 1st baby
- wanting to take better photos of the kids they already have, and/or
- aspiring to advance their photography hobby into a business.
If that describes you and you find camera buying a tad overwhelming and confusing, then read on! Also, check out my “Best Camera” series.
1. Choosing a Brand
First, go to a major online retailer with comprehensive inventory, reviews, and specs, like B&H Photo Video, and start using their filtered search tools to explore your options.
Most people know Canon and Nikon. Both are excellent. I shoot Nikon, but Canon is also a great brand. Generally speaking, they take turns being in first place, for different reasons. [Cue the arguments in the comments section…]
- Way back when, Canon produced the first digital camera.
- Nikon is generally considered to have better “glass” (lenses), while Canon is better at video (but Nikon is catching up in a hurry).
- Nikon has cameras with more megapixels (higher resolution).
- Canon is used more by wedding/portrait photographers, Nikon by commercial photographers.
- Brand is less important than the features included – so keep reading below.
- In recent years, other brands have made great strides catching up to the two big dogs, like Sigma, Pentax, Sony, etc. They are worth considering.
- Once you pick a brand, you will want to stick with it, because the lenses are not interchangeable. You cannot use Nikon lenses with Canon camera bodies, or vice versa. “Off brand,” less expensive lenses like Tokina may work on both, though.
- Talk to photographers (plural, not just one!) that are shooting the kind of jobs you want to shoot, and get their advice about the most recent trends. If you aspire to be a wedding photographer, then talking to a landscape photographer about gear won’t be as relevant.
2. Buying a “Camera Kit” Versus Camera Body + Lenses Separately
You can buy a camera body and lenses either separately or together in a “kit.” Kits appeal to most first time buyers because they are economical, and most first time DSLR buyers don’t know enough to narrow down the hundreds of choices on their own. Unfortunately, the quality of kit lenses is invariably inferior. Manufacturers do not sell their best lenses in kits, so keep that in mind.
- If saving money is your top priority, and you have no plans to run a photography business, then buy a kit.
- If the quality of your lens(es) and its long-term potential as a pro shooter is your top priority, then buy a camera body a lens(es) separately.
3. How to Pick a Camera Body
I shoot Nikon, so I will explain Nikon bodies here. There are two kinds of Nikon DSLRs and lenses: “DX” and “FX.” FX camera bodies have a “full frame” sensor; that is what pros use. FX bodies are 2-3x more expensive because their sensors are far superior to DX bodies (among other factors). The sensor is arguably the most important factor in the quality, flexibility, and longevity of the images you produce – in my mind, equally important as the quality of your glass and your skills as a photographer. That said, I started out on a DX body and later upgraded, which is a normal and acceptable path in the field.
- DX Body: Under Product Highlights, see “24.1MP DX-Format CMOS Sensor”
- FX Body: Under Product Highlights, see “35.9 x 24.0mm CMOS FX Format Sensor”
Many DX cameras are absolutely excellent today. Since FX bodies are cost-prohibitive for most entry-level photographers, you may want start with a DX body with a nice FX lens (or two) for your first purchase. Later, when the cash is rolling in and you upgrade to an FX body, those FX lenses can stick around. More on that below.
4. How to Pick a Lens(es)
FX bodies can only use FX lenses. In contrast, DX cameras can use DX and FX lenses. In addition to that compatibility issue, there are three major factors to consider when choosing a lens.
- Crop Factor. When shooting with a DX body + FX lens, the crop factor is 1.5x because of the DX’s smaller sensor. Consequently, the equipment performs like you are shooting with a longer zoom lens. For example, if your DX body has a 50 mm lens attached, what the camera “sees” is comparable to shooting with an FX body and a 75mm lens.
- Prime vs. Zoom. “Prime” lenses have only one focal length; they do not zoom. You have to move your little feet to change your field of view. Prime lenses are generally better quality, more expensive, and preferred by pros of all types when given a choice. Prime lenses have maximum sharpness and performance due to better glass and mechanics. Zoom lenses can be excellent (I have several), but the quality varies widely, depending on 1) their “maximum aperture” and 2) whether the maximum aperture is “variable.” The lower the”f” number in the lens description, the wider the maximum aperture, which means the lens can allow more light to reach the sensor, allowing you to shoot in lower-light situations more easily without flash. If you see an f number with a range, like 4 – 5.6, that means the lens has a variable maximum aperture. At some focal lengths, the maximum aperture is 4, while at others, it’s 5.6 or somewhere in between. A lens description that reads “f./2.8” indicates a higher quality lens that one that reads “f/4 – 5.6,” because the lens allows more light in and it has a fixed maximum aperture.
- Compression and Distortion. Longer lenses create more compression. Wider lenses create more distortion. Compression makes portraits look pretty. Distortion makes people look like they are looking at themselves in one of those fun house mirrors at the fair. That’s why portrait photographers generally shoot with lenses having longer focal lengths, like 70mm, 85mm, or 105mm, and avoid lenses like a 14mm wide-angle.
- FX Lens: Under Product Highlights, see “Fast f/1.8 Compact FX-Format Prime Lens”
- DX Lens: Under Product Highlights, see “For DX-Format D-SLRs;” also in lens title, “Nikon AF-S DX Nikkor 18-200mm…”
- Prime Lens
- Zoom Lens with Fixed Aperture
- Zoom Lens with Variable Aperture
Choose lenses carefully based on your goals as a photographer. If you aren’t sure, buy a flexible lens, like a mid-range zoom with the lowest f-number.
- Landscape & Wildlife Photography: Many landscape and wildlife photographers like the DX body + FX lens combo, because it gives them more zoom without having to pay for a longer lens (longer lenses = more $$, especially for prime lenses, like this one).
- Architectural Photography: Wide angle lenses are generally required. Look for lenses that have a low “mm” number, i.e. 14-24mm (zoom), or 24mm or 35mm (prime).
- Portrait Photography: Generalist, mid-level portrait photographers seeking flexibility often use a less-expensive prime like the 50mm f/1.8 or a medium zoom like the 24-70mm f/2.8 (both excellent lenses). The best and most expensive portrait lenses have a fixed maximum aperture of f/1.2 or f/1.4. A pro-grade prime like the 85mm f/1.4 is what most portrait togs aspire to own.
- Wedding Photography: Usually have deep camera bags including 1) the portrait lenses mentioned above, 2) wide angles for group and architectural shots, 3) a zoom or two to minimize intrusions during the ceremony and 4) primes for the posed portraits. Not to mention lighting…that’s a whole other post. Most likely not written by me. 🙂
- Event Photography: A camera bag that includes zooms for big rooms and lenses capable of shooting in low light without flash.
- Sports Photography: Zooms and “fast” lenses capable of shooting at high shutter speeds to stop action.
5. The Importance of Megapixels
In my opinion, megapixels are overrated. Megapixels relate to the resolution of the image produced, but the quality of the image is driven more by the users photography skills and the quality of the camera’s sensor. A 24mpx camera that has a poor quality sensor and is used by a person that doesn’t understand the fundamentals of photography is totally worthless. Case in point: some phone cameras now have like a million mpx, but if you try to enlarge phone pictures into prints beyond a basic 8×10, in most cases they are grainy and lack sharpness and detail. That’s because the sensor is crap compared to the sensors in a DSLR, and because they are not capable of shooting in low light as well as a good lens. (Note: I explored the difference between a DSLR and iPhone in my Best Camera Series.)
Most people do not need 24mpx+ camera, unless you plan to shoot images for billboards, go through a ton of memory cards, and fill up a 4TB hard drive twice a year. Megapixels can dramatically drive up the cost of a camera, so don’t stress over this aspect too much: for 90% of people, amateur and pro, 12-14 mpx is plenty. Just buy what you can afford, prioritizing the sensor and lenses first.
Questions? Arguments? What did I miss? Get wrong? Comment below! And if you do, make sure to tell us what you shoot with, and what types of photography you are doing to help other readers. I am interested in the advice of other pros in this area, too! Thx!
Hope this helps.