There are a lot of camera options out there right now. And since I use my camera for a living many people have been asking me recently what I think is a good camera to buy. I'm honored to try to answer this question. However, it's a complicated question. I'll try to break it down as simply as I can. I don't know every camera and lens out there – this just scratches the surface – but hopeful it gives a good direction to set off in.
So a good camera is going to make me a better photographer?
No. A camera is a tool. Just like any job, photographers have tools. A chef has many ingredients and a set of good pots but the cooking – the art – is done by the chef and not the stove. So if anyone really wants to take good photos, regardless of what camera they have, they need to read this book: Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson. Seriously. There aren't any shortcuts here. No camera is going to substitute for really knowing what makes a good photo. This book covers the basics better than any other book I've seen.
Good photography takes investment of time and energy – not just money in a new camera.
Ok, I'm off my soapbox now. You want to learn how to take good photographs and you want a good tool to help you do that. Right then, here you go…
The first question: What kind of camera do I want?
There are two main types of cameras I'll talk about:
Compacts: normally known as point-and-shoots. There are different variations of these (we'll talk about these in a minute). Normally though, these cameras are known to have “shutter-lag” (meaning, when you press the button it takes a while to take a photo), have smaller sensors and generally not produce results of the “professional cameras.” However, they are smaller and often cheaper. You don't have to buy extra lenses too (most of the time), which keeps the cost down.
SLR (single-lens reflex): the typical thing people think of – a big camera body with interchangeable lenses. The original SLRs used film. The DSLRs are digital versions. They are fast to take a photo, have lens options galore and are what the pros use. They are bigger though and often require more investment (camera body, lenses, etc). But for anyone wanting to really learn the craft of photography, this is where you need to be.
The Megapixel Race…
There are many options with all of these cameras – some things you shouldn't care much about and others are very important. Let's establish this right now: megapixels (MP) aren't really that important. Sure, you go to the store and this camera is 10MP and this one is 12MP so the 12MP must be better, right? Wrong. Basically we are at a place with technology where megapixels just doesn't matter anymore. Anything 6MP or more is plenty for any kind of prints you're going to be doing for home use. The megapixel race is used to sell more newer cameras more often – it's important in a sense but it's used a gimmick. Don't worry about it.
What is important?
Sensor size. The camera in your phone might be a 6MP camera but the sensor is tiny compared to 35mm film (the standard film size before digital cameras). In general, the larger the sensor the better quality and quantity of light the camera (and you) will have to work with when creating a photo. And photography is all about light! Larger sensors help us create images on SLRs that can't really be done with compact cameras – just because of physics. Without getting any more complicated than that for now, let me show you the size difference (this is to scale):
As you can see, the 35mm full-frame sensor is the largest listed here (I won't be covering anything larger than these as then we are getting into cameras that cost +10k!). Most professional photographers are using full-frame cameras. Most compact cameras are all the way on the other end of the spectrum. Look at the size difference!
What are some good compact cameras?
Each person has different shooting needs and desires. One person might want the best sensor, one wants the best zoom, etc. Here are a few that are very good cameras to take a look at:
Canon PowerShot S95
~$290. This camera has the smallest sensor but is the best of the best in that size. It's body is super small so it fits in the pocket. This is a top of the line point and shoot. Canon's more larger and more rugged version of this is the G11.
Olympus PEN E-P3
~$830. Olympus' 3rd generation 4/3's camera. This camera gives you a great little compact body with a middle of the road size sensor. You can buy different lenses and attachments (flashes, etc). A nice little system. The first generation E-P1 is still available and is a cheaper option.
~$1200. This camera is a APS-C sensor (the largest in this group). I LOVE THIS CAMERA. It's my travel camera. However, it doesn't have any zoom. It's a fixed 35mm lens meaning I have to move my feet to get in closer or further away. That doesn't bother me because this is like carrying around a DSLR in my pocket.
~$800. Since the X100 didn't have zoom, Fuji created the X10 that does! However, it has the smaller Two-Thirds sensor. This is a new camera (just came out a few weeks ago) so we'll see what the reviews are. But if it's anywhere near as nice as the X100, it's going to be pretty sweet.
As you can see, you can spend a lot of money on a compact camera — and they don't end up being all that compact sometimes too!
I want something bigger… the DSLR buying guide
I'll start by saying this: camera bodies are quickly coming and going. Technology advances quickly. One of the best things you can invest in here is good lenses. They will go with you as you continue to upgrade your bodies. A lot of Nikon and Canon lenses from the film days still work on their DSLR cameras today! There are exceptions and I'll try to note those.
I shoot with Nikon cameras and lenses. The camera body just seems right to me. The menus and buttons are where I'd think they should be (for the most part). But that's me and technology wise Canon and Nikon are pretty close together in quality at this point. There are even great Sony and Pentax cameras out there too. I'd suggest sticking with one of the big two names though. There are often more lenses and accessories options for them, if nothing else.
Also, buy buying used or a generation or two behind you can often keep the costs down while at the same time get something pretty darn good. You don't always need the newest and best – especially if you're just starting out. You will take A LOT of bad photos starting out. That's cool – practice makes perfect.
I'll list two good options for Nikon and Canon. These are all “crop-sensor” bodies. To get into full frame you start looking well over the $2k range (like the amazing Nikon D700 or equally awesome Canon 5DmII). Most cameras also do video now but if that's not your main purpose in getting into a camera like this don't get too distracted by those specs.
~$1400. Nikon's top of the line consumer DSLR right now. I know some pros that use this as a backup (if not as their main camera). It works with both AF and AF-S lenses (more on that below). It's got great ISO capabilities (great in low light) and yes, has good video too.
~$550. The more affordable Nikon option. Still a great option, just not as many bells and whistles. This camera will only work with AF-S lenses though (see below). The newer version (the D5100) doesn't really add enough to warrant the jump to $750.
~$1600. This is Canon's comparable camera to the D7000 from Nikon. Amazing low-light capabilities and great video. My Canon friends were drooling over this camera when it came out (they still are!). It's the top consumer model.
Canon Rebel T3
~$500. Again, the comparative to Nikon's D3100. Canon has a whole Rebel line (T2i for ~$900, the T3i for $1000) each with a different set of features. Like the Nikon D5100 though, the jump in price might not be worth it.
Some info about lenses
So I said lenses are something you really want to invest in because they will go with you from body to body as you upgrade in the future. They are also a very big part of how you create certain images. Here's some info about lenses:
The focal length (noted in mm) is how wide or telephoto a lens is. So a 18mm lens is very wide (get a lot in the photo) and a 200mm lens is very telephoto (get really close to something from far away). A lens that goes from one focal length to another is a zoom lens. A lens that is only one focal length is called a prime lens (you zoom with your feet!)
The aperture (noted as f/and then a number) of a lens affects how much light can come through the lens at once. Is it a big hole (a lot of light) or a small hole (just a little). Each creates a different image (again, read Understanding Exposure to get the details on this). Lenses that let more light in (f/2.8 and smaller: f/1.4, f/1.8, etc.) actually have a larger hole and are more difficult to make and so often more expensive.
Most of the cameras above come with a kit lens; often not a great lens and typically they are an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 lens or the like. What that means is that it's a zoom (from 18mm “wide” to 55mm “standard”). And that the hole to let the light is can be largest at 18mm (f/3.5) and is smaller at 55mm (f/5.6). Professional lenses are said to be “constant throughout” which means that if I have a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens that I can get f/2.8 at 70mm or 200mm. It's more expensive to engineer that though.
One note for Nikon: They have AF and AF-S lenses. Some of the less expensive bodies (like the D3100) are cheaper because they removed the focusing motor from the body, requiring the lens to have it internally in the lens. The AF-S lenses have the motors and will work on any of the bodies. The AF lenses need a body that has the motor on it OR you can just use it in manual focus mode only – not as much fun.
Also, Nikon and Canon makes lenses but so do some other brands. Often the other brands are less expensive but don't give the same quality. However, especially in the last few years, Sigma has been coming out with a variety of lenses that rival the main brands. I do suggest you check out Sigma lenses as well.
The must-have lens
Well, you need to start with one for sure: the “nifty fifty.” This is a great and cheap lens to start with for either Nikon of Canon. It opens really wide (f/1.8) and is good for portraits. It will give you better indoor shots (because it lets more light in at once).
Nikon 50mm f/1.8
~$200. This the AF-S model you'd need if you get the D3100. If you get the D7000, you can get the cheaper 50mm AF model for $100.
Canon 50mm f/1.8
This will work on any of the Canon bodies. The step-up is the 50mm f/1.4 lens for ~$380.
What other lenses might you want?
Nikon 35mm f/1.8
~$200. A little bit wider than the 50mm and a great lens. It's AF-S so will work on any of the Nikon bodies.
Sigma 17-70mm f/2.8-4
~$450. There is both a version for a Nikon or Canon camera. This is a good zoom lens that goes very wide to a nice portrait length. This would be good for travel, landscape and some portrait work. It's f/2.8-4 aperture is good for the price. It also has stabilization built into the lens to help with camera shake – especially indoors or in dark areas.
Nikon 50-200mm f/4-5.6
~$250. This is the cheapest telephoto lens option. It's not going to be great inside or for beautiful portraits, but outside it will work nicely for travel or anything you can't get too close to.
Canon 55-250mm f/4.0-5.6
~$200. Same as the Nikon telephoto just to the left. These are good to have in your bag but aren't the best lens for everything.
There is so much more!
Wow, as you can see, this is not an easy question or answer. There are so many more things to discuss: lens filters (get a few to protect your lenses, check the filter size on the lens page when you buy one), memory cards (Transcend is a great brand and cheaper!).
I suggest if you or someone you know is looking to get into photography they 1) buy the Understand Exposure book 2) get a DSLR they can afford and 3) get the 50mm for that camera. After about a few months of playing with all of that, they may be ready for another lens or so.
And you can purchase this equipment on other sites like ebay, B&H Photo, and Adorama. I just end up doing most of my shopping at Amazon. I buy 95% of my gear on Amazon. I love their prices and shipping (check out Amazon Prime for free 2 days shipping. I've had Prime for about 6 years now and it's awesome.)
Andy, I Need Help!
I will be offering a limited number of private one-on-one sessions to anyone interested in learning more about photography. Contact me for cost and availability. I love to teach and get to see the moment the light bulb goes off for someone. Photography is a career and a passion of mine – I have so much joy in sharing that.
If you click links above, and if you buy something, I might get a referral credit from the Amazon Associates program I'm signed up with (I'm also an affiliate of B&H and Adorama). It doesn't change the cost for you at all, they are just nice enough to say thanks for sending customers their way. I will share my opinions openly about products (both the good and the bad), however I encourage you to take due diligence before purchasing any service or product from anywhere (not just my links – this here is a good rule of thumb for life). Now you know and we can still be friends.