Blog: What Kind of Camera Should I Buy

Rory Young Photography Colorado. (C) Rypix.com

One of the most common questions that I am asked, is…

“What kind of camera should I buy?”

Now, this is a great question, because the answer that you choose will determine to a large degree the ease of use and the style of photos that you take as you use the camera.

When solving this dilemma, there’s a short answer, a practical answer, and a longer, definitive answer. These answers divide the ideas of practicality and ease of use versus quality and specific need when choosing a camera. Generally, the answer path that you follow is determined by the degree of importance that the camera will justify.

Click below, if you’d like to skip ahead to the style of answer that you feel the most comfortable with…

Skip To The Simple Answer
Skip To The Brand Answer
Skip To The Practical Answer
Skip To The Longer Answer


The simple answer.

The kind of camera that you need should be one that meets your needs for the task that you have for it, whether it’s for travel and sight-seeing, for business or pleasure, for bird and animal watching, or for taking pics of the kids or grandkids. It should match the purpose that you desire for it.

A great camera doesn’t have to be expensive.
It need not be the latest and greatest model with all the bells and whistles.

It doesn’t even have to be new.

However, it does need to take photos that are visually pleasing (or meet the technical requirements for the task), and it should be easy and intuitive to use.

Also, the images that it records should have large enough of a saved image size that will meet your needs.

Finally, the size should be compact enough that you’ll not find carrying it around a burden.


The “Brand” answer.

Now, we take a look at this from the idea that any one particular brand of camera is noticeably better than another brand.

Which brand is the best?

Are you ready for this? Here’s the secret:

The brand doesn’t really matter. It’s how you use the camera that matters most of all.

There was a time (and this battle still rages on, although it’s pretty much passed the area of practical use and need) when one brand would have an advantage over another in terms of megapixel count, image quality, or durability and ease of use. With perhaps the possible exception of mirrorless versus mirrored (dSLR), I don’t really think that there’s a major difference in the quality that the major brands offer. To be fair, I think mirrorless will ultimately win out over dSLR, but for the time being, I personally use dSLR over mirror, and only because of the personal reason that I prefer the dSLR viewfinder versus the mirrorless LCD. But, other than that, they’re basically the same. That’s meaning all things being generally equal, when you’re comparing similarly performing models across different manufacturer’s product lines.

Brand doesn’t determine the size of the image, unless you’re looking for the current camera with the highest pixel count (image size). At the time of this writing, it’s Canon (for dSLR), and I happen to own it. But that doesn’t mean that Nikon or Sony won’t come out with a new model w/ a higher count. And, it doesn’t mean that I’ll switch to a different brand, just to get a higher pixel count camera. Choose a brand because you like the images the camera produces, or because of the quality and feel of the camera in your hand and for it’s remarkable line of lenses and accessories. After that, be satisfied with what you have. In most cases, you’ll realize that a better photo can be had by the improvement of your technique and knowledge and not the camera body or lens. True, cameras do have their limitations, but learn the basics so that you can find those limitations.


The practical answer

In a nutshell, here are some practical thoughts:

Choose a 35mm film camera when:

– You know the difference between film and digital, and need film ( or its grain ) for the task.

– You are a student, and your photography class instructor dictates it for the assignment.

Choose your cell phone camera when:

– You do not need the highest quality or large-sized images.

– You want the ultimate in small size and portability.

– Your other cameras could be stolen or damaged.

– You don’t want to bring significant attention to yourself as a photographer.

Choose a compact/CCD when:

– You need a small sized, general point-and-shoot for travel, and the image quality is good enough for small/medium sized prints or social media.

– You don’t want to deal with the technical details and don’t need advanced or expensive equipment.

– More expensive cameras could be stolen or damaged.

Choose a prosumer digital SLR when:

– You’re starting out in photography and know that you’ll need equipment or images that will need to be of higher quality.

– You need images 11 inches X 14 inches or greater.

– You need a good camera with interchangeable lenses for photography class.

– You are an accomplished photographer, you understand how to pull quality from pro-sumer equipment, and the situation/location/security of the task sufficiently calls for it.

– More expensive equipment could be stolen or damaged.

Choose a fully professional digital SLR, or high-quality equipment/lenses, when:

– A task or job should not be completed without the functionality of this equipment.

– You need images 11 inches X 14 inches or greater.

– You understand the difference and price in the quality of the equipment, and the task calls for a device of this quality.

– You regularly ( or more occasionally, even ) perform photographic tasks for others that calls for a high standard of image quality.


The ‘Longer’ Answer.

Just what is a digital camera, anyway?

Today, most cameras take a photograph and record the image to a physical form of media known as a memory card, which is simply a type of recordable media that can be easily written to and copied from, removed from the camera, and stored for later use. But, recordable, digital media was not always how it was accomplished. Earlier cameras used a product known as film ( and plates ), which were light sensitive and recorded the amount of exposed light onto the film, thus creating the photograph for later reproduction. Now, this is a huge simplification, but all this boils down to bring up the fact that, in today’s general photographic use, the role of digital media has surpassed film as the popular and accepted method by which photographs are taken and stored.

There are differences in the sizes of digital cameras and their sensors. For the most part, smaller sensors mean more noise or grain in the photo, and larger sensors mean less noise, although we never really get rid of sensor noise in electronics. Different sensor sizes exist in consumer lines of cameras, even with the same manufacturer. If you’re looking for a camera to enjoy and to take good photos, the good news is that, with today’s wide range of cameras on the market, by far the majority take great photos. You only need to be concerned with sensor size, image size, and lens assortment if you’re thinking of going beyond a good, general use camera, and delving into the deep realm of more advanced photography, where your choice of camera body and lens can change the image that you photograph.

  • An example of sensor noise. I love this image, although noise is visible in the clouds. Alaska’s skies can be unforgiving when it comes to sensor noise, but this camera was the best that I had at the time.

Photography is both an art and a science

Before we discuss the answers and the decision you make in determining which camera best fits your needs, we need to address one key item of photography, and this is, frankly a big one, in the scope of things.

We need determine whether the photographer or the camera plays the biggest role in defining the artistic quality of the image. And, for the most part, since art is in the realm of a person’s understanding and not in a device, I’ll go ahead and say that:

The artistic quality is in the Photographer, not the Camera.

Yes, photography is one of the subjects that comprise both art and science. Meaning, most photos are subjective as to whether they’re actually “good” or not. And, the concept of “good” is totally up to the person viewing the image. You can’t negate another’s view or opinion of a photograph. An image that appears to be beautiful or pleasing to one person may in fact be totally different on the beauty scale to someone else. And, for several valid reasons, be it artistic, emotional, based upon historical or other views, newsworthiness or events.

  • Determining the artistic quality of a photograph means taking into account all of its elements. In the photograph above, the mountains in the foreground look nice, but take on a wholly different perspective when compared to Denali, which peeks out from among the clouds in the top right.

Remembering There are Rules of Photography

So, if photography is subjective, then how are we ever to take a great photograph?

The good news is that there are a number of widely accepted views that can help determine whether a photograph is “good” or not; in photography, these are called rules. And, for the most part, these rules serve as wonderful guidelines in helping you take a working camera and photographing an image that conforms to the norms of beauty. However, equally as good is the fact that, in photography, the “rules” can be broken. Generally, in either a way that is wonderfully beautiful, or in a way that resembles a train wreck. For the most part, you have to first learn what the rules are before you can go forward with breaking them in ways that garner artistic merit.

Finding your niche in Photography

And that means that you, as a photographer, have to find where you fit, in the artistic realm of photography. As you begin, you’ll usually work with concepts such as lighting, camera settings, and composition. You’ll find as you progress that the concepts that you started with are always with you. They never leave. You’re simply learning more aspects of their depth and breadth. You don’t stop dealing with the basic concepts of photography just because you’ve learned them; rather, you base your photographic work on them as a foundation for understanding their intricate and infinite nuances.

  • Here, shooting into the oncoming morning light means less light in the shadow areas, giving a silhouette to the land and building. I used the rule of center for the steeple, but opted to shoot into the sun for the wonderful effect it gives. Which particular way you choose to make the image is your own choice.

Why the need for Professional Gear?

So, if the artistic quality lies in the photographer, and the camera is not the prime source of the beauty, then why the need for professional camera gear?

That’s simple. It’s because professional equipment offers a greater output of quality for the same amount of work invested in it. In the same way that a professional race car driver has access to a greater amount of horsepower and balance in his car, and he/she understands how to use the car’s attributes in a way as to win the race, even so does a photographer understand the features, qualities and attributes in a high performance camera (or lens, etc.) that gains them an edge in making a better photo.

A photographer doesn’t always need professional gear as a requirement of making fantastic photos. They understand how to make great photos from even decent quality gear, as long as the gear works correctly. There is, however, a point at which your skills develop to understanding the power of good photographic gear, and your level of consistently delivering quality work is reinforced by using quality gear.

But, that being said, there also exists certain gear — portrait lenses, for example — that allows the artist a greater level of manipulation in delivering final work that an otherwise generic lens might not allow.

And, it’s the same with the camera that you ultimately purchase. Whatever the level of quality, whatever the megapixels and bells and whistles, the camera has a certain build quality that allows a general level of expertise up to a point. That point may be higher or lower than your competency scale… but, you will generally want to choose a camera that’s as good as or higher than your level of competency and creativity.

And, of course, you will begin to learn your camera and accessories. With time and experience, you’ll find their quality points. And, sometimes you’ll set a camera or lens aside only to later discover it’s strengths in an area that you totally forgot about. All camera bodies, lenses and accessories have a reason for existence and usefulness, and a point at which a task or project will exceed their limitations. At some point, you’ll know when you’ve passed the limitations of a camera or lens, and you’ll know whether that means investing in a newer camera body w/ more specific functions, or a more specialized lens that allows a greater amount of light to hit the sensor.

  • The photo above was shot with a 12mm f/2.8 lens whose wide aperture allows more light to hit the camera sensor than less sensitive lenses. This sort of lens makes shooting the night sky possible, since enough light can be read by the sensor to record a well exposed photograph before the stars begin to trail off.

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Types of cameras that are available

Yes, there are technically more cameras than this, but if you’re reading this article and deciding whether you need a medium format over a dSLR, or a Twin Lens Reflex over a film SLR, then, congratulations: you’ve pass the scope of this article. However, if you want to find out whether you want to use a CCD Consumer over a Pro-sumer, then read on.

All of these cameras listed, even the camera built into your smart cell phone, have the ability to take wonderful photos. Don’t be misled into thinking that you need the highest-rated camera in order to take the best photo. It’s just not true. However, you’re not always going to get the best photo possible with each type, simply because cameras function differently, and as a result may not capture tonal and lens qualities of better made devices.

With that in mind, here are some of the basic types of cameras that are available in today’s market:

– 35mm film camera

Pros:

That “actual” film look and feel. And, the fact that many instructors feel that you learn more by getting back to the basics of light and utility.

Cons:

Film is dead, for most purposes.

I’ll say it: for the mainstream, film is dead. That’s not to say it’s not still used by students and experts. But, by and large, not many use it. Gone are the days of buying rolls of film, loading one into the back of the camera, shooting off a roll, and waiting in anticipation for the shot.

If you are using a film camera, then your choice is primarily based upon whether you want to use one that uses the same lenses as your modern dSLR. If that’s the case, then you’ll choose either a Canon EOS style film camera whose mount is compatible w/ today’s current Canon EOS lenses, or a Nikon film camera whose mount covers the formats which are available, today. Pentax is still good. And, of course, if you can find an older working system with lenses, then by all means, go for it.

If you choose a different brand or model, one that’s not current w/ today’s set, you’re simply limited to finding those older lenses. And, the wonderful thing is, they still exist!

– Your cell phone camera

Pros:

These are great to carry around for things like social media posts, candid shots, and general purpose photography when you need to document the scene. They’re great for this, and they’re only getting better.

Also, they are awesome for social videos!

Cons:

With these, you’re generally limited to good light. They have poor telephoto ability. Also, the small image sensor size can lead to noisy photos when light isn’t good. Also, they don’t tend to print large, clear images.

– Compact, non-dSLR ( often called “Consumer”, or CCD Camera. )

This is the “compact camera” alternative that many people purchase instead of a DSLR. This particular camera is seen as more cost effective than the bigger cameras. There are few that I like, because of their poorer image quality as compared to DSLRs, but once in awhile, you run across a decent one.

Pros:

Small size. Easy to carry.

Cons:

Image quality can tend to be poor. Also, the camera can tend to lag behind when you press the shutter button… so what you see is not exactly at the same time that you shot the image.

– dSLR “Pro-sumer”

This type of camera can range from enthusiast to semi-professional. If you think of the nice Nikon or Canon Digital SLR that’s in the box store, packaged with the wide angle and telephoto at a great price, you’re thinking correctly.

Generally, these are great cameras. They’re not as weatherproofed and solidly built as the professional line, but they have a great number of options, and do pretty well with image quality. In fact, many photographers use these as either their main camera, or as the backup camera.

One possible downside of the prosumer line is that most of the cameras come with “cropped sensors”. This simply means that the sensor isn’t actually the full 35mm size, and for the most part, you’ll likely not be worried by this. Generally speaking, cropped sensors mean you get an amount of magnification of the original lens length. So, if for example, you have a Canon crop sensor body which crops at 1.6 times the original 35mm frame, then you’ll see a 1.6x magnification through the lens. A 100mm lens on a normal, full frame body would yield 160mm length on a cropped sensor. Does this harm the final image? Possibly… if you are trying to shoot really wide angle images. But, for anything else, it seems that cropped sensor cameras are fine. For more information, see my article on cropped sensors vs full size sensors.

– dSLR “Professional”

These are the more expensive lineup of cameras from the manufacturers. They’re good, built to withstand drops and weather changes, and come in both full frame and cropped sensor formats. The image quality is fantastic. You’ll generally see higher megapixel and ISO capability, faster read/write storage times, and higher shutter speed. The shutter mechanism is generally of a higher build quality, as well. Also, the viewfinder is typically brighter, and the focusing ability is good. These cameras look good, feel good in the hands, work well whether in a portrait setting, or if you’re out in the field.


In Closing…

So, in summary, you can see that there are many facets as to which camera you might need. Some are great for portability. Some are great for image quality. Some allow you to use different lenses for wide angle or telephoto. Hopefully, this article has shed some light on which type might be useful to you. In any case, I encourage you to settle upon which style of camera fits your needs, then purchase one with the features and price that fits your budget… and then, as I aways say…

Get out and photograph!

 

Rory
Rory
Rory Young is the owner of RyPix and a photographer around Denver, Colorado, and the majestic Rocky Mountains. Whether photographing the Eiffel on the Seine, or evading 1,100lb Alaskan grizzlies to capture rugged mountain vistas, he strives to carry quality and passion from the lens to the print. His unique style shows, whether in portraiture, landscape, or event photography.

2 Comments

  1. Susan says:

    Fantastic article with very useful information. Well written and easy for anyone to understand. Thank you!

  2. Bobby D. Young says:

    Rory, I can’t begin to express how great a photographer you have become. The article is factual and well written. Times have changed the equipment and media since I was a starving photographer. But one thing remains the same. The beauty that the eye sees. That’s what makes a true photographer. You my son, are a photographer in the truest sense. I’m proud of you and blessed to be your uncle. I love your work and I love you more. Uncle Bobby

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