By far, the most common question I get in life (and including any/all topics, photo related or not, seriously!) is “Hey Shultzy, what kind of camera should I get?”
You do realize this discussion could take 9 hours, right? There’s a gazillion cameras.
But a 9 hour discussion would go against everything I’m about in SPS. So, per usual, I’ll try to break it down, as simple and straight to the point as possible. I’ll leave out some stuff, but won’t skip the important stuff. Even though this post is very long, please realize it’s not an exhaustive approach. And at the end, I’ll even make it simple for you, so that you can buy with peace and confidence!
I’m going to break digital cameras down into 3 broad categories. There could be more categories, way more, but I’m going with 3 for the sake of brevity and simplicity. Now keep in mind, I will NOT be factoring anything by way of video recording options. Otherwise you’d be reading this post for the rest of this week.
Category 1: Point and Shoot
*Above image, and all below images courtesy bhphotovideo.com. I buy all my stuff from them!
You probably know what these are. The name says it all. They point and shoot. This is, by all means, how 99% of the consumer world uses their camera, no matter if they have something fancier or not. Point. Shoot.
Fact is, there’s no use in spending much time here. You already own a point and shoot, if not a few of them. Your phone is a point and shoot…and a pretty decent one at that (and thus camera manufacturers are changing strategies). It’s really quite simple:
the advantages of point and shoots
- Small and Light. Honestly, this is the biggest advantage.
- Easy, no thinking operation. But I’m not sure that’s a pro. At least for long.
- They’re colorful. You see, I’m stretching to find advantages.
- Okay, here’s one. They’re cheap (and inexpensive)!
the disadvantages of point and shoots
- Slow. Slower focus. Slower shutter lag. Slower lenses (smaller apertures) They just aren’t very responsive. You tend to say this a lot “UGHHHH! Stupid thing! I just missed another shot!”
- Small camera sensors compared to DSLRs, which means a few things, including more depth of field even at wide open apertures.
- Not as good in low light situations as DSLRs
- May be completely limited in terms of manual controls. And of course, after SPS, you’ll want to control the camera!
I’ll say one thing about point and shoots. They have the ability to always be with you because of their small size (especially your camera phone). And, I’ve often said, “the best camera is the one that’s always with you.” That’s why the 3rd category below (mirrorless) is so intriguing to me these days…
Category 2: DSLR Cameras
Welcome to the world of “fancy cameras.” DSLR cameras, the Digital counterparts of traditional 35mm film cameras, specifically Single Lens Reflex cameras, are essentially the kind of cameras that have a real viewfinder (with mirrors and prisms and all that stuff so that you actually look through the lens) along with lenses that detach. That way you can have multiple, dedicated lenses for different ‘jobs.’
This segment has exploded in the past decade. So much so, that it’s hard to say anything worthwhile here without further breaking them down into sub-categories. Because this is very likely the target market for those here at SPS, I’m going to go ahead and do that. We have compact/entry level DSLRs, intermediate/prosumer DSLRs, and professional DSLRs.
2.1: Compact / Entry Level DSLRs
the advantages of compact DSLRs
- Larger image sensors. This means camera makers don’t have to cram as many pixels into such a small space, which in turn means better, cleaner images (especially at high ISOs). The bigger image sensor also means shallower depth of field options, so you can have the ability to make your subject stand out on a blurred background.
A word about entry level DSLRs camera sensors. Entry level DSLRs do not have a “full frame ” (as in the equivalent of a 35mm film camera) sensor. They have “APS-C” sized sensors that are more like 30%-ish smaller than the typical and ubiquitous “35mm film” cameras of yesteryear. As a result, there’s a “crop factor” to keep in mind when using lenses, because lenses are still denoted corresponding to those 35mm film cameras. Basically, the image from your typical “50mm” lens, for example, is going to be “cropped” by the smaller APS-C sized sensor. At the end of the day, this effectively gives a “zoom” effect to the lens (if ya think about it), because you’re essentially just cropping in. Effectively, your lens has more “reach” or “zoom” on a smaller sensor due to the smaller digital sensor size “crop.”
If the above paragraph doesn’t make sense. Don’t sweat it. Just know this. For entry level DSLRs (any camera with an APS-C sized sensor, which is basically any DSLR under 2k), if you buy a 50mm lens, its field of view is actually the equivalent of 75mm (80mm for Canon) in the world of 35mm film (just remember, the format for all this stuff is still based on 35mm film).
The formula for figuring out the focal-length equivalency of a 35mm-format lens used with an APS-C format sensor is as follows: multiply the focal length of the lens by 1.5, or in the case of Canon compact DSLRs, 1.6.
So, that’s why that 50mm lens actually becomes more of a short telephoto 75mm for Nikon, 80mm for Canon. Similarly, wide-angle lenses become less wide, i.e., a 20mm lens records the FOV of a 30mm (or 32mm) lens and a 28mm lens effectively becomes a closer-to-normal 42mm (or 44.8mm) lens. Telephoto lenses are equally affected. A 200mm lens effectively becomes the equivalent of a 300mm (or 320mm) lens and a 300mm lens effectively becomes a 450mm (or 480mm) lens, etc. [credit is due here to B&H photo]
And just so you know, 50mm is kinda the standard for a field of view most similar to the human eye.
- Dedicated Lenses. Believe me folks, the magic is in glass. I’d tell you to spend money on glass over camera bodies any day. Great glass makes a big difference. What’s more, camera bodies come and go every year or two. Glass is an investment that will keep its value for upwards of a decade. All to say, with a DSLR, you now have the creative ability that comes with using multiple lenses, each fit for a specific kind of job.
- More Responsive. All around! Compared to point and shoots, DSLR’s turn on faster, they focus way faster, there’s much less shutter lag (time between pressing the button and the picture actually happening), and in general, they’re just much more responsive to control (more dedicated buttons for changing settings, etc). This translates into missing less shots!
- More Control. Here’s what we’re concerned with at SPS: the ability to shoot in Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual. Also the ability to capture in RAW format (instead of just jpg) and manually change ISO. DSLRs of all types allow for such. In addition, there a ton of other ‘control’ features, like different metering modes, focusing modes, selecting different focal points, exposure compensation, white balance, scene modes, the list goes on.
- The option to shoot looking through the lens (TTL). Might sound simple, but actually looking through a viewfinder (instead of live view, i.e. a 2.5″ screen on the back of the camera) just gives a completely different experience. You see things differently. To me, it’s so much more tangible. So much more enjoyable. Add to that the fact that you have an actual mechanical shutter (meaning you feel and hear an actual ‘click’) and taking pictures becomes so much more…raw, palpable, authentic…FUN! It’s the difference in playing an actual acoustic grand piano vs an electronic keyboard. One, you feel through your bones. The other, you just hear.
- Accessories. From battery grips, to speed lights, to off camera flash, and everything in between, DSLR cameras open into a big world of photography. There’s enough out there to where you don’t ever have to stop growing and learning.
the disadvantages of compact DSLRs
- Cost, as is to be expected. Though you can usually enter the world of DSLRs for $450. That’s honestly a great value, when you think about it!
- Size. Although these entry level DSLRs are more compact than their prosumer and professional DSLR counterparts, they’re still too big to slip in a pocket or small purse.
- Feature Creep. These cameras can come almost overloaded with long menus and options. This can be overwhelming. For example, these cameras might have 12 different shooting modes. At SPS, we only need about 4, because we understand exposure. 😉
2.2: Intermediate DSLRs
“An intermediate DSLR is what its name implies, a camera that falls between entry-level and professional-level DSLRs. While this is generally true, it should not necessarily imply that an intermediate camera is unable to produce images similar in quality to professional cameras, or that it cannot be used to its maximum potential by a novice photographer. The main advantages of an intermediate camera over an entry-level one include a greater range of control over exposure settings, more robust construction, greater low-light sensitivity and a more powerful image-processing system—resulting in even cleaner, more detailed imagery than one would get using an entry-level DSLR.” -B&H Photo Video
There’s no need to make a long list of pros and cons. It’s essentially the same list as compact DSLRs, but factor in better construction, more responsiveness, better in low light capability, and sure, a bit of an increase in overall image quality. Friends who have gone from, say, a Canon Rebel to a Canon 7D tend to say that the 7D just ‘feels’ so much better…kinda like a toy compared to a fine tuned machine. It’s kinda like cars. Entry level DSLRs are like your inexpensive compact cars. Intermediate prosumer DSLRs are like your full sized, well equipped cars. They both get you to where you’re going. One just drives a lot better. One feels kinda like a go-cart. The other feels solid, responsive, and fast.
Keep in mind, if you put professional glass (lenses) on these intermediate DSLRs, you’re going to get great results!
2.3: Professional level DSLRs
“Professional-grade DSLRs are the most technologically advanced cameras in production and provide the highest-quality imagery possible, while realizing the tools necessary for photographers to gain complete control over their imagery. These cameras seldom incorporate or rely on the “auto” features found in entry-level or intermediate-level cameras, leaving much of the decision-making process to the photographer. They are designed to be rugged for more frequent, repeated use and are built to hold up under the most strenuous conditions.” -BH Photo Video
Category 3: Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens
The newest kids on the block, Mirrorless Digital Cameras. And….
I. WANT. ONE. or TWO!!!
These little guys are essentially DSLRs, except for without the mirror box assembly. Translation: They’re like mini DSLRs! They have fast, sharp, detachable lenses, great sensors (APS-C sized just like compact and intermediate DSLRs), eye level and live view viewfinders, a wide feature set of both automatic and manual controls…YET, they’re small and compact!
Honestly, I’m on the bandwagon for this new breed of camera! Some of them, I just think would be an absolute joy to use. Others have an overall approach and feature set that makes it absolutely perfect for any parent, and would thus make it to the top of any Christmas list (including myself)! And don’t forget a great portrait lens. 🙂
As for the pros and cons… You essentially get all the pros of entry and intermediate DSLRs, along with the additional benefit of a small package. Typically, they’re half the size and weight of a compact DSLR.
The downside? Honestly, for me, the first notable one: cost. You’re paying a convenience fee to get so much in such a small package. A $1200 Mirrorless camera might have similar specs and capabilities as a entry DSLR costing $750. The other thing…since they’re the new kids on the block, the lens selection is still somewhat limited. You might find 4-5 lenses available for each mirrorless camera, whereas if you buy into a Canon or Nikon (for example) DSLR, you immediately have access to hundreds of compatible lenses (including 3rd party manufacturers). One thing to note, however, is that some Mirrorless manufactures are making adapters to where you can use your 35mm formatted lenses. So, for example: On the Sony NEX series, you can buy an adapter so that you can use all the ‘normal’ Sony lenses (normal meaning its DSLR mount lenses). Nikon and Canon are doing the same thing. So that’s good. That said, you end up having a lens that’s 2-3 times the size of the body (or potentially waaay more if you slap on something like a 70-200mm 2.8IS). It somewhat defeats the purpose of having a sleek, compact, carry-with-you-anywhere camera.
So, What’s the Verdict? Just TELL ME!
“Come on Kyle, you said you’d make it easy!”
Well, I lied.
Just kidding. I didn’t lie. Here’s the truth, for those of you ready to hear it!
Your camera is just the tool. You are the image maker! I know so many photographers that can shoot the heck out of ANY scene with ANY camera, including an iPhone, because they understand photography and have VISION!
In the same way, there are master carpenters that can build entire houses to be magnificent works of art, all with handtools. You just have to give them enough time, of course. 🙂
And that brings me back to my point. Your camera is a tool. And there’s one thing I’ve learned every time I’ve built something or tried to tackle a home project: the right tools certainly help a lot. But knowledge and vision help the most.
The same is true of cameras. While good cameras help, you can create great images with sooo many of the options out there. Finding the perfect camera isn’t going to capture the perfect shots for you. So take some pressure off yourself with your buying decision!!
Your knowledge of composition, lighting, exposure, and post production will absolutely make a MUCH LARGER impact on your final product than your tool. This is practically indisputable. That’s why Shultz Photo School exists. Cameras will keep getting better. They’ll keep evolving. But nothing will replace the mom or dad behind the camera who possesses some basic knowledge, skills, and throws in a touch of vision!
I say all that to say this: The camera you buy doesn’t matter as much as you think. So many of these options on the table are GREAT options! Pick one. Your vision and knowledge will make great images, no matter what your camera!
That said, I think you’ll become frustrated with point and shoots. There are some advanced point and shoots out there. But see above for the grand piano vs electric keyboard illustration. That and DSLR’s simply offer SO much room to grow…both yourself and your toolkit (lenses, accessories, lighting, etc). So, move beyond a point and shoot. You’ll have a lot more fun after SPS with a camera that gives YOU the control.
When it comes to DSLRs, realize much of the difference between the $550 compact entry tool and the $5000 professional tool, is how it drives. Paired with great glass, they’ll actually both give you awesome results. Sure, the pro level DSLRs will win in practically every respect, but they should considering they cost 10x as much! My point, there’s somewhat of a diminishing return. I have a great friend who bought my Canon 7D. Paired with great glass, it’s remarkable. Hey can get a better camera, but will the cost justify the slight increase in quality, especially for what/how often he is using it for?
If you’re budget is $500, try and catch a Canon T3i or a Nikon D3200 or Sony A57 on sale.
If your budget is near the 1k mark, you have LOTS of options. You’d have a ton of options in the DSLR world, and also a ton of options in the brand new, rapidly growing mirrorless world. That said, if I could only own ONE single camera, I’d opt for a DSLR. As of now, DSLRs simply have more options and room for expansion via accessories (better lens selection, lighting accessories, etc). I just don’t think I’d ever want to be totally without a DSLR, but I’ve shot with one almost every day for the past 7 years, so admittedly that’s my experience. That said, I totally want a mirrorless camera in addition to my DSLRs! 😉
1k budget? You should be looking at any camera on this page or this page. If you’re anywhere north of a 2k budget and you’re looking for a full frame DSLR, then you hardly need this page. You’re likely already vested into a system, and nerdy enough to know exactly what you want. 🙂 Crazy that we can now get into full frame DSLR’s for just under 2k with the Nikon D600 (instant rebate available now taking it to $1996.95). Folks with Canon glass can go full frame for $2099 with the Canon 6D.
One LAST thing. Canon or Nikon?
hahaha! This is often the opening question upon meeting another photog. 🙂
Obviously, they’re both great. Neither is going to limit you in ANY way! This is the truth folks. That said, you’ll be building a system. Once you start buying lenses, you become committed. For example, I own about 7 Canon lenses. For me to buy a Nikon DSLR would be silly. I honestly want a Nikon D800, but I’d have to buy all new lenses, which would costs thousands. That’s why professional photogs do actually spend a lot of time researching which overall system they want to buy into.
If you already have Canon glass, I’m sure Canon will keep producing fine cameras. Same with Nikon.
And don’t forget the other players. Sony. Pentax. Olympus. Sigma. Albeit, your lens selection and overall accessories are greatest from the BIG TWO: Canon and Nikon.
I’ll end with this: Because it’s always the last question I get asked, and have to end up answering:
What do you shoot with, Kyle?
Fine. I have a Canon 5d3 as my primary body. I also have a 5d2 and still actually have my 5d1. But the camera I use quite a bit, day to day? This one.
To see the rest of what’s in my bag, click here.