How to Buy a Camera

how to buy a camera

This time of year (January/February) often sees the launch of new products from the leading  brands and 2016 is no exception. We have already seen models released by Nikon, Canon, Olympus, Fuji and Leica offering ever more sophisticated features and improvements in technology, tempting us into thinking that somehow our existing cameras, which at the time of purchase were very definitely the ‘bees knees’ (we know this because the brochures told us so) are now sadly lacking, and no longer quite up to the job. Constant upgrading to keep pace with every technological development is expensive  and unnecessary, but there will come a point when you feel it is time to buy a new camera. Herein lies the problem. With the diversity of opinion, the pressure of the marketing and the sheer range of products out there, how do you make the ‘right’ choice?

This is something which I find that I am frequently asked to offer an opinion. The question comes in a variety of forms; “what camera should I buy?”, “what camera do you use?” or even “why did you buy that camera?” The underlying assumption here is that there is a straight forward right or wrong choice, that somewhere out there is the definitive ‘best’ camera, and that this is the camera that you should own. To buy something else would be foolish. This of course is ridiculous. There are many variables that need to be taken into consideration when choosing the right camera, not all of which are clear cut. Despite what the advertising would have you believe it’s not all about megapixels and focus points. The quality of your photography is not determined by the particular camera that you use.

This is not to say that the camera has no bearing on your image making, it most certainly does. The design, features, idiosyncrasies, limitations and individual characteristics of the camera you use can all exert influence over your photography. By way of example, if a camera offers exceptional high ISO performance, you might be more likely to shoot in low light, without flash.

A particular camera might also offer additional function/facilities such as in-camera ‘double exposure’ or built in time lapse control, and this might encourage you to experiment with techniques previously considered. Perhaps the camera has built in Wifi or touch screen technology. These features might not in themselves be your primary concern, but in a straight comparison between two similar cameras, within a comparable price bracket, they might just tip the balance. The manufacturers know this.

‘This one does this, but that one’s got that…’

Although additional features might prove attractive, it is more likely that we will dismiss a potential camera by virtue of its perceived limitations. “Camera A has 56 focus points whilst that camera B only has 24”. “What about face recognition autofocus, or 7 stops of exposure bracketing”. But is so much choice always a good thing? Sometimes less can be more. It can be liberating to embrace fixed parameters, rather than constantly experimenting with settings and introducing variables to cloud the creative process. If the camera has a fixed lens for example, that’s one less decision to make, one less obstacle between you and the picture. Ultimate expression of this philosophy can be seen in Leica’s ‘Monochrom’, a camera that has no autofocus, uses only prime lenses (no conventional zoom), only offers manual or aperture priority exposure control and as the name suggests only shoots in monochrome, not colour. All this can be yours for around two or three times the cost of a high-end DSLR.

It is also the case that a camera can influence how we actually think whilst shooting. Certain types of camera impose a certain way of working, a certain ‘camera ritual’. When using a modern DSLR that can focus and shoot quickly at high frame rates and record hundreds if not thousands of frames onto a single card without incurring any additional cost, we are tempted to bang away at the shutter and make multiple versions, using the screen to review and refine both the image and the idea as we do so. This would not be viable with a film camera as there is a constant need to reload and every frame shot means money spent. Thus you need to be sure before you press the shutter release. Many who champion film will make the argument that the restricted number of frames and the lack of immediate review requires a more ‘focused’, more precise approach. This is seen as a positive, forcing the photographer to think more about each individual image. It is also suggested that the screen on the back of the DSLR, far from being an advantage, can actually represent  a distraction and the constant interruption of the shoot to check every frame (known as ‘chimping’) actually interferes with the creative process*. The risk is that you might find yourself immersed in the camera rather than the subject.

For a more extreme example, consider a large format camera. These traditional devices in most cases require the use of a tripod, have to be framed up and focused before the film is inserted, and can only make a single exposure before needing to be reloaded. Working in such a way slows the process of photography right down and could be considered to be the very antithesis of the DSLR experience. Yet this is its strength, the ‘camera ritual’ forces you to approach your image making in a very different, more contemplative way, to stop, consider and ‘pre-visualise’, before finally taking the shot. Unnecessarily convoluted you might think, but despite the qualities and conveniences of the digital workflow, there are still many specialist photographers working with large format film cameras.

Even within the confines of purely digital cameras, there are significant differences between working with a DSLR at eye level, with no appreciable shutter lag, and shooting with a ‘live sensor’ camera such as with compact or phone held at arms length and with an infuriating delay between pressing the button and the shutter actually firing.

Perhaps therefore the first question you should ask yourself when looking to buy a camera is “what do I want it to do?”, or even more accurately, “what do I want to do with it?”  Cameras are marketed on the technology that they offer, the speed of the autofocus, the range of exposure modes, the sophistication of the exposure assessment, the number of frames per second. All these things have their place, but not all are necessarily important. If you are a sports photographer or into wildlife, then yes, lighting quick autofocus tracking and excellent low light performance could well be significant factors in your choice, but these features don’t come cheap. If you are simply looking to take pictures of the family on holiday, a much less expensive model may well perform admirably, and with the left over cash you could pay for that holiday.

High-end DSLR cameras are big. They are heavy, they are bulky  and the quality lenses that match their performance are equally substantial and this can also be an issue. If the camera is cumbersome, there is a strong possibility that you might think twice about taking it with you. The best camera in the world is no good if it isn’t in your hand when the muse takes you. A smaller, lighter camera may lack the ultimate performance, but you are far more likely to ‘bother’ to pick it up on your way out the door. Here we have arrived at that old photographic cliche, ‘the best camera is the one that you have with you’.

Technology Rules OK

All digital cameras have a degree of complexity unimaginable back in the days of film. When in the 70s, Canon released the A1, a technical marvel of the age, a review of this camera made the the complaint that the multiple ‘deck’ design of the exposure mode control was too complicated and awkward to use. This is laughable in comparison to modern cameras, but there is a point here. As I have stated in previous articles, taking a photograph is (or should be) a relatively simple operation – shutter speed, aperture, ISO…focus and shoot. A large percentage of the technology incorporated into the camera is designed to perform these operations for you, ‘automatically’. The problem is that by default the camera is in control. The frustration comes not from a lack of manual options as most cameras above the compact level offer manual exposure and often manual focus, it comes from the difficulty in selecting and adjusting those controls. ‘Ah yes, to change the aperture from f8 to f5.6… well, you need to hold down this (tiny) button and turn this thumbwheel three clicks to the right….now do you want face recognition single autofocus or 56 point 3D tracking?”  No! I just want to focus on that tree! The message here is that the interface of the camera is as important (some might argue more important) than the technical specifications. As I have already pointed out,  a manufacturer sells a camera based on its features and performance, but what you notice when shooting is the ergonomics, the interface, the ‘feel’, the ‘user experience’. This is much more difficult to quantify and to a greater extent a matter of personal preference, but if you are faffing around searching through menus and pressing multiple buttons in combination to select basic functions, then once again it is the camera that occupies the forefront of your consciousness, not the image. At this point the technology is simply getting in the way.

‘Buy this! I bought this! This is what you must buy!’

You will no doubt find many people out there who are more than willing to offer an opinion as to which camera you should buy. Be wary. Ask yourself ‘is this person advising me as to which camera is right for me, or telling me which camera they would buy/have bought?  I’ll let you into a secret. I really don’t care what camera you use. I’m interested, of course I am, I am interested in cameras and all things photographic, but I don’t really ‘care’. The camera I use is important to me – and I mean really important. Which camera you use is no doubt equally as important to you, but (and here’s the thing) it is of no importance to anyone else. When people look at your pictures they look at the image, the composition, the subject, the moment. The technology that you used to created it is at that point irrelevant. It is a means to an end, the tool with which you practice your craft, the camera is not the author of the image. So don’t be swayed by the assertions of others. There is value in seeking advice, of course there is, but the final decision is yours. After all, you are the person who is actually going to use it.

How to Buy a Camera

So for what its worth, here’s my advice for anyone looking to buy a new camera. Firstly, consider the following…

1 – Budget – How much do you want to spend? Is your budget realistic? If you are limited to say £150 ($200) then you are looking at compact cameras, or maybe a second hand DSLR.

2 – Purpose – What do you expect to use the camera for? Are you a sports or wildlife photographer? Do you like studio work? Are you into ‘street’ photography? What features are going to be important for you?

3 – Camera Type – DSLR? Bridge? Mirrorless?… The choice is very wide but there are very definitely advantages and limitations to each design. For example, if speed of autofocus or long lens work is your primary requirement, then a DSLR is probably the best option, but if portability is more important then maybe a mirrorless or compact is the way to go.

4 – Read Reviews – Having considered the above, shortlist a few cameras and read some online reviews. Don’t just read one, read several. Watch videos on YouTube. Get a ‘vibe’ for the camera.

5 – Try Before You Buy – Handle the camera before you hand over the cash. Think about the feel of the camera, the weight, the balance, the viewfinder, the controls. Do not underestimate the importance of ‘feel’.

‘Yep, OK, but what should I buy?’

It is as I am sure you realise by now impossible for me to recommend a specific make/model/style of camera as the ‘one’. The truth is you are never going to own the best camera in the world as the very notion that such a camera exists is nonsense. I can however offer some general guidance to help you narrow down your search.

If versatility is your goal, it is difficult to recommend anything over a DSLR as these ‘system’ cameras are extraordinarily adaptable, generally very robust and excellent value. Often the differences between the lower and midrange models can be found in the ergonomics and the addition of dedicated buttons for focus mode, ISO etc., rather than massive increments in image quality. A low end (but perfectly functional) DSLR could set you back as little as £300/$400 (at the time of writing).  Some people spend three or four times this amount on cameras with lower pixel counts and even fixed (i.e. non interchangeable) lenses. There must be a reason for this and I would suggest that whilst cameras such as the Fuji X100, Sony RX1 and Leica Q are nothing like as versatile, they are exceptionally well suited to certain types of photography and particular ways of working. A Fuji x100 is a great ‘street’ camera, but pretty hopeless for sports and wildlife.

By now you might be reaching the conclusion that one camera is ultimately not enough and thus it should come as no surprise that my bag contains a range of different cameras, including DSLRs, compact, mirrorless and film. If however you are expecting me to provide any more detail about my specific kit, I’m afraid that’s not going to happen. To do so would negate the point of this article. Suffice to say that I do not claim to have the best cameras in the world, but am using what I think are the right cameras for me, right now, for what I am shooting today. I don’t worry so much about the extra features, the bells and whistles. It is far more important for me to be in full control of my cameras, to use it with a minimum of interference from the interface, allowing me to concentrate more fully on the image itself.

One final piece of advice. Once you have reached your decision, and made your purchase, forget about the others and just get out and shoot. Practice with your new camera and become familiar with its controls. Use you new camera at every opportunity. Use it until it dies or it simply no longer fits the bill**. Then it will be time to set this whole sorry process in motion once again…

*I have switched off ‘auto image review’ on all my digital cameras, for this very reason.

**I suggest that a digital camera, much like a computer, has perhaps a 3-5 year life. Any more than five years primary usage is a bonus.

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Duncan Shepherd