A question that is occasionally put to us is “I am thinking of buying a camera – do you have any recommendations?”. This sounds simple enough, but like most subjects, photography is a little more complicated, requiring some thought before reaching an answer. Cameras are no different to many other items when it comes to diversity; there are models to suit all shooting styles and budgets. The question’s complexity is usually met with questions to establish why a person needs a camera and what is its intended use.
For many people, the ability to record family events is of primary importance; kids growing up, walking the dog, birthdays, holidays and all of those events that we hold dear to us. Often reviewed in moments of reflection or shared via social media, these images record our path through life and in many respects, are as equally important to us all. Technology advances faster than I can keep up with and there was a time when a small compact all-in-one camera would have been ideal for this type of use – it still is in many respects. However, it is difficult not to notice that the demand for compacts has shrunk dramatically in the last few years, giving up much of its market share to mobile phones. And its hard not to see why; apart from its fundamental function of being a communication device, the latest generation of smartphone has seen its photographic capabilities evolve beyond what was imaginable a couple of decades ago.
I am putting these thoughts down in an airport departure lounge, sat immediately opposite the Dixons travel store and it is hard not to notice the dozens of different models sharing a display with a bunch of cameras and lenses. The layout is almost suggestive of the evolutionary progress from simple phone at one end, to advanced DSLR at the other. The two products are united, not only in their technology but the way they are presented to the public. Probably for many people, the search for a camera can stop at the smartphone end of this display. After all, their high-quality lenses, large megapixel count and wealth of in-phone editing and sharing apps provide the perfect platform, effectively replacing the requirement to carry a separate camera. It has often been said that the best camera is the one you have with you, so what could be more versatile? Heck, some of these things even have twin lenses allowing users to capture semi-wide and telephoto style images, while others can record their output as RAW files.
It was not long ago that I would have suggested the purchase of a good quality compact camera to a user who’s intended use to record precious family moments and events. Today, I feel that a smartphone with a rich camera feature set suits this demographic far better, and recommend their search stops here, assuming they are comfortable with the devices limitations, particularly in low light situations.
But which direction should a potential buyer take if they are wishing to develop their interest into a hobby or profession? A few minutes online reveals a huge market in both new and used cameras from many manufacturers. Some of these have been in the game for decades, their lineage reaching way back through photographic history. Cost is usually a primary factor when making a purchase, therefore an important consideration to factor in. Its intended use, again, should be reviewed. I know some people who enjoy owning a dedicated camera but use it only to record their holiday trips. For them, a prerequisite is having one non-removable lens which allows them to capture wide angle and super telephoto results, along with reasonable video performance. For them, a ‘bridge’ type of camera was ideal as it also provided good levels of automation, while retaining the ability to manually override many of the settings if desired.
For many people wishing to develop their photographic skills, an interchangeable lens type model is the holy grail as this offers the versatility to explore specific areas such as wildlife, macro or street photography. At this point, there are many forks in the selection process, and key points to consider are:
- Sensor Size
The size of the cameras sensor will have a direct influence on other factors, particularly overall camera size and cost. It goes without saying that the larger the sensor, the larger the body required to house it. A Micro Four Thirds (MFT) model provides the smallest of the most popular sensor sizes, measuring just 17.3 x 13mm. This allows for small, highly portable cameras to be designed which are perfect for those of us who enjoy travelling with a camera system. The trade-off is an increase in noise when the ISO is increased, although tremendous advances have been made in the latest models that have gone a long way to closing the gap between this and other formats.
For me, APS-C with its 23.6 x 15.7mm sensor offers the best trade off in terms of image quality and size. While its noise performance is not quite up to that of 35mm, when coupled with a high-quality lens the results are superb. Add to this a relatively modest increase in camera size and what is there not to like? The answer to this is manufacturers insistence in bastardising existing 35mm lens technology, which inevitably results in the image size being magnified by 1.4 times. This means that, for example, a 60mm lens created for a native 35mm body will perform like a 90mm short telephoto. So while I have a personal preference for APS-C, it comes with a caveat; ensure that the system used includes some lenses specifically designed for APS-C.
For many, the holy grail of sensor size is 35mm, its 36 x 24mm format mimicking the frame size of 35mm film cameras. The fundamental benefit gained is one of minimal noise at high ISO settings, coupled with large megapixel capabilities resulting in beautifully detailed images containing enough detail to push highlight and shadow details beyond what is possible with MFT and APS-C formats. This comes at an increase in cost… painfully so in some cases. Body size is also typically larger and in many cases heavier – the latter being an important consideration if the user is travelling a lot with their gear.
Sensor sizes do not stop here, and much larger ones are available that mimic the size of medium format film cameras. The cost and size increase exponentially as we are now in the realms of professional commercial products that produce huge, highly detailed prints.
- Mirrorless, DSLR or Rangefinder
If smaller size is of significance to the buyer, consideration should be given to whether the camera has an electronic (mirrorless) or optical prism-style viewfinder (DSLR). Typically, mirrorless cameras can be made smaller due to them taking their viewfinder feed directly from the sensor (or outputting to the rear screen). DSLR’s require a mirror assembly between the lens and shutter to reflect the image into a prism before presenting it in the viewfinder. A consequence of this is added size to the height and depth of the camera body. While many electronic viewfinders have excellent resolution and colour balance, optical finders provide the most ‘pure’ experience. There are also hybrids systems that take an electronic feed and overlay it onto an optical rangefinder style finder.
True non-electronic rangefinders provide a finder which is unlinked to the lens and are typically located at the top left (when viewed from behind) of the camera. This allows for a smaller design than a typical DSLR.
- Environmental Sealing
An important factor if the photographer intends to use their camera system in harsh weather conditions where moisture, dust and extreme temperatures typify the working environment. Cameras lacking this feature will withstand a degree of this as long as care is used to protect the equipment, particularly when changing lenses.
- Video Capability
Once a secondary function to still’s cameras, it now occupies a more prominent role, and we are now seeing more and more models offering 4k recording that give incredible results. For me, video has remained secondary to my needs, being used to record simple memories of places seen with people I love, therefore video capture plays very little part in my decision to purchase a new camera.
But if video recording is something you can see yourself using then the key areas for consideration are resolution and frames per second (FPS). The resolution determines the detail/quality of your recording with higher resolutions requiring more storage space. Most cameras today will record at 1080p (HD) with higher end models supporting 2160p (4K). The FPS on the other hand will determine how ‘smooth’ the playback of the video will be. The two most common options are 30fps and 60fps with the latter offering the smoother playback experience. It’s worth noting that while many modern cameras can record at 60fps they may only be able to do it at lower resolutions. This is usually due to the required processing power to record at 4K 60fps being expensive.
- Image Stabilisation
Image Stabilisation provides the photographer with a means of capturing images at much longer shutter speeds without the risk of blurred results. It should not be considered as a replacement for a tripod but a tool that can be used to extend shooting in low light conditions, particularly when there is no desire to push ISO.
There are two approaches to this, in lens or in body. In lens, as the name suggests, means that the stabilisation gyros are housed within the lens itself often resulting in a slight increase in weight and dimensions. This isn’t usually a problem if you only intend to own just one or two lenses. However, if there is a pre-requisite for all lenses to be image stabilised, and it is intended to own several, the overall effect can add up. The up side of this is that they can be mounted on any non-stabilised body which support the lens mount.
In body stabilisations means that the stabilising gyros are located in the camera body, theoretically making the body a little larger and heavier. The benefit of this is pretty obvious, particularly if the intention is to purchase several lenses.
A far less effective form of stabilisation is one that is carried out at the image processing stage; two images are taken in rapid succession whereby software algorithms detract perceived camera shake and produce a single sharp image. I have a few cameras that use this method and can say with some experience that its abilities fall way short of in lens or camera methods. However the real downside is that it cannot be used in conjunction with RAW files as it relies on the production of two jpegs for its jiggery-pokery to be (sort of) effective.
- Body Weight & Size
It is easy to see how the size and weight of a camera is, to some degree, determined by factors discussed above. And to me, this single point proves to be one of the most decisive. Having toted large and small cameras around over the years, I have yet to find one credible reason why I would choose the former. Technically, most smaller models are equal… even better in some respects. But choice should not be made on body alone, as it is just one part of a system.
- System Components
Having decided to buy into an interchangeable lens system, it is highly probable that the supporting system will need to be reviewed, depending on its intended use. Each manufacturer has strong and week points which will determine the outcome. For example, if primary use is studio photography, it is vital to ensure there is underpinning provision of external flash components. Or if it is bird photography that is most important, long fast telephoto lenses and teleconverters are necessary, as will be the camera’s ability to fire its shutter quietly. The importance of this cannot be underestimated as lack of research at this stage can lead to expensive mistakes.
For most of us, cost drives our buying habits. Fortunately, there are cameras and systems out there to suit most budgets. A couple of simple ways to reduce this are;
- Don’t necessarily select the latest, greatest arrival on the market. This will undoubtedly carry a larger price than something that has been around for a year or two. OK, technology advances swiftly but an older model is still perfectly usable and benefits from firmware updates, real world user reviews etc. This is my preferred method of purchase; in fact, I have yet to buy a newly released camera.
- Consider buying used; there are some great bargains to be had on the second-hand market. There is an army of photographers who are happy to trade in their current model for the latest shiny shiny. Some of these will have seen limited use and, if purchased from a reputable dealer, will carry a warranty, or the item may still be covered by the manufacturers original warranty.
In addition to the above points, some dealers provide rental services which gives the opportunity to ‘try before you buy’ – particularly useful if the camera in question is expensive. The internet also offers a huge amount of information in the form of reviews and forums, as do dealer events and shows.
Above all, be honest with yourself regarding your photographic intentions. Is it really worth paying thousands for a high end professional piece of kit when it will only see light duties? Do you really need a 36 x 24mm sensor when the majority of your output is intended only for social media?
Almost without exception, most cameras are capable of wonderful things when used in their intended field. But no camera can substitute the seeing eye of the photographer.