A Beginner’s Guide to Buying a Camera

Tips & Techniques

What is the best camera to buy? This is one of the first few questions any aspiring photographer would have, especially with so many cameras out there today. My goal in this article is not to say one brand is better than any other, but just to introduce the most prominent criteria that matter when choosing a camera.

Although most of us have a phone that’s perfectly capable of taking good photos, there are certain areas where mobile phones are yet to catch up with modern DSLR or mirrorless cameras. Below are some things you need to think about to determine what camera is best for you.

Table of Contents

The Three Issues of an Expensive Camera

1. Lenses and Other Costs

Over the years, I have come across quite a lot of beginners asking whether it’s worth buying a DSLR, or if they should continue using their phone. I always answer that question with another question: “Are you serious enough about photography that you are ready to buy additional lenses and accessories, which would possibly cost you much more than your first DSLR body?”

A significant part of the cost of a camera is in all the other things you may need to buy. Lenses, a tripod, camera bags, an IPS monitor, post-processing software, monitor calibration equipment, and so on. If the answer to that question is no, then a good mobile phone is what would work as the best option for you. If the answer is yes, then comes the next question.

2. Sharing Images

The second question I ask is: “Are you ready to accept the fact that you cannot upload the pictures immediately to your Facebook or Instagram page?” If the answer is no, you would probably be happiest with a mobile phone rather than a DSLR.

It is true that modern DSLR and mirrorless cameras come packed with options like built in WiFi to make sharing a bit faster. But even so, it doesn’t make much sense to get a DSLR if you have no interest in loading those photos on your computer and editing them the traditional way. Almost all of those stunning pictures you see from professional photographers on social media are seldom straight out of the camera. They are results of extended planning and hours spent post-processing them on a computer.

If that sounds good to you, and you are ready to linger around a single image instead of merely clicking and sharing, it is time to ask yourself the next question.

3. Learning Curve

Photography demands a learning curve, both on the technical and artistic fronts. So, my final question is, “Are you willing to toil hard for months to even sometimes years?”

There is a reason why photographers get annoyed when someone comes out with a comment “Wow! This picture looks amazing. Which camera did you shoot it with?” The technical and artistic work that goes into making a photograph is of exponentially greater importance than the tool that was used to make it. This question is as naïve as asking an artist Which brush did you use to paint this picture?”

Camera gear does play an important role in getting good pictures. But, the mere purchase of an expensive DSLR or mirrorless camera doesn’t guarantee a great shot. In fact, if it’s not coupled with knowledge on how to use your camera, even a phone may give you better point-and-click shots.

Budget

Now that you have answered a yes to all the questions above, the next step is to fix a budget. Whether you choose to buy a DSLR or a mirrorless, a $500 budget would be the minimum. A $750 budget would be desirable whereas a $1000 budget would be great, particularly if you want a good set of other accessories.

If you buy a consumer crop camera body with a kit lens for $500, you would be upgrading it between 1-2 years, assuming that you make serious progress. A semi-pro/enthusiast level gear that would cost about $750 for the body alone should keep you happy for about 3 years, before an upgrade would seem inevitable. An entry level full frame body for about $1500 should keep you happy for quite a while.

Irrespective of the budget, a breakthrough camera today will be at least a generation or two behind in about 5 years, and maybe even obsolete. Shooting above ISO 1600 was considered a joke in 2010, but today we are seeing print-quality pictures shot at ISO 6400 and beyond. Even lenses are not immune to this. For example, the Nikon 20mm f/1.8 G has long been considered one of the highest quality wide angle lenses available, until its new mirrorless counterpart outperformed it by a considerable margin.

This is not to say you need to buy the “latest and greatest.” You can take high quality pictures with any modern camera, or even any DSLR made within the last decade or so. But if you prefer to be on the tip of the technology curve, you may find yourself spending more than you first intended.

New or Used?

It is often a wise decision to go for an older, used camera body with better specs rather than a new, entry-level one as your first camera. In fact, a camera body refurbished by the manufacturer may even be the best choice. As you progress from a beginner to amateur level, you will end up learning a lot more on gear and begin to appreciate some of the more advanced features and manual controls. You’ll also have a better idea of what gear you need in the future, so it’s best to save some money early on by buying used.

Let us consider the fact that someone wants to buy their first camera from Nikon, Canon or Sony. It might sound logical to buy the best equipment out there, similar to what we do with most other electronic goods. But how many of us would buy a Ferrari as our first car?

When Camera Gear Doesn’t Matter

The image below was shot with a Nikon D5100, which was an entry-level camera in 2013. A basic 18-55mm kit lens was mounted on the camera to capture it – not fancy gear at all. And yet this picture made it to the WWF calendar with a print dimension of 18″ x 12″ and high image quality. Weather conditions were great, and the ambient light was close to ideal when I captured the image below.

NIKON D5100 @ 18mm, ISO 160, 1/650, f/14

In situations like this, with daytime images of static subjects, gear really is much less important. You can imagine taking the photo above with a phone, and while it would not have quite the same image quality when printed large, it would look reasonably similar overall.

When Camera Gear Does Matter

1. Low Light Performance

Take a look at the image below, which was shot when conditions were far from ideal:

GreyBackedWoodpecker
Gray backed woodpecker | NIKON D750 @ 500mm, ISO 3200, 1/25, f/5.6

The picture of the grey backed woodpecker above was shot with extremely low ambient light. A major credit would go to the Nikon D750’s high ISO performance and the Nikon D750 + Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 combo that auto focused accurately, despite the low light conditions.

The D5100 would have thrown out an unusable, noisy picture, and any entry-level lens would have kept hunting for focus indefinitely. On the other extreme, a lens like the Nikon 400mm f/2.8 would have given me an even better image than the one above. There’s a reason why pros on the sidelines at the Olympics usually use such lenses. But they are also substantially more expensive than the telephoto I used, or many other cheaper telephotos on the market.

2. Autofocus

AF performance is one of the prominent selling points of any modern camera or lens. There are two parts to it: AF accuracy and AF speed. There are certain conditions like photographing birds in flight where we rely almost entirely on autofocus. Most entry-level cameras do not have especially fast autofocus and they may have lower tracking capabilities as well. It’s unlikely to be a problem for photographing your kid’s sports from a distance, but it will become more obvious if you want to do complex wildlife or sports photography under difficult light.

3. Megapixels

Really? If that was all that mattered in a camera, would any professional choose flagship camera bodies like Nikon’s D4, D5, D6 or Canon’s 1DX Mark III, none of which has more than 21 megapixels? Megapixels have minimal impact on image quality, even if you are doing a 20″x30″ print. (And how many beginners even do that?)

It’s true that more pixels can make it easier to crop your images, but even with super high resolution, it’s not advisable to crop too much into a picture. So obviously, you shouldn’t care much about megapixels and camera resolution.

4. Do You Need a Flagship Camera?

In the past, I admit that I have sometimes come back empty-handed in part because because my gear wasn’t enough to capture a great scene. It’s especially true with tricky subjects like birds in flight, Milky Way photography, and specialized genres like underwater photography. We all know that if entry-level cameras and kit lenses yielded perfect results in every condition, no one would think about buying professional gear and accessories that could cost 10x more.

On the other hand, a pro grade lens mounted on a flagship camera does not guarantee good results. It takes years of experience to learn how to use a camera, and even to understand what gear you need in the first place. If you don’t understand these things, you may find yourself upgrading the gear constantly without any visible change in the quality of the image.

Differences Between Camera Companies

If one manufacturer kept making substantially better gear than others, by now that manufacturer would have become a monopoly. Others would have run out of business for obvious reasons, which hasn’t happened. There are happy professionals using Nikon, Canon, Sony & Fuji gear, among many other brands.

The debate on who manufactures the best camera, Nikon vs Canon, has been going on for decades now. In fact, when users were debating the superiority of the above two brands, Sony silently made a place for itself by investing heavily in the mirrorless segment. Please take a look at Nasim’s Nikon vs Canon vs Sony article for a comparative review, and also see his article on DSLR vs mirrorless cameras.

I use Nikon gear not because I believe it is the best. I stick to Nikon because I have invested thousands of dollars in it, have gotten used to it over the years and am happy with the results, too. Anyone who is an unthinking brand fanboy is just trying to be a gatekeeper and stop people from getting into photography.

All that said, if you’re buying a camera for the first time, you do still need to make a decision on which camera company to buy into. Below are a few pointers that beginners may find useful while choosing a brand:

1. It’s All About the Glass

Lenses are the eyes of your camera system. They determine what you see and capture, as well as most of your image quality. In time, every photographer realizes that they buy camera bodies to suit the lenses they have and not the other way around. Many photographers have half a dozen lenses or more, with just one or two camera bodies to put them on.

It is because of this fact that changing brands will be increasingly difficult as you ascend in photography. For example, I am into photographing landscapes and wildlife. As of the day I’m publishing this article, Sony mirrorless cameras arguably have better autofocus than Nikon mirrorless. Autofocus performance is one of the most sought after traits when it comes to wildlife photography. But I would rather wait for Nikon to catch up (which they surely will) than shift to Sony.

2. Ecosystem

There are two reasons that force photographers to stick to their brands. First, someone who would possibly be owning half a dozen lenses would lose a lot of money selling them all and switching to another brand. Second, the photographer would need to get familiar with an all new button system, menu layout, and so on. This is similar to Android users struggling with iPhones after switching, and vice versa.

Be it Nikon, Canon, Sony, Fuji, Pentax or Panasonic, you will not be making a bad choice. When a manufacturer makes game-changing progress, it is only a matter of time before the others catch up. You don’t have to shift ecosystems with every advancement. For example, Sony has been ahead of Nikon and Canon for years in the mirrorless market, but now Nikon and Canon are investing heavily in it and catching up. In a few years, only meager differences will exist, and there’s no way to know which brand will be ahead. (It may even be different brands depending on your favorite genre of photography.)

3. The Future

Mirrorless cameras are certainly the future. All manufacturers are clearly heading in that direction. However, there are a lot of people who are going to stick to DSLRs for a while, and DSLR prices are also trending down (especially on the used market). Even if you pick a DSLR rather than mirrorless, at least keep an eye on the company’s mirrorless lineup, because there’s a very good chance that’s what you’ll be picking in the future. Again, see DSLR vs mirrorless cameras for more information.

When to Upgrade?

Manufacturers keep coming up with new gear every month. One does not need to buy every upgrade a manufacturer comes out with. I was pretty happy with my Nikon D7000 for many years. It was only when I started photographing the night sky that I found the image quality a bit lacking. I moved to the Nikon D750 over a couple of years ago because of its larger sensor and better low-light performance.

A day will come when a photographer realizes their gear is incapable of capturing a shot you want, no matter what you do. That is the time to consider upgrading (either the camera, lens, or some accessory that will help) – not whenever new gear surfaces.

Conclusion

Some of you would have started reading the article hoping it was a ranking of entry-level DSLRs. That was not the intent of this article (though we have written about that if you’re curious.)

Instead, my hope is that this article will give you a better understanding of what to look for when buying a camera for the first time, so that you can decide on the brand and model by yourself. It is always better to know what you need prior to buying the tools, rather than buying a tool just because it is rated high by others.

If there are any questions, please share them in the comments section, and I’ll answer them as soon as possible.

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