How to choose a digital camera

There’s a lot to consider when purchasing a camera. I suggest asking yourself the following questions to start off with.

1. What is my budget? This question alone will greatly help to narrow the field for you.

2. What am I going to be using the camera for? Will you be shooting vacation and family photos, landscapes, sports and wildlife, portraits or all of the above? The answer to this question will help identify the attributes that you are looking for most in your camera.

If you just want to shoot photos of your family, a compact mirrorless camera with some good specs is all that you need. If you want to get a little more serious about photography, you’ll want to consider a camera with interchangeable lenses. This will give you the most flexibility.

This is the million dollar question that every new photographer wants to know! You could spend weeks reading articles on which camera manufacturer is the best and you’ll find compelling arguments for each one. At the end of the day, a camera is just a tool and as long as it does what you need it do, it’s the right tool for the job. Canon, Nikon and Sony are the top three brands on the market right now, but that doesn’t mean this will always be the case. The truth is that every brand has its pros and cons and you’ll drive yourself crazy reading reviews looking for the perfect brand. The camera specs should be the most important factor when choosing a camera.

Not all sensors are created equally. The size of your sensor relates directly to the quality of the image as well as your camera’s crop factor. Generally speaking, the larger the sensor the better the images are going to be. (less color and signal noise)

All professional and prosumer cameras will have a full frame or medium format sensor, but that does not mean that you cannot get great results form a crop sensor camera. In fact, I’ve even rented crop sensor cameras solely for their crop factor and sometimes faster shutter speed.

To understand this better, imagine that I have a 100mm lens and I put it on a full frame camera. That lens is a 100mm lens just as it reads. Now image that I take that same lens and put it on a crop sensor camera. The 100mm lens in now effectively the equivalent of a 150mm lens on a Nikon or a 160mm lens on a canon. Each camera manufacturer uses slightly different sensor sizes. (See table below)

If you’re looking for your first camera and don’t want to spend a ton of money, I suggest looking into an APS-C sensor. If money is not an issue and you don’t mind spending some extra cash, you could look into a full frame camera.

Sensor size comparison chart

Digital cameras past and present

In the days of film, the most popular camera was the SLR (single lens reflex) In this camera, a mirror allowed you to see directly through the lens of the camera. When you took a photo the mirror would flip up and the shutter would open and close before the mirror flipped back down into place. When digital cameras came around, camera companies took this same idea, except they replaced the film with a digital sensor. This was the birth of the DSLR.

The DSLR was the king of kings when it came to digital photography. In 2013 Sony changed the game by introducing the a7. This camera was the first autofocusing full frame mirrorless camera. At the time many professional photographer bulked their heads at the idea of a mirrorless camera. Fast forward to present day and all of the major manufactures are producing mirrorless models.

The current trend is pointing to a future where all cameras are mirrorless and the DSLR is a thing of the past. Old habits die hard though, so I think it’s safe to say that the DSLR will be around for a while longer.

Every camera format has its pros and cons. Digital SLRs are generally a little bigger than their mirrorless counterparts. Some folks like a larger camera because they think it fits better in their hands and feels less like a toy. Other photographers argue that the mirrorless camera’s size is an advantage because it takes up less space and weighs less.

The most obvious difference between SLR and mirrorless cameras is their viewfinders. In a SLR camera, you look directly through the viewfinder and see the real world, whereas a mirrorless camera has an electronic viewfinder (EVF) much like a camcorder. Some people argue that the SLR is more gentle on your eyes, especially if you are using the camera in low light conditions. Since mirrorless cameras are relatively new, not much research has be done as to whether or not EVFs have any long term effects on your eyes.

There are a few advantages to an EVF however. Most mirrorless cameras can take advantage of a feature called focus peaking. This allows the photographer to see exactly what parts of the image are in focus when manually focussing. This method of focus can be much more accurate than traditional SLRs. The EVF also gives you “what you see is what you get” feedback. Because of this, there is less of a chance that you’re going to botch the shot.

Megapixels used to be one of the biggest factors for photographers looking to buy a new camera. Today, that number does not matter as much because most cameras offer 24 megapixels or more these days. As long as your camera has 24mp or more, you’ll be in pretty good shape. In fact, I recently licensed a 20mp image that was printed on a four by six foot piece of fabric. I’m not trying to talk you out of more megapixels, but I am arguing that you shouldn’t go chasing the camera with the most megapixels for that sole purpose. Oftentimes, sensors with fewer megapixels will yield cleaners images.

READ: Ten Truths of Landscape Photography

Far more important than megapixels, is a camera’s usable ISO range. Many modern cameras have ISO ranges that go up to 25,600 and higher. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should though. As you increase your camera’s ISO sensitivity you also increase your camera’s noise. Some cameras handle high ISO well while other handle it terribly. If you want to shoot in low light conditions, you’re going to need a camera that can handle bumping up the ISO. This usually means purchasing a higher end full frame camera. (Remember that a bigger sensor equates to cleaner images.)

DxOmark is a good resource to see how different sensors stack up against one another. The site provides a signal to noise graph for nearly every major camera on the market. This is a good place to go if you want to nerd out about camera gear for a little while. Try to refrain from looking at this info too much though because nothing replaces real world use and functionality.

Professional cameras will work in ISO increments of 1/3 and 1/2 stops. Lower end cameras will sometimes limit the ISO increments to full stops. This is a big pet peeve of mine since it is simply an engineering tactic to get you to spend more money on a camera that works in 1/3 ISO stops. This limit is one of my biggest complaints of lower end cameras.

How fast your camera shoots may or may not be important depending the type of photography that you’re doing. A landscape photographer seldom needs a frame rate faster than four or five frames per second, whereas a wildlife or sports photographer might want closer to nine or ten frames per second. A split second can be the difference between nailing the shot and missing it.

If the main purpose of your camera purchase is to use it outdoors, you might want to consider getting a model that has been weather sealed. Most midrange and high end cameras will be weather sealed. Unfortunately, weather sealing is usually not covered in the camera specs, so you might want to do a quick online search of the camera model that you are interested into see if it it sealed or not.

You may not know a lot about photography when you buy your first camera. The more you use it the more you will learn though. It is important to think about the future when picking a camera. I recommend getting a camera that will allow you to grow as a photographer. You don’t need to get the latest and greatest camera on the market but it’s not a bad idea to get a camera that has enough features that you can grow into.

Canon has the best LCD screens out of any manufacturer. They produce vibrant colors and display a very clean image even in low light.

At the time of this writing the Nikon d850 is the most versatile DSLR on the market. It is truly an all around great camera.

Canon has the best laid out camera menu system. This might not seem like a big issue but it’s nice to be able to find what you’re looking for when you’re looking for it. Canon has done a pretty consistent job of keeping their operations uniform across most of their camera models. Nikon would be the biggest offender when it comes to operation inconstancy between models. Lastly, the Sony menu is pretty consistent from camera to camera but the menu is a bit cumbersome.

Sony makes great cameras and I’d argue that they’re leading the pack when it comes to mirrorless cameras. Canon and Nikon just got into the full frame mirrorless market though, so it will be interesting to see what happens in the next year or two.

Try to refrain from buying the cheapest model that a manufacturer makes. You’ll outgrow it in less than a year. I generally try to urge people to spend a few extra bucks and get a camera that you’re not going to despise within a year.

Camera recommendations

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Originally published at https://wardynskiphoto.com on October 2, 2019.

Professional landscape photographer and instructor with a passion for preserving mother earth.

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