Because I’m a photographer, people often ask me which camera they should go out and purchase when they’re looking to upgrade. And while the answer is usually fairly simple (buy the best camera you can afford), there are some details to consider if you really want make the best decision for you…
*Please note that I will be talking about the large DSLRs in this article, not point-and-shoot or the 4/3rds cameras.. but some of the things will definitely apply across the board!
Things You’ll Want to Consider
Full-frame, Crop-frame, or Mirrorless.. and your Budget
Now, there is different terminology used by each company to tell you about the sensor and type of camera you’re buying (you might have seen things like DX, FX, APS-C, and “Full-Frame”). Most people don’t realize the differences or the importance of these when deciding on a camera purchase. This should be your first decision. Why? Because it defines which lenses your camera will work with. It defines your price point.. and asks you to really think about what’s important, to YOU.
Full-Frame (or FX) cameras are more expensive (basically the sensor is bigger). They have better low-light performance, more focus points, and a slew of other improved features you may or may not need. Most people start with the lower end crop-frame (DX or APS-C) camera body, because they are cheaper (their sensor is smaller, so the image is “cropped” when you compare it to the full-frame sensor).
Mirrorless cameras have been gaining popularity over the years, with the major companies (Nikon and Canon) getting into the market now. There are some really fun advantages with a mirrorless camera, like being able to preview your exposure in the digital viewfinder, better video focusing, and lighter equipment. And disadvantages.. viewfinder lag, not being as good in low light situations, and the fact that they’re not as established as the time-tested DSLR technology.
What you choose depends entirely on your needs and wants.. so it’s worth sitting down and figuring out what that is. Think about where your current camera falls short, what you photograph most often, and which features are must-haves.
Can you still use your lenses?
If you’re switching from a Nikon to a Canon or Sony camera, you will need a new lens, too. But that also applies if you’re going from a crop-sensor to a full-frame sensor within the same company (your old lens will work, just not very well). So be sure to factor in the cost of the lens into your purchase.. and do some research on which lens is the best option too, because most of the time, the lens that’s included in the “kit” isn’t the best choice.
Automatic and Semi-Automatic Modes
The higher up you go, the less automatic things your camera will do for you. When you’re spending $3-6,000 on your camera body, they kind of expect you to know what you’re doing. So there is no AUTO mode. And if you’re looking to buy the best (and most expensive) camera, but don’t yet have the knowledge to use mostly manual settings, you will end up making the wrong choice.
So think about what you need. Do you want full control (a camera that excels with manual mode functionality) or a camera that does everything for you (automatic and semi-automatic modes that will give you some control, but mostly allow you to point your camera and take the photo without much fiddling). Make sure whatever you’re going with has what you need.
Basic camera functionality hasn’t really changed in a long, long time (it’s still just the Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO that define the final look of the image). When I look to upgrade my camera, button placement is the #1 first thing I consider. I need easy and fast access to the three manual mode settings I use all the time (I am, however, doing this for a living, and your needs might be different).
If you’re looking at lower-end consumer cameras and want to set your ISO manually (as in, not having your camera decide for you), having that ISO button accessible becomes pretty important (sometimes you have to go through menus to get to it, which isn’t going to work very well if you need to change it quickly). Professional cameras have two selection wheels, so that users can change shutter speed and aperture without looking at any buttons. Your camera might only have one wheel because it’s expecting you to use it in a semi-automated modes where it will decide the other settings for you.
And maybe you really need that custom-function button on the right side of your camera so you can use “back button focus”, or you like the control wheel on the Canon camera bodies for selecting things, or the ease of Nikon’s menus. You can’t change the buttons that are on your camera body.. and if you know you need specific features, this is a big one to consider.
My suggestion is to go to a store and play around with each camera you’re considering. Knowing how to get to the things you use most is going to be really important.
How it feels in your hand
One of the biggest advantages to the new camera bodies is how light they are. DSLR cameras are heavy (and big!). New mirrorless bodies are appealing because of the weight (or lack thereof). And some people really need a camera that doesn’t weigh them down. The feel and balance of the camera body is important as well, which is why you should always touch, hold, and test out anything you’re considering buying.
My professional camera is heavy, but felt more balanced in my hand (and had a nicely sized grip) than the alternative I was considering.. so I don’t mind holding it. In fact, I feel that the weight helps me hold it safely for longer periods of time. But I also know that many other photographers chose the other option I was thinking about because it was lighter.
New vs. Used
Sometimes it makes sense to purchase a used camera body vs. a new one. Now, if budget isn’t a concern, then go right ahead and buy whatever you like.. but if you’re deciding between a used FX camera body and a new DX camera (which would be in the same price range), it’s something you might want to consider.
What is the advantage of buying used? You usually get a more capable piece of equipment. Yes, it might not have the snazzy new features of whatever came out last week, but it will have solid performance.. and you can usually find a great selection of high-end used gear once something new comes out and everyone rushes to upgrade.
Things You Can Safely Ignore
Any new, fancy feature that was just released
Camera companies add features with every new release. Why? Because they want you to upgrade. And because basic camera functionality really hasn’t changed since the 35mm SLR cameras became popular in the 1960’s.. they are forced to come up with whatever they can to entice you to upgrade. And sometimes, these features are leaps in technology (like video, or the new mirrorless cameras that are making their way to the market), but most of the time, they’re features you will never use (GPS tracking), don’t need (Wi-Fi capabilities), or ones that don’t actually deliver promised results (Canon’s dual pixel autofocus.)
So whatever it is that is being advertised, usually it’s not worth choosing a camera based on whatever new “revolutionary” feature will make taking photographs so much easier, fix all your problems, and give you photos so large you can print billboards.
At this point in time, every camera on the market has enough megapixels for your needs. Higher numbers seem exciting. More megapixels! How can that possibly be bad? Most of the cameras out now have at least 24 megapixel sensors. That’s enough pixels to print a poster-sized print. When was the last time you printed something that large? (In fact, when was the last time you printed anything at all?) More megapixels equals more storage required to keep your photographs. So if you’re struggling with thousands of digital images you’re keeping from the past ten years, imagine having them take up twice as much space on your hard drive. Megapixels used to matter when your choices were 1.22MP and 3.1MP. Mow, this is one metric that really doesn’t matter, at all.
The hardest thing about buying a camera today is that they’re all GOOD. It’s no longer the difference between a camera that can barely take a good photo and one that can. They all take great photos. The biggest thing now is whether you have the skills to use that camera. So buy your camera and know that you can take some fantastic pictures with it, but also invest in figuring out how to use it! Take the time to learn, if that’s what you want.. otherwise there’s nothing wrong with using AUTO and enjoying the high resolution images your camera can provide.
I hope this was helpful for all of those who are thinking of buying a new camera sometime soon. If you have any camera questions or would like a specific topic featured on the Blog, don’t hesitate to email firstname.lastname@example.org to let me know!