(Originally posted August 2010 – reposting)
I have had some queries from people I know or work with recently, who are looking at either upgrading a current camera or branching out into digital. And for some reason, because they know I have a camera, they come and ask me for advice! I find this strange, because for me, buying a camera was an intensely personal and intimate experience. But (as my friends will tell you) I am one of these people who is a bit OCD about doing research somewhat over thoroughly in advance, and going in with a fairly good idea of what I think I want 🙂
So from the point of view of someone who has owned a Film DLSR, a P&S digital and now a Digital SLR, here is my advice (and note this is also my opinion)
WHAT CAMERA SHOULD I BUY?
1. First of all I am going to assume you want digital. You can still get film, but most people want digital for the instant response you get. And I don’t know anything about film cameras available today.
2. Does a particular Brand matter?
– you might have gear from Brand X left over from film days, or you inherited some stuff. Or you have had a camera made by Brand X before and liked it
If any of the above are relevant to you, then yes Brand matters. In reality, Canon and Nikon own a HUGE percentage of the market between them, and for someone starting out, you cannot go too far wrong if you choose either of those options.
If you look for some of the more specialty brands like Sony or Pentax or Olympus, be prepared to make some compromises – they are likely to be more expensive, and have a smaller range of lenses and accessories.
3. I can’t afford to spend a lot of money
This is where the compromises start. Buying your first DSLR setup is a bit like buying your first house. You have grand plans of a 4 bedroom two bath and a garage option, but in reality you are lucky if you can get a 3 bedroom unit with some off street parking. Do your research (you will get sick of reading that soon) See what is around in the market, compare similar models.
Also there is a fairly thriving market in good quality secondhand camera gear worldwide, from what evidence I have seen. You don’t necessarily have to buy brand new
4. There are too many kinds of lenses – which one do I need?
Unless you have a specific use for the camera in mind already then for learning purposes I recommend a good range zoom. Something that goes a little bit wide for landscapes and gives you enough zoom to be useful. And something that importantly fits in your budget.
If you know you want to go straight into macro or something similar, then get the specific lens for that. But lenses are expensive, and most of us don’t have heaps of money to spend, so “do your research” and put some thought into what the options are.
In all honesty this can be a hard one because you may not know where your camera gear will take you once you have it and are playing with it. You don’t win any prizes for having more or flasher gear than anyone else (tho some people seem to think so LOL) Buy what works for you. And find a good place that takes tradeins !
5. Should I buy a fancy body or a fancy lens?
The rule of thumb in photography seems to be “where possible buy the best glass you can”. Good glass on an average body is still better than average glass on a good body, and you can potentially tradeup the body at a later date.
Good glass is an investment, and usually more expensive than most starter bodies. My personal preference is to have the best glass I can afford for what I want. It means I have 3 lenses and two of them are cheap, but thats what I could afford at the time. I have a long term plan to end up with better grade glass when I can afford it 🙂
6. Do I really need a DSLR?
This is a *really* important question. Because for a lot of people, the answer is often NO. Here is a quick test:
– Do you want to have a camera with you all the time
– Do you want to carry your camera in a pocket or a handbag?
– Is easy to use a key feature for you?
– Do you want quick “on the spot images” and “memories”?
– Do you want to just click and get a shot without having to think about it too much?
– Does it come in pink?
– Do you want to really learn how to drive your camera, and get the best out of its capabilities?
– Are you prepared to invest serious amounts of time in learning to use your camera?
– Do you want to take photos of fast moving subjects (cars, dancers etc)
– Do you want to shoot in challenging conditions (low light)
– Do you want to shoot things that are some distance away from you, that you cannot get closer too (birds, wild animals etc)
– Do you possibly want to sell your photography skills/images
– Does it matter if you have to change lenses to get specific functionality out of your camera
– Are you happy to buy a tripod and use it if thats what the shot will need?
– Are you OK that this gear is heavy and you will have to carry it around (and safely store it)
It may not be obvious but if you answer YES to the first 6 questions then you really aren’t looking for a DSLR. If you answer YES to any of the other questions, then you probably are wanting the capabilities a DSLR can give you.
7. What else do I need?
Good question. I would recommend a Bag to carry it with, and a tripod is likely to be a necessity. Feel free to see how steady you are at handholding, and then make up your mind but *everyone* I know who is serious about their photography has a tripod (and most of them use them)
I think its important to give yourself time to learn and develop and see where your interests go before investing in anything more than that (unless you have a specific interest in mind – in which case go for it)
8. Will people look at me funny when I have a big fancy camera?
Sometimes yes they will. Its getting to be a bit of a problem in some places due to paranoia about terrorism. Educate yourself in advance to keep out of trouble – important if you are intending on travelling overseas.
I have found most people will either smile and pose, or hurry to get out of your way (esp if you have a tripod). And some will come up to you to chat and admire your gear. And some will ask you to take photos of them with ‘their’ camera, as you clearly know what you are doing LOL. Be polite, and try to be friendly or approachable (if you are in a safe situation and its OK – otherwise be sensible)
9. This camera can do “this cool feature” – should I buy it?
Depends – how important to you really is “this cool feature” – one of the current cool features is recording video, which doesn’t interest me at all. But if I had kids and couldn’t afford a video camera, or dogs etc, then I might find it useful.
10. It doesn’t come in Pink!
Suck it up!
11. Ooh its quite heavy, and some of them are really big and bulky
Yes, the glass in the bigger lenses is heavy. And the bigger bodies themselves can be very heavy at the top end. And the buttons can be in funny places. My advice is to find something that feels comfortable in your hand. Imagine carrying and shooting with it for an hour – can you cope? If its too heavy/awkward then look at another option.
12. Wow, look at all the buttons and things, is this stuff complicated to learn?
Short answer, YES. Like any skill, photography is hard. I think its twice as hard as a lot of things because these days it is a blend of the artistic and the technical. You have to have (or develop) an ‘eye’. To see the shot, to frame it, to make it appealing. And you have to know how best to set up the camera for the situation to enable you to get that shot.
I have dedicated a whole year specifically to learning how to use my camera, and to make images I am proud of. Most of my spare time is either shooting images, reading or research, or editing images. I don’t have a family or kids and I don’t watch TV so thats quite a lot of spare time compared to most people.
And I felt after 6 months that I was starting to understand how the technical bits worked. Still working on making it happen the right way, but I understand LOTS more than I did a year ago. And I could be doing this for the rest of my life and still be learning every day of it.
13. Is it worth all the time and money and effort?
From my point of view, absolutely. I have had so much fun and so many new experiences since I got my camera. It has taken me on a journey I never would have gone down otherwise, and is still leading me astray. And the buzz when you see the images on the screen, when you have that one shot that is really special, its fantastic 🙂
However if you cannot afford the time to make the effort due to family or work or sport or other commitments, then you might want to consider your options carefully. One of the things I really didnt understand was the amount of time I would spend processing and editing images. Its my choice because I shoot in RAW, but it is a sacrifice, and and I never seem to have enough time or creative energy to fully edit a batch all in one go. So they linger half done, clogging up my hard drive 🙂
I hangout in various online forums and one of them gets the “what camera should I buy question” posted about 20 times every day. And lots of people spend a lot of time writing really thoughful responses to those queries.
Read the responses and think about them. One common thing I have noticed is people asking to do something that a P&S really isn’t capable of doing, but they don’t want to buy a DSLR for whatever reason. If you are going on a Safari in Africa, and you want to take a photo of a lions eyelashes, then a P&S isnt going to do the job, no matter how much you complain about the cost, size, weight etc of the DSLR.
If you want to achieve a specific higher end photography goal, you need to buy the right kind of gear, and learn to use it. A lot of people start out with a P&S and eventually get frustrated with its limitations and want something better. That was the reason I ended up with my current gear.
Ultimately you need to decide what kind of photography *you* want to do, and buy the gear to suit. It might be a snappy shiny pocket sized gizmo or it might be a higher end bridge camera (DLSR with training wheels) or it might be the full noise. Either way DO YOUR RESEARCH – figure out what works for you, what you can afford, and then dive in head first 🙂
Amendment added end August – after much feedback, I feel compelled to add on behalf of the Pentax people, that apparently the Pentax units are extremely good value and all those who have them are very vocal on this subject. And also, they DO have a model in pink!