Which camera to buy?

February 13, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

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‘What’s the best camera to buy?’ is a question I get asked several times a week.

When I’m out shooting it’s pretty much guaranteed to be one of the first things people ask me. It’s an incredibly tricky question to answer because there’s a million other questions that need answering first. I have tried to give my professional (non technical) approach to helping your wade through the minefield of photography. This is a really quick rundown of personal comments and options – I am not affiliated with any manufacturer or website. I am a Canon shooter and very familiar with their kit – so I tend to mention them more than other brands.

There’s clearlybeen a massive surge in popularity for photography over the last few years. Mainly this is due to how accessible it’s become. People have really taken to wanting to produce much better images and do fun things with their photos.The major manufacturers have done a great job at bringing the cost of entry level DSLR (digital SLR) cameras down to a really affordable price- it’s clever pricing and marketing that is driving this forward at a sweltering pace.

The 2 main players- Canon and Nikon both have great offerings at the sub 400 pound level- both produce fantastic results- in the right hands.

This nicely leads us to the first point about the famous ‘what camera’ question.  Here’s something for you to chew over. It’s not JUST about the camera- it’s about a culmination of things that all work together to produce good or great results. I’ve said before how irritating it is when people see my camera and say ‘oooh you must take great photos with that camera’.

From the cheapest point and shoot to the top of the line pro DSLR will not yield you the results you want if you don’t know what to do with them- or have a cheap lens on the front. Similarly knowing every button on a camera doesn’t make a good photographer. I’m not going to discuss this in detail right now but in my opinion it’s a series of many factors that contribute to getting great photos. Sure knowing your camera is important- but so is composition, exposure, focus and the personality of the photographer. If the photographer can relate to the subjects then the chances are the resulting images will be a lot better. Regardless of how expensive the camera is.

So, back to the question. Clearly budget is a main issue for many people and with most things- the more a camera costs the more bells and whistles it has. Again this may not actually be as important as you’d think. More later about this.

The next decision which usually comes after deciding a budget is whether to get a point and shoot or something with more manual control- or as I like to think of it -creative control. Many high end compact cameras do have manual modes. Top end compacts have similar controls to DSLR bodies albeit sometimes not as accessible and hidden away within menus.

The question to ask here is ‘what do you want to do with your photography – and what will you be shooting?’ If you fancy building up a hobby- and it can become very expensive, do you want to invest in a particular range or manufacturer of camera and kit. Do you see yourself really gettinginto the hobby or are you just looking to take photos at a night out on the town and pass the camera to people to take snaps?

You also have to think about how much weight and bulk you will want to carry around. If you’re off on holiday then camera kit can really get heavy quickly. Perhaps you need a  a pocket camera for when you don’t want to carry the ‘kit’. Another thing to consider is quite important. Will you take the camera off full auto mode? Especially with DSLRs- lots have ‘easy green square’ mode which does everything and is great if you’re passing the camera to someone to take a pic of you but generally should be avoided by any photographer. If you never want to leave the green square behind then you’ve spent money on a camera that is essentially performing like a regular compact camera. Save your money and buy a compact point and shoot.

So formats- it’s not just DSLRs and compacts anymore. There’s a new breed of camera that has the ability change lenses and also keep the body small. Both Olympus and Panasonic both have micro four thirds systems – which look nice- and you can start collecting lenses etc for them. Here’s another decision though- if you buy loads of gear for those cameras you may decide to change to another body at a later date so you could end up with stuff that’s devalued a fair bit and you can’t use on other systems.

This is why it tends to come back to Canon, Nikon and slowly creeping up Sony. If you buy their kit there’s a better chance of compatibility within their ranges.

Let’s assume you have decided you’d like to get some better results than the point and shoot camera you’ve had for a few years and you settle upon a SLR.  What next?

Chances are that if you’re spending  below 500 pounds on a kit then the lens that comes with the camera is going to be fairly lousy. If the body only sells at 400 but with a lens it’s 550 its not hard to see that even with a discount on the lens then its not going to be that good. My tip. Buy a body and lens separately. You need to factor in spending as much on the lens- or more- than the cost of the camera. The lens is the most critical part of the camera. A poor lens is a poor lens whatever camera you use it on. Don’t worry about megapixels or resolution. Look at buying the camera model below the one you were looking at but spend the difference on a better lens. You’ll thank me for it later.

Remember- the lens can be the weakest link in the chain but it’s responsible for getting the images and making them look as good as possible so don’t skimp!

Another tip I think is pretty good- is that why buy an entry level camera when you can get a semi pro body for the same- or less- cost. How? Well here’s how…

Camera manufacturers are constantly updating their ranges, especially in the entry level arena, so every 12 to 18 months another camera appears. Theseare in the range you’re looking to buy- but why not look at older cameras which were once aimed at pro or semi pro.

Those cameras may not have all the bells and whistles as the newer ones- but they were and still are very very good solid cameras. Again with Canon they sell B stock which are cameras that have been returned as unwanted, or old stock but they are usually guaranteed and come in less than new entry level bodies. The best thing about this approach is that those cameras which are now ‘obsolete’ were aimed at the semi pro photographer. The quality of the components and build of the camera is very likely to be far superior than the current entry level ones. Here’s an example.

I bought a Canon 30D as a backup camera last year. This camera (and it came with a really crappy lens) was in excess of 700 quid when it was launched – as a semi-pro camera – but now is  no longer on the market – BUT I bought B grade stock – camera, battery and charger with all the gubbins in the box for 285. You won’t get better value – and in terms of image quality it was great – and was built SO much better than the current entry level bodies. Somy top tip – go for an older body – spend the same or less and then get a jolly nice lens to go with it. Sorted.

Also – don’t think that because you have Canon or Nikon or Sony you have to buy their lenses – there are alternatives – Sigma have some great lenses and they are a fair bit cheaper than the Canon ones – likewise Tamron have a good selection – but with any manufacturer there are some not so good ones – so make sure you read up about them on the web.

Nicely leading onto my next little tip – get involved with forums. Ask questions, look at other peoples work. Why not see what you like – and try and copy their style. Look at the data on photographs and see what settings were used. All digital cameras have embedded data in each file – it has all sorts of geeky information but you can get an idea of the settings people use in a situation – so its well worth looking. Photo sharing sites usually make it easy to see the EXIF data.

Staying on the theme of photo sites this is also something worth considering. I use a few but by far my favourite is pix.ie

It’s a FREE site and really does your photos justice. You can upload your full resolution images and then they are online and safe. You get the benefits of a backup and also you can email your images – send people to the gallery and get involved with the community of other photographers. Again – look at their work – there’s a lot of very very good photographers out there on Pix.ie and it would be well worth spending some time clicking on their images.Of course you can make the galleries private too so perhaps only your family can see the pictures. Just a point to reiterate – BACKUP your images- don’t ever forget. If you forget you can be sure that you will, at some point lose a LOT of your precious memories.

Of course – you have also to factor in a bag for all the gear, possibly a spare battery, and certainly some memory, so expect to spend another 100 quid or so on all this.

I think that’s just about it for now -I’ll be back with some explanation of how to get your head around your cameras settings soon – but in the meantime here’s some top pointers to think about:

-what sort of photos will you be taking

-try and avoid ‘kit’ lenses

-look at second hand, refurbished or ‘B’ stock

-will you want to expand your photography kit over time

-don’t use ‘green square’ mode

That’s all for now. Here’s some handy links to check out..

great photo storage/sharing site pix.ie

good site for cheapest camera gear www.camerapricebuster.com

great for information and forums www.dpreview.com

good for buying advice (quite techie) www.the-digital-picture.com

good for reviews www.steves-digicams.com


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