Four people in the last week have asked me about buying a camera. With Christmas not that far in the future this is probably a good time for me to write about this.
I usually reply with a question: What sort of photography do you want to shoot? The needs of a wildlife enthusiast are very different from those of someone who just wants to take holiday snaps. Cameras are expensive pieces of precision equipment and you’ll want the system, design and model that will best suits your needs and budget.
Don’t Fall for Reviews or Personal Recommendations
Publishers don’t win advertising revenue by featuring unfavourable reports of their sponsor’s latest shiny new kit, so I’m sceptical of professional camera reviews. I read separate reviews of the same camera in two popular photography magazines. One reckoned the camera was a technological wonderment, the second gave it a mediocre rating. The first review was adjacent to an advert for that manufacturer – a manufacturer that didn’t advertise in the second magazine.
Reviewers also fuss over tiny performance differences. It makes good reading, but the small variances within similar price brackets make little difference to the majority of photographers.
There are some cameras that are game changers, but in the most part, similar priced cameras are similar in both design and features.
When looking for a camera a few months ago, I asked other photographers for their advice and was met with vigorous promotions of the brands they invested in. You’ll never hear a photographer saying, ‘I bought X but made a terrible mistake and wish I had got Y instead.’ They endorse the brand they use with an enthusiasm to put sales staff to shame. They’ll also decry rival brands with equal gusto.
I’m not going to recommend the brand that I use to you (I use Olympus). For me it is the perfect system to meet my needs. But that does not mean it is necessarily the perfect brand or model for you. That is a decision only you can make.
My Recent Decision
My main DSLR still takes fantastic quality pictures, but it’s six years old now and technology has moved on. I need performance beyond its capabilities for my work. Researching the market, I found a bewildering array of models.
Every reputable manufacturer produces fantastic cameras throughout their price ranges and I needed to find one that worked for me.
In the words of the song and album title by the late, great George Harrison, All Things Must Pass. I was met with a barrier that Olympus had discontinued producing DSLR cameras, and so the lenses I had would not fit their mirrorless range without an adaptor. That left me with a quandary. Should shift to a totally different brand and system and sell off my old equipment, or stick with the Olympus brand and adapt what I had to fit the Micro Four Thirds mount.
How I Made My Mind Up
I made a list of my priorities: exceptional low-light performance for photographing events without a flash; a fully articulating LCD screen to view when I use a low-set tripod and for macro work; lightweight, so not to suffer a neck injury from carrying it all day, and robust enough to take hiking or cycling in all weathers. If the camera could be made compatible with my existing equipment, that would also be a deciding factor.
I needed a camera of good enough quality so I could use it for shooting a wedding or party, but also slip in my pocket without damaging it. I wanted something discreet for candid street photography.
Because much of my work is built around training, a large, clear articulated screen with a live preview of depth of field was a must. Finally, I set a budget.
Ergonomics is so important; some cameras are just too fiddly for my large hands. After numerous trips to shops trying different models, I rejected plenty. Even on some large cameras, I found my fingers inadvertently hitting other buttons when I pressed the shutter. With some cameras, I could not hold them to my eye without them pressing uncomfortably onto my nose .
High pixel count is a marketing ploy. 16 megapixels – about the smallest pixel count on the market at the moment – is twice the size needed to produce high quality A3 prints. Wedding album photos are far smaller and many images I sell end up online, reduced in size to around 2 megapixels. Larger image files also take more time to upload and use up valuable storage space. I neither needed nor wanted a 50 megapixel monster.
The Perfect Camera For Me
There are two brands I am really adverse to. I won’t mention their names but one I think makes really ugly cameras, and artists should use great-looking equipment. The second brand, and this is purely anecdotal from conversations with other photographers, seems to break down a lot.
I did find and buy camera perfect for my needs. I decided to stick with Olympus. For me, it’s perfect. It fits my hands, it’s portable, it looks stunning, I can fit it in my pocket, it’s robust, it has a large, clear LCD display and viewfinder, the image quality is fantastic and it has game-changing image stabilisation.
If you are interested it’s an OM-D E-M5 mark ii mirrorless camera. At some point I will also buy an Olympus E-M1 mark ii.
As I said, this is not my recommendation to you. Like any other camera owner, I am pleased with my purchase, but I want you to find the right brand, system and model to suit your needs.
Which Camera System is the Best for You?
Like all aspects of photography, there are compromises to be made. There is always a trade-off to be made. Here is a quick run-down of the common camera systems with some of the advantages and disadvantages of each.
Digital Single Reflex Camera (DSLR)
The most expensive, but delivering (arguably) the best quality, DSLRs are large in size. They can be heavy to carry, but versatile for shooting many different types of photography. That versatility is brought about by buying a range of lenses. The quality of the lens has more to do with the quality of the final image than does the body of the camera.
Camera bodies usually come in three levels: entry, enthusiast and professional, with some overlap. The build quality and performance increases with each, as does the complexity of use and the price bracket. Prices range from a little over £300 to over £13,000.
Sensor sizes can vary. Cameras with larger sensors are bigger and they cost more. They do have greater dynamic range than another contemporary camera with a smaller sensor. Saying that, the performance of modern DSLRs (and CSCs) with smaller ‘crop sensors’ – up to half the size of a 35mm ‘full frame’ sensor – is outstanding.
Mirrorless (Compact System Camera, or CSC)
CSCs also can produce excellent quality images and come in the same three price brackets. The most expensive are around £5000, the cheapest nearer to £300. They too have interchangeable lenses. They are usually far smaller than DSLRs although share similar sensor sizes. Their small size is their big attraction. Saying that, some models are just as large as a DSLR, a marketing error realised by Sony whose sales of their over-sized mirrorless camera, the A7Rii, were disappointing.
Instead of viewing the world through a prism and a mirror like the DSLR, the viewfinder is electronic. This has an advantage that you can see pretty much how your photograph will look when you press the shutter. Information like the histogram and blown highlight and shadow warnings can be seen.
Most mirrorless cameras have a ‘contrast detect’ focusing system. It is slower to focus than the ‘phase detect’ system used when looking though the viewfinder in DSLRs, but is also more accurate in some circumstances. Modern electronics have narrowed the margins between the two systems and many photographers won’t notice the difference.
In Live View (looking at the image on the back LCD screen) a DSLR will also usually uses contrast detect. Some mirrorless cameras, such as the Olympus OM-D E-M1, have both focussing systems available.
There are mirrorless cameras without a viewfinder. They rely on you using the live view screen, like taking a photo on a phone. These are cheaper and often smaller, but can be difficult to use in bright light. Furthermore, holding a camera at arms length is unstable. Some have viewfinders you can purchase separately that are mounted on to the flash hot shoe.
The Bridge Camera are so called because they bridge the gap between compacts and DSLRs/CSCs. They are similar to CSCs in most respects apart from having a single, permanently attached zoom lens. They are often marketed on the range of this zoom, and are sometimes called super-zooms because of this.
The image quality is good, though not as good as an interchangeable lens camera. No lens can perform exceptionally well across a wide range of focal lengths because of optical limitations; images will be soft at the zoom’s extremes and colour fringing (chromatic aberration) may be noticeable along high contrast edges in the picture; you may see a purple or green fuzzy line around the edges of a person pictured against a bright background.
The sensor is also much smaller than in CSCs and DSLRs and this can bring a noticeable difference in image quality. The smaller sensor also makes it more of a challenge to get a blurred background.
If any one component of a bridge camera fails then the camera becomes unusable, if you scratch the lens, the whole camera is out of action.
Compact and Phone Cameras
The compact camera market has collapsed since the advent of the camera phones. There are still some models available, but many are more like small bridge cameras than what we used to think of as compacts.
The ubiquitous camera phones are the backbone of services like Instagram, Twitter and Facebook where people can quickly and easily share images of what is happening in their life. They are familiar to almost everyone and so I won’t wax lyrical about them. The quality of the images has come on enormously. They are not as versatile as the cameras listed above, but they serve a purpose and can produce great results.
Consider Buying A Pre-Owned Camera
Do you use Flickr? It’s a photography sharing site owned by Yahoo. Images are not heavily compressed as they are on Facebook, and photo metadata, which may include your copyright details, are preserved. Facebook strips images of their metadata.
One of the great things about Flickr is that one can search for images taken by a specific camera model. Choosing cameras that are now ten years old, I searched through images taken with the Olympus E-3 and E-510, Panasonic Lumix DMC-L10, Nikon D40X, Canon 40D, Sony A700 and Pentax K100D Super. There are still fantastic photos being taken with those cameras. Much newer models are available than these for a lot less cost than they were new.
There is an old saying that the most important component of any camera system is the one holding the camera and looking through the viewfinder. Flickr proves that point; you don’t need the latest model to capture great images, you need the photographic skills. (If you lack those, contact me for training!)
Newer models will produce better results in extreme lighting conditions and may achieve faster shutter values. But, all the cameras listed above still produce excellent images and they are available second-hand for a song. If you have a restricted budget, then do think about buying second hand.
If you don’t like the camera then you can sell it on again and the resale value won’t change that much. A used camera also means a far lower carbon footprint. Older cameras are likely to have had firmware updates. Plus, the raw files will be compatible with software like Lightroom, On1, Photoshop or Elements. That’s not always the case with new cameras.
Check out user Reviews for Older Model Cameras
User reviews will also tell you if an older model has common flaws and how long they last. Check the shutter count against the life expectancy of the camera as the mechanics of a shutter will wear out. My pro-level DSLR should be good for between 250,000 and 350,000 shutter actuations, consumer end cameras have a lower life-expectancy of around 50,000 shots.
Where to Buy
Reputable dealers like Camera Jungle, Wex and MPB all sell used camera equipment. Their descriptions are accurate and cameras come with a guarantee. Some great deals can be found on online auction sites too, but there is an increased risk of buying a stolen camera. If buying privately, do ask the vendor for photos of the serial numbers of both the camera and the lens. If they refuse, don’t buy. There are internet-based services that help track stolen camera equipment using the serial number.
What if I Really Want a New Camera
Low light and high ISO performance have improved enormously in recent years and I needed that facility for my work. If you do need very fast shutter values in low light, then a new, high-end camera might be what you require.
Look for discounts from retailers selling open box, returned and display models to save you a few tens of pounds. You may consider ‘grey’ goods, cameras built for overseas markets. Take care. You can get caught out by import duties and not all camera manufacturers offer a worldwide guarantee.
Don’t Forget the Lens
High-end cameras don’t always come supplied with a lens because you are expected to choose lenses to meet your needs. Cheaper cameras are usually supplied with one-or-two reasonable quality kit lenses.
Good quality lenses make far greater difference to the quality of your photos than a change of camera body. Buy the fastest lens you can afford, i.e. the one with the lowest -number.
If you are stuck choosing, please do contact me either on social media or by replying below and I’ll gladly help you choose the right model for you.
This article is an extended version of two of my columns first published in the Northumberland Gazette.