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What Camera Should I Get?

By Richard Winn, written 1562874719.

Choosing a Camera

Starting Out

Every now and again, someone asks the members of Purple Port for advice on buying a camera. Often this is a model or someone looking for advice for a family member who is looking for their first camera. Sometimes it is someone looking for advice on upgrading. Whatever the reason though, much of the advice that can be given is very similar and there are some questions that you need to ask yourself, as well as information that you need to give to get the best advice possible. This article is meant to provide that starting point to give you a head-start and to think about the information you are going to be asked for.

What Questions do I Need to Ask Myself?

1.      What do I want to photograph?

2.      How much will I use the camera?

3.      What is my budget (remember, this needs to include at least one lens, unless the option is a compact or bridge camera)?

4.      How much weight can I carry?

5.      How big are my hands?

6.      How often will I use it?

7.      Am I likely to want to upgrade in the near future?

8.      Are you likely to want or need to perform any post processing, beyond the basics?

Some General Answers

1.      Someone who is going to take almost entirely portraits will require a different setup than someone who photographs wildlife and to some extent landscapes. Street photography will require a generally similar setup to portraits, but may need something slightly different. If you are aiming to photograph anything and everything, then a more general setup may be better.

2.      This will dictate how sophisticated the kit may need to be. Generally, when starting out, simple is probably better, but simple may mean different things to different people.

3.      Knowing the budget is perhaps the biggest thing. There is no point looking at a semi-pro camera, if your budget is only £300.

4.      A bit like number 3, f you are very petite, you will probably struggle with a camera and lens combination that weighs over a kilo, especially if you are looking to get multiple lenses. While a kilo doesn’t sound like much, remember that you could be lifting and pointing it all day. Also, you also need to factor in the weight of the bag or rucksack you are carrying it in.

5.      This is more important than you may think. Again, semi-pro cameras are quite large, so if you have small hands, then you might struggle to hold it comfortably. Likewise, if you have large hands, a small form factor camera, such as many of the mirrorless options could feel too small.

6.      This will largely determine both a sensible budget and whether it is worth getting a more expensive model to avoid having to upgrade in the near future.

7.      This is determined by number 6., as well as some of the other points.

8.      It is a rare image that looks good “straight out of the camera”, without some processing. Virtually all cameras have styles, which are basically in-camera processing. These styles are used to produce the JPEG files. Some cameras can also be set to use RAW files. These are proprietary files and are basically raw data, which then produce unprocessed images. These tend to look flat and uninspiring, but they offer much more potential for you to process the images exactly how you want them to look. They aren’t miracle producers, but they can hold a surprising amount of detail that is missing in the JPEG created from the chosen settings.

What Options do I Have?

For most purposes, virtually any camera produced in the past 5-10 years will perform adequately, at least for someone starting out. It is only when you start getting to some of the specialist areas (such as wildlife) where the camera body is of particular importance. Weather sealing may also be important depending on how you intend to use it. If image quality is important to you, then lenses are often the biggest factor and it is often worth spending a bit more to get a quality lens and sacrifice some of the budget for the body. Quality lenses often hold their value and some are an investment lasting up to 10-20 years; they also last the test of time better than cameras, which are (currently) quickly superseded by the next model.

Compact Cameras

These are basically what they say on the tin. They are small format cameras that you can easily take with you in your pocket. They can very in price and sophistication, from the very basic camera, that is probably less sophisticated than your phone, to models that rival DSLRs in complexity and versatility. Many of the mid to upper range models can shoot RAW files as well as JPEGs.

Bridge Cameras

There is a degree of overlap between compact and bridge cameras and it is a term that is less often used now. However, bridge cameras look a bit like a DSLR, but don’t have the interchangeable lens capability, that DSLRs have. Most (but not all) bridge cameras have RAW capability.

DSLR Cameras

DSLR stands for Digital Single Lens Reflex. Light enters the lens and is reflected in a mirror to the viewing prism. This is why you need to view through the viewfinder. The brightness will be the same, whatever exposure settings you have, so you don’t get an idea of what the final image will look like. Modern DSLRs also have liveview, which allows you to see what the camera is seeing directly, so it gives you an idea of exposure. Exposure is obtained by holding the shutter open for the specified time. Think of the shutter like a curtain, it opens and closes, just like your bedroom curtains.

In many ways, DSLRs are the most complex of options in terms of mechanics, but mirrorless cameras mostly have just as many options. As far as I’m aware, all DSLRs are capable of shooting in RAW, but all except the highest (professional) models have “point and shoot” modes, as well as semi-automatic and full manual. Focussing is usually quicker than bridge and compact cameras and have less shutter lag. Shutter lag is the amount of time between pressing the button and the image being captured. With some compact cameras, this lag can be quite long, resulting in missed action shots.

Mirrorless Cameras

Mirrorless cameras can be thought of as DSLRs without a mirror. Instead of a mirror they use a transparent material to let the light through continuously. This is why the viewfinder responds to exposure changes, so you get an idea of how the image looks. The viewfinder is often called an EVF (Electronic ViewFinder). Early mirrorless cameras suffered from longer shutter lag and slower automatic focus, but the focus was also often more accurate, because it was based on the sensor itself, much in the same way as liveview. Mirrorless technology is still relatively new, but offerings in the last few years are much improved and many rival DSLRs in terms of quality. Many say that mirrorless will eventually replace DSLRs and while this may be largely true, it is likely that some applications will still favour DSLRs. It is often down to personal choice though and mirrorless cameras tend to be smaller, due not needing the large mirror and prism mechanism.

Ergonomics

I often say that ergonomics are the most important consideration. For me, it is pointless if you are unable to hold the camera for any length of time or can’t find what you are looking for in the menus. Some cameras use buttons instead of more extensive menus, but you need to be able to reach them. In the heat of the moment, you may need to change settings quickly and if you are struggling to get used to the way your camera works, then you could miss the shot of a lifetime. Also, you need to be comfortable when using your camera. It’s a bit like clothing, unless you are looking to be fashionable, you need to be comfortable in your clothes. If you’re walking across some moorland, you wouldn’t wear high heels, as you wouldn’t get very far. If you are holding your camera for long periods, then it needs to almost feel like part of your hand. Therefore size and shape are important. For this reason, I usually advise people to try cameras out. Hold them, feel what they are like. Look through the menus, do they look logical to you and do you think you could get used to them? Are you the sort of person who prefers buttons or likes to look through menus. Many cameras also have custom settings, have a look to see if you can set it up in a way that suits you better than the default.

Summary

Cameras are very personal, what suits one person, may not suit another. Many will suggest one brand over another, but the reality is, most will do the job equally well, unless things like low light, fast action and long focal lengths are important. Choose a camera that feels right for you, with consideration for what you think may be important in the near future. Also, many people ask “is camera x about to be upgraded soon?”. Remember, the camera in your hand will get better shots at the time, than the one you are waiting for that may appear next month or it might be next year. If you don’t have a camera, you can’t take a photograph.

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