What Camera Should I Buy? The Ultimate Camera Purchasing Guide

January 2013 6:00 AM 28 Comments

what-camera-should-i-buy-0001

What Camera Should I Buy?”

This article is meant for those that have ever asked, or have been asked the question “what camera should I buy?”

If you are a professional photographer, then I am sure you have heard this question more than once. Feel free to refer this guide to friends to help them in determining exactly what kind of camera they should purchase.

So, let’s start from the top for all of you thirsting photo-bugs. My first question is, “Do you want a camera that will help you take pictures like the ones below?”

what-camera-should-i-buy-image-3

what-camera-should-i-buy-image-2

Well, we have good news and not so good news.

The good news is that all you need to take the photos shown above is the most basic camera you can find. In fact, all of the shots shown above were taken with an iPhone 3 and iPhone 4.

Don’t believe me? Well, check out the Original iPhone Fashion Shoot by the Fstoppers, and our follow up Tribute iPhone Fashion Shoot by SLR Lounge.

Ok, so what’s the not so good news? Well, the not so good news is that in order to take great photos it really has far less to do with the actual camera and more with the photographer’s skill and expertise. Bottom line is that you need to learn photography and lighting.

Learning photography and lighting are definitely beyond the scope of this article, but at least we can help you in deciding “what camera you should buy” right now.

the-camera-is-a-tool

Know That the Camera is Simply a Tool

The whole purpose in showing you the images from our iPhone photo shoots above, is to drive home a single point,

spending more money on camera gear will not necessarily help you in creating better photos.

In fact, our photography studio (Lin and Jirsa Photography) receives 2-3 applicants a day, each with several thousands of dollars of professional equipment. However, each year we only find a handful of applicants that actually shoot well enough to work for the studio.

You need to know that a camera is simply a tool. Having a nicer camera will open up more flexibility and options as a photographer. It will allow you to capture more detail, or shoot in situations that would otherwise not be possible. It can also make your job as a photographer easier. However, it will not make you a better photographer.

This would be similar to the argument that buying a sports car makes you a professional race car driver, or that buying a $500 frying pan makes you a professional chef. A professional photographer should be able to get great results regardless of the camera he or she uses. Ok, so let’s move on in helping you decide which camera is right for you. But, first things first, let’s simplify things a bit and define each camera class for the purpose of this article.

camera-types

Camera Types Broken Down

This may be an oversimplification of sorts, but it is necessary. We are going to break down digital cameras into 5 basic types that we can easily reference in this article:

Point & Shoot (P&S) – Point and Shoot (here on referred to as “P&S”) will refer to basic point and shoot cameras without advanced DSLR functionality such as the ability to shoot RAW, control advanced camera functionality, or swap lenses.

The Nikon Coolpix series, Sony Cyber-shot series and Canon PowerShot series are all examples of P&S cameras.

Advanced Point and Shoots (AP&S) – Advanced Point and Shoots (here on referred to as “AP&S”) will refer to all advanced point and shoot cameras, as well as micro four-thirds cameras with advanced functionality and interchangeable lens systems. We understand that many micro four-thirds and mirrorless camera systems can take DSLR quality photos, but let’s put them in this class regardless.

The Nikon 1 series, Canon PowerShot G series and Sony NEX series are all examples of AP&S cameras.

Digital Single-Lens Reflex (DSLR) – DSLR will refer to all entry and enthusiast level full-sized DSLR systems with advanced functionality and removable lenses.

The Canon Rebel series and Nikon D3000+ series are examples of entry and enthusiast level DSLRs.

Advanced Digital Single-Lens Reflex (ADSLR) – Advanced Digital Single-Lens Reflex systems (here on referred to as “ADSLR”) will refer to all “prosumer” and professional level DSLRs including crop and full frame cameras.

The Canon 6D and Nikon D600 are arguably “prosumer” ADSLRs while anything above the Canon 5D Mark III or Nikon D800 would be more along the lines of a professional ADSLR.

Medium Format Cameras (MFC) – Medium Format Cameras refer to all ultra-high resolution professional medium format cameras and digital backs.

The Hasselblad H4D-50 and Pentax 645D, and Phase One are examples of medium format cameras.

Four Basic Questions

Deciding on which camera to purchase comes down to 4 simple questions. The first two questions will determine the class of camera that you should purchase, while the second two questions determine the make and model.

Choosing a Camera Class

1. What Is Your Budget?

2. What Are Interests and Goals with Photography?

Camera Make & Model

3. What is Your Photographic Specialty?

4. What System Do Your Friends Use?

your-overall-budget

Setting an Overall Photography Budget

Let’s be honest,

if we all had $100,000 to spend on camera gear, deciding which camera is right for you really wouldn’t be that big of a question.

We would simply purchase the nicest cameras available in every size shape we desire. This is why budget is the biggest and most important question of them all when it comes to determining which camera you will purchase.

The Two Part Budget Question

How much you want to spend on your camera is the first part of that equation. But, how much you want to spend on lenses and accessories is really the larger part of that overall budget equation. You don’t need to spend this money all at once, but you do need to decide if you want to continually invest in new gear.

This is what we refer to as an “Overall Budget” and it should be composed of two pieces. The first piece is an “Initial Purchase Budget,” which is the amount that someone can afford to spend on a camera right this moment. While the second piece of our budget is our “Ongoing Purchase Budget” which is the amount someone wishes to spend on lenses and accessories for their camera over 3-5 years.

Paul and Amy – A Real World Example

Let’s further illustrate by walking through two examples:

Paul – Initial Purchase Budget $1,000; Ongoing Purchase Budget $500

Amy – Initial Purchase Budget $1,000; Ongoing Purchase Budget $5,000

While Paul and Amy’s Initial Purchase Budget are both identical, our recommendations to them will not be the same. Why? Because Paul has an Ongoing Purchase Budget of $500, he would be better off purchasing a less expensive AP&S system than a DSLR system. AP&S camera systems have excellent image quality and their related lenses/accessories are also much less expensive given the smaller size and format of the cameras. This means that with Paul’s Initial and Ongoing Purchase Budgets, he would have a much more powerful overall camera system going with a AP&S camera with plenty of lenses and accessories rather than that of a DSLR camera with only 1 lens and a limited amount of accessories.

While Amy has the same Initial Purchase Budget as Paul, we would recommend that she purchases the appropriate DSLR that best fits her photographic interests and her initial purchase budget. The lenses and accessories purchased with her Ongoing Purchase Budget will continue to serve her, even if and when she decides to upgrade to a new DSLR body in the future.

Moral of the story, when setting a budget, it is important to think and set your Overall Budget, rather than just an Initial Purchase Budget.

What Are Your Interests and Goals with Photography?

The next question in determining the Camera Class is to ask:

what are your goals and interests when it comes to photography?

Are you truly interested in learning photography as a hobby; do you want to become a professional photographer; or are you simply interested taking better photos? Why are these questions important?

It doesn’t make sense to spend thousands of dollars on a DSLR system, a micro 4/3 system, or even an advanced point and shoot if you have no intention or desire to learn photography in depth.

You would essentially be wasting dollars on a system that has features and abilities that you will never use. In fact, the vast majority of people that have gone to Costco and purchased a kit Canon Rebel or Nikon D3200 already have a camera that is far beyond their photographic needs and understanding. For this reason, for the photographer that doesn’t wish to heavily invest in their photographic education, a nice P&S system will give you the best overall results since they are designed to be simple and mostly automated.

Recommended Camera Classes Based on Photography Budget & Goals

 

OVERALL BUDGET

 

$500

$1,000

$2,500

$10,000

$25,000

$50,000+

Hobbyist

P&S

AP&S

AP&S

-

-

-

Enthusiast

-

AP&S

AP&S | DSLR

DSLR | ADSLR

-

-

Professional

-

-

-

DSLR | ADSLR

ADSLR

ADSLR | MFC

The table above shows our three levels of interest (Hobbyist, Enthusiast and Professional) along with our recommendations on the camera system type based on their Overall Budget. Remember that the Overall Budget also includes lenses and accessories as well. Let’s explain each of these further to clarify:

Hobbyists – Hobbyists enjoy taking photos and want to learn to take better photos, but are not necessarily interested in investing a lot of time into learning photography. This is probably the category that the majority of people fall into. Portability and ease of use is the primary need for Hobbyists.

P&S or AP&S camera system will provide more functionality then they would probably ever need. In addition, since P&S and AP&S systems are designed with beginners in mind, they generally have more sophisticated automated modes which yields better pictures when starting out. Professional results can be achieved with an AP&S system, so there is really no reason for the Hobbyist to ever spend more than $2,500 on their equipment.

Enthusiasts – Enthusiasts are avid photographers who not only enjoy photography, but also enjoy learning about photography. They invest quite a bit of time into learning photography, as well as shooting. Enthusiasts want to create professional quality images, but aren’t necessarily interested in making a living off of photography. Quality, features, and portability are the Enthusiast’s needs.

An Enthusiast will probably want to skip the $500 price point all together since they most likely wont be able to get the camera and accessories they want. Whether they are shooting on an AP&S or basic DSLR system, they will be able to continue their progression in photography and capture amazing images. If the Enthusiast has plenty of room to spare in their budget to spend on their hobby, then they may want to step into an ADSLR. However, I would generally recommend Enthusiasts to stick to an overall budget between $2,500 and $10,000. There is really not much if any need to step beyond $10,000 unless the Enthusiast simply enjoys collecting gear.

Professionals – Professionals (or aspiring professionals) are heavily invested in their photographic education, as they shoot or plan to shoot for a living. While they may also shoot for fun, quality, functionality and versatility are the primary needs of professionals and aspiring professionals.

Professionals and Aspiring Professionals really need to jump past the $500, the $1,000 and in my opinion, even the $2,500 Overall Budget points. An Aspiring Professional needs to be willing to spend at least $10,000 on their gear, but it doesn’t need to be all at once. It is totally fine for an Aspiring Professionals start out with beginner DSLR bodies and purchase pro-quality lenses until they are ready to move up to an ADSLR body.

Most established Professionals will have at least $25,000 worth of equipment. Depending on where the Professional is in his or her career, it isn’t unusual for the Professional photographer to have $50,000+ worth of gear. In fact, it isn’t unusual for a commercial photographer to have upwards of $100,000 – $150,000 in gear if they are shooting with MFC (Medium Format Cameras) and high-end professional lighting equipment.

Which Camera Make/Model is Best For You?

We have discussed our Overall Budget and Goals/Interests with photography which goes into helping us choose a Camera Class. Now we have to determine which specific make and model is right for us. This is going to come down to two additional questions which we discuss below:

What is Your Desired Photographic Specialty?

type-of-photography

What is your desired photographic speciality, or better yet, what type of photography most interests you? Do you primarily shoot sports, or are your interests more in portrait photography? Of course, there are not a lot of us that can afford to have a specific camera for everything we shoot. We will all end up doing some portraits, sports, landscape and everything in between from time to time with the same camera.

But, it is important to decide what type of photography most interests you. Knowing your primary photographic specialty will help determine specific features you will want in your camera.

the-bigger-the-camera-the-better

Bigger is Not Always Better

The reason for this is simple. Let’s all dream for a moment and imagine we have $100,000 to spend on a camera body. Well, if we have $100,000 we should buy a MF Phase One camera and 80 megapixel digital back, right? NOT NECESSARILY!.

Let’s say we want to primarily shoot action and sports. An action or sports photographer needs focal range, high frame rates, good low light sensitivity, lens versatility, tough construction and a system that is good on the go.

Having an expensive medium format camera system with 1-2 frames per second, poor low light sensitivity, a limited line up of telephoto lenses and overall a less portable and more sensitive body construction is going to only prevent you from taking the best photos possible. So clearly budget isn’t the only question because “bigger is not always better.” It is important to understand our primary photographic interests in order to determine the best camera, or rather the best tool for the job.

While there are tons of potential specialties of photography, once again we are going to break it down into a few basic specialties which are each discussed below:

Important Features for Different Specialties

Action/Sports – Live action and sports photographers need to get as close as possible to the action, as well as need to react quickly to the action. For this reason, Frame Rate, Crop Factor and Megapixels are the 3 primary camera features you will want to look into.

You will want cameras that have higher frame rates (6+ frames per second) to allow you to capture the action with several frames per second. In addition, the cameras Crop Factor (sensor magnification) as well as its megapixel resolution (to crop in post production) will aid you in getting as close as possible to the action.

In this category, cameras like the Canon 7D and Nikon D7000 are great middle of the road DSLRs for action and sports. While the Canon 1D Series and Nikon D4 Series systems are their flagship cameras sports and action photography.

Editorial/Fashion – Editorial and fashion photographers need high quality color representation as well as detail (which means resolution/megapixels). High quality sensors with strong color reproduction is crucial for accurate skin tones, textures and colors.

In addition, having plenty of megapixels will capture enough detail to allow photographers to crop in on an image while still maintaining a high quality printable file. In the ADSLR market, the best camera for this job is really the Nikon D800 and D800e with the Canon 5D Mark III trailing. In the ultra-high end MFC (Medium Format Camera) market we have cameras such as Phase One, Hasselblad, Mamiya, etc.

Nature/Landscapes – Nature, urban and landscape photography is a little less demanding as far as overall features. The primary consideration here is the camera’s sensor itself. Specifically, how much detail and Dynamic Range can the sensor capture. The more Dynamic Range captured the better. Unfortunately, the more advanced sensors that capture more Dynamic Range will also end up costing quite a bit more.

Currently, Nikon really has the corner on this market with the D800E, D800 and D600 having the best overall dynamic range.

Portraits/Glamour – Portrait and glamour photography can be done with most any camera because the primary focus in this type of photography is the overall lighting. Generally these photographers are shooting in controlled situations, hence virtually anything from a Canon Rebel to a Nikon D800 will work just fine for portraits and glamour photography. However, my favorite ADSLR cameras within for this field of photography is the Canon 5D Mark III and the Nikon D800.

Events/Journalism – Event (wedding, corporate, etc) and journalism are extremely demanding areas of photography in terms of camera features. However, the most crucial features include strong performance in low-light scenes, weather sealing, and good overall performance in regards to resolution, frame rate, etc.

If you are a professional (or aspiring professional) I wouldn’t recommend using anything less than an ADSLR within this field, my two favorites again being the Canon 5D Mark III and the Nikon D800.

What System Do Your Friends Use?

I know this seems kind of ridiculous, but hear me out. Your final consideration in the camera make should have something to do with what those around you are using. This isn’t to say that this factor should be above features and budget, it should just be a a consideration. Let me explain.

Let’s say you have narrowed your search to two cameras, one is a Canon camera and one is a Nikon camera (the proverbial debate). Lets say that both cameras are identical in overall features; or better yet, they are identical in the features that matter to you. Both cameras also fit in your budget and either would work just fine.

At this point, the decision should come down to what those around you use. If you are surrounded by Canon users, then you are better off going Canon. If you are surrounded by Nikon users, then likewise, you are better off going Nikon. The reason for this is simple. If those around you are using the same camera make and similar models, then they will be able to assist you when you have questions. You will be able to loan/borrow gear to/from each other. Overall, it will help you to grow as a photographer that much quicker since you can build on their experience.

This is why it belongs in this equation as a final consideration before purchasing your camera.

Conclusion

Hopefully this article has been of help to you in understanding what type of camera you should purchase. After you have answered the simple questions posed in this article, then all it comes down to is selecting the camera that best fits your desired features and budget.

Soon, we will be posting a camera buying guide with our favorite cameras in each price range for each type of photography, so be sure to check back!

Pye

About

Pye (AKA Post Production Pye) is a founder and the Managing Editor for SLR Lounge. Pye is also a Partner of Lin and Jirsa Photography, an Orange County based wedding, engagement and portrait photography studio. Connect with him on Google Plus

28 Comments

  1. Omi Khan

    Tribute iPhone Fashion Shoot  link is broken. :)

    1
  2. Nick Giardina

    So you’re saying that a D800 will make me shoot like you? lol.

    3
  3. Mark G

    You only mention the higher-priced cameras in your section on photographic specialty. It would be helpful for people looking at P&S or AP&S to have a feel for what they could use to take those types of photos. Also, you don’t mention video at all, and it seems like in some scenarios video would also be a consideration.

    2
    • Pye
      Pye

      We will have a full set of gear guides for all budgets. It was a bit too much to put into this article. We would have been listing cameras the whole time. 

      2
  4. SheDevil

    Another consideration might be the hobbyist on a limited budget, who wants to build up a lens collection, but can’t afford $500 per digital lens.

    I got the Pentax K10D because I hate those stupid picture settings with mountains and one person or three, whatever. I wanted the same manual control I have with my old SLR. No pictures to try to figure out if what I am shooting most falls under the mountain setting or the night one, or the trees. I set everything myself.

    The other appeal of the K10D was that I could buy the old Pentax lenses for much less than the digital ones. There are adjustments to make when using an old lens, but it’s simple enough. And it can cost much less for quality glass. One reason we can do this with the Pentax is that the anti-shake is in the body, not built into the lenses. I must say my old telephoto is probably way heavier than what I could buy if I had quite several hundred dollars more to get the Pentax digital equivalent.

    3
  5. James HB

    I’m an event aspiring photographer, do my small job’s with my Nikon D5200 + 18-55 + 50mm 1.8 D (yes! manual focus….) and i want grow up in big events…so now i have U$12,000 to spend in camera and lenses. This my idea: D600 + D7000 + 24-70 f2.8 + 70-200 f2.8 VR II + 16-35 f4 VR and 35mm 1.4 SIGMA…. I’m in the wrong way??? I’ll sell my d5200 +18-55…. 

    1
    • Anon

      keep the D5200 and skip the D7000 add a second D600 later,  (you’re getting all AFS lenses so if anything trade the 1.8d for a 1.8g.)  D5200 has everything the d7000 has except commander mode for flash, and the in body motor.  

      my 2cents

      1
  6. Johnmccosh

    I believe as a Wedding Photographer the D600 is a better camera than the D800 on the grounds of file size alone. The D800 file size is just to large. As a Wedding photographer shooting in Raw I believe is a must and on a typical wedding I will shoot 64GB on the D600 this would jump to close to 100GB on the D800. The D600 produces prints that are more than large enough. Great article.

    3
  7. Pentax

    I believe there is more in the camera world than Nikon and Canon..

    6
    • SheDevil

      Thank you.

      I also noticed the bias toward the Canon and Nikon in this article. Funny,
      considering the fact that the author leans on the idea that a fancy
      camera will not make you a better photographer, it’s just a tool.

      I am as in love with my Pentax K-10D as with my old workhorse, the Minolta SRT200, and for much the same reason. They both allow me a lot of freedom, without unnecessary settings (I never could get the hang of getting what I wanted from my camera using those mountain range icons and profiles) and frippery. Of course, my unpopular camera choices mean I have dealt with camera snobs since I was a kid, when I decided to take my love of photography more seriously and added the Minolta to my collection (which included one of the original Diana Fs).

      1
    • Tiffany Bonnell

      I love Fuji camera’s, yet they don’t run on the same platform as Canon and Nikon. They still give you a large array of options and great quality on a low-income budget.

      0
  8. cabezasc

    low budget I will buy use, best new camera for the money D7100, if I got money Canon 6D if i am a super pro Nikon D4 or Canon 1DC. but all depends….. depends

    2
  9. What camera should I buy? @ Jesse Taylor PhotographyJesse Taylor Photography

    […] decided these two factors you can quickly narrow down your search, and there’s a great article over at SLR Lounge that we think you’ll find […]

    0
  10. shamb

    I have been asked about moving up from P&S cameras in the past, and here’s the (purely non technical) advice I gave:

    ‘Trading up to a more expensive camera in photography is like adding salt to your cooking. Adding the right amount of salt makes for a better dish, but doubling the salt doesn’t mean your food will be twice as tasty (and often actually creates new problems)’.

    I think this advice saved quite a lot of money :)

    2
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    […] then you probably get asked one of two questions from friends and family. The first, “What Camera Should I Buy?” Well, that is a subject in and of itself, which is why we addressed it in its own article […]

    0
  12. Jason

    One system which would fit somewhere close to the AP/S and/or DSLR systems which I personally think is worth a mention is the Micro four thirds system. One such camera from this group would be the new OM-D E-M1. Whilst the sensor is only half the size of a full frame’s sensor, I do feel that this camera in particular is worthy of consideration within the Enthusiast, or even Professional’s level of photography. Olympus’s M.Zuiko lenses are very capable of producing excellent results, and it would be quite easy to spend ten thousand dollars on this system and have a competent system which can produce professional results. While it may not have 14 bit’s of colour depth, and thirty six million pixels like that of the D800, it is capable of producing poster size prints which are indistinguishable to full frame prints even from a close viewing position. The OM-D E-M1′s focusing system is faster than DSLR’s and very accurate. It’s 5-axis inbuilt stabilization can easily be used for shutter speeds down to one second, and even slower with stable hands. It’s lighter weight makes it easier to carry for a day of shooting (although spare batteries would be needed) and if flash is needed, it has a flash sync of 1/320, which is faster than most other cameras.
    Vittore Buzzi, an Italian wedding photographer, has been using the OM-D E-M5 as his main camera and has achieved quite spectacular results. He is not the only photographer who uses this camera as their main camera either. There are many others who have changed from full frame to the micro four thirds system and have been successful in doing so. The OM-D E-M1 is an upgraded professional level camera which has improved on the E-M5. It is solid, weather sealed, and very capable. However, it can not match a full frame camera in overall image quality, but it can match APS/C’s, and even surpass them.
    This is just another option in which I feel is worth mentioning due to it’s performance, build quality, and image quality. Voigtlander produce quality manual f 0.95 lenses for those that require the extra DOF that would otherwise be only achieved with full frame cameras for around one thousand dollars. This camera won’t suit everybody, but those that it does should be more than happy with what it can produce.
    Thank you for taking your time to read this.
    Regards
    Jason

    1
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  14. Chris

    Im surprised how little you mention of the Canon 6D, which imo is an awesome body

    2
  15. Steve

    I just purchased the following equipment and waiting for it to arrive. I hope I made a good choice.
    Canon EOS 70D DSLR Camera
    EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM Lens
    EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM Lens

    1
  16. Undisclosed

    I own a Nikon D90, with an 18-105 VR lens, I only pursue photography as a hobby. However, I do go around and take a lot of pictures. My choice of photography is landscape and macro. If I’m to invest in lenses for these, how much would I need? Would you suggest that I upgrade my camera itself?

    1
  17. Andrew Lynch

    I always recommend the Sony Nex system to people who are new to photography. Normally they want a camera they can take on holiday or to an event and take amazing pictures even in low light. I mention how the Nex system take the same photo if not better sometimes than the beginner DSLR yet it half the size and weight. Everyone that has taken this recommendation has loved it. I myself have moved away from my A99 full frame to the Nex 7 for personal work but with the release of the A7 and A7R there could be future scope to make this a professional setup.

    1
  18. F. Husain

    I believe the super-zoom category could have been a real good suggestion. For most people who do not want to deal with multiple lens and are on limited budget, a super-zoom will be great instead of phone cameras or p&s. Yes it is possible to make a close-up image with 41mp of lumia 1020 image, but the wide-angle distortion will be horrendous. I use sony nex system, but ‘larger sensor’ super-zoom cameras like sony RX10 (although not cheap) is harbinger for good things to come. If I were to take only one camera to yellowstone NP, it would be a super-zoom. Way too many advantages and the IQ will be totally acceptable because it will be used primarily in day light.

    1
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  20. Krys

    This is a very helpful website, not only is it very clear but I’m left with a great understanding as to what camera I will buy. Simply amazing.

    2
  21. Rafael Steffen

    TO improve the overall quality of the photos, it is more important to invest on the lenses and not cameras.

    1
  22. Austin Swenson

    I went from a Sony DSLR to their A7 line, and I think that they are both really great. In fact, I would say that I want to get back into the alpha line as soon as they release another full frame sensor camera in the next little while, because DSLRs and mirrorless cameras are great tools for different reasons.

    0

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