Ah. The age old question. As budding photographers (and even pros!), we are inevitably faced with actually buying/upgrading a camera. For some, this is a moment of great pleasure. We get up to the counter, already having done our research and knowing what we want. Sometimes we B.S with the sales person and get in a match of “who knows more camera tech”. Then we get out our credit card/debit card/cash, heart in throat, and trade hard earned money for a shiny red and white or black and yellow or blue box. GLORIOUS! Angels sing. Birds chirp. Disney princesses everywhere are belting out their highest notes as they marry their prince charmings.
Or, maybe you don’t really like the thought of plopping down a couple of grand for a consumer electronic, no matter how many AF points or MP’s you’ll be getting. Maybe you are brand new to photography and just don’t know what you need. This post is for you.
There are a lot of features in cameras… which are important??
The important features are the ones you’re going to use. So you need to start by deciding which features are most important to you. As sales people, we are taught a formula. Basically, when we sell a feature, we sell the BENEFIT of the feature, not the actual feature itself. Here’s how that looks:
This camera has 12 megapixels so that you can get great enlargement prints or crop if you need to improve your composition. See how that works? We listed the feature (12mp) then discussed the benefit of it (enlargements and cropping) so that you can determine if those things are important to you.
Let’s look at some features that are common and good to consider, and their potential benefits (and drawbacks!!) to you as the consumer.
- Megapixels – More = larger prints and more room for cropping. If you are just learning about composition, this may be a good thing to consider since you will have more room for “photographer error” (straightening horizons, cropping out things you didn’t mean to include, improving the composition in general). If you are planning on printing super huge prints, this is important to consider, as well. There is a slight drawback, though; more pixels = more noise and less sharp images. Today’s noise reduction technology is pretty amazing, but it’s still a good idea to get a sensor that is larger and better quality if you want a ton of pixels (IE: APS or Full frame as compared to the smaller sensors in most mirrorless cameras or point and shoots). For most people, 10mp is a perfectly great number.
- AF-points – This is how many points of autofocus the camera has. More AF points is good if you’re shooting a lot of action. Subjects that move across the frame are harder to track, but with more AF points chances are good your camera will be able to focus on them no problem. How many you need is completely up to you. Consider what you’re shooting, if you’re even going to shoot in Autofocus (you might start out in AF, but switch to MF as you grow more comfortable with your camera).
- ISO range – A higher ISO range (expandable ISO, IE: 3200 and up) will let you get photos in lower light situations you might otherwise not be able to. You might want a higher ISO for ballet or nighttime/arena sports, photographing in a club or bar, concert photography or low light nature photography where a flash is not practical OR you might need to extend your flashes range. Even though cranking up your ISO might be reserved for very specialized circumstances, if you plan on shooting these things you’ll be glad you have it. Just be aware that the higher you go, the less sharp your images will look. While classic “noise” is being improved on with noise reduction technologies, your images will still appear soft and almost painterly. So say hello to cranking up your ISO and be prepared to say bye bye to sharpness. “It’s better to get the image with grain than to not get it at all” though.
- Sensor size – This refers to the actual physical size of your camera’s sensor (in layman’s terms: the part that gathers light and makes it an image!). The most common sensor sizes are APS-C (may vary in exact dimensions, but is generally referred to as a “crop” sensor and is usually around 28.400 diagonally) and Full Frame (usually around 43.300 diagonal). Both are measured relative in size to a piece of film. So a full frame sensor is roughly the same size as a piece of 35mm film, while an APS-C sized sensor is roughly the same size as a piece of APS-C film. Bigger is better if you want more megapixels to allow for cropping or massive enlargements, but keep in mind that MOST DSLR users shoot with an APS-C sized sensor right now. Another size you’ll see is 4/3rds. This is used by Panasonic and Olympus, mainly. It’s the smallest of the 3, but still larger than a standard point and shoot or advanced point and shoot. The cool thing about this sensor is that it’s smaller size allows for smaller cameras. What you get here is dependent on the amount of money you want to spend, the resolution you are looking to go up to and if you already have a selection of film lenses in one brand or another that you want to use without any conversion.
- Build material – Metal or plastic? Both have some great pros and some hefty cons. The plastics we use now are not the same plastic your kids toy is made of. These are high impact, highly specialized and technical plastics developed solely for use in consumer electronics with high demands. Many consumer (base level) models are made nearly entirely with plastics. This allows them to be much lighter than their stainless steel or magnesium alloy big brothers, appealing to new photographers whose arm muscles might need some toning before they step up. The downside is plastic wears out a lot faster than metal, so you’ll find your camera getting tired (aka: broken) a lot faster. Metal bodies are super sturdy and are usually found in pro-sumer (mid-grade) and professional (high end) models. They last a lot longer, but be ready to tote around all that extra weight! These bad boys can get pretty heavy after a while.
- Continuous burst – Measured in Frames Per Second (FPS), this is how many photos a camera can take per second in burst or sport mode. 3-5 is the average, with some models doing 7fps, 9fps or even 12fps! That’s 3-12 photos every SECOND you hold down the shutter button! This is often referred to as “machine gun mode” or if you see someone shooting burst in a normal situation hoping to get a good photo out of sheer luck, you might refer to it as “spray n pray”. In addition to the FPS, you need to consider the buffer in a camera. This will determine how MANY of those shots a camera can take before it needs to stop and write the images to a card. Some cameras, especially new ones, can write almost immediately as an image is taken, making your burst duration almost limitless. Some may start to slow down a bit as the buffer fills. This is a great feature for action photographers, wildlife photographers or even parents looking to capture their kids running around! The faster your subject, the faster you’ll want your burst mode to be. You might benefit from a 12fps burst if you’re shooting bobsledding, nascar, or cheetah’s chasing prey. 3-5 is fast enough for people running.
- Sample photos – A very important and sometimes skipped step in camera shopping. Find some straight out of camera, unprocessed sample photos. Do you like the way the photos look? Not necessarily if they are composed right, that’s the photographer’s job. But do you like the color? The saturation? The richness of the photos? No? Than you are going to be miserable every time you pull up your images to edit them. If the camera’s photos don’t appeal to you SOOC, then it’s not the right one. Each brand creates images that are colored differently, handle light differently and have an overall different feel to them. Yes, you can edit your photos to your style, but you need a good foundation to build off of. Think of it like film. We bought film back in the day (well, if you’re old enough to remember this anyway) based on how it looked when developed. You put 4 different types of film through the same processing and you get 4 different photos in terms of color and feeling. Think about this while shopping for digital, too!
- RAW mode – VERY important if you plan on editing or adjusting exposure/white balance during your editing process or if you are interested in the ever growing craze of HDR photography. RAW mode is available in almost all DSLR’s, but not all mirrorless cameras OR advanced point and shoots. So be sure to check the camera’s quality settings for RAW. RAW is not right for everyone. If you’re not much of an editor or if you need to get as many photos as possible on your card, RAW may not be that important to you. All cameras shoot either natively in JPEG or have a JPEG option. So you’re good there. And if you’re not SURE or want the best of both worlds, check for a RAW+JPEG option. This will record the image in both formats, allowing you to quickly look at/sort/share your JPEG files, but still have RAW files in case you choose to edit later on.
- Custom functions/programmable & shortcut buttons – These are options that allow you to either program certain settings to a dial-position (CF1) or to program your external buttons to do whatever you want them to do. They make it easy and fast for you to customize your camera layout and functionality. Shortcut buttons are pre-programmed with the most used settings (ISO, AF point selection, WB, etc). They make it faster and easier to get certain settings in your menu, so you are not fumbling with a scroll wheel and menu layout to change your ISO. They are very common on pro-sumer and professional grade models. Often, new shoppers are scared of the “big boy” cameras because they have so many buttons! Those buttons actually make it easier to use, believe it or not. The down side is if your brain doesn’t work that way or if you are very used to the menu, you may not use the buttons at all.
- User Interface – The UI is your menu, and each brand has a different one. Some people prefer Sony’s super user friendly interface with built in tips, others prefer Canon’s color coded and tabbed menu. It’s all a matter of how your brain works. You will be drawn to some UI’s and repulsed by others. If it’s not intuitive and clear for you to understand, you are going to have a bad time. Take a minute to play with each brand, hit “menu” and see how you like the functionality.
- Size/Shape/Layout – Finally, consider the actual size and layout of the camera. Is it comfortable to hold? It should be easy to access all the buttons you will be using and change your exposure settings. It shouldn’t be too heavy, or too light. Hold it up to your eye and look through the viewfinder; can you still access needed exposure dials easily? Imagine you have to hold this thing for 4 or 6 or 14 (gulp!) hours. Will it be comfortable or cause hand cramps?
In the end, YOU are the person using this. YOU know what features are important, YOU know what you don’t need or care about. So be sure to shop based on your needs. No one elses. If you want to check out some more about features available on cameras or compare them side by side, visit dpreview.com. I LOVE that site because it’s non-biased and explains technical concepts very, very well.
I am still lost! The sales people can help me, right?
First of all, you need realize that not every sales person is super smart camera knowledge guy and can answer all your questions with much more than an “uhhhhh… this one’s pretty good…..”. The type of sales person you will encounter will usually be one of 3. I have broken them down below:
1. “Hi! I am actually quite knowledgeable about cameras, I love to help people and pee from excitement anytime someone comes back to tell me how much they love their newest piece of gear! I’m unbiased and am happy to sell you whatever will actually work well for you now and a couple years down the road!” Likelihood of encountering this type of sales person: 10% (or less)
2. “Hey. I’m indifferent to whether or not you even buy a camera. In fact, I don’t even work in this department. To be real with you, dude, I make minimum wage and pretty much work here for a discount. So… yeah… like… whatever. They’re all pretty much the same.” Likelihood of encountering this type of sales person: 60%
3. “Hello there, patron. I’ve been taking photos since before you born and know everything. No, seriously, everything. Don’t question me. Don’t even think about trying to talk during this transaction because I’ll just interrupt you. Oh, you want Olympus, you say? Well, you could buy Olympus if you want a crappy camera. I mean, I wouldn’t want a crappy camera. So buy this Leica instead.” Likelihood of encountering this type of sales person: 30% (Or more if you go into an independently owned camera store expecting help).
You can avoid the hassle of dealing with the last 2 kinds of sales people if you do a little research before you go in. Realize that a sales person’s job *technically* is to sell you stuff. That’s what they are paid for! Whether it’s a big retail box like Best Buy or a little mom and pop shop, they have a business to run, bills to pay and need to make $$. If you are not the kind of person who wants help or wants to be sold stuff, then you need to go in, find what you came for and get out. There are a few things you will need/probably want right off the bat, but we’ll get to what you really need to walk out with later.
If you’re looking for an actual human to help you find your perfect camera, by all means; talk to your photographer friends. They are an invaluable source of info, no matter how new they are. Just know which questions to ask and beware of “brand whores” who will buy anything with “x” stamp on it. Some good things to ask:
- What brand do you use? Which model do you have?
- What do you shoot?
- What’s your favorite thing about your camera?
- What’s your least favorite thing about your camera?
- If you could get ANY camera available, what would it be?
If they shoot similar things as you, list an important feature as their favorite thing and their LEAST favorite thing doesn’t bother you that much… you’re probably on the right track.
Ok. So… Canon or Nikon?
Neither. Or both. Something you will learn quickly about photographers: They are VERY opinionated and they tend to be VERY loyal to one brand or another. Camera gear is a huge investment for most photographers. It’s not uncommon for someone to have around $4k sitting in their camera bag at any given time. And they tend to spend as much if not more time with their gear than their loved ones. Think of photographers like car-guys or motorcycle guys; they are not only financially, but also often very emotionally attached to their equipment. This means defending the brand, or model, or feature or whatever – to the death. Most photogs will happily recommend their camera or brand to you, but will be quick to give you a dirty look when you pull out your Olympus and they’re holding their Canon. It’s a constant war. An ongoing war. A forever war.
And it’s STUPID. The truth of the matter is this: Sony manufacturers MOST of the DSLR sensors we use, regardless of brand. Canon and Nikon compete head to head ACTIVELY; if you buy a $400 Nikon, it’s going to be VERY similar to a $400 Canon and vice versa, maybe with a couple of feature differences. Panasonic is an amazing innovator and frequently gets awards and kudos from big time photographers and photography publications for their new technology. Olympus IS a camera company and has been around for AGES; they are the KING of usability. Etc, etc, etc. Every single company has an amazing brand story, an amazing goal in mind when they develop their imaging products and a specific audience targeted with advertising. None are better, all are good and all are different.
The bottom line is this: If it feels good in your hand, if you’re comfortable with the layout, if the camera has the accessories/lenses/support you need and a you-friendly menu, if you are happy with the photos that come out of it…. it’s the right one. Period. Don’t let anyone sway you from your gut feeling. Go with what feels right. And when you make an award winning photograph on a 4/3rds Panasonic camera from 2 years ago: be excited to tell anyone who asks which camera you made it with. Because the camera doesn’t matter. A great mechanic can turn a POS car into the envy of everyone it drives by. A great artist can paint a masterpiece of a piece of plywood with Crayola watercolors.
It’s what’s BEHIND the camera that is going to make a great photograph. Cameras, though we grow attached and give them names and carry them like babies, are just tools. Buy the tool that does the job, does it how you need it done and you will be a happy camper.