As we were moving through the week, there has been a bit of chatter on the group about cameras and lenses, both what you have and what you think of buying or thinking you might need, so I thought I'd give you a little snapshot guide to the things you might want to know about buying and owning cameras and lenses. It's a vaaaaast subject and many, many a long detailed page dedicated to the gear, so this is far from exhaustive, but hopefully it will give you a start in thinking about what's best for you ( it may be the camera you already own!) . Today, it's part 1 - on cameras. Tomorrow - part 2 on lenses.
Types of cameras : compact, DSLR, Mirrorless
Let's start very simply with understanding the difference between the TYPES of cameras that are there on the market.
At the simplest edge we have the Basic compact camera ( a species at a threat of extinction). These used to be all the rage about 10 years ago, before phone cameras got good and are simple, automatica cameras that come with presets for a range of of scenes such as portraits, fireworks etc.
The pros: cheap, small, automatic only ( usually)
The cons: automatic only and no option to change lenses ( more on lenses further down)
Persoanlly, at this day and age, I would not recommend getting one - the quality of photos from your phone will be comparable, and that's one less thing to carry.
Dslrs are what we would consider to be a 'proper' camera - you know exactly which one I'm talking about - the somewhat larger ( in comparison to compacts), black cameras with interchangeable lenses.
They typically give you both manual and automatic settings and the ability to change your lenses ( rather than having just one zoom lens, a typical pro or enthusiast will own several lenses they will switch between depending on what's needed for a particular situation)
They come in various grades - from entry level to professional with prices between those two ends of the spectrum usually varying wildly - where you may spend £300 on an entry level DSLR, the blinged up pro version may set you back £3,000 or more.
Finally we have mirrorless. Confusingly named if you don't know much about a camera anatomy. Basically, with a DSLR, in order to see through the viewfinder what your camera sees through the lens, the image that comes in through the lens, is reflected in a little internal mirror inside the camera and sent to the viewfinder. The mirror does not actually have a function in capturing the photo, just in showing the photographer exactly what the camera sees.
Mirrorless cameras got rid of that little mirror which was part of what was making the DSLRs on the bulkier side, and use an electronic viewfinder instead which still shows you the same thing your camera sees just by means of electronics, not simple optics.
That's the short story, the long story is that removing that mirror and leaning more heavily towards electronics has allowed the camera manufacturers to significantly shrink the cameras, without sacrificing the things that they can do. So you can have a mirrorless that not much larger than your phone (just thicker) that will do the same things or more, that a similar level DSLR can. Just in a smaller package. Just like DSLR ranges, they come in various price points and levels or complexity.
The future is Mirrorless?
Camera manufacturers are definitely putting their money towards mirrorless - Nikon announced last year that they will not be further developing and updating their entry level DSLR ranges, and instead developing entry level Mirrorless in the coming years. So if you're thinking long term, mirrorless maybe the way to go. Having said that, I don't see traditional DSLR disappearing any time soon - while many photographers are switching to those, plenty of pros still stick with their brilliantly crafted DSLRs and new models are still being developed and sold.
The pros of mirrorless cameras are certainly the size. The downsides – well, they are on the pricier side, there are still fewer lenses available for them and they tend to be more expensive too and they can be more fragile. In some cases, depending on how you will be using them, the lenses can be almost as large as the ones for DSLRs ( though there are quite a few small and light ones so that’s certainly not a rule)
Different Cameras for different skills:
Typically, both DSLRs and mirrorless will come in different 'levels' aimed at photographers with different skill sets. While they will all do the same thing, and you can capture the same good photo with all of them, there will be differences in how advanced some of the key features are - with some features only available on the pro cameras because, well, only pros would actually need to use them and others made more sensitive or faster on the pro cameras - we're talking about things like autofocus, how well the camera performs in low light but also whether it's built to be light or more robust.
To give you an example of what the difference might be - a typical entry level camera might have a focus system that has several basic options for different situations - such as focus for more static subject, focus for subjects on the move and the ability to move ( toggle) the focus to a selected point on the frame. A pro version of the same camera may be able to pinpoint a subject's eye and follow it around the frame without the photographer needing to do much at all, ensuring that they can get a super sharp photo most of the time. That feature, although it would be nice to have in all cameras, will matter more to someone who makes a living out of their camera because there are no retakes on that first kiss at the wedding photo and they simply MUST get them right.
Full frame or crop sensor? or Micro four thirds?
You may have heard those terms already, but if you are new to photography, chances are you have not. Those terms refer to the size of the sensor ( the thing that actually records the light coming into your camera and turns it into an image) you have in the camera.
Full Frame cameras
Full frame refers to the largest size of the sensor - it's called full frame as it is equivalent to what you would get with a Film camera in the pre-digital days. Full frame sensors are typically only seen in the professional grade or serious enthusiast cameras. cameras with those tend to be the most expensive - partly because of the sensor, but partly because people who need those sensors are pros and they need the other features crammed into those cameras that make those cameras that much dearer. What I'm trying to say is that JUST having a larger sensor won't make your camera that much more expensive, but things that usually go hand in hand with that sensor, will. What a larger sensor does though is help create larger, higher resolution images which again are important for professional photographers.
Crop Sensor cameras
Crop sensor is what you would get with most entry and mid range cameras. The size of that sensor is shrunk down by about a quarter compared to what we call 'full frame'. It means that if you line up a crop sensor and a full frame sensor camera, with the same lens, side by side, the full frame will see and register approximately 25% more of the scene in front. ( you can of course make a few steps to the back with the crop camera, or change a lens to one that's a wider angle and you will still be able to cover that wider area so it's not like it's somehow off limits to those with crop sensor cameras). But those sensors are cheaper and smaller and therefore more available in your more budget end cameras.
Micro Four Thirds
Then you have the Micro Four Thirds? I know what you're thinking - micro four what? That again refers to the size of the sensor, shrunk a bit more compared to the crop sensor and which you will find in some mirrorless cameras ( mostly Olympus and Panasonic) . Because the sensor is that much smaller, the cameras can be smaller and lighter and it also means the lenses can be smaller and lighter so you end up lugging much less in your camera bag. Don't make the mistake though in thinking that the smaller Micro 4/3 sensor equals poorer images - there are some brilliant mirrorless, even high end cameras with those sensors, capable of brilliant things.
Different sensor sizes = different lenses
The lenses you need for your camera will be different depending on the sensor format ( as they are designed to cover more or less space, in line with what your camera sees) so your crop sensor camera lens might not be compatible with your full frame camera and if you stick it on, will either crop the view to what you would get with a crop sensor or leave a black vignette around. Typically your full frame lenses will be significantly more expensive than the crop sensor one - not just because they are bigger, but because they tend to be built of higher quality materials, have wider apertures ( more on that below) and more finely tuned mechanisms to give you images that are that little bit sharper.
SO WHAT’S THE BEST CAMERA FOR ME?
If we had a penny for each time we get asked: “What’s the best camera to buy?” And I really wish I could just say – THAT one. But I can’t. Even if we take the cost out of the equation, there are still a lot of reasons that make one camera the right fit for someone and a terrible for another.
So how do you know? Here are a few questions that may be of help.
What’s your skills level?
If you’re just starting up, you certainly don’t need the £3,000 article. Instead go for a camera that will not be too complicated to handle when you don’t know much, but at the same time, one that you won’t want to replace as soon as you’ve learnt a little. We include some ideas split by level below.
We tend to recommend cameras that are one shelf above the absolute starter camera – if possible. The production cycle of cameras these days is approx 18 months and sometimes the technical differences between the newest model and its predecessor are really insignificant ( like for example having or not having built in wifi) so in some cases it’s better to choose a slightly older model from a shelf up ( which had gone down in price since the newest version came out) than the brand new shiny model from the bottom shelf.
Weight and size – are those important to you?
Does size and weight matter to you? If you have a few small people swarming around you, perhaps carting a larger piece of equipment is not really for you. Getting a heavy camera, however great it might be, won’t be of any use to you if its weight and bulk are to make you reluctant to bring it with you frequently. The saying goes – the best camera is the one you have on you – and we certainly agree. If you don’t use it, what’s the point of spending lots of money on it?
So if weight and size is a key consideration, you want something small and light ( that includes smaller lenses) which means you’re looking either at the smaller end of DSLRs or going mirrorless.
What will you be using the camera for?
Do you plan to use it as your family camera or perhaps thinking of working towards becoming a pro? If you have such ambitions, you will need a camera that’s reliable and precise above all and that you can grow with. Those – and lenses that come with them – tend to be a lot heavier and bulkier so worth considering whether it’s a now or future purchase.
If you’re planning for it to remain a family focused hobby ( for now at least) don’t worry about going full frame and go instead for a good, small and compact camera that will be easy to take with you everywhere. It doesn’t need to be a mirrorless, there are some lovely small dslrs out there that aren’t that much bigger.
Don’t forget that when you buy a camera, you are also buying into the lens and accessories ecosystem linked to that particular brand. So your Canon will only work with Canon lenses ( or Made-For-Canon third party lenses – like Sigma or Tamron), and also that you will need different lenses for your starter DSLR, full frame DSLR and a mirrorless – even if it’s the same brand
There is no denying - a 10 year old camera will not perform as well as one that's 2 or 3 years old. The most noticeable difference is is how the cameras handle poor light, so if you're finding it a struggle at home in poorer light, aim for a camera that's no more than 4-5 years of age especially if buying at the entry level ( higher end cameras, even if older can handle the light a bit better). Having said that, with new cameras coming on the market every 12 - 18 months, you can often go for a higher spec camera that's only a couple years old at the same price as very entry level that's brand new which is a trade off I would recommend considering.
Different levels of cameras are designed for different needs - the more advanced menu items will be hidden in the menus of entry level cameras ( the assumption being, beginners won't need them much) whereas they will be more accessible via buttoms and custome buttons on higher end cameras ( because pros need to access them faster and easier). In particular when you are beginning to shoot in manual, having dual control ( two scrollers - one for your aperture and one for your shutter settings) is something that's extremely useful.
And finally – budget
Let’s not beat about the bush. Photography is not a cheap hobby. The gear can be very expensive, but you don’t always need all that. We don’t all need to drive a Lexus if all we do is is a school run. All the more reason to shop with care and buy the kind of camera that’s actually well suited to what you need. It might also mean buying a camera body and lens separately to maximise your money.
Used is not a dirty word
There is a thriving second hand market for photography gear. Specialised sellers like mpb.com and wexphotovideo.com or camerajungle.co.uk will service all their second hand gear before selling it on and then offer between 6 months to 1 year warranty on it ( depending on the seller). This means you’re getting quality gear which you can rely on for a lot less than buying it new. If money is a serious concern but you want to get more than just the entry level gear, I would recommend considering second hand
Below, I have listed most of the recent cameras on the market and placed them in the 'skill' category - from entry level all the way to pro so you can have an idea of what they are. . Notice that while for DSLRs, we have an entry level and Upper entry level, I only created one entry level category for the mirrorless cameras. That's because even the entry level ones tend to come pretty well developed and it's harder to divide them between those two categories.
|Entry level||Nikon D3000 series ( d3500, d3400 etc) |
Canon 4000d ( most basic) , 2000d, 1300d and earlier 'thousand' models
|Canon - M100 ( older) M200 or M50, M50mk 2 ( better) |
Nikon - z50
Sony - a5100
Olympus - E-PL9, E-PL 10
Panasonic - GX9,
Fuji - X-E3, X-T100
|Upper entry level||Nikon d5000 series ( recent models : d5600 and d5500 - the smaller the number the older the camera) |
Canon 250d and 200d
|Mid range||Nikon d7500 and earlier d7000 series|
Canon 850d, 800d and earlier 750d models,
|Canon - M5, M6|
Nikon - z5
Sony - A6500 ( and earlier a6000 range)
Olympus Pen F, E-M10mk iV, E-M10M III and ealier m10 versions
Panasonic - G80, G85, G90
Fuji - X-T20, X-T30
|Enthusiast||Nikon d610, d610 - enthusiast level full frame cameras|
Canon 90d or 7D ii ( both crop sensor) or 6D and 6D II ( full frame)
|Canon - RP ( and R and Ra) |
Nikon - z5
Sony - a7 II, A7
Olympus - E-M5 II
Panasonic - GH5, G9
Fuji - X-T2, XT3
|Pro||Nikon: all full frame - from D750, d850, d5, d6 - with those latter ones being the most advanced. |
Canon : all full frame : from 6D II all the way up to 1D III - the smaller the number, the higher end the camera)
|Canon - R5, R6 |
Nikon - z6, z7
Sony - a7 III, a7R IV, A7s III, a9, a9 II
Olympus - E-M1x
Panasonic - Lumix s5
Fuji - X-T3, XH1