Everything you should know about buying a serious camera

I am working with an intern who is looking to move from film to digital photography. A family friend is moving up from a point-and-shoot to a serious Digital SLR. After giving both of them the same basic answers, I realized that their question is one I have answered dozens of times over the years. I also I realized that their question (and especially my answers) are a blog entry in the making.

Right off the top let me say I am not going to get anywhere near the Canon vs. Nikon brand question. That is like the Ford vs. Chevy or Honda vs. Toyota question when it comes to cars. The same goes for the Mac vs. PC question when it comes to computers. Each has their strengths and loyalists. Which works for whom is a highly personal decision.

What I am going to do it raise a few questions to think about when buying a camera. This information comes out of decades of teaching workshops and years of working selling cameras in retails camera stores. To read more about that part of my experience, go to: http://thewellspoint.com/2009/06/05/unraveling-the-mystical-and-unapproachable-in-photography/

So, when people ask me what kind of serious camera to buy, I turn to them and ask them a few questions:

How many lenses do you have now? If, for example, you are a long time Canon user with a case full of Canon lenses then you probably want to stick with Canon cameras. Probably but not definitely (read more below.)

If you do not own a bunch of lenses yourself, what other lenses can you access at school, via friends, through a camera club you belong to, etc.? In some ways, this is the most important thing, because the best way to decide if you should buy something is to actually use it. If you can borrow a lens or camera (or rent it) before buying, you will learn more than any on-line review will tell you.

I am not a huge fan of the on-line camera reviews and especially the forums. Too many people have long-term brand loyalties they are pushing. Also, each person’s photography is different so any “one-size-fits-all” strategy worries me. Yes, I turn to www.dpreview.com for factual information on equipment that I am considering buying. But the needs, goals and attitudes of their reviewers are different than mine, so I put limited stake in what they say.

The only equipment evaluations I ignore even more are the ones done by general interest publications like Consumer Reports. Their reviews tend to be done in a vacuum, telling you which camera is good in a given year, regardless of that camera’s history, the peculiarities of it’s lens mount, etc.

The questions that really matters include:

Which camera has buttons that work for you and your hands? This is especially important for women. whose hands tend to be smaller and not as strong. If you cannot comfortably reach all the buttons/dials, it will be a serious problem when you are out photographing.

Which camera works like what you have now? People moving from film cameras to digital cameras tend to stick to the same brands because they are familiar with the layout of the buttons and dials of that brand. As a rule that makes sense, but some of the newer cameras have been so completely redesigned that none of the buttons/dials I am used to on the older models appear in the same places on the newer ones.

What are the minimal features you need? Most people tend to buy more technology then they need. Though I have done a great deal of photojournalism, I rarely if ever needed the monstrously large, heavy and expensive telephotos that let in lots of light. For me the smaller the camera, the more portable the gear, the happier I am. In my newest gear, I want HD video capability, but I still do not need the super fast motor drive that most sports photographers depend on.

You will notice that I do not seem all that concerned about file quality in terms of buying cameras with the highest mega-pixel chip or the highest shooting ISO. Those certainly are important criteria, but again, they only matter if they impact the images you will make. The ability to shoot at high ISOs, for example, with little or no noise is great, if you need to use that often. If you do not need that on a daily basis, why pay for it? Most people simply want to photograph things that are important to them in a way that is visually compelling. Most of the “gee-whiz” features on most of the newer cameras are overkill for the average photographer. All things being equal, the place to spend money is on lenses rather than camera bodies. The ability to shoot in low light and/or throw a background out of focus is usually more important than working at mathematically amazing ISOs.

Handling a camera is more important than anything else. In terms of factors that matter in buying a camera, what you read on line pales by comparison. Do not try to talk yourself into liking a camera because of some external criteria or some exotic feature. If it fits badly in your hands or has the buttons in weird places, you will not enjoy using it. If you do not like it, you will not use it and then all you have done is wasted your money.

All of this argues for working with a camera retailer where you can try out the various cameras in your hand. Though your local store may be a bit more costly than an on-line retailer, the advice you will get and the experience that you have actually handling the camera will be worth the added cost. I have had dozens of students who bought “up” to what they thought were better cameras based on what they read or were told, only to return to their older cameras because they were simpler to use.

A camera solves a problem. It gets the person, place or thing that is in front of the camera onto the film, chip or paper in just the way you want. For me, the Olympus cameras I have been using solve my problems best. If another brand comes along that solves my problem notably better, I will buy it. Which camera solves your particular set of problems, as a photographer, is the question that matters. What works for you, in your hands, is what matters, NOT what you read on line. The rest, as they say, is commentary, nothing more.

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