A Guide to Buying Digital Cameras
Are you asking yourself any of these questions?
How do I choose the right camera?
What camera should I buy?
What should I look for when buying a camera?
Then you’re in luck! We’re going to walk through your essential camera buying guide that’s going to help you get the right camera for you.
Note that we didn’t say “the best camera there is” or “the most expensive camera you can afford.” It isn’t about money, but rather about your personal needs and desires.
Let's start by asking yourself some questions…
Start By Asking the Right Questions
What are you planning to shoot?
And what are your skills?
Gear Acquisition Syndrome (GAS) is real. However, you do need a different and better camera – especially if you’ve been relying on your phone for images and videos, or your skills have improved to the point where your existing camera is holding you back.
Cameras come in all shapes, prices, and configurations. Deciding what camera and accessories you need next isn't really about the gear per se. It's about you, your aspirations, your skills, your existing equipment, and your budget.
What will you shoot, and where?
Classic Alfred Stieglitz photograph, The Steerage shows unique aesthetic of black-and-white photos. Source
In general, photographers tend to specialize in people, places, things, or activities. Portrait photographers shoot people: head shots, full-body portraits, environmental portraits, street, beauty, fashion, boudoir, nudes, groups, families, children, and other kinds of portraits. Landscape photographers shoot places: scenic vistas, urban landscapes, travel, and so on.
Product photographers typically shoot branded merchandise. Close-up/macro photographers shoot all sorts of subjects at close distances or high magnifications. Sports photographers shoot, well, sports, although this can range from wrestlers in a ring to football matches. Other activities include weddings, meetings, theater, and dance.
Every one of these subjects and genres has its own photographic demands. Some of the most common are quite challenging. For example, suppose you "just" want to take pictures of your children.
Children almost never hold still, and rarely cooperate if they are aware you are taking their picture. If you want candid pictures of your children you will want a camera with a medium-long lens (for example a 100 mm focal length) so that you can shoot from a distance, with a wide maximum aperture (perhaps f/2.8) so that you can blur the background, good automatic focusing so their faces are sharp, low image noise at high sensitivity (ISO) to handle low light indoor situations, and a moderately fast shutter speed (for example 1/100 second) to avoid blurring from the child's motion or camera shake.
You can get around low light and motion issues by using a flash, but on-camera flash tends to be harsh and unflattering. That is why school photographers, for instance, use one or two off-camera flash units (usually studio strobes) with umbrellas or softboxes to soften the light.
Video adds its own demands.
It's one thing to shoot a staged scene, where if you don’t like a shot you can always ask the actors to run it again. If you're documenting a live wedding with hundreds of guests, however, you can't ask the minister to go through the vows again because you got a bad angle on the bride or didn't pull a good focus. In addition, video typically requires lots of continuous light, whether natural light, LED panels, theatrical-style lights, or a combination of these.
What is your skill level with a camera?
Photography on a smartphone. Source
Camera manufacturers tend to use simple classifications of photographers: novice, amateur, semi-pro, and professional. These ranks are to help people find a camera of the correct complexity for their skills. Some photography educators expand these rankings in idiosyncratic ways, for example: absolute beginner, novice, hobbyist, competent, skilled, artist, and world-class. Others add snarky categories, such as online expert (self-appointed "expert" who doesn't even have a camera) and whore (in it for the money and unable to grow artistically).
There many specific skills that go into the various genres of photography. Only some of them relate to using a camera. There are basic shooting skills that apply across the board, such as framing, focusing, white balance, and proper exposure. There are general lighting skills, both using natural light and artificial light, and post-processing skills, such as basic editing, dodging and burning, and compositing.
When you're doing beauty photography, as an example, you need to start by recruiting a model, agreeing on wardrobe, and optionally engaging a hair and makeup artist and (for an indoor shoot) arranging for a studio. Then you need to give the model and HMUA direction before the shoot, and the model direction during the shoot.
Depending on whether the studio rental includes help setting the lights, you either need to describe the lighting you want to the gaffer or set the light positions and levels yourself. In post-processing, you'll need to retouch after you edit, since beauty photography expects a level of perfection that even high-end professional models rarely have naturally.
Even plain old headshots require lighting and directing skills in addition to shooting skills, and need some light retouching (more for women than men) to remove blemishes and stray hairs. Professional-level food and product photography require incredible attention to lighting, backgrounds, subject arrangement, composition, and color fidelity. No, it's not just a matter of pushing a button, unless you're content to produce a snapshot.
What camera, lenses, and accessories do you already have?
A large format photographic lens. Source
If this will be your first camera, or you have a fixed-lens camera, go ahead and skip to the next section. Otherwise, think about what you already have, and how much of it you want to carry over to your next camera.
In general, lenses (sometimes referred to as "glass") are long-term investments, while camera bodies may come and go in your life. For example, if you have a dozen Nikon lenses and you want to upgrade your camera, you can either choose to stick to Nikon bodies, buy an adapter for another brand of body so that you can use your existing glass, or sell off your lenses to help finance your next system.
If you start with a crop-frame camera and move up to a full-frame camera, you may have to upgrade some of your lenses to get the full resolution from your new body. Or you can keep your old crop-frame body around, for as long as it is still serviceable: there are plenty of reasons to have both.
Choosing a camera for still photography
Canon 5D MK IV
If you're a novice photographer or you are looking for a camera that can live in your pocket or purse, consider a fixed-lens compact point-and-shoot model, typically priced in the $100 to $300 range. A good example of this is the Canon PowerShot. There are many models of PowerShot; the SX610 features 18X optical zoom, hardware stabilization to avoid camera shake, and 1080p full HD video, which means that it can capture both still images and video. While it has a relatively small sensor compared to DSLRs, it's still likely to give you better results than you can get from your smartphone.
A digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera is a big step up in both quality and price from a compact point-and-shoot; typical prices with a kit lens range widely depending on the make and model, from $500 to $5,000, with the high end intended for professional photographers.
Low-end DSLRs typically use crop-frame sensors, such as the APS-C standard, while high-end DSLRs typically have full-frame sensors, which are effectively the same size as 35mm film. A good example of a crop-frame DSLR is the Canon EOS Rebel T6s, also available as a kit.
A good example of a full-frame DSLR is the Canon 5D MK IV, which not only gives you higher resolution stills, but also takes 4K video. When you buy a DSLR as "body only" you'll also need to buy lenses unless you already have them; for starters you'll want to cover the focal length range from 24 mm to 200 mm, typically with two zoom lenses, 24-70 mm and 70-200 mm.
If you need better low-light performance, add some prime lenses, such as a 50 mm f/1.8 for full-frame or 35 mm f/1.8 for APS-C. For close-up or macro work, consider adding a macro lens.
There are several other camera options available to you. For example, a rangefinder camera is often preferred by street photographers, and mirrorless cameras are starting to compete with DSLRs. Finally, used film cameras can be bought cheaply, although you'll then have to develop and scan or print each roll of film after shooting it.
Choosing a Camera for Video
Sony HDR-AS300R Digital Camcorder
You can use many of the still cameras we've discussed for video as well. If you only take video, then you may prefer a camcorder. At the low end, you can pick up a Sony HDR-AS300R Digital Camcorder kit with 1080p HD and image stabilization for under $400; at the high end, you'll want 4K or higher resolution, which can range from about $1,300 to more than $50,000. A good example of a reasonably-priced professional 4K+ digital camcorder comes from Blackmagic Design, at a mere $5,000.
Whatever camera you choose, be prepared to spend considerable time learning the controls. If you aren't already familiar with the basics of composition, shooting, and editing, be prepared to spend even more time practicing and learning the art of photography.
A Final Word on How to Pick the Right Camera
There are many options and price points available to you for both still photography and video. To decide which option is right for you, you need to first assess what you want to shoot, how skilled you are at photography, and the range of conditions you’d like to be able to handle.
If you're looking for the right digital camera, we have a number of options that will be the right fit. There’s always a great sale and shipping discounts to help ensure you get the right equipment at the right price.