First question: Where and when do you want to take photos?
Is it for a holiday or travel? Is it for pictures around the house as your family grows? Do you love sunsets and landscapes? There are a lot of scenarios – and yes, you’re going to use your camera for more than just one thing.
If you picked travel, for instance, then compact size and fast shooting will be paramount. You want to catch things on the run, as they happen around you. You’re not in control, and you don’t want a boat anchor around your neck. Your smartphone isn’t fast enough, and you can’t zoom in for when the action is more than a few steps away. Simply by imagining yourself taking the pictures, you can suddenly see why you need a real camera in the first place, but also what sort of camera would make your life easy in that situation.
The next question: What do you like to take pictures of?
It’s a bit di erent than the last question. Do you want to take pictures of the wild life when you travel? A long lens and smart autofocus are a must. Want to grab shots of your food during the wine tour holiday? A wide lens or a macro (super close focusing) ability just became the priority. Only really interested in pictures of your kids doing stu ? You’ll want something with face recognition and a zoom lens that lets you get group shots as well as the close-up on herchocolate covered face!
Even if you only have these two questions answered, you can now save a lot of time while searching. Or at least you can be ever so helpfully specific when dealing with the salesperson. The camera system you buy for photographing birds in the wild is not what you need for baby’s first bath. No one camera or lens is great for every situation – so pick the situation where you really want the pictures to be great. Maybe a tiny point & shoot camera is good enough for those goofy shots of your mom unwittingly eating chocolate covered crickets – but your surfing photos are real storytellers because you could catch the action up close with a DLSR and long lens.
You are going to have to choose between 3 categories of camera, and they each have strengths and weaknesses – it’s why some people own more than one camera, because each type of camera has its limits and sometimes you want the right tool for the job. The big gun is the DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex). Canon and Nikon dominate this market. You can change the lenses, or choose between a compact zoom or a faster (lets in more light allowing you to better freeze action) piece of glass. They’re heavy, they’re often the most expensive, and you end up buying a lot of lenses because who can stop at just one?
Like a truck, DSLRs were designed for professional use – but lots of people think they look cool with one. DSLR cameras still outperform other types with better autofocus, especially in low light, and lots of manual controls that make it faster and easier to take control and make your own decisions. It’s a V8 with a stick – it really helps if you know what you’re doing, otherwise you’re just making hard work for yourself.
Of course, you can quickly and easily learn how to take advantage and take control. Get yourself some hands on training by attending a photography course in your area. Even the most novice photographer can learn enough in a day to make their photos look awesome.
The next category is mirrorless. That huge hump on the top of a DSLR is there to bounce light from the lens to your eye via a mirror and a large piece of glass. A mirrorless camera simply reads the image o the sensor then displays it in (near) real time either in a viewfinder or on the screen on the back of the camera.
These days it’s mirrorless cameras on top. They are much smaller, much lighter, and o er most of the features of a DSLR – and certainly the image quality. They mostly come with interchangeable lenses. Sony, Panasonic and Fujifilm are the pace leaders here.
Mirrorless cameras have better autofocus than ever, but fall over when the light gets low. They also chew through batteries like a ravenous wolf. Driving the viewfinder or the screen uses a lot more power than a DSLR’s optical (non-powered) viewfinder. And the smaller you make the camera, the smaller the battery has to be.
Smaller camera bodies often lead to less physical controls on the body. If you plan on taking control, make sure there are buttons to do it with. Searching through menus is a guaranteed way to miss your moment. Fujifilm’s retro designs are replete with a physical control for all the camera’s essential functions. When you’ve learned how to stop shooting on complete auto, the ability to make your own choices about where and how much to focus on, what’s the brightest thing in frame, or wanting to freeze the action, all these things will be open to you.
A bridge camera is an industry term for a reasonably well equipped camera with a fixed lens – they tend to be as large as bridges too. They often have really great lenses, but that also makes them very large lenses. Many new models have ingenious lenses that fold like origami into the body making them shorter, but you can’t mess with physics, and if you want to let a lot of light in, and want a zoom lens, you get a very large lens diameter.
Bridge cameras are really the top end of our last major category – Point & Shoot cameras. These are cameras designed for maximum compactness (in fact this class is often called ‘compact cameras’). They vary rarely o er more than rudimentary manual controls – the camera does all the work, you just point and...well you get the idea.
There are some very nice point & shoot cameras out there. Some of them have decent lenses (a minority) and a lot have zoom lenses. If it doesn’t have a zoom lens, your smartphone probably can match it for image quality, and perhaps even speed of operation.
In order to make these cameras (and their lenses) tiny, the image sensor gets reduced from the size of a postage stamp to the size of your finger nail – probably your pinkie. This makes the image quality low, and the light sensitivity low. And as you’ve already made the lens as small (and therefore dark) as you dare to again make these cameras small and a ordable, you get hosed on the speed with which the camera can freeze action and the ability to control how much (or how little) is in focus.
DSLRs in contrast have a ‘few dollars’ worth of postage’ sized sensors – this means you can blur out the background of an image, you get much less noise (sometimes confused with ‘grain’) and sharper images. And you’re letting more light in with a generally superior lens. What’s not to love. Well, you can keep your point and shoot in your pocket, your mirrorless in your hand/man bag, or your DSLR around your neck like an albatross.
Ignore the in camera tricks (special e ects like making things look like model train layouts) and the megapixel number hacks the manufacturers use. You buy these because they have a zoom lens and your phone doesn’t. There are a couple of real gems every category, but they cost more than an iPhone and you can’t buy movie tickets with them and skip the line.
With all three categories having a vast range of prices (not all of them tied directly to quality), and all three having decent to great image quality once you stop scraping the lowest priced models o the floor – it’s really form factor and function that you need to look at. Is it too large, too heavy? Does it use too many batteries or can’t focus on your girlfriend under that romantic Parisian streetlamp? Does it refuse to let you do anything other than zoom in or out?
How big can it be and how much control do you want. And of course, how versatile does it need to be, because you’re not changing lenses on your phone, but you don’t want to carry (or perhaps even own) more than a couple of lenses.
If you mull over these few thoughts before you go shopping, or even looking for ‘expert’ help, you’ll at least know what you don’t want – and that’s going to save you buying the wrong camera or at least speed up the shopping.
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