Yeah, that sounds terribly presumptive, doesn’t it? Could I be any worse than the sales guy who needs to sell you a DSLR and 2 lenses to keep his job?
I want to make some suggestions that are based on what you want to shoot. I don’t have any brand favourites or axes to grind, and I’ve used everything I’m about to recommend. But these are recommendations. I want to get you started in the right direction. Let’s narrow down your options from possibly infinite to a couple of starting points.
And if you don’t know enough about photography to feel like you are making an educated choice, then think about attending one of our hands-on photography workshops where you can get help, see what other people are using, and get answers to real questions about photography.
I want a camera... that’s always with me, takes good family photos, and it’s easy to post the images on Facebook (etc.)
Any iPhone or Samsung Galaxy from the last 3 years. And a lot of other phones have great cameras too, but Apple and Samsung are competing hard to have great cameras built in. Most of these cameras have an angle of view (or perspective) matching a 35mm lens on a film or full-frame digital camera.
So it’s wide enough to get a group shot and tight enough that you can take a portrait. Don’t get too close, though. That wide lens makes noses and foreheads bulge out. Keep it from the belly button to the top of the head, and crop in with Instagram or Facebook when you edit the photo if you want tighter.
The resolution of the camera far exceeds the computer monitor or phone screen your ‘friends’ are viewing on. In fact, most of them will be looking at a 3” square on their phone. Don’t sweat the technical requirements.
Having said that, you can make nice prints of the last two generations of phones – happily up to 8”x10” – and I would strongly urge you to make 4x6 prints of all your images and keep them in a shoe box for when you lose your phone or do something dumb with the delete all command. Copy all your files to a thumb drive and keep it in the box with the prints.
Video from phones is brilliant. Video and photos from iPads and tablets make me want to throw something at you if you block my view one more time. Don’t be that person.
I want a camera... that lets me film my kids at sports and recitals. You know, things far away that go on for a while.
Buy a video camera (camcorder). The batteries last for hours, not minutes. The camera can film for more than 5 (in some cases) or 29.9 (in most cases) minutes. Yes, tax laws mean that camera makers can’t let the video record for very long on ‘photography’ cameras.
You can’t zoom in with your phone or tablet.
Camcorders are so inexpensive now that owning one and a camera is not excessive. It’s about having the right tool for the job.
Video cameras have tiny sensors, meaning the lenses can be very small, with terrific zoom ranges. 20x optical before you even use the ‘digital zoom’ which is getting useable in the last couple of years. A DSLR needs a lens 3x times the size and weight of a camcorder to get a 3x zoom.
A camcorder’s tiny sensor also means that more of the image is in focus from front to back. That’s called ‘depth of field.’ A DSLR has a large sensor that renders a very shallow depth of field. It’s much harder to get focus and track a moving subject.
DSLRs (with the exception of the Canon 80D) have terrible autofocus when in ‘live view’ or video recording mode. This is because the autofocus sensor uses the image bounced off the mirror that makes the picture go through the optical viewfinder on a DSLR. For video to work, the mirror has to get out of the way so the light (picture) goes to the sensor, not the viewfinder. This means you can only view the video on the screen, not through the viewfinder. If it’s a bright day, you ain’t seeing nothin’ on that screen.
Get a really big battery for your camcorder – a $100 battery will go all day and all night. The one that comes with the camera is the minimum the manufacturer could get away with. Keep it for emergencies.
Use a tripod. A good tripod will cost as much as a camcorder - $200 or more. If your tripod is plastic junk, it’s going to make your shots look jerky. And you kids will think you’re jerky for making them all nauseous trying to watch the soccer game.
The stabiliser in the camcorder is for taking the edge off you walking around and filming. It’s no replacement for a tripod.
If your camcorder has a mic jack, get a mic. The Rode Video Micro is cheap, small and sounds way better than the mic on your phone or camera.
I want a camera... for my upcoming trip. I want really good photos from near and far, and I want video too.
Get a point and shoot with a 1” sensor. Canon, Nikon and Panasonic make really nice cameras in this space. Sony totally rocks it here. The tiny Sony RX 100 IV shoots 4k video (just use the HD) and has a wonderful 24-70mm (it’s not actually that size but it’s equivalent to those numbers of a full frame camera) lens that’s very fast at f/1.8-2.8. As soon as you zoom past 25mm it’s f/2.8 but that’s really fast, taking in 4-8 times more light than the average kit lens on a DLSR! This means you can get good shots in less than bright light, and you can get the background out of focus (if you want) in a portrait.
The camera makes RAW files, meaning you can make changes after you’ve taken the picture without incurring noise or distortion. It also shoots JPG photos (that don’t like to be edited) that you can whack straight out of the camera into your phone for Instagram. All wirelessly.
The only downside is that making the camera this small means a tiny battery. You will need to have 3 per day if you shoot a lot of videos. But, they’re tiny and you could keep them in any pocket or bag and not notice the weight.
You can flip the screen around to film yourself (selfie!) and there is a really high-quality pop out viewfinder that is much higher resolution and shield you from ambient light so you can really see what you are doing. Cameras in this space that only have a screen can be a problem outside.
The high-quality zoom lens and files that can be edited make this camera a huge step up from your phone. You can get a large print on your wall from this one.
The Panasonic LUMIX LX10 is a much cheaper alternative that looks great on paper, but it’s so new, as I write this, that you need to try it yourself. It doesn't have a separate EVF (viewfinder) but is otherwise a match for the Sony.
I want a high-quality camera... with a few lenses, but I don’t want drag around a big camera and a pile of fragile glass.
The advantage of DSLR cameras is usually the better image quality and the ability to pick the right lens for you. But I have actual physiotherapy bills from dragging all the gear around. Mirrorless to the rescue? Sony has great cameras in this space, but good lenses to match are expensive and few and far between. Panasonic has a lovely range of MFT (Micro Four Thirds, meaning the sensor is 1/3rd of an inch larger than…an inch) but only a couple of expensive models have 20MP – and while resolution is not everything, the average 16MP sensors make it a little harder to crop in, and there is less to play with in editing.
By the time you read this, (or at least in early 2017) the Fujifilm X-T20 (20 or 24MP) will be hitting the streets. I’ve loved the Fujifilm X-T10, but that’s been discontinued in anticipation of the newer version. An earthquake in Kumamoto Japan has a number of companies out of pocket on new models.
The X-T10 or 20 uses the same sensor and software as the professional X-T2 (one of the most successful cameras of all time as I write this). You get a smaller body with fewer buttons and controls, but you still get manual control (and auto if you want) of all the important things. The same image quality with a smaller body? And cheaper? Winner.
You can use the astounding kit lens – an 18-55mm f/2.8-4 with terrific results. Even though it’s an affordable kit lens, it’s sharper, and smaller, than a lot of competitor’s prime lenses. Fantastic images coupled with a very usable 27mm to 82.5mm – great for walking around and shooting everything. I shot a paid portrait session with this lens to considerable acclaim from the client.
Fuji has terrific image quality, and colours that Canon, Nikon, Sony and Panasonic can’t match. And Fuji has a brilliant range of lenses that won’t send you broke like Sony or Canon in particular.
I would like to recommend the Fujifilm XF 35mm f/2 R WR Lens and the Fujifilm XF 23mm f/2 R WR Lens. They act like a 35mm and 50mm lens on a full frame. They have astounding image quality, are tiny and very affordable. The WR means Weather Resistant. I use one (the 23mm) for shooting ‘scenes’ and the other (35mm) for ‘subjects.’ Or, alternatively, ‘Place or Portrait.’
I’ve rocked and rolled with the same ‘lens pair’ idea on a Sony A6000 – the Sony 35mm f/1.8 OSS and the 50mm f/1.8 OSS. See the images below. Couple these with the newer A6300 (which fixed all the things that made me sell my A6000) and you have another stunning camera kit that’s tiny, high quality and very affordable.
I prefer the Fujifilm because you have more manual controls, the lenses are (very) much better, and Fujifilm has colours the Sony can’t match. The Sony has mind numbingly good autofocus (except in low light) and can shoot video (many report overheating issues in 4K) and your lenses are optically stabilised for smoother video or low light hand held shooting. Try before you buy.
I want to learn photography and don’t want to spend a lot of money. I want’ to do it, you know, properly!’
Get a used Canon or Nikon body. I prefer the Canon Eos Rebel T5i (700D) or later or an 80D if you have the money. Anything with 18 MP or more because you’ll want to learn how to edit your images and 16 or less makes that a wee bit harder to finesse.
For Nikon, go with the D5200 / D5300 or D7100 / D7200. The lack of controls on the D3300 drove me mad, but the price and image quality are terrific. Even new!
Any used DSLR with 16MP or more is great to learn on. I just know and like the few I’ve mentioned above.
I’ve suggested ‘crop sensor’ cameras here. They have APS-C (Canon) or DX (Nikon) sized image sensors that are smaller than film or ‘full frame’ but the image quality is the same and the cameras are considerably cheaper and easier to find used.
If picked Canon or Nikon, because they are easiest to find used, there is very little to go wrong with them, they are easy to fix, and they have the most lenses for the best prices. I don’t care which one. Flip a coin or go with what you like used.
If you go Canon – get the 40mm f/2.8 STM lens. Don’t use a zoom or kit lens. They suck at lower price points and you won’t learn anything. Zoom with your feet. The two photos above were shot with a Canon 700D and the 40mm lens.
If you go with Nikon, the brilliant Nikon AF-S DX NIKKOR 35mm f/1.8G Is cheaper, faster and at least as good as the Canon. Its natural perspective lends itself to shooting everything from landscapes to portraits. There’s nothing wrong with the Nikon AF-S DX Micro-NIKKOR 40mm f/2.8G Lens they’re just harder to find used. It’s marginally better for portraits and it’s great for macro (extreme close ups for product shots or bugs).
Using one lens will teach you composition and you will learn to ‘see’ the shot in your head because you’re so used to the perspective of one lens. Seriously grasshopper – one lens only.
And grasshopper, if you put the kit zoom lens on…boot to the head! Don’t even own one. Unless it’s the Fujifilm I mentioned above.
When you’ve applied enough zen and a motorcycle with one lens, get the Canon 24mm f/2.8 STM lens or the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G Lens (if you didn’t get the Nikon 40mm f/2.8 – if you did, the Nikon AF NIKKOR 28mm f/2.8D Lens is a good companion)
Get a tripod. It’ll slow you down and again make you think about composition and let you use much slower shutter speeds. You’ll also get sharper pictures that are easier to edit in Lightroom because they are not full of motion blur muck.
Get a flash. A YONGNUO YN-510EX Speedlite (or whatever model is close in your country) or the excellent LUMOPRO LP180R OFF CAMERA FLASH. The Lumopro has a built in wireless trigger receiver, Yongnuo makes models with built-in trigger receivers. Talk to your dealer – you want a flash, a wireless trigger kit (one goes on your camera, one on or in your flash), a stand adaptor/umbrella holder, a light stand and a shoot through umbrella (white). Cactus, Yongnuo or Phottix make great triggers. Get cheap stuff. You’ll break it eventually and laugh because it was cheap.
Now you have a camera, a lens, a light and a tripod. Everything you need, and nothing you don’t, so you can get out there and learn to take amazing photos because you see things. Subscribe to the Adobe Cloud Photography Bundle and you have Lightroom and Photoshop. Now you’re set.
My final suggestion? Make prints. No matter what you shoot on, you can make prints that are durable and tangible and have more value than a flurry of ignored images online. You’ll feel like a real photographer.
That is not a licence to go shoot weddings. Leave that for the real pros and Uncle Bob.
If you’d like help learning to make the most of any camera, we have a number of photography courses, including software and photo walks. We’ll help you get the best out of what you already have.
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