What Camera Do I Need?
 What Camera Do I Need?  
- Dave Pierce, March 2018

What Camera Should I Buy...?

...is a question I get asked that a lot. When we’re traveling, on a tour, or even just on a walk at our local regional park, I’m almost never without a camera. I guess that makes me an easy target for someone in search of a clue to the puzzle. My first response is always, “What kind of pictures do you want to take?” This is generally followed by a quizzical look and a “Huh?” Let me explain.

The kind of camera you buy very much depends on what you intend to use it for. If you only take snapshots at your children’s birthday parties and other family events and you have a recent model cellphone, you may not really need to buy a stand-alone camera. Some of the newer phones have camera systems that will satisfy a wide range of casual photography needs. With a little practice and understanding the phone's limitations it can produce excellent images. For occasional travel and other casual usage, it doesn’t make sense to buy a $5,500 DSLR body and a bag full of $2,000+ lenses. If you want to get into photographing team sports, serious portraiture or important events, a phone or a pocket camera will never fail to disappoint. “Use the right tool”, my father used to say as I was struggling to remove an exposed screw with a pair of pliers. He was smart that way.

I have also found that most of the people asking the question have already heard all of the buzzwords related to digital photography, but are often a bit hazy on what they means. So, read on and I’ll try to lay out some basic guidelines for what type of camera works best for what type of photography and just what the heck all those words and numbers mean.

You may want to read the companion article, Cameras Have Parts which covers the basic components of a digital camera and how they contribute to the overall "picture".

What kind? Which brand? Which model?

There are so many models available today from so many major brands that listing them and categorizing them all would take months and hundreds of pages to go through all the features and details on each one. By then, most of the models listed and categorized would be obsolete and replaced by new ones. That’s the way the market is set up. Except for the higher-end systems with interchangeable lenses and accessories, the average camera is a one-time sale. The camera maker won’t get any more of your money until you buy a newer, better model or maybe a battery or two. That’s why you see models turned out a couple of times a year. I’m leading off with this bit of info because many people are sometimes overly hesitant to buy a camera (or electronic items in general) for fear that it will be obsolete soon afterwards. There’s a two-part answer to that;

   a) It will be obsolete very soon after you buy it, if not before.
   b) Buy the one you want and don’t worry about it.  

Buy the camera that will do what you want it to and get your money’s worth out of it through aggressive use and enjoyment. It’s only obsolete when it won’t do what you want it to do anymore.

Camera Types

Compact Cameras:

Some people carry a camera with them at all times. You never know when a photo-op will present itself and whatever the camera used, the picture you took is better than the one you didn’t. The low end of the compact camera range is facing heavy competition from increasingly capable camera phones and is staggering down the road to extinction. Because of this the cheap compact is being replaced with advanced compacts that offer features phones can’t compete with.

Point & Shoot:

Compact Point & Shoot (P&S) cameras are the Instamatics of the digital age. The "point and shoot" class of cameras are made to take the guesswork out of taking pictures. They provide the average user the ability to take good pictures under a remarkably wide range of conditions without doing much more than pointing the camera and shooting the picture…hence the name. The simple ones are mostly affordable, take good photos and are easy to carry around. The sub-$100 category is still there and offers some pretty basic point and shoot features with a modest zoom lens. These simple cameras are great for everyday use, family gatherings and casual travel photography. They can produce very good results for a relatively small investment in both money and in learning to use them. Basic models have been the hardest hit by smartphones. As the features and the quality of the lens increase, so does the price. A top of the line P&S can run over $300 but the price is usually justified by a better sensor, longer optical zoom, maybe a viewfinder and in-camera features like self-stitching panoramas. For action-oriented people, some models offer waterproof bodies that can be dropped and banged around as you record your more physical adventures. This type of camera isn’t well suited for following your kid’s team sports.

Advanced Compacts:

As you reach the top end of the P&S models, the term "point-and-shoot" may still apply since virtually all cameras have an auto mode but the feature set expands to appeal to photographers who want more control and higher image quality without the bulk of a larger camera. At that point, you cross over into the realm of advanced "pocketable" cameras. These are still compact models, but they feature larger sensors (some as large as a pro DSLR), high-quality lenses and can produce images that would be welcome in any gallery. In addition to the rear LCD, some offer an electronic viewfinder for easier composing and reviewing images in bright light. Several higher-end models have added "fashion statement" to their list of features and while retro styling doesn't improve image quality, you can use it to inflict some serious gear envy on friends and family. All this comes with a price, so if you want a camera that will slip into your pocket and still produce 20 top-notch images per second be prepared to loosen the purse strings and dig deep!

Action Cameras:

Not really a point and shoot but since most action camera like the GoPro and Sony Action Cam allow still exposures, I’ll mention them. I have seen postings where someone has reasoned that since the GoPro takes still photos, they will save money by just using it instead of buying a separate camera. I guess you can, but keep in mind that action cameras have extremely wide-angle lenses with significant distortion and not many options for control over exposure and such. If you want an action cam and still want to take stills, consider using your smartphone if you don’t want to pick up an actual camera.

SuperZooms:

SuperZoom is a class of camera meant to be the best of all worlds for many photographers. Most are amazingly compact with some of the smaller 20x-30x zoom cameras coming in only slightly larger than the lower-cost pocketable compacts. The ones with actual "Super" zooms of 50x and up are still quite compact (compared to a interchangeable lens camera with a bag full of lenses). Many offer the ability to add an accessory flash to cover more picture-taking situations. The zoom range allows for indoor social shots as well as close-ups at the soccer or baseball game. Most models are under $500 and can offer an awful lot for the money. Don't be too obsessed over getting the longest zoom available. Even with stabilization, hand-holding a camera with the equivalent of an 800mm or longer telephoto is a hit or miss proposition at best. Another welcome feature is that most superzooms double as remarkably capable video cameras. If you shoot stills and video on vacation, this may be a strong selling point. Electronic viewfinders are common in this class.

Digicams/Bridge Camera:

Digicams, or Bridge cameras are sort of a niche these days. They appeared in the early days of digital as an alternative to massive, expensive DSLRs They have a fixed lens but they are of very high quality. The controls and features are similar to ILCs with the full range of control from auto-everything to full manual. For some there are optical accessories and external flash units available to build a respectable system around a digicam while keeping it all in one fairly small bag. Even at high-ISO, picture quality rivals many entry to mid-level DSLRs and they will produce excellent images under a wide variety of conditions.  Priced in the $700 - $1600 range, the advent of sub-$1,000 DSLRs nearly eliminated this class of camera until Sony resurrected it with the RX-10 series. The number of models is pretty limited, even with most of the major manufacturers joining the party.  Though most of the advanced features digicams offer can be found in the superzoom category, larger sensors, stellar lenses and sophisticated movie modes justify the difference in price. The new breed of digicam has a lot to offer to travel photographers who are unwilling to give up image quality but want the fixed-lens convenience and are willing to pay a bit more for it. The feature set is similar to the superzoom class with the aforementioned step-up features

ILC:

The category of Interchangeable Lens Cameras covers a lot of ground from near-pocketable compacts to pro DSLRs. The main attraction of ILCs is their ability to use many different lenses that are designed for many different purposes. Whether you need a super wide-angle lens to make an average room look huge for a real estate listing or a $12k super telephoto to keep a safe distance between you and a Kodiak bear, these and thousands of other options are out there. I’ll break them into groups below based on the (highly subjective) target demographic.

Entry Level (Under $750 w/2 lenses):

Historically, these are the starter kits for many users who are becoming interested in expanding their photography and are moving up from a point and shoot or smartphone. They usually come in two-lens kits that cover most photographic opportunities.

DSLR – Digital Single Lens Reflex. Reflex cameras use a movable mirror and a prism (or another mirror in budget models) to reflect the image that comes in through the lens up to the viewfinder. The “reflex” refers to the movement of the mirror which has to flip up to let the light hit the sensor when the shutter is released. The Canon Rebels and Nikon D3xxx dominate this category and while they offer limited features compared to their upper-tier cousins, they are capable cameras. They typically feature APS-C sensors and optical viewfinders that use mirrors to redirect the image from the lens. They do video but are fairly limited due to slow autofocus and with the viewfinder blocked by the mirror in video mode, shooting in bright light can be challenging using the rear LCD. They offer all the main shooting modes including full manual and can be a great way to experience using an ILC system without investing a ton of money and locking yourself into a brand.

Mirrorless -  These cameras are beginning to dominate the entry-level ILC market. The lack of a moving mirror system allows a typically smaller size. Most models offer better still and video performance and electronic viewfinders that are bigger and brighter than their DSLR competition. The Sony A6000 features an APS-C sensor with Panasonic and Olympus models using the smaller 4/3 sensors. The bodies are smaller than the DSLRs with the Sony being smaller than the 4/3 cameras and even smaller than some advanced compacts. This class of camera is rapidly gaining popularity with advanced amateurs and even pros looking for a more compact option for travelling as well as the aforementioned photographers moving up from a P&S or smartphone who previously might have chosen an entry-level DSLR. 

Mid-Level (Up to $1500 Body Only):

This level of camera is often the next step up for those who bought into entry level ILC and have outgrown some of the limitations of the budget bodies. At this level, the kit lens usually gets shelved or sold and a better, or faster or better and faster lens is picked up to take advantage of the upgraded performance of the new body which is most often sold without a lens.

DSLR – Another few hundred dollars buys you a more robust build, a brighter viewfinder, better autofocus, more sophisticated metering and a better sensor with faster burst rates and better video. Some offer in-body stabilization which allows not only stabilized lenses but any attached lens to reap the benefits of anti-shake technology.

Mirrorless -  Pretty much the same bumps as the DSLRs with several models offering in-body stabilization. In this range the Panasonic cameras are still limited to the smaller 4/3 sensors but are highly optimized for video. The Sony A6x00 models are still the smallest in this group and while optimized for stills, offer robust video performance. Again, this is a growing segment with the top performers going head-to-head with the established DSLRs in performance and features.

Enthusiast/Semi-Pro (Up to $3500 Body Only):

These cameras are for serious amateurs who are very demanding of their equipment. It is also the range for pros who need the performance but may not need the bulletproof build of the bodies with the “pro” label.

DSLR – Up to about $2k is where you see the cream of the APS-C crowd. Sophisticated autofocus, good video and tougher, weather-sealed bodies. At $2k you start to see Full-frame cameras that offer world-class imaging and some of the best low-light performance available. Above $3k are models that rival medium format cameras in image quality.  While not designated as “Pro” models, most cameras in this range can and will be used by working professionals in their daily work.

Mirrorless -  Here’s where you see the top of the line 4/3 video optimized cameras and a few APS-C models. As with the DSLRs, $2k ushers in the Full-frame cameras that for now, are all Sony models. The performance and pricing is equivalent to the corresponding DSLRs with some features unavailable in their competitor’s models. As with the DSLRs at this level, the lack of “Pro” designation doesn’t matter as much as performance and mirrorless cameras are appearing in a growing number of working pro’s bags.

Pro (Above $3500 Body Only):

This is where you go if you need a camera that will be used and abused in your daily work.

DSLR – Sophisticated autofocus, fast burst rates and built like tanks. Image quality isn’t on par with some of the enthusiast/semi-pro models, but it is close and the performance in harsh situations is why you spend over $6k for one of these.

Mirrorless -  Here’s a rare breed. At this level there are only a few models (as of early 2018) from Leica and one from Sony. At $4,500, the Sony A9 is the only designated pro level mirrorless available. Its list of features needs more room than I have here and seems to me to be a harbinger of things to come. Not as rugged as the top end Canon and Nikon “pro” bodies but tough and weather sealed. The performance is on par with it's competitors and unlike any other camera in it's class, it can shoot 20 frames per second silently with no mirror blackout. At $5,000 and up, Leica offers a few mirrorless cameras in their classic rangefinder form factor. They are beautiful as only Leicas are but are listed here for their cost and not as “pro-level” cameras. Their full-frame image performance is not what you would expect at the price point and is even bested by some of the better APS-C cameras. Capable cameras with awesome lenses, though.

ILC Caveat:

If you have been bitten by the photography bug and feel the need or choose to go with an ILC system, choose carefully and give some real thought to the future. That first $1,000 or so you spend can turn out to be a drop in the bucket compared to a complete system, so make sure you’re happy with all that the company of your choice offers before going off the deep end buying lenses and accessories. You may want to check out my article on Adding Lenses to a system HERE.