So with all these fancy cameras showing up, I imagine it has become quite difficult for many to determine what sort of camera they should buy. "But I just want a good camera" you might say, but well the definition of a "good camera" will vary quite considerably between people and it's more important to consider what kind of camera you want to buy which of course will be based on what sort of things you actually plan on doing with the camera.
So I will say that this isn't supposed to be a comprehensive review of all available cameras on the market, it's rather a guide on what sort of things to look for in a camera. Now most people will automatically think they should buy a DSLR right? Cos that's the "best'' right? Well, maybe, depending on who you are and what you want it for. A DSLR isn't right for everyone, which I really can't stress enough to certain people. A DSLR is great if you want to really get into the nitty gritty of photography, learning what different settings do, wanting tons of accessories and trying to get your prizewinning shots, sure maybe a DSLR is the way to go. But if you're not planning on getting into the finer details of things, then probably something less sophisticated is better for you.
So let's start off with the different types of cameras, there are essentially four different types of cameras in the market today:
Compact Cameras: Your standard point and shoots. They might have some fancy settings or they might not. Prices vary considerably and you won't be able to buy accessories. Pretty much what you get the day you buy it is all you're going to have for the life of the device.
Bridge Cameras: These were designed to bridge the gap between DSLRs and compacts. As such, they tend to be similar in size and weight to an entry level DSLR. They have smaller sensors that DSLRs so their image quality is generally not as good as DSLRs. They also don't have the ability to change lenses. However, they often provide manual controls and often have very significant levels of zoom, much higher than you would get in your standard DSLR.
Digital Single Lens Reflex Cameras: These are better known as DSLRs, these are seen as the golden standard to most people today cos I suppose they are what most professionals use. But the important thing to remember about these cameras is that unless you go to the effort to learn how it works and how to use it, you aren't going to be getting the same quality of shots as a professional. It's like thinking you're going to cook as good a Michelin Star chef just cos you bought the same cookware as them. Sure, equipment does help, but it's not everything.
Mirrorless Cameras: These are a fairly new edition to the market and are fast gaining popularity cos they're not only powerful, but actually rather small and compact. Sometimes they're called Interchangeable Lens Cameras (ILCs) or Micro System Camera. Know that these terms means the same thing. They have similar sensors to what you find in your DSLRs which means you can actually get similar image quality in these cameras. The downsides are that there are fewer accessories available (for the moment anyway) but of course this won't necessarily matter for most people. But unlike with compacts, you can actually buy external flashes and different lenses for these, you just won't have the same number of options as say a DSLR
So in terms of what is right for you, I find that compacts are best for people who don’t care about accessories or nitty gritty of settings and just want something they can point and shoot. If you want your camera to behave like your phone, but with better quality, then these are probably for you.
Mirrorless cameras are for those people who want the quality of the DSLRs but who can’t be bothered actually learning how to use them. For those people, I would recommend the lower end mirrorless cameras like a Sony A5100 or something similar for people like you. If you’re the kind of person who would like to have some manual controls but are too lazy to carry around a DSLR cos it’s too heavy (there are A LOT of these people so don’t be afraid to admit it), then a mid-range mirrorless is probably the way to go. Something like a Sony A6000 cos this has good manual capability but is also nice and small compared to DSLRs.
So lastly, say you don’t fit into either of these categories. You’re like me, you have no problem filling your entire airline carry on with camera equipment and lugging 7kg of gear on a day hike then you’re probably a DSLR person. Of course, you could get away with less gear, I just happen to love all my gear and feel compelled to carry it all around, so if the idea of carrying around this much sounds scary to you, don’t despair. You could still purchase a DSLR if you like the idea of learning on to use actual camera settings, you want access to the widest range of accessories possible and you like the use of an optical viewfinder. So what sort of camera should you go for and what is the difference between all these different DSLRs? Is a $400 DSLR as good as a $3000 one? Well, obviously not, but that doesn’t mean you couldn’t take great photos with a $400 DSLR. I will get into the nitty gritty of those things a bit later but first I’ll try to make a table to show the differences in the types of cameras.
So what is a DSLR anyway?
So you probably hear people throwing around the term mirrorless and DSLR, but do you have any idea what that actually means? Probably not, so I will explain here. So perhaps you remember on your old school film cameras that you used to have to look through a little hole to take a photo. This hole is referred to as a viewfinder.
In a traditional compact camera, you can see the viewfinder is not looking through the lens and so it’s seeing exactly the same thing as the camera. This is why some people didn’t like these cameras and bought DSLRs. Well that and other reasons.
In these cheaper cameras, the viewfinder didn’t actually show you what the camera was seeing, it was a separate hole that just gave you an approximate idea of what the camera was seeing. For most people this was ok, but for a lot of professionals, knowing approximately what your shot was going to look like was not good enough so someone had the clever idea of putting a viewfinder on top of the lens and placing a little mirror in the back of the lens that would reflect what the camera sees up into the viewfinder. When you are taking a photo, the mirror would flip up and allow the film or sensor to be exposed to light and so it could then proceed to take a photograph. That’s what that loud clunking sound is when you’re taking a photo with a DSLR, it’s the sound of that mirror bouncing up and down out of the way of the sensor. This mirror and viewfinder is what makes it a DSLR. An SLR is just a film version of the same thing. Of course, SLRs were around first.
You can see here the mirror is bouncing the light up to the viewfinder allowing you to see through the lens and see exactly what the camera is seeing. When taking a photo, the mirror flips up, letting the light hit the sensor behind it.
The mirror flipping up is also the reason the viewfinder temporarily blanks out when taking an image and why you can’t see anything through the viewfinder in live view, shooting using the screen.
So we’ve established what this mirror business is about and how it’s different from what traditional cameras used to do. Of course, this has changed slightly now because most compacts nowadays have done away with viewfinders cos everyone loves to use the screen to take photos and the screen shows exactly what the camera is seeing. But this is where one of the major differences began.
The other major difference is sensor size. The sensor is what captures the image, it’s the digital equivalent of a piece of film. As a general guide, the larger the sensor size, the better the image quality. This is because the larger sensors can gather more light and information and this pretty much translates into nicer images. Bigger sensor have better ISO performance meaning less grainy at higher ISOs. Compact cameras and phones have small sensors which is why their image quality is not as good as a DSLR which has a sensor significantly larger than a compact. I’ll include some photos of some camera sensors so that you can get some idea about the size differences.
This is to give you some idea about the sensor sizes and how they differ between cameras. Phones and compacts would use the smallest sensors and DSLRs would use either an APS-C or 35mm Full Frame sensor. Remember, as a general rule, bigger sensors give better image quality.
What a Full Frame Image Sensor actually looks like. Hint: it’s the green thingy in the middle of the camera.
So why am I telling you about sensor sizes and mirrors? Cos it’ll make it easier to introduce the newer style of cameras which are mirrorless cameras. So in a mirrorless camera, you have a sensor size comparable to that of a DSLR, i.e. much bigger than a compact camera or ain a phone, but you don’t have the mirror to show you what you’re looking at. What does this mean? It means you’ll either be shooting using the screen on your camera or through an ELV, Electronic Viewfinder. Hang on, if there’s no mirror, how is there a viewfinder? Well, good question. The answer is this is an electronic viewfinder which is basically a tiny electronic screen in the place where the viewfinder would be and this shows you what the camera is looking at. This is different to an optical viewfinder which uses actual mirrors and lenses to project the image up to the viewfinder. So this is why a viewfinder on a DSLR will still work when it’s off, but an EVF will only work when the camera is switched on.
You can see this camera is a mirrorless camera as it has the ability to change lenses but also has no mirror in front of the sensor. This is in part why they’re so much smaller than DSLRs.
This is an electronic viewfinder, it’s just a little electronic screen showing you what the camera sees as opposed to using optics which uses a mirror and lenses.
But do you want a viewfinder? Well, yes. A viewfinder uses less battery than using the screen and is also helpful at night or in bright sunlight where the screen won’t show you much of anything. Mirrorless cameras may or may not have an electronic viewfinder, DSLRs will always have an optical viewfinder or they wouldn’t be DSLRs.
So you remember how I said different cameras have different sensor sizes? So this actually results in what we call crop factors. Crop factors account for the fact a small sensor won’t see as much as a larger sensor. It’s like if you have a different sized window in your room, if you have a small window you’re not going to see as much out of it as it the entire wall was a window. I could at this point explain another set of terms; Full Frame and APS-C sensors. So traditional film was 35mm in size and a full frame camera has a sensor that is the equivalent in size to this piece of film. An APS-C sensor is smaller and cheaper and so is used in lower end DSLRs and Mirrorless cameras. APS-C sensors are usually called crop sensors. There are a few more sizes that Micro 4/3 which is even smaller.
You can see here that the sensors in these cameras are different. The large sensor on the left is a Full Frame Sensor and the one on the right is an APS-C sensor. You can see these terms pretty much mean the sensor size. You remember how I said bigger sensor means better image quality? Well, that’s why your more expensive DSLRs all have full frame sensors.
What is this cropping business you mentioned? Well, the different sensors mean the camera at the camera won’t be able to see so much at the same focal length i.e. at the same zoom level. Say you have a lens with a 24mm focal length on your camera, you stick that lens on that full frame, you’ll see more through it than if you put it on an APS-C camera.
So you might hear people talking about “equivalent” focal lengths. Well, they’re just referring to what focal length would you have to use on an APS-C sensor to get the same view as that on a full frame. Well, all you do if multiply the focal length by the crop factor. The crop factor is dependent on the ratio in size between a full frame and the sensor in question. So for example, Canon Crop cameras have a crop factor of 1.6x which means if you’re shooting as 24mm on a crop sensor, you would see the equivalent of 1.6 x 24 = 38mm focal length on a full frame. Conversely, say you saw a photo of a landscape and the person told you they took it at 18mm on a full frame camera. If you have a crop camera and you go stand in the exact same spot as them, you’ll need to use a focal length of 24/1.6 = 15mm to get the same view as they did.
Example of Crop factors, the different sensor sizes would see different things as the same focal length.
The reason I mention this is because most people talk about the beauty of a 50mm lens because this gives a really nice field of view (FOV). However, that’s great for a full frame, if you have a crop camera you’ll need to account for the crop factor and buy something closer to 30mm to get this.
What Lenses Should I Get For My Camera?
The lens you should buy depends on a couple things, your budget and what you want to shoot. DSLRs have the largest number of options when it comes to lenses. Mirrorless cameras are increasing their range of what is available. Either way the things to look for in a lens are pretty similar. There are three main things that differentiate lenses, however only two would really matter for most people. These are:
Focal Length—Kind of like zoom. Smaller numbers means seeing more. Conversely, higher numbers means more zoomed in. So say you would shoot a photo of a city at 18mm but might shoot a person standing 20 metres away at 150mm to zoom in on them.
Aperture—Aperture if you don’t know if the size of the opening in the lens. Different lenses have different aperture values and you’ll want something with a relatively high aperture (look for something with a low f stop number like f2.8 or lower ideally, low number = high aperture). The aperture matters because it affects your depth of field and your low light ability.
Minimum focusing distance -- this is probably the least important thing but it refers to how close you can get to an object and still focus. Macro lenses have short focusing distances meaning you can get really close and get an in focus photo.
So you’ll find typically cameras will come with a “kit” lens. This is typically a fairly cheap lens with a focal length between 18-55mm and an aperture of f3.5-5.6. The range in f values means that the aperture is different for different focal lengths. That means your lens take in less light when zoomed in than when zoomed out. The problem with these aperture values is that while these lenses are pretty good for getting started with your camera and basic shooting, they aren’t ideal when it comes to shooting in low light situations or shooting portraits.
So I prefer to do one of two things, either get the kit lens and buy a separate portrait lens, something like 30mm or a 50mm f1.8 lens. Otherwise, pay the extra and buy something like a Sigma 17-50 F2.8 lens which will give you decent zoom and decent low light/portrait performance. Of course these lenses can be more expensive so it’s something to consider.
The shallow depth of field here is very hard if not impossible to achieve with a lens without an aperture or f2.8 or less. You could technically do it at a smaller aperture by standing far away and zooming to like 250mm but this is generally less practical.
There is generally a tradeoff with focal length and aperture. High aperture lenses tend to have narrow focal lengths meaning they don’t zoom a lot. Conversely, high zoom lenses tend to have less than ideal apertures. So it’s something to consider.
The shallow depth of field here was taken at F5.6 and is only shallow because this was taken at 200mm which is pretty zoomed in. So if you don’t have a high aperture lens, you could stand far away and do this to try and get a shallow depth of field. If I stood next to this little guy and shot at like 18mm, you wouldn’t get this shallow a depth of field.
Image stabilisation (IS, VR etc) is a feature that goes by many names. In essence it’s a feature of a lens that allow you to shoot at slower shutter speed than you normally would. This is because it reduces the shake of the lens so you can open the shutter slightly longer giving you just that little extra light. It’s generally nice to have but won’t really exist on high aperture lenses (things like f1.8) since they tend to have good low light performance anyway. Lookout for this feature as it can be useful to have.
ISO refers to the sensitivity of the lens to light. A higher ISO means you need less light to get the right exposure. It also means you’re likely to get grainier images. This is one reason people like Full Frames because they have excellent high ISO performance meaning they shoot noise-free images as a much higher ISO than crop cameras or any other camera. Different cameras give you different ISO sensitivities. Some start at 50, some start at 200. Generally they’ll start at 100. It’s not super important for most people at their early stages to look into the ISO sensitivity of the camera but I’ve mentioned it here so that you know what it means.
Burst Mode/ Frames Per Second:
SO if you’re shooting continuous, say for sports or whatever, then you’ll generally be shooting at continuous burst. A higher burst number means that the camera can capture more images per second. So for example my camera can do 7fps so can take 7 photos every second. A cheaper camera might only take 3 in the same time. So if you’re doing stuff that involves a lot of fast moving people, consider getting something with a faster burst mode. If not, then it probably doesn’t matter too much. The other thing to note is that cameras have buffers which mean it can only take so many photos before it has to stop and process them. For example mine can take 18 shots in RAW before it has to stop and process them. Some might only handle 6. The buffer capacity is another thing to consider if you plan on taking lots of high speed photos.
I always recommend having a spare battery cos you never want your battery going flat in the middle of your trip. DSLRs have generally better battery than Mirrorless cameras cos they have less electronics to run. Compare battery performance when making your decision if this is important to you. Either way, usually buying a spare battery will eliminate the need to care too much about battery capacity.
This means you can tilt or rotate the screen of your camera. Not all cameras can do this so it’s worth looking into. I find it super useful for tripod work or for taking things high above me or close to the ground cos I can pop out the screen, aim it towards me and shoot in live view. Not all screen can be fully rotated in all directions so check just how flexible it is.
This means the camera can handle splashes or rain and dust without being damaged. Note that this really only exists in higher end DSLRs and your entry level stuff won’t have it. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but just keep in mind if you have a cheaper camera to not let it get wet. Also weather sealing is dependent on the lens too so don’t just assume that cos your camera is weather sealed it’s automatically fully protected. Weather sealing does not mean waterproof. You can get splashes of water on it, but you can’t submerge it in water.
My camera has 19 autofocus points, most entry level DSLRs will have 9. Does it matter I have more than you? Probably not. A focus point is just a point on the frame where the camera can focus for you. More points means you have more choice as to where in the frame you want the camera to autofocus. Many people including me use only the centre dot 90%of the time so it really doesn’t matter. However, if you do a lot of sports photography or fast moving subjects then more focal points helps. For example when I take photos of my friends doing dance competitions, I utilise all my AF points. You can also have regions where you specify a section of the scene you’ll be putting your subjects in depending on your camera. So in general, if you’re not shooting dancers or racing cars then don’t worry too much about the number of AF points, just use the centre one to ensure proper focus.
A Canon 70D with 19AF points (Left) vs a Canon 700D with 9AF Points (Right)
Focus peeking is a neat feature in a few new cameras, mostly mirrorless ones, where it helps you manually focus. It’ll basically draw little lines around objects in your frame that are in focus to help you see where your focus lies. If you want to manually focus then this is a helpful feature. If you never plan on manually focusing then don’t worry about it too much although manual focusing can be useful at night where the camera’s autofocus will struggle. I’m not aware of any DSLRs that have this feature but thankfully they have live view magnification which does a pretty good job in its own way.
Live View Magnification temporarily digitally zooms into the image so you can check the focus manually
The red around these objects is showing that they are in focus. It shows you what focus peeking does to help you ensure your photos are nice and sharp.
Most cameras have video nowadays but the quality of video may be different. Things to look for are what frame rates and resolution the cameras are capable of shooting at. Higher frame rates are better for fast moving subject or if you want to slow things down to do slow motion. HD is of course better in terms of quality.
Another thing to note is that different cameras have different focusing abilities when it comes to video. Some cameras can focus at the start of the video but can’t keep focusing during the video so you’ll need to do it manually. Some cameras can do it all automatically so if video is important to you, check if the camera has continual video autofocus. Another thing is that lenses can make noises when they focus. Normally who cares but for video the mic can pick up this sound so that’s why you have some silent lenses designed to video. Canon’s STM lenses are an example of this.
So I’ve probably blasted with you a lot of very confusing information so I’ll try to summarise as best I can:
Compact -- for those who don’t care too much about settings or quality/those who care about size above all
Mirrorless—Those who want small and powerful camera, don’t mind the smaller range of accessories
DSLRs—Ones who want all the possible power but are ok with the size and weight
So this was more designed to give you an idea about what terms people use when they talk about cameras and what the hell they’re on about. My general tips are:
Buy the best thing you can afford but ensure that includes some accessories. A tripod is one of the most useful accessories there is. You’ll need to buy a memory card and a bag with any camera purchase so leave some aside for that. I recommend a 16GB card as a minimum, ideally 32GB. Anything class 10 should be fine.
Don’t get too caught up on having “The Best”: there is no “best” camera, there are different things for different people. I say pick up the camera and see which one feels right. You should go with that one.
Decided what you want it for—it’ll help you determine which type you should buy
Don’t be afraid of third part lenses like Sigma and Tamron– These lenses can be pretty great and offer ranges that Canon and Nikon don’t offer
Try to keep the number of lenses to a minimum—people think more lenses means better but you can only use one lens at a time. So you’ll want as few versatile lenses as you can so that you can cover all the things you want to cover. I usually say go for a 18-55mm f2.8 lens or buy a kit lens with a portrait lens (50mm or 30mm f1.8). Canon is good in this regard because they have a 50mm f1.8 portrait lens for around $150 which when coupled with a kit 18-55mm lens is an excellent starting combo. Nikon doesn’t have a 50mm f1.8 in this price range. Well, they do, but it doesn’t have autofocus on Nikon’s cheapest bodies so I wouldn’t consider this ideal for most people.
But what you’ll use– I have lost count of the number of people I have seen buy something fancy and then leave it in the back of the closet cos it’s too hard or it’s too heavy. Don’t be like them, buy what you’ll use.
Don’t get too caught up on gear—It’s hard for me to say this, because I have a shitload of gear, and I seriously mean a shitload. But having said that, I took years to build up my gear collection and I started off with a 1000D with a twin lens kit like so many people and it taught me a lot about how to actually take photos like how to look at lighting, composition, depth of field etc. So now that I have wireless flash guns, a bunch of filter, 5 lenses, a couple of DSLR bodies, a few tripods, multiple bags, a crapload of light painting gear, studio umbrellas, flash stands and a backdrop stand, it would have all been useless until I actually understood the basics of how to take a photograph. To give you some inspiration, below is a photo from one of my friends who took this shot with her Nikon D5100 with a standard 18-55mm kit lens.
How did she do it? Was it with super fancy equipment that cost thousands? No, it costs a few hundred sure but certainly not professional level gear. So how did she get such an awesome photo? Well one she used a tripod, but mostly it cos she understood what makes a great photo such as time of day and lighting as well as the settings required to get a great shot.