Recently I have been contacted by two friends who asked me - I am interesting a new camera and see that you are taking photography seriously... so what do you suggest?  So while I was on the phone with one of these friends and going through the though process, I said to myself why not write a guide post on how to choose a camera in 2016?

The first question - 'What will you be using it for?'

The intended use of the camera is the first question I need to ask, as this will begin to give me an idea of your needs... and most importantly will set a budget for a decent camera for your needs.  Much like cars, in phoography you can buy a racing car, a SUV, a city car or a luxury niche car.  It depends on what you want.  When these friends told me; "Well I want a generally good camera for taking pictures of family and when I am on vacation", they are implicitly telling me:

  1. they need a 'basic' camera upgrade to their point and shoot
  2. they do not want to use the camera for professional work
  3. they have not as yet understood the intricinsacies of photography and need to read this article :)

Understanding Cameras Specifications and Terms

Just like any other topic, one needs to have at least a basic understanding of the principles involved before purchasing a camera.  The main specifications of consideration when buying your first camera and their effect (in simple terms) are hereby listed:

Sensor Size

The sensor size of the camera dictates the amount of light that hits the sensor and therefore effects your image quality.  The larger the sensor the more it is capable of taking in light (for similar lenses) and therefore in low light particularly, less noise will be present in the picture.  This is obviously a grossly simplified explanation as there other factors in play (related to bokeh, focal length reach, etc)

Most commonly found are the four-third systems, APS-C and full-frame.  For a begineer (and even some professionals!) a camera with a four-thirds system and APS-C are more then sufficient.  Sensor technology has improved so much in recent years, that the full-frame of 10 years ago similar is similar to the performance of an APS-C / four-thirds of today.

I do use only full frame cameras at the moment, mostly because of the better IQ, ability ot extract more information from the picture and also a nicer bokeh.  (bokeh - the separation of the subject from the background in a picture where the background is blurred).Full frame cameras are not only more expensive but also their lenses are normally more expensive and heavy to carry around.  

Autofocus

Unless you are really keen on doing everything manually, you will probably be using the autofocus technology in todays cameras.  Obviously the faster and more accurate the autofocus speed is the better.  Three things to consider therefore are the autofocus system used by the camera, the lowest light required (sensitivity) to autofocus and the number of autofocus points.

Cameras today mostly use a phase detection system which is traditionally faster then contrast detection systems.  It is difficult to readily know from the specs given on a sheet the autofocus capability of a camera, and I believe that if this is an important point for you then you may want to read reviews of the specific camera.  Most modern DSLRs are now capable of fast phase detection autofocus, but the level of speed and the capability of focusing even in low light (and still maintain speed and accuracy) can make a significant price difference.

The very high end cameras (think like the Nikon D5 recently announced) are particularly capable of shooting quickly (continously) with quick autofocus even in low light conditions.  This makes these types of cameras used for journalistic and sports photographers, very expensive.

Megapixels

One of the aspects which is very much overhyped by the marketing section of camera manufacturers is the megapixels factor.  It is a common misunderstanding that the higher the megapixels of a camera the better it is.  The megapixels do not in any way effect the image quality in respect to how much you can shoot good pictures in low light or obtain more dynamic range from the image (dynamic range is the variety of tonalities you can obtain from an image).  The megapixels will only effect you if you intend to print the pictures you are taking on a large print.  For todays type of cameras I believe that for the common user the megapixel specification has become rather irrelevant as today most of the cameras begin at around 16MPs.  A few years back cameras had a resolution of anything from 6 to 12MPs and where seen to be sufficient, so 16MPs is more then enough for most of the users out there.

 Table illustrating basic size capabilities of a camera

Table illustrating basic size capabilities of a camera

An inherent advantage of having more megapixels (apart from the print size) is the capability ot crop more aggressively without losing quality.  In effect, because my 35mm camera (which does not zoom optically) is of 24MP, I can effectively crop (zoom in the picture after it is taken) and still retain a very good image quality especially for internet publishing (when publishing pictures on the internet a very low MP count is sufficient).

However there is also a disadvantage to higher megapixels - the higher the megapixel count the larger will the file picture you take be, and therefore the larger the file sizes.  This means you will need larger storage, larger memory cards and the buffer rate may also suffer. (buffer - the advanced cameras can take a serious of pictures in continuous mode without stopping - when the files are large, there will be less space possibility of continuous shooting.

Shooting in RAW

If you do not know what shooting in RAW means then you need to read this as you are probably shooting JPGs and therefore using half the potential of your camera.   Most of today's quality cameras are capable of taking images in an uncompressed format (RAW) which maintains all the details taken.  JPGs are compressed camera files which are smaller but which have discarded redundant information.  

If you are intending to edit the photos from a camera later, then you always want to shoot in RAW as this gives you the highest manipulation capability.  Setting your camera to shoot in RAW is the first thing you need to do as soon as you buy your camera.

Built-in stabilization

When taking hand-held (i.e. without using a tripod) photos at low shutter speeds (example 1/15 of a second) there is a possibility that during the time the shutter is open to take the photo, you inadvertently move your hand.  I think you understand that the camera shutter opens for a defined period of time to take a picture and during this time you will need to hold the camera steady.  There is a rule (that I will not go into explaining here) that says that the length of time to ensure a good shoot when shooting hand held various depending on the focal range you are using.  To keep things simple, normally a shutter speed of 1/80 of a second will be sufficient to ensure a steady shot.

Now there maybe instances where you are unable use such a shutter speed.   You may need to refer here to the triangle of relation between the ISO - shutter speed - aperture.  This is a very basic relationship which is critical in photography.  This will need to be covered in another blog post though! :)

So let's assume you know what I am talking about and see that you need to use a slow shutter speed to take a photo of a stationary obejct.  (To avoid using a slow shutter speed, you could raise the ISO to increase the shutter speed, but then more noise will be inserted in the image.  You can increase the aperture, but you may not have that type of lense available.)  So some cameras (and sometime this is built in lenses) have a built-in stabilisation  which enables you to use hand held shooting at these slower speeds without introducing motion blurs.  

Weight and Size

Another important consideration is that you will want to carry your camera around with you.  Alot of times you will end up without a camera because of the camera size and weight, so unless you are shooting something professionally and can care a bit less about this, if you are using your camera for travel you want to take this aspect in consideration.  Remember you will also probably also be taking a lense or two with you, if you are going to take photography seriously.

 

Viewfinder

The viewfinder is the small 'hole' from where you see what you are going to shoot.  DSLRs use optical viewfinders, that this these are mechanical and even when the camera is switched off you are still able to view the image.  Optical viewfinders will show you the composition, however you will not be able to see the way the final image is produced in them. On the other hand, electronic viewfinders show you the exact image which will be shown (that is the bokeh effect is also illustrated).  

Camera system (upgrades)

Another important overlooked point I wanted to make is that when you are buying a camera, you are really buying a camera system.  Each camera body has a particular lens mount which only accepts lenses with that particular mount.  The camera lenses are as important as the camera body - so unless you are really sure you do not want to upgrade further then the basic kit lens, then you should see what lenses are available and the maturity of the systems.

When buying a camera, you will probably eventually be buying different camera lenses and accesories.  Different camera systems will have different camera mounts.  When I bought into the Sony mirrorless (back in 2012 or 2013) I did not really know that I was going to be upgrading to fullframe... and that still till today Sony does not have a fast and sharp 24-70mm lens for my camera (unless I use adapters).

So checking the full upgrade path may be a good idea, though most of the camera manufacturers (especially the major ones)  always have an upgrade path and strategy so this should not really be a problem.

Weather sealing

Another aspect which might be important is the weather sealing element.  Considering you buy a new camera and are on travel.  It starts raining... do you take your camera out?  Well if the camera is weather sealed then yes you can rest assured that the camera will be able to withstand the rain or the dusty environment... but otherwise you maybe risking.

Kit or body only

Another consideration you have to do is whether you want to buy a camera body with a kit (starter) lens, or a body only.  It will also indicate how serious you are on photography and what your time investment in photography will be.

Whats your budget?

Once you have understood the above terms, you are now in a position to make a wiser choice.  Set yourself a budget and do not overspend on the camera.  Particularly if you are using the camera for pleasure reasons, I usually prefer to invest in camera lenses rather then a body as you will keep good lenses for as long as you keep to the same system, but in a few year's time you will probably want to change the camera body.

At the end of the day, no camera system and model is perfect... and it is equally advisable to not only invest in your camera system but equally invest in understanding your camera, its settings and capabilities and basic photographic techniques.

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