“Hey, Casey! I’m looking to by a new camera for myself/my kid/my mom/my wife/my dad/etc. – what would you recommend?”
I’ve been asked this question countless times by friends, family members, total strangers who saw me holding what they realized to be a professional camera…
Well, maybe those people didn’t call me by name but they did say something along the lines of, “Hey! You! Person holding what looks like an expensive camera – might I bend your ear to inquire as to what type of camera equipment might be best FOR ME???”
I totally don’t mind talking cameras with people. It’s something I actually LOVE talking about. If I didn’t, this entire website would be a real pain in the ass, wouldn’t it?
So that is why I put together this camera buying guide!
Whenever someone poses the question to me as to what camera they should buy, I have some questions:
Who are you buying this camera for and why?
I always ask this question first because it helps me determine the level of seriousness about photography. Why? Because that will determine things that should be considered when making a camera purchase…if a purchase is actually necessary. “What?” you ask…well, more on that later.
Whomever the camera is for, the person who will be using it falls into one of three groups:
This person is already taking pictures for money, and wants to potentially upgrade from their current equipment. This is very different from the other two categories in that this person most likely already owns a significant amount of equipment and would probably like to keep using as much of it as they can. They’re also interested in getting a camera and/or lenses that are more professional grade and will stand up to the rigors of constant use as well as producing more professional quality images.
2. The hobbyist/amateur who is or might at some point be considering going pro
This person already has an avid interest in photography, may or may not have some equipment already, and is considering (or might at some point consider) pursuing photography as a profession. For them, it is best to be more flexible. My suggestion, and I will go over this more later in the article, would be to invest more highly in the lenses than in the camera itself. Quick reasoning for that: cameras become ‘obsolete’ in a couple of years while good lenses last a very long time.
3. The hobbyist
This is someone who just enjoys taking pictures in their spare time. They have no intentions of becoming a professional photographer. They don’t need a lot of fancy equipment or many different lenses.
Do you already have lenses/equipment that would possibly work with a new camera?
If you already have gear, that can determine the brand/type of camera you purchase AND it can change how much you allot in your budget towards the camera and any NEW lenses. You might not even need new lenses at all if you already have some in your bag!
Speaking of budget…
What’s your budget?
A pretty big determining factor for what you’re going to buy is, well, how much money do you have to spend on this. You might think that budgets normally follow the order of the types listed above, with professionals having the highest budget and hobbyists the lowest, but it really is all over the place.
If you’re a pro who doesn’t have a great cash flow, you need a good camera and lenses that can help make you MORE money so you can upgrade later.
If you’re pursuing photography as a hobby…perhaps you just retired…and have a healthy budget, you might find a great fixed lens camera that can take amazing pictures, and you’re happy to spend a good chunk of change on it!
I always tell people that they’re NOT JUST BUYING A CAMERA!!! You’re also buying lenses. Unless you’re a hobbyist, and I mean this sincerely…DO NOT buy the kit lens!
I’m gonna say that again for the people in the back…
UNLESS YOU ARE BUYING A CAMERA FOR A HOBBY, DO NOT BUY THE KIT LENS!!
Why? Kit lenses are pretty good for hobbyists because they’re very general. Sometimes you even get two kit lenses – a standard zoom (17-50mm or 24-70mm) and a telephoto (usually a 70-300mm in a kit).
But these lenses usually have a variable aperture and are not the highest quality builds (read – they’re not going to hold up under constant use in a professional environment). But, that’s why they include them in the kit, right? They don’t just throw in the best lenses for pretty much the same price as the camera alone.
If you are a professional – or think you might (or the person you’re buying the camera for might) go pro at some point, just buy the camera body and get a separate, higher quality lens(es). You’ll be happier in the long run.
What is being photographed?
This….this right here. This question can determine both what kind of camera and what type of lens(es) you purchase.
Taking pictures of fast moving things (sports, undomesticated animals, children….) — you’re going to want a camera that has a very fast autofocus (probably a DSLR).
Going to be traveling a lot with your camera and lenses? You will probably want a camera that is lighter and more portable (mirrorless or fixed lens)
And it applies to lenses too…
Taking portraits of people?
You’ll probably want a 50mm or an 85mm or a 135mm prime lens. Why? Because they reduce the distortion of facial features that happens with wide angle lenses.
Time to go wide angle, baby! You’re going to want something in the 20-35mm range to capture those epic vistas!
Yes, someone once asked me what lenses to get their grandmother because she likes to photograph birds. Well, for that you’re going to need a telephoto lens to get close up on your avian subjects…or anything that’s far away that you don’t want to OR can’t get close to.
Taking pictures of everything??
Yeah, some people take pictures of lots of different things, especially hobbyist photographers. If you’re a hobbyist who wants to take pictures of LOTS of different things, I would recommend something like the Sigma 18-300mm F3.5-6.3 Contemporary Macro Lens. If you click on that link or the image below, you can check it out on Amazon. The link is for a Canon mount lens, but it’s also available for other camera brand mounts, including Nikon and Sony. Just be sure you get the right lens for your camera mount!
This lens will run you about $400 but it’s going to cover every focal length range a hobbyist is going to need, from wide angle to telephoto. All in one lens.
ONE LENS TO RULE THEM ALL!
Well, not necessarily…but you understand what I mean.
I would also recommend that anyone who is starting out get themselves a ‘nifty fifty’. What’s that? It’s an inexpensive, wide aperture (let’s in more light), 50mm lens. I love shooting 50mm. According to some reports, the 50mm lens is the most equivalent to human eye as far as field of vision and what we actually ‘perceive’ most of the time. That’s up for debate, but I’ve photographed entire weddings using only a 50mm lens. A Canon ‘nifty fifty’ will run you $125, and every camera manufacturer has their own version, as do most of the third party lens makers. The Yongnuo 50mm f/1.8 runs $65! I’ve heard decent things about it too. Again, if you click on those links and head over to Amazon, make sure you’re getting the right lens for your camera mount!
The Different Types of Cameras
There are a lot of different types of cameras out there, and I’m not just talking about the brands that manufacture them. There are different styles and each is suited to different things. So, here’s a breakdown of the different camera types.
SLR / DSLR Cameras
SLR stands for “Single Lens Reflexive” camera. The D in DSLR just stands for digital. It uses a mirror and prism system so you can see through the lens using the viewfinder. When you press the shutter down, the mirror flips out of the way and the ‘image’ is exposed onto the digital sensor (or film negative in a film camera).
SLRs tend to be bulkier (unless you’ve got a rangefinder style camera) because of all the moving parts inside. That’s the main ‘con’ to owning them. Especially if you have a pro DSLR with a battery pack. They’re affectionately known as ‘wrist breakers’ in the photography community.
The ‘pros’ of an SLR/DSLR system? Faster autofocus. More durable. No lag between shutter release and exposure. I find the SLR/DSLR is at the forefront of the field for anything you’re trying to photograph that’s fast moving and potentially in low light conditions.
Compact Mirrorless System (formerly MILC)
Back when they were first introduced, mirrorless cameras were known as “Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Cameras” or MILC (which people would pronounce like ‘milk’) for short. Apparently that didn’t stick with many people, and we just started calling them mirrorless cameras.
So what are mirrorless cameras? They’re similar to an SLR in the sense that you can change out lenses. Unlike a point-and-shoot or ‘fixed lens’ camera, you can opt to choose from a variety of lens options. They’re much smaller than an SLR/DSLR because they’ve removed the mirror and prism mechanics which add much of the bulk to those types of cameras. They may, or may not, have an EVF or electronic viewfinder or you might just look at the screen on the back of the camera (or you will have to buy an EVF separately).
The pros of mirrorless cameras? They’re soooooo much lighter and more compact. They’re virtually silent (no moving parts), and you can also get mirrorless system that has the resolution of a medium format DSLR. The Sony A7R III boasts a 42 megapixel sensor! That’s pretty impressive.
AND the Nikon Z7 was just announced last week which boasts a 45 megapixel full frame sensor. I’ll be waiting to hear more about hands-on reviews before getting super excited.
The cons? Unfortunately, at this point in time, there are several. Many of these cameras have poor battery life (if you don’t have an EVF attached or built in – it gets even worse since your battery is constantly draining to power the LED view screen), an autofocus system that is slower than a DSLR in low light, and a slight lag between what you see in the EVF and what is actually happening (since the processor inside the camera has to create a video of what it is ‘seeing’ on the sensor).
Also, the range of lenses for these types of cameras can be limited, unless you want to get an adapter to use different lens mounts on them. And that can be hit or miss depending on the camera, the brand of adapter you choose, and whether you’re using a third party lens.
What to choose in this line of cameras? Budget can play a big part in your plans with mirrorless systems ranging from $500 to thousands of dollars…
Sony offers different styles of mirrorless cameras, ranging from the 24 megapixel Sony Alpha a6000 at around $550
To the 42 megapixel A7RII which clocks in at just over three grand for the body alone!
Canon’s EOS-M50 offers a 24 megapixel sensor and around $850 for just the body
Or you could go the route of a mirrorless rangefinder type camera with the Fuji X100F (great camera – I have friends who shoot with them!)
There’s going to be a lot of news coming out in the next few months with Nikon and Canon announcing their ‘professional, full frame’ mirrorless cameras. I’ll come back and update as more news becomes available.
A Note on Purchasing Interchangeable Lens Cameras:
If you’re thinking about buying either a DSLR or a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera, my suggestion, if the person who’s going to be taking the photos is just starting out in photography, is to not necessarily go with the top of the line camera.
You might find that shocking, but you can get a model that’s a couple years older – there’s really not going to be a huge difference. Yes, there’s always going to be “new and exciting” features! More megapixels! Blah…blah…blah…
Invest the money in the lenses. If you decide to give up the hobby or things you want to upgrade – new cameras come out every year/two years and lenses retain their value much longer!
And if you want to discuss megapixels, remember that you have to triple the number of megapixels to double the overall resolution. So, it took 8 years from when my old 8 megapixel Canon EOS-20D was released in 2004 until 2012 when the 22 megapixel EOS-5D Mark III was released to effectively double resolution. Yes, other features were added along the way (video, noise reduction, etc., etc.) but there aren’t HUGE leaps and bounds in camera technology. A camera model that is a couple of years old is still going to be effective and take great pictures for years to come until it becomes ‘obsolete’.
Compact or fixed lens cameras
Think that a camera with a fixed lens means it is a point-and-shoot camera? Think again. Cheap point-and-shoot cameras still abound, and you can find them for about $100, but if you’re serious about digging into photography a little bit more than just having the camera automatically (and quite often not very well) handle the settings, you should consider some compact, fixed lens cameras.
What are these? Well, they’re usually referred to as “SLR-like” cameras because they usually look like an SLR camera (or a rangefinder camera) with a fixed lens. There’s no switching of lenses here. The lens stays on the camera…always. That can make transporting them a little difficult depending on the style of the camera and how big the lens is, but the upside here is that you’ve got one lens which, much like the Sigma lens I talked about earlier, is going to handle most of your focal length needs. That way, you don’t really need to switch out lenses.
Do they take good pictures? Yes! The first two digital cameras I owned were both fixed lens, SLR-like cameras. They were great for their time, too! These types of cameras are better for hobbyists or people who know that they really don’t want to go pro but want to take high-quality pictures!
Again, there’s a wide range of prices in this category…
Have a pretty healthy budget and want to buy a camera you won’t have to change lenses on? Get yourself a Leica (they make amazing cameras and lenses) V-Lux 20 megapixel camera with a 25-400mm zoom for about $1200..
Or, if you have a lower budget, take a look at a Panasonic DC-ZS70K – also 20 megapixels of resolution – with a 24-720mm zoom (!!!) for just under $400
Use your phone!
This might be sacrilegious in the photography world, but if you’re not sure you want to spend money on a camera, and for some people that can be a pretty hefty expense, especially if you’re talking about getting a camera for a teenager who is expressing an interest in photography, or an older parent who wants to take up a new hobby but might not be that serious about it.
As I explained in an earlier series of blog posts, you can take great pictures with your phone’s camera. You just have to get out of the native camera app – and, no, I don’t mean using Instagram.
Need a better zoom than the phone can provide (don’t use digital zoom – your picture is gonna suck) or maybe a wide angle or macro lens? Get them some clip on lenses – because, to paraphrase Casey Neistat, some of them aren’t absolute crap (and they’re not very expensive).
Throw in some free apps for editing, maybe a portable light, and they’re set to start exploring the wonderful world of photography. If they decide later on they want to get more serious about it, you, or they, can always buy the more serious camera then!
I hope you found this camera buying guide helpful! I’ll be back to update it as technology/cameras change. Please be sure to share it with anyone you know who is interested in buying a camera!