The first 35mm film camera I ever used was my dad’s Argus A5; it had four shutter speeds, five f/stops and ‘guess the distance’ focusing. No lightmeter, of course. It taught me a lot about photography. Back then I couldn’t always afford film, but I’d take that camera out in the woods and make compositions through the viewfinder, measure the light with the little handheld lightmeter and calculate exposures. My first SLR camera was an Asahi Pentax Spotmatic F; a definite step up in photographic terms, and a great little camera, even though I eventually jumped ship and went with Minolta instead.
I’m not exactly sure how many cameras I currently own; I’ve given away a few over the years, but I think the number stands at around a dozen. When I bought my Pentax things were a lot simpler for photographers – there was only one film size (35mm) for most people, although Kodak Instamatic cameras, Polaroids and later pocket cameras (110 film) were around, and there were people using medium and large format cameras as well. There were about five major camera manufacturers – Asahi Pentax, Canon, Minolta, Nikon and Olympus, although there were other companies like Praktica as well. And there weren’t that many models to choose from either. I still remember when the Nikon F2H came out – it was capable of shooting 10 frames/second, something that seemed ridiculous to me at the time. It required a bulk film holder, but in theory one could go through a roll of film in 3½ seconds. Much too fast! The internet hadn’t been developed in any practical sense, and so for information one had to rely on glossy brochures and/or the wisdom of the local camera sales rep.
Fast forward approximately 35 years, and photography is a very different game. Camera manufacturers are pushing out new models every 18 months or so, and there is a plethora of megapixel counts, sensor sizes, etc. How does one decide what to buy?
A number of people have asked me over the years which camera to buy, and my answer has always been pretty much the same. It depends. The bottom line is that all of the major manufacturers – Canon, Fuji, Nikon, Panasonic, Sony, Sigma and others make good equipment, and whether you buy this camera or that camera comes down to a few general criteria and your own preferences. There is an abundance of information, opinion and reviews out on the ‘net now for every camera body, lens and accessory in existence. However, I think that for the beginning photographer at least, the same advice I have always given still applies.
First of all, determine two things: One is your budget and the other is your interest. Everyone has a budget, and photography, like many other interests, can make quite a hole in your wallet if you let it. Second, why do you want a camera, and what are you planning to use it for? There’s no point in investing $50K in a medium format digital back to make Facebook pictures of your kids. From your interest you can decide whether you want to simply make photos to share with family or friends or whether you want to pursue photography as an avocation or possibly a career. For MOST people today, you’ll be buying a digital camera. Yes, film cameras still exist, and yes, they have their merits. I still own several myself, but I’ll leave film cameras for those who know why they’re shooting film and recommend digital for beginners.
There’s an old question that asks, “Is it the photographer or the camera that makes the image?” To me the answer is clear: it’s both. I wouldn’t expect to make the same image with a Hasselblad as I would with a Holga, but both are capable of making interesting images within their genre. The next decision you want to make is whether you want a camera that gives you manual control. If the answer is yes, you’re probably looking for a camera that has interchangeable lenses. Again, if you’re making vacation photos a point and shoot camera or even a cell phone camera with a zoom lens and ‘scene settings’ may be all you want or need. Marcia (for some inexplicable reason) doesn’t have the same fascination with shutter speeds and depth of field that I do. She wants a camera with auto everything so that she can point the camera at what she wants, click the button, and it works. She does have me to do the post-processing, but that’s another story. Increasingly one has to ask, “Do you want to shoot still images, video, or both?” Almost all newer digital cameras can shoot digital video, many of them HD video. Our son is a professional cinematographer, however, and I can tell you from him that the capability of capturing video doesn’t necessarily make it a video camera. There are trade-offs. Are there any specialized tasks for which you want to use the camera? If you’re interested in diving or snorkeling, you may want a camera that’s water resistant, or one for which you can get a waterproof housing. If you’re a sports photographer you’ll have different wants/needs than someone who shoots wildflowers or insects.
So to begin with, sit down with a pencil and paper, your computer, cell phone or tablet and start making a list of the types of photographs you want to make.
Now that you have an idea of your budget and you know what types of photographs you want to make, you can begin to do your research. Shop online if you want, read reviews, scan MTF charts of lens quality if you like, but nothing will decide for you better than using the camera. I still recommend going to your local camera store as a beginning place. Yes, there are online retailers, and yes, they sometimes offer better prices, but they won’t give you a feel for the camera itself. So, take the list that you’ve made (and your budget) and go to a local camera store. Tell the sales clerk there what your budget is, what your experience level is, and show him/her your list of wants/ expectations/ interests. At this point, in my experience, one of two things will happen. One possibility is that the clerk will take a camera from the case, put it on the counter in front of you and say, “This is exactly what you want.” If that happens, leave. Tell the clerk to have a nice day or whatever, but walk out and don’t go back. A good rep will be willing to invest an hour, two hours or however long it takes with you to show you a number of different cameras in your price range, explain the operations and features of each, and let you hold them, try them out, make some sample photographs… Most reps will be knowledgeable enough about their product lines to be able to answer all of your questions, or to find an answer for you if they don’t. (One should never have to explain a camera’s operation to the manufacturer’s technical support people, but that’s another story). Pick up each camera – make sure it has batteries in it so you can feel the weight and balance, and play with it. Does the operation seem intuitive? Are the menu settings clear, or a lesson in obfuscation? Are the buttons where you want them to be? Does it do what you want it to do? My current walkaround camera is a Fuji Finepix S1500fd; it’s small enough to fit in a pocket of my backpack. For about an hour I was the owner of a Fuji Finepix S2000HD (an upgrade), but I brought it back to the store after reading the manual and discovering it had no manual aperture control. Does the camera shoot RAW or only .jpg? It may be important, depending on what you want to do with your images. Does the camera have the accessories that you want (if any?) Does it use a dedicated battery pack, or does it use AA batteries for example? If you’re traveling and don’t have a place to recharge, that might make a difference. At minimum you may want a second battery.
After holding and using a few different cameras, you’ll begin to wean out those that are clearly not of interest to you. You may have narrowed the choices to one. Good for you. Now, take the sales rep’s business card or name/number, and go home. Thank him or her for the time, but leave. Think about the cameras you handled and how they felt to you. Did one fit your hand better? Did one have fewer trade-offs? (there is no ‘perfect’ camera in my experience). Sleep on it. Go back the next day, find the clerk you spoke with and make your purchase. NB: Depending on the store you go to and what product lines they carry, you may have to go to more than one store. The same rules apply.
The follow-up to this is that you must learn how to use your camera. I still remember walking into a camera store in Saskatchewan back in the early 1980s, just as a woman was walking out. She had just invested over $2K in new camera equipment (a fair bit of change back then) because she was going on vacation and ‘wanted to take good pictures’. After she left I said to the clerk, “She is going to be so disappointed.” If you’re planning on making photographs rather than just taking snapshots (or even if the latter, this still applies), there is a new language to learn. Camera technology has changed, but the basic rules of composition, lighting, depth of field, etc. still apply. Add to that the functions and patterns of using your new camera. If you want, you can add also the follow-up of post processing, RAW conversion and digital asset management (DAM). You can learn online, take out books from the library, sign up for a workshop, join a local camera club or all of the above. If you’ve purchased a new camera for a specific purpose like going on vacation or to a wedding or graduation, take the time to learn the camera’s operation BEFORE you leave. Using the camera needs to become intuitive to you. It doesn’t matter of what you make photographs as you learn – just go out and shoot. Play. Experiment. Learn. Fail. Try again. If you’re fiddling with the dials trying to figure out how to do something, the moment has passed.
Now go out and make some pictures!
P.S. The same general advice applies if you’re trying to determine whether to buy a Canon vs. Epson vs. HP printer, whether you want to know about ACDSee Pro vs. Adobe Camera Raw vs. Aperture vs. Capture One vs. Lightroom vs. …
P.S. II, the Sequel: Sean Reid of reidreviews.com has started a series of articles on the Luminous Landscape site under the collective title, “Common Sense”. Great information for anyone considering purchasing a new camera.