When many people find out I am a photographer, the first thing I hear is "Oh I would like to talk to you about which camera to buy", so I thought I would write an entry about it on my blog.

First and foremost I insist that it isn't a great/expensive camera that takes good images, it's the person that holds the camera that does the work, the kit helps obviously, but a great camera does not a great photographer make. I have seen very expensive kit wielded very badly resulting in shockingly badly exposed or blurred images or simply plain images that could have just as easily been snapped with a camera phone. And of course that is a perfectly valid tool these days, if you are just after snapshots you probably already have the camera you need within your phone.

Moving on to the subject at hand and trying my best to avoid the rant about kit and ability, we first have to ask ourselves what it is that we want from a camera, or on a deeper level, from photography. I start with the assumption that if you are asking me, I'm pretty sure you don't need a large or medium format camera, and to that end I won't go into any detail on those types, if you want those types of camera, you should really know more about photography than me if I'm being honest. That leaves us with the small format camera, which in itself is a wide range of cameras and pretty much covers all consumer level cameras right from the simplest P&S (Point & Shoot) up to some fairly expensive DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) cameras.

So far we have narrowed down a massive choice of options in terms of cameras down to a slightly less massive choice of options, therefore we need to start asking questions of the potential photographer to determine the next steps. The questions go something like this

  • What sort of photography will you be doing?
  • Will this be for occasional use/for fun, a serious hobby, or are you looking at a career in photography?

Then, based on the answers I get, we have a range of options, and these options seem to get more varied as time goes on and camera manufacturers come up with new ideas and types of camera. So let's look at the choices and how they might relate to the answers you might give.

Point and Shoot (P&S)

This is pretty much as it says, the camera is fully automatic (maybe with some pre-set scene modes and a built in flash), and you simply point the camera at what you want to take a photo of and press the button (shoot), the camera does the rest of the work for you. This camera is not unlike the camera you will have in your phone and as indicated previously, the lines between the usefulness of these cameras versus the camera in your phone are becoming blurred.

This type of camera is usually very portable and very useful for holiday or family snapshots, only go for this type of camera if you have no plans to delve into photography deeper.

Bridge Camera

A bridge camera is so called because it essentially bridges the gap between the P&S cameras and the more involved manually operated advanced DSLR cameras. The key differences between this and a P&S is that firstly they are usually a little more bulky, they have a larger lens, possibly a greater zoom range, and more importantly tend to have manual operation modes allowing you to explore the skill of photography more so than the P&S. The key differences between this and a DSLR are that the lens whilst having a large range of focal lengths is permanently attached to the camera and hence you cannot upgrade or change lenses to suite your needs and budget, also these types of cameras don't tend to have the same range of file formats such as RAW, and although somewhat subjective the image quality doesn't tend to be as good. This sort of camera is for someone who has no plans to get serious about photography, but wants to dabble and have a good range of options all in one package.

Compact System Camera (CSC)

These type of cameras can also be referred to as mirror-less and in some instances depending on the dimensions of the sensor, micro four thirds cameras. They typically have the same functionality as the DSLR (in some cases more), but they are smaller, more compact and operate more like bridge cameras with the added bonus you can change the lenses. The key difference between these and DSLRs is that there is no prism and no mirror and they tend to have Electronic Viewfinders (EVF). This type of camera normally is for what I would refer to as an enthusiast, someone who is a keen hobbyist photographer, but we are seeing more and more professional and semi-professional photographers using these, I have one myself. The sway towards this type of camera is largely due to size, weight and portability. For the less able bodied photographers who are finding a large DSLR increasingly harder to hold steady and moreover is struggling to carry the kit around, this type of camera is a great compromise. These cameras are currently in fashion and therefore tend to demand a high price tag, certainly for the good ones and compared to the P&S and Bridge cameras.

Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR)

Once the holy grail of cameras and the sole domain of the professional photographer, this type of camera is now widely available to the consumer varying from a few hundred pounds (GBP) to several thousands of pounds (GBP). When considering this type of camera, the first thing to consider is that you aren't so much purchasing a camera as committing to a lens system, and this should be the prime reason you pick one make over another, perhaps ease of use should be first, but I tend to find most of the high end cameras have a similar user experience (I know people will dispute this). The reason I say you are committing to a lens system is that the DSLR is designed to have different lenses attached to it and in order to be able to get the right lenses for the type of photography you do, the system first has to have that type of lens and secondly it has to be within your price budget. Of course it helps if you know lots of people with the same lens system, that increases the chances for you to borrow lenses rather than purchase them. This type of camera should be chosen if you are going to be serious about photography, intend to learn about it and increase your skills in photography, or if you are planning to go professional. Now, as I have mentioned there are wide ranging price points for the DSLR, if you are planning to go professional, you need to go for the most recent and most highly rated model that you can afford, once you have the camera body, you also need to factor in budget for lenses, the kit lenses are OK, but they suffer from lower image quality (IQ) generally speaking. Be wary of purchasing entry level cameras and lenses with the expectation that you can keep the lenses and upgrade the body over time, there does tend to be different lens mounts for different price points. I have a couple of DSLRs myself, and a reasonably wide array of lenses, and if you're interested and it matters to you, I tend to favour Canon cameras.

Makes and Models and closing words...

You will hear photographers evangelising about the make of camera they have, and why one manufacturer is better than another. The classic discussion is Canon vs Nikon, and the truth of it is different makes tend to be better at different types of photography and situations and each manufacturer has a subtly different approach to the user experience and how the camera looks and feels. If you are opting for a DSLR, I personally would stick with either Canon or Nikon simply because they have very well established lens systems, but some of the other makes are equally good cameras. At this point, the only advice I can give here is to do your research, and see example photos, but be wary most photographers don't show what comes straight out of the camera, there is some editing going on.  First and foremost the camera has to suit your hands, your budget and the way you think, if the camera meets those criteria, you won't go too far wrong.  

I hope this article has helped, but feel free to contact me if you want to discuss anything about your choice of camera, or need help narrowing things down a bit.