What Camera Should I Buy?

// March 25th, 2014 // Education, Opinion

This is one of the most common things I’m asked when people find out that I’m a professional photographer.
Here are 10 answers to that 1 question.

Some of these answers may seem a bit blunt. I’m being direct to try to be genuinely helpful, rather than repeat generic answers or be unspecific and therefore unhelpful.

1) First of all, ‘camera’ DOES NOT EQUAL ‘photography’!

Having an expensive camera does not make you a good photographer. Taking ‘good’ (for some definition of good) photos is about a lot more than having the right device, dialing in the right settings and pressing the shutter button at the right time.

2) If you’re serious about learning photography you need a DSLR

Yes, you can take great photos on other sorts of camera and even your phone, but to learn the technical skills you’ll require to get beyond the beginner stages you’ll need the flexibility of a camera with a large sensor, manual controls, interchangeable lenses, RAW and some way of triggering external flash.

3) At the bare minimum you need…

…a camera body, lens, two batteries, charger and a memory card – CF or SD depending on the camera you buy – and a cable or card reader to get photos from the camera to your computer. And a computer. And an external hard drive so you can have at least two copies of your photos – one is a backup. Budget for all that.

4) How much will this all cost?

About £350/$500 + a computer if you don’t already have one. A typical beginner camera kit will have the camera body and a ‘standard zoom’, something like an 18-55mm zoom with fairly slow variable aperture.

5) Okay I have all that, what should I buy next?

If you don’t know what to buy next don’t buy it. You’ll never get to the point where you have ‘all’ the kit – trust me on that – so the only sensible approach is to buy stuff you actually need, i.e. that allows you to do things you can’t do with your current equipment, or which directly answers a problem you now have.

6) Consider spending money on knowledge rather than gear

Someone who knows what they’re doing can do much better work with a lot less equipment than someone who has all the toys but doesn’t know how to use them. There’s a lot of great free educational material available online, but sometimes buying an actual book is the way to go, or attending a seminar. If you want to buy one book get The Photographer’s Eye by Michael Freeman.

7) At this point you may be thinking you need to buy a ‘fast 50’…

…a cheap f1.8 50mm lens. You may be thinking it’s the lens that gives the closest approximation of the human field of view and so is the most natural way to shoot, and you can get gorgeous shallow depth of field images using it. You are thinking this because someone else told you to think it. STOP IT!

The idea that a 50mm lens gives the same field of view as human vision is wrong for two reasons:

a) The advice was intended for film SLRs, they have a larger sensor (piece of film) than entry level DSLRs so lenses behave differently. If you want the equivalent of a 50mm for your beginner DSLR you need a 35mm lens – which isn’t cheap.

b) There isn’t any standard ‘human field of view’, it’s very subjective. Without moving your eyes what’s the furthest to the left and furthest to the right you can see? It’s probably close to 180 degrees, and for that you’ll need something like an 8mm lens on an entry level DSLR. And if you want to ‘keep it real’ all your photos will have to have close to infinite depth of field and no bokeh – because that’s how human eyes-brains work – so you won;t be shooting a 50mm at f1.8.

Still, an f1.8 50mm lens is comparatively very cheap and will let you do things you can’t with the standard zoom that came with you camera kit, and you can practice swapping lenses. I have 3 different ones and almost never use them.

8) You’ve tried flash and it looks unnatural

You don’t want to add light and alter what you’re photographing anyway – you want to keep it real. Well… there is no ‘real’ in photography. Photographs are small flat completely static rectangles. They’re NOT real. The more you learn the more you’ll realise that’s true. If your flash photos are washed out and ugly it’s not the flash’s fault, it’s because you don’t know how to use it. Your next purchase should be an external flash and some way to get it off camera, like an off-camera cable or cheap radio slaves.

Then read everything on strobist.

9)More stuff that’s good to have

It’s probably worth getting a decent bag of some sort to keep your camera in, but don’t waster money on the camera manufacturer’s own brand. Also a lens cloth and rocket blower are really good to have.

10) And therefore the camera you should buy is…

So, buy the cheapest NEW (not second hand! Too much stiff can and will go wrong) DSLR that comes with a basic kit lens. There are lots of brands of camera and lots of them are very good, but 95% of all professional photographers mainly use Canon or Nikon, so anything else is something of a risk. If you think you’ll EVER want to shoot video seriously then buy a Canon – sorry Nikon you missed the boat with video features in your DSLRs and your lenses focus backwards to everyone else. Sony is also a contender – their tech is going in a very interesting direction and Sony are even more embedded in video as Canon, but right now they’re still somewhat unproven at the highest level.

If you still can’t make up your mind for yourself then buy this.