What kind of camera should I buy? How many times have I been asked that question? It’s like being asked, “What kind of car should I buy?” The only sensible answer is, “It depends on how you intend to use is.”
These days, digital cameras range from a cell phone camera to a high-end medium format camera with a digital back that almost no one needs.
Let’s take a quick look at the advantages and disadvantages of the most popular types:
Cell phone camera
The cell phone camera has two big advantages: 1) it is essentially free because it comes with your phone whether you want it or not; and 2) you (almost) always have it with you. The photojournalists’ maxim has traditionally been: “f/8 and be there,” which means don’t worry about your camera settings. Just set it to f/8 and be where the action is. For instance, everyone has seen D-Day pictures. For the most part the image quality is terrible; but they are great photographs because the photographer was in the action and captured what he saw.
You probably won’t be shooting anything like D-Day, but you can always have your cell phone camera ready for that shot at a gathering of friends or when your kid does something cute.
Another important advantage of a cell phone camera for many people is that it is extremely easy to upload pictures to a site like Facebook or to e-mail or text them to other people. If you use any other type of camera, you need to transfer your image files from the camera to your cell phone or computer first.
Compact point-and-shoot camera
This is the first step up from the cell phone camera. These cameras are easy to toss in your pocket and produce shots that are a bit better than the cell phone camera. They also provide a modicum of control over the image, which is generally not available at all in the cell phone.
Point-and-shoot cameras range from $100 to about $500. In this range you generally get what you pay for. The cameras get bigger and heavier as the price increases and the image quality also gets better. The more expensive cameras contain better components and they allow more control of the image. This control only makes for better images if the operator is willing to take the time to learn the controls. I have seen many people pay a lot of money for a pricy point-and-shoot or even DSLR camera and then set it on full automatic and shoot it like a cell phone camera. You will still get better images than a cell phone camera, but you are giving up a lot of the advantages that you paid for.
There are some cameras in this range that are “ruggedized” – shockproof and/or waterproof. They are said to be capable of being dropped from several meters and can be taken underwater without a housing. Such a camera is perfect for outdoor activities, especially if you are near or on the water.
Hybrid or “mirrorless” camera
This is a relatively new camera category and a step up from the point-and-shoot. The hybrid camera has the capability of producing pictures of about the same quality as a digital single lens reflex (DSLR), which we will discuss next, but they are lighter and smaller. You can change out lenses with these cameras like you can with a DSLR. I think they are more difficult to operate, but that is a personal opinion. Many would not agree with me.
This camera would be good for someone who wants the functionality of a DSLR and the flexibility of multiple lenses, but at a lower price point.
This is the workhorse professional level digital camera. It is modeled after the 35mm single lens reflex, which is a camera style that has evolved over more than 40 years. DSLRs are expensive, big and heavy but they are capable of excellent photographs.
Prices range from about $600 for a “kit” which includes a low-end camera and a simple lens to close to $10,000 for just a camera body. With a DSLR, the camera and lens are separate. You pick out a camera body, and then you pick out a lens to go with it. A starter kit has a basic camera body and a basic lens.
If you decide to go the DSLR route, your first big decision is whether you want a Nikon or a Canon. Once you make your decision, you can’t change because camera bodies and lenses are interchangeable within each manufacturer’s line, but not between manufacturers. If you ask for opinions you can look forward to a heated discussion as to which brand is better. It’s kind of like picking the Sox or the Cubs. Once you pick, you can’t change. But you won’t go wrong with either brand.
I happen to be a Canon guy, and I have multiple camera bodies and multiple lenses. I can put any lens on any camera body because everything is Canon. I even have an old Canon SLR film camera that can work with any of my modern Canon lenses.
This type of camera is meant for professional photographers or those people who want to take pictures like a professional. The user has full control over the settings and image.
Hopefully this provides some clarity for your next camera purchase!
Rich Cullen is the owner of The Photon Foundry, a photography company that handles personal and commercial work including families, executive and individual portraits to building, site and product photography. You can find Rich at firstname.lastname@example.org and www.thephotonfoundry.com