What should I buy?

A common question that I therefore hear often:

“I am going to buy a [new] camera. What should I buy?”

Followed often by:

“Oh. Isn’t there anything cheaper?”

Starting with the last question: there’s no free lunches. As for the first – that’s like asking “what car should I buy”. I have noi idea what car you should buy – it depends in needs, budget, availability, and so on.

I have two small cameras: a Canon G9 and a Fuji X100. And three SLR cameras:  A Canon 7D, a 1Ds Mark3, and a 1D Mark4. They each have pros and cons. All I can give you is some pointers.

You buy a compact camera if:

  • You have a restricted budget.
  • Size and weight are more important to you than flexibility and quality.
  • You will replace it every few years.
  • You do not need special lenses (wide angle, telephoto, macro, etc).
  • You shoot mainly static subjects.
  • You want to be inconspicuous.

You buy an SLR if:

  • Quality is paramount.
  • You are willing to learn.
  • You want to be able to shoot quickly once you aim at a subject.
  • You will shoot a lot of “difficult” subjects (sports; night scenes).
  • You are willing to invest for the future.
  • You wil by extra lenses.
  • You need to be able to use a big flash.

A few recommendations, then:

  • Think carefully about what your requirements are. What will you use the camera for? What do you need it to do? What do you expect from it?
  • If you buy a compact camera, look for one with a large sensor. These are available nowadays – small sensor cameras produce graining pictures, especially in the dark, and have trouble producing those blurry backgrounds we all love.
  • If you buy an SLR camera, I would recommend a Canon Digital Rebel – but that said, there are no “bad” cameras. Nikon and Canon are the pro brands, but Olympus, Pentax, Sony, and in the compact cameras, brands like Samsung, are just as good. Sony wants to be one of the big boys. Samsung is innovative. And so on.
  • So go hold the camera. Try the controls. Try how it feels. Fall in love – else you will not get most use out of the camera.
  • Make sure the controls are easy and convenient. I find, for example, that touch screens are gimmicky and inconvenient – you keep hitting the wrong thing all too often, and you have to take your hands off the camera to set anything.
  • If you buy an SLR, consider not getting the “kit lens” – these are not very good – but invest in a better lens or two.
  • Include a “portrait lens” – 50mm f/1.8 or f/1.4.
  • Read dpreview.com for a review of your chosen camera.
  • Have realistic expectations. A compact camera will not do for sports shooting, for example.

Does all that help? Yes, some thinking is required, and compromising – just like when you buy a car.


7 thoughts on “What should I buy?

  1. Hi Michael…sort of on the subject of “what should I buy”…

    I’ve been popping in to your blog for a while and have recently started reading it from the beginning…and getting lots of good insights. I recently received an email from Vistek (I guess I’m on their email list) about there upcoming seminars, where you’re featured prominently. A friend of mine attended one of your DSLR seminars a while back (when you were still in Henry’s good books…interesting story, by the way) and raved about you.

    Anyway, I’m somewhat new to photography (just over a year since I bought my T1i) and have so far tried to avoid using the flash (either the pop-up or the small speedlight 270 I got when I bougth the camera), but from what I’m reading from among other places, your blog, my attitude towards flash is probably due to the fact that I don’t know how to use it right.

    To that end I’m likely going to take your upcoming seminar at Vistek about Flash Photography…but I wanted to make sure that there’s value in it for me as I’m not planning to upgrade my SLR body anytime soon (I do have full-frame aspirations, but those are not financially feasible at the moment). I may consider another Speedlite or two…like a 430 (something not too pricey). I’d like to take better portraits and learn how to better use flash outdoors. I’m also a member of the Oakville Camera Club (and was dissapointed that a recent talk there by you was cancelled) and was treated to a fascinating demo of water drop portraits and one thing I’ll need to know better to that out is Flash.

    I’m also considering your upcoming seminar on “Using Lenses Creatively”…both for picking from the lenses I already have and maybe helping me with my lens “wish list”.

  2. Hi Michael, been asking this question to everyone for a while now 🙂 Which one to buy…I am a beginner… I want a compact one for street photos but I also want an SLR. Cannot afford both so I would prefer SLR and a Nikon probably. Budget around $900. Two choices D90 and D5100-read and re-read on both. Wish D5100 came with VR but….wish 18-105 kits lens had no vignetting problems (not sure if this is important). I dont plan on changing my cam in the next few years, maybe 10 🙂 🙂 years!! So now please tell me which one I should buy??

    • If those are the choices, I’d definitely go with the D90 if you can swing it. and a 50mm ( or 24mm or 35mm) fast prime lens, plus a general purpose zoom. And vignetting is easily solved in Lightroom. More later, but does that help?

      • Oh yes it does, you just made up my mind for me 🙂 D90 it is with 18-105 mm lens. The prime and general purpose would have to wait though…until I can save for that. Thanks a ton Michael 🙂

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