Camera buying advice

    Holding a camera in a shop
    Many people will find that there's a lot of value in visiting a local camera shop. You can get a feel for how heavy a camera is, how the buttons are placed (is it comfortable?), the local availability, what the store people have to say about the benefits and drawbacks that each model has, as well as get a feel for how it works overall. However, there are a lot of sources of information that don't have the subtle (or obvious) pressure to buy something.

    Where to start:

    If you ask someone about buying photography gear, it's a fair bet that most would start with the camera, and they might start talking about features like megapixels and zoom range. Before we get into that, you need to ask four simple questions:

    Question 1: "Who is this really for?” I mean, don’t buy it for yourself while labeling it “a gift!”

    If you're buying for yourself, then the only person you need to consider is you. If you're buying a camera for a child, friend, or other family member, then their priorities and needs might differ wildly from your own (particularly where budget is concerned). If the intended user is a child or an elderly person, then a big camera with a huge lens is unlikely to be useful. Even if they can pick it up (or use it on a pre-connected tripod), is it really worth spending thousands of dollars on an interest that may fade after a few months, weeks, or even days? Similarly, what is a comfortable button arrangement for a huge, sausage-fingered man, may be uncomfortable, or even unusable by people with petite extremities.

    It's important to know that cameras come in all shapes, sizes, capabilities, benefits, and drawbacks. There is no one "best" camera to buy. Only ones which suit the user, their photographic goals, and of course, budget.

    Question 2: "How does photography fit into my (or if it’s someone else, their) life?"

    Whether you're a complete newbie looking at getting a new hobby, or a seasoned professional, the gear you buy (ideally) should be:

    • Transportable and usable: Weight, bulk, complexity, given when/where you'll use it.  A kit that’s heavy is likely to be left in the cupboard.. which means, it’s useless! If it’s alien to you, or hard to use, or uncomfortable, this also means you’re less likely to use the gear. Again, this means the gear is less useful than it should be.

    • Within budget: Obviously, the old saying “You get what you pay for” does hold true in many things. However, there’s no point in buying equipment that goes beyond your needs. The high end gear is great, but you may not actually need the fastest lenses, or the latest camera. A cheap camera used with intent, thought, and skill will make better images, than any superior equipment, used without any skill, thought, or intent put into the craft. So perhaps spending money on a photography course, reading the manual, and/or just looking for tutorials online will be a better investment initially.
      • Don't spend too much! Too many beginners (with lots of money, and not thinking it through) start by buying an expensive camera. Cameras are just tools of the photography trade. Most people know that buying an expensive hammer does not make you a professional grade builder! Similarly, buying an expensive camera CANNOT make you a pro photographer, it just means you have an expensive camera. If you shoot on Auto, don’t buy an expensive camera (at least, not yet). If I were to recommend a starter camera.. Get a cheaper (not miserly cheap) one with Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, and Manual modes, a lens that suits your needs, perhaps a way to connect an external flash (usually a hot-shoe), and the ability to shoot in raw format instead of compressed JPEGs. (Stores all the data the camera got for any particular photo so you have the most ability to edit them later).
      • How long will you really use this stuff? Many pro photographers upgrade their cameras every few years or so. Which is one of many reasons, the camera by itself (If you’re buying a camera that uses multiple lenses) shouldn’t be the focus of your purchase. A cheaper-end-but-decent camera in three years time will probably be better than an expensive one now. Technology changes over time. While new lens systems have recently been released in both Canon and Nikon's lens lineup… it's often years or decades before one is forced to switch. Which is why most DSLR users will say, “Invest in the glass (lenses) and expect the camera to be upgraded”.
      • Beware the additional costs: Staying within budget is not just about buying gear, but the ongoing costs too! Don't forget that using some gear (film) costs money, (Yes film is still used!) and cameras with moving parts do wear out. Cameras can last a long time, but if they are used heavily, or have a rough life or suffer sudden major damage, they do break down. Another rarely-considered cost is insurance. REALLY IMPORTANT for travel, but also studio & "home bodies" too. Theft, fire, flood, data corruption can have a huge impact on professionals and amateurs alike... regardless of location.
      • How you stay within budget is up to you (not a sales assistant). Don't let "sales ending now" pressure you into buying something right away. If they offer the deal to you now, it'll probably come back around in post-Christmas sales, end of financial year, Easter, Black Friday, etc, etc. Sometimes manufacturers have a clearance sales or promotions just because sales may be a little slow. So never feel pressured to buy new. Some people buy second hand equipment (great opportunities, and risks are present though). So do your homework, find out what things cost new so you know what is a fair value, and inspect any gear before payment.

      • The Big Picture- The Entire Workflow, From Start to Storage &/or Selling! - Your gear isn’t just your camera, lenses, and accessories. You should also have the equipment & software for both photographic editing, and long-term storage (computer, printer, Internet access, cloud storage, and/or a NAS/hard disk) to make the most of your work! If you don’t back your photos up, you don’t care about all of your work so far! That involves two storage methods at least, and each should be at a different location! (Should your house burn down, plane crash on your studio, etc).

    Question 3: “What sort of photography will I/they do?”

    If you just want to take the occasional "happy snap" then maybe the camera in your phone (if you have a smart, or even vaguely new phone) is sufficient. Otherwise, a dedicated compact camera will enable you to take a lot more control of your photography.. and the gear of course, goes up in size, weight, complexity, capability and cost from there. This question isn't just about the gear. This question is also about the photographer themselves. How far do you/they want to take your photography? How much time/money are you/they going to spend, honing and perfecting relevant photography skills? What sort of photos do you/they want to take? There are many types of shot, and each requires it's own approach sometimes both in gear and in techniques. A short (not-exhaustive) list includes:


    • Portrait Photography (people and/or animals)
    • Food/Product Photography

    • Landscape Photography
    • Macro (up close bugs/flowers/interesting objects) Photography

    • Underwater Photography

    • Sports/Action Photography

    • Wildlife/Nature Photography

    • Astrophotography (Astronomy with a camera, usually attached to a telescope)

    • Street Photography

    • Event Photography (weddings, concerts, plays, etc).

    • Time lapses, high speed (slow motion) videos,

    • Videography (most new cameras can do video/movies, some really well) 

    • Aerial Photography (Not just from planes & skydivers, but drones, satellites, and other aircraft)
    • Travel Photography
 (this is a "jack of all trades", Landscapes, Food, Portraits, Architecture, Underwater, Aerial Photography, Macro, Street and many more... but the point is to keep gear versatile, portable and light weight).
    • Documentary, Scientific & Research Photography. (This can include elements of other styles, but often has very specific requirements such as exactly consistent technique, quantitative analysis, accurate colour reproduction and/or scale depictions, distances from other objects in crime scenes, counterfeit/forgery detection, or landscape surveying, spectral analysis etc).

    • Different light spectrum ranges, infrared & UV border the two opposite ends of our visible spectrum, shooting in these ranges shows the world in a way we don't see. Some people actually use X-rays and scanning electron microscopes (SEMs) too… but that’s really hard to get into… since I don’t know many people outside of the research/medical field with access to that equipment.

    Of course, there’s going to be a lot of potential for overlap of these categories, so don’t get too worried about the label. But it is useful to start small (and perhaps basic) with your gear to figure out the type(s) of shot (and in what circumstances) you actually end up taking pictures. Once you regularly start hitting the limitations of your existing gear, and that starts to cramp your photographic style, you have a legitimate reason to upgrade. If nothing else, you’ll be far more informed about what gear you’ll need, what you don’t really need, where you’re headed, and where you should put your money! Once you’ve figured which one (or more) style(s) of photography you do, then go ahead and research, shop around, and even borrow/rent the gear before purchasing.

    Some general guidelines include:

    • If you’ve got a sporty family and want to shoot from the side-lines, or like bird watching, then maybe a longer lens/bigger zoom lens, with a camera featuring fast focus and fast rapid-fire (burst) mode will be best. Skill will play a huge factor here, and of course, so will cost! This is actually a challenging style of photography to do, and it gets harder with better and bigger equipment because it gets harder to keep your subject in the frame as your zoom increases (narrower field of view), the subject's speed increases, and the weight of the gear increases.
    • If you’re shooting in low light, then a fast lens (Big aperture, or low F number) with a camera featuring a bigger sensor (with fewer megapixels) will be better. This will suit indoor events and real estate, Drones are being used more and more in this area (stadium overviews, and general property topology) as well.
    • If you walk long distances, scuba dive, and/or really get off the beaten track by climbing cliff faces, then a lighter compact camera, water proof action camera, or suitable mirrorless camera is probably a good bet. You can get waterproof housings for DSLRs, but they are very expensive, bulky, and add weight to an already heavy and potentially bulky kit.
    • If you like portraits, then a fast, (f4 or lower) telephoto lens (50-200mm) will blur distracting backgrounds, having enough auto focus points will help, but many cameras can do this pretty well.
    • Traveling? Better to take one or two lenses with a bigger zoom range, than take many lenses. I take a 24-105mm then a 100-400mm on two bodies which covers 95% of my needs. While this may not produce the best image quality possible, it’s better to get a usable shot, than miss it the key moment while changing lenses! Transport weight limits are also a big issue (see next point). Also, do you really have the time on a holiday to be an insanely focused (pun intended) photographer? Don’t forget that you need to relax, spend time with the family/friends!
    • Are you just doing one trip or event? It may be better to rent or borrow the gear than to buy! However duration plays a factor. If you’re going to do an African safari, then after two or three weeks, it may be cheaper to buy, insure, and then sell an expensive telephoto lens than to rent one! Of course, you then have to cart it around, and have a suitable support (tripod/bean bag, etc) to match that load. Don’t forget to consider flights and their weight limits of every leg of your journey. Too many people focus on the international flights, and then forget that the domestic flights  at the other end may have much lower weight limits.

    Question 4: "When is it time to make a change?"

    Your needs will change, so don’t buy everything at once. Have a plan for your gear, and a roadmap of what you might need to add to/swap into your kit! Buy quality where you can, and consider whether some parts will be upgraded quickly, or perhaps never. In which case, you should buy the appropriate quality.

    • Choose a brand that has most (if not all) the lenses you need. Canon and Nikon have the biggest ranges, whereas Pentax…  might not have every lens you need.. but regardless of camera brand, there are third-party lens manufacturers, (Tokina, Sigma, Tamron, Zeiss, Samyang, etc) which make some pretty nice stuff too! However, note that in general, you cannot simply attach a Nikon lens to a Canon camera. Similarly, you can’t just plug in a Pentax lens into a Sony camera.  Also, DSLR lenses are fundamentally different from mirrorless models, even if they’re the same brand! (Canon has the EF mount for the DSLRs and the new RF mount for the mirrorless). While there are adaptors for some of these cross brand/type combinations, it’s better to assume that each brand has it’s own proprietary systems. In short,  always make sure that you’re ordering compatible hardware. This is especially true for the third-party lenses, since many of their lenses (whilst the same model) can be built for Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Sony, or Olympus mounts. Make sure you get the right one. A common problem with listings on "classifieds" ads, especially when dealing with second hand lenses, is that third-party lenses don't have their mount type mentioned. Make sure you know what you're buying! If in doubt, contact the seller and ask directly before bidding/buying.
    • If you’ve just been using the “Kit lenses” (those that come with your camera) there may be significant advantages to adding longer telephoto lenses, or shorter wider-angled lenses, or replacing the lenses altogether for something better (and I can assure you there are better lenses!). Alternatively, you may want a telescopic lens, or add a specialist close up (macro) lens. Zoom lenses have improved in quality over the years, but still involve fundamental compromises, and those compromises get more noticeable as the zoom range gets bigger, and megapixels go up. A lens where the longest focal length is 3-4 times (or less than) the shortest distance (say a 24-70mm lens) will have better image quality than a lens that has “16x zoom” (such as an 18-300mm lens).
    • Don’t confuse zoom for magnification! Zoom, is only the number of times the wide end (short focal length) fits into the telephoto (long) focal length. Magnification is a tricky concept because it depends on what is considered “normal” viewing angle (roughly the same as one eye). This varies significantly, depending on the physical size of the sensor in the camera you are using. From what I read in reputable sites and photography books, a full frame (35mm x 24mm) sensor camera has a normal field of view at 50mm. An APS-C cropped-sensor (roughly 25.1mm x 16.7mm) DSLR will have the same field of view with a lens somewhere around 30-35mm… depending on the model. Compact cameras with sensors significantly smaller, will have even shorter focal lengths appear “normal”.
      • If you want to shoot a small subject from a long way away, then you want the longest focal length you can get (with usable aperture range).
      • Macro lenses treat magnification differently to regular lenses. They skip the eyesight comparison, in exchange for the relative size of the projected image on the sensor/film. So if you shoot a grain of rice, and the projected image is the same size on the sensor, then the Macro lens has a 1x magnification. Please note some sensors are the same size as a grain of rice, or larger sensors have enough megapixels to record a lot of detail and can crop parts of the image, so when you print an image to a larger size, or display it on a larger screen, the magnifying bit is realistically done at the time of printing. … or displaying on the screen. All the lens did was use as much of the sensor as possible to record the image. Lenses such as Canon's MP-E 65 Macro feature a zoom-like feature which actually controls magnification, and it has a 1-5x magnification range. Beyond this, you can buy adaptors to attach microscope objectives (lenses) that range between 5x and 200x. However this is an extremely difficult field of photography to get into.
    • If image quality is important, zoom lenses offer convenience, but often at some loss of quality or capability. Professional grade zooms are often good enough that you won’t notice the flaws in them, but even so.. it is often better to reduce the zoom range of one mega-zoom lens and split it by using two or more lenses to reduce the impact of those compromises. For instance a 24-105mm lens combined with a 100-400mm (both roughly 4x zoom lenses) instead of one 24-400mm or 16x zoom (400mm/24mm = 16.6x) often produce better image results. Taking this to the extreme, consider forgetting zoom entirely! A fixed focal length (no zoom or “prime”) lens will do what it does best, sharper,  faster, and generally better all-round because it's simpler, and involves no compromise between the wide angle and telephoto ends. While high-end primes can be very expensive at the extremely wide and long focal lengths, there are numerous options between 24mm-100mm that can also be very cheap and work beautifully too! The Canon EF 50mm F1.8 DSLR lens is only about $130 (less second hand). So try a cheap prime, and never forget that you can “zoom” by walking closer or further away.
    • As your gear changes, so will the accessories. Batteries & chargers will shift. The light-weight $70 tripod you had for your compact camera simply cannot hold up a big & heavy DLSR or mirrorless rig, involving camera + lens + flash + battery grip. So an upgrade may have additional expenses. My tripods evolved with me and my gear, but I still have many of them for lighter loads, light stands, and of course, backup units.

    Something you should never buy without actually seeing it first.. The camera bag! (Unless the recipient has made the choice themselves). Actually, don't buy one until you've actually opened one up, perhaps tried sticking some (clean shop-provided) gear in person, put it on your back/over your shoulder/wheeled it across the store:

    A camera bag is an essential part of anyone’s camera gear, but it’s also perhaps the most personal and subjective. Camera bags come in all shapes and sizes… and frankly, everyone has a different idea of what the perfect bag should be like. I have several, and I still struggle to manage my gear. The choice in bag stems from a variety of factors:


    • How much gear do you need to carry?
    • What type of gear do you have to carry? (Big lens + DSLR, vs smaller compact/mirrorless camera kits).
    • Are you hiking, you’ll need a backpack. Are you just traveling on hard floor surfaces like cities and airports? In that case, a wheeled case may be better.
    • How far do you need to carry this?
    • How strong are you? Do you have any physical restrictions or medical conditions that may not handle using a particular bag with all the gear inside?
    • Do you have any bulk or weight limits? (Remember, once you start traveling, one airline may have significantly smaller limits than your previous flight. Especially domestic flights when overseas!).
    • Do you need the bag/case to be weather resistant? (It has a rain coat) vs water proof (you could toss it into a river and everything inside is dry. These are not the same thing. Some bags have no protection against moisture at all.
    • Choice of material. There’s a world of difference between a soft bag, and a hard case. Some materials are light weight nylon and polyester, while others, like leather, and canvas can be very heavy.
    • Professional vs hand made. There are a lot of branded camera bags that scream out “I have expensive cameras inside, please rob me”. (At least in some corners of the world). Sometimes it’s best to go with something a little less “branded” and a lot more nondescript. Some professional camera bag manufacturers provide these options, but they can be very expensive. Think… fashion for camera bags… that don’t look like camera bags. Yes, they can be priced like fashionable clothes too! If you have a serious sewer, or leather worker in the family, you might want to ask for their help (and show appreciation/bribe them accordingly).

    That's enough for buying advice for now, I hope this helps! If you're confused by certain terms or "jargon" then have a look at my "Photography gear jargon demystified"


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