What matters in buying a camera

Tips from a pro to avoid the hype

Buying a New Camera? Let’s Make It Easy

Colin showing off the big Canon SLR style camera vs the small ‘mirrorless’ Fuji cameras we love.

Gimmicks vs Good Advice:

There are a LOT of sales gimmicks, fallacies and just bad advice out there on camera buying, and today you’re often doing it on your own, not at a great camera store with real help and comparisons.
On that topic, there still is great value to buying from a camera store if you are unsure of what you need. You might pay 10-20% more, but you’ll avoid a $1000 mistake (that camera that you just leave in the closet!) and you’ll support a local business.
As an aside, If you are in the Raleigh or Durham area, I love Southeastern Camera for friendly service, used equipment and variety of brands.

 

Note: These tips assume you have a bit of interest in a camera that will allow you to set things to improve your photos, and an interest in buying a good quality camera.

 

On Camera Sizes:

You’ll see 4 basic camera sizes/systems today:

  • phone camera
  • compact/snapshot camera
  • mirrorless “4/3rds” cameras (a brand new category)
  • SLR cameras (the bigger ones where you can change lenses)

See the ‘Putting It All Together’ section for details on each camera type.

 

General Tips:

Colin Huth holding a large SLR camera and a small Fuji mirrorless camera

big vs small… it’s up to you which camera has the features and quality you need— we love them both!

 Quality:

To answer the biggest question you probably have — Most snap camera quality and brands are fine today. 
So don’t worry too much about the brand name… if it’s one you’ve heard of, it should be a decent camera  (Canon & Nikon are the biggest names, then Fuji, Sony, etc are all fine).
Why Upgrade From My Phone Camera?
Is it OK to just use your phone camera? Sure, but upgrading gives you the ability to zoom in with a real lens, and take more control of camera settings— just that makes it a  slam-dunk upgrade from your phone camera. But do consider how big of a camera you are willing to cary around.
Here are some of the gimmicks that are promoted in selling cameras, over real quality features:
  • digital zoom (what you want: a real zoom with the lens is called an ‘optical zoom’)
  • X amount higher resolution is SO much better (ignore talk of megapixels)
  • Instagram-like effect settings! (Instead, you can do that better in Instagram or a computer app)
  • direct printing from camera to one brand of printer
  • bundled kits full of stuff you’ll rarely use (what you really need: 2 good batteries, UV glass filter to protect the lens, 2 or more camera cards)
 
 Things you’ll see advertised that are actually useful:
  • built-in Wi-Fi
  • face recognition & eye focusing
  • touchscreen focus (and anything that makes focusing easy)
  • better low-light focus
 
 
Your real decision is if you want to carry a big SLR camera body or a smaller camera, & what the tradeoffs are in image quality.

What Makes A Camera Usable & Good Quality?

top dials on a Fuji camera for setting exposure and shutter speed
manual dials on cameras like this Fuji mirrorless make changing settings SO much easier

  • Think about how big a camera you want to carry around
  • How good it is in low light (research ‘high ISO noise’ and lens brightness ‘F Stops’ for your camera choices)
  • Sensor Size = Key Quality Differentiator (more info below)
  • In general, price usually does equate to quality
  • How easy are the controls to find and set
  • Does the physical camera build quality feel like it’ll take a few drops (if you are that sort of person)
  • For action photos of kids/sports— fast focusing is another quality that really matters
  • If you want to pursue a photo hobby, can the camera be set to Manual mode?
 
For bonus points: Learn a bit about lens brightness by reading tech reviews on DPReview.com or in my video below.
 

The Pro Look:

photo of girl holding a fossil toward the camera

an SLR or mirrorless camera will give you that soft ‘pro look’ background

The amount a camera photo looks good in low light, and has that ‘pro’ look of a soft background and sharp subjects relates to the sensor size. The sensor is what actually records the photo inside your camera.

As you go up in camera size, the sensor gets bigger as well. Your phone’s camera sensor is tiny, a snapshot camera’s is around postage-stamp size, but then an SLR sensor is 1.5″ in size. Each increase in size brings better quality images (and of course costs).

The Megapixel Myth:

IGNORE megapixel count. It’s fudged a ton of ways.
A lower MP camera with a really big sensor will take better photos everytime… so a 20 MP snap camera won’t give you pictures you like as much (particularly in low light, etc) as a 12 MP mirrorless or SLR.
Larger sensor cameras, like in a mirrorless or SLR = better image quality, more of a ‘pro look’ to photos, better images in low light.

Don’t let the tech terms throw you— just remember that the bigger the camera sensor, the better the photo can be, in several key ways.

Get Great Light

image of a photo flash with the top able to point toward the ceiling

How much will you do photos indoors without flash, and how good is the camera in low light?
Please consider getting a small add-on flash with your camera that can bounce light into the ceiling. That will improve your photos more than any other piece of equipment you can buy.
 
Good high-ISO performance, which helps you take great photos in dim light, is critical. This is totally forgotten as most people shop.
The better a camera is in low light, and the brighter the lens is (read DigitalPhotoReview for info and samples on this) the more useful it’ll be .
 
 

 

PR Professional Looking for a Work Camera?

photo of girl looking at a Durham Academy graduation gown

Check out my article on specific camera recommendations for my clients HERE.

I love to help my clients to be able to take the best photos themselves, and give them tips on cameras and technique. This article lays out your camera purchase options.

 

Want Tips on a Family Video Camera?

image of a consumer video camera

Check out my article on the different ways to get video HERE.

Putting It All Together: Summary

Sensor size = Better Quality

  • Phone cameras have the smallest, so worst in low light, least ‘pro’ look to shots (ALL the background is in focus… like the sign sticking out of the subject’s head)
  • Snapshot cameras: Little bigger sensor, little better quality… very easy to carry (the Fuji X30 technically is in this range BUT has such high quality lens it’s the top of the class)
  • Mirrorless cameras (also called 4/3rds): a really nice compromise on size, quality in low light, pro looking images and since they are a premium camera, they tend to have better lenses, etc
  • SLR (like a Canon Rebel, etc) : biggest sensor, but you pay for it in camera size
  • Pro SLRs: Really just for people who are into photography… not just taking nice photos. They have the biggest and best sensors.

More light:

Get a camera that you can add a bigger flash for more light.
It is the #1 biggest tip I give to improve photos. Don’t just have a snapshot camera flash… get an add on flash that can bounce light into the ceiling (it can point up).

Easy to Use:

This is what’s lost in most camera design today… the simplicity is gone.

Look for a camera with easy to find key settings that really will improve your photos. The + – buttons for changing exposure, the white balance settings and the mode settings.

A camera should be easy to set, and, you know… just feel good to hold.

SLR vs Mirrorless Cameras:

We are very excited about the new ‘Mirrorless’ cameras. This is the biggest change since cameras went digital.

They are high-quality, easier to find settings on, more compact than SLRs, and usually even a better price than many SLRs. Read my article about them HERE.

Also, check out this article. It has more in-depth comparisons on the differences between SLR & Mirrorless cameras:

graphic showing how different camera viewfinders preview an image
 
Feel free to get in touch or tweet at me to let me know what’s not clear in this guide, so I can improve it, help you & maybe save you some money! — Ken

Free Learning with Ken:

My free 1 hour teaching video courtesy of RIT & HuthPhoto:

Get the handouts:

I created special, simple photo formula handouts for my class. They also included links to some of the ideas we discussed above.

Get the handouts from my 'No Fear Photography' talk:

More Examples:

 

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