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!


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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