One of the questions I get asked quite often on Instagram is what camera and lenses I would recommend to someone either just beginning in photography, or wanting to upgrade their current kit. So that this post doesn’t end up too long, I’ll begin here with cameras, and come back to lenses another time, however, I do think that is is much more worthwhile to invest your money in good quality lenses, then to spend it all on a camera with a basic kit lens. Those soft blurry backgrounds you see and love? Those are created by the lens, not the camera. A good amount of sharpness also comes down to lens quality too, as well as the kinds of conditions you can take photos under – so don’t underestimate how important a good lens is!
I rarely recommend a specific camera body to my followers. Unfortunately that means if you’ve arrived here expecting a handy list of specific cameras to look into, you might walk away disappointed. But I believe that’s because all of us have different priorities, budgets and expectations, so no list is going to be able to address your situation specifically.
Sure, you could ask in a Facebook group, or spend hours trawling the web and finding numerous camera bodies that might suit you, but unless you know what is important for you in a camera, how will you know which one to buy?
So consider this less a list of “which camera is the best one” and more a “guide to help you find the best camera for you.”
(I hope you won’t walk away disappointed).
Things to Consider
There are a few factors I always recommend people consider when they ask me which camera would be best. Funnily, most of these people never reply to my advice, so maybe they aren’t finding it that helpful. If you’re just here to find out which camera I use, it’s a Sony a7iii. I highly recommend Sony, I think they make great cameras with amazing capabilities, and they’re small and light and portable.
If, however, you want to know what features you should look for in a camera, they are:
Weight & Size
I have very small hands, and therefore I love my very small camera. By the time you put a 70-200mm lens on a camera, you’re handling a LOT of weight. For this recommendation, you might need to get to a physical camera shop and handle some cameras to see which ones feel good in your hands. For me, DSLRs are too chunky and big. If I’m out walking around for hours on a photoshoot, or kneeling down for hours taking agility photos, the size and weight counts.
In general, most mirrorless cameras are smaller and lighter, but may have a smaller selection of lenses. I really think they will be the future of cameras, however. DSLR cameras, which still have a small mirror inside the camera body which flips to bounce the image of the world onto the sensor, tend to be bigger as they have to have the space for the mirror. Some people like the weight, feel, and sturdiness of a traditional DSLR.
Low Light Capabilities
Will you be taking a lot of photos in low light conditions? For example, in the woods, on very overcast days or indoors? Or are you in a pretty sunny place, take photos at the beach, or have spots always on the edge of the woods where it’s bright?
Personally, I do a lot of photos in the woods, and into twilight, so having a camera which can handle low light conditions by maintaining image quality even at a high ISO was super important to me. My Sony can pretty comfortably go up to ISO 4000 if I don’t have to brighten the photo too much in editing.
Somewhat closely tied to the last point, is what’s known as the “dynamic range” of the camera. This is how much data can be seen & stored by the camera at the very brightest end of the light spectrum, down to the darkest darks. What this means for us, is whether we can take a photo quite underexposed, and how much detail can be brought out of the bright or dark parts of the image. For example
The above images are a pretty extreme version of under-exposing (want to know why I under-expose? Click here!) But you can see, because of the great dynamic range of my camera, that even though the photo on the left looks ridiculously dark, there is a HEAP of detail still in those dark areas, which I brought back through editing. A camera with less dynamic range may not have kept as much detail, and/or there may have been a lot more noise or grain when I tried to lighten up those dark areas.
I’ve heard that Sony & Nikon have good data retention in the dark side of the range, where Canon may be better with highlights. However, this might not be important to you if you don’t need to under-expose your images.
Focus Speed, Frames Per Second, Maximum Shutter Speed
As you’re shopping around for cameras you’ll see a lot of numbers thrown around to do with shutter speed, FPS, and so on.
The question you need to ask yourself here is: how much serious action photography am I planning to do?
If you are someone who wants to regularly take photos of local agility competitions, your answer and your requirements are going to be very different to someone who wants to take photos of their thirteen year old basset hound toddling around the yard. No offence, basset hounds.
Obviously, if you’re wanting to do serious action photography, you’re going to want a very fast focusing camera, with a high rate of frames per second. Maximum shutter speed really doesn’t affect us that much. Most dog-action we can freeze very well at 1/2000 of a second. Some cameras go up to 1/8000 of a second, but I’m yet to meet a dog running that fast. That kind of speed would be useful when shooting agility photos on a very bright sunny day, to limit the amount of light getting into the camera (but that is talk for another post!).
Put it this way though. I read that the Autofocus system on my camera is very good. However, I’ve found it isn’t good enough to easily shoot agility. So take any portrait/human photographer’s advice on the matter of speed with a grain of salt. It takes 11FPS, but the autofocus is usually just a tiny bit slow, especially if the conditions aren’t perfect.
From here, everything comes down more or less to personal preference. I don’t believe there’s really a such a thing as a “beginner’s camera”. All cameras have different modes and different settings, all can be changed in one way or another, or you can adjust to using the camera without those features. The things I listed above can’t be changed. They come down to the specs of the camera, the technology in the camera and how it processes the image.
There are a few other things you could consider when choosing your camera, but I don’t think these should be deciding factors.
- Animal-Eye Autofocus. Everyone is going crazy over this feature now that it’s out there. My camera has it. It identifies where the dog’s eye is and theoretically focuses on it. I still use a single point AF and still move it over the dog’s eye. I figure it can’t hurt to have two focus systems both looking for the eye. And even then it isn’t correct 100% of the time. I would worry that relying too heavily on Animal-Eye AF could lead to some missed shots if the camera is making all the decisions.
- Different types of focus detection (you’ll see Phase AF, Contrast AF, and I don’t even know what else these days.) I’m sure each different method has different pros and cons.
- Weather sealing. Are you likely to take photos on rainy days? You may wish to get a camera which is weather-sealed.
- Articulating/flip screen. This is actually a big one for me, and Sony’s screen isn’t even that great. I LOVE that I can flip the screen out, kneel on the ground and still see how the shot is composed. With cameras that don’t have a flip out screen, you may need to be lying on your belly very often.
- WiFi & NFC capability. I rarely send images from my camera to my phone or computer via anything but the SD card. However, I do like that I can control the camera via a remote on my iPhone, meaning I can take self-portraits and see the composition before I take the photo with the phone’s remote shutter release.
- Touch screen? Some people love touch screens. Probably a good feature for beginners, as you an set the focus point by tapping the screen. I don’t use mine.
- Crop or Full Frame? You’ll see a lot of talk about this around the place, but honestly I’m not sure if there should be so much talk. I went for 3 years with a crop-sensor Sony a6000 and it was perfectly fine. The focal lengths of lenses will be different, but I really didn’t know any other way until I moved to a full frame camera. If you’re new or just beginning, a crop sensor is perfectly acceptable. Seriously.
- Colour profiles. There’s some debate around different colour profiles amongst brands. A lot of Canon people hate Sony’s colour. I figure I can fix any colour with white balance adjustment so I’m not sure what the big deal is, but some people swear black and blue that Sony’s colour is awful. Make up your own mind here I guess.
I hope this has given you some things to think about, and perhaps has helped to narrow down a list that you may have already made. Alternatively, it may help to clarify what exactly your requirements are, so that you can go confidently into a local camera store and talk to the people there about what you need.
As I said, lenses are also really important to achieving the kinds of photos you want to take, and I really recommend to not just settle for a kit lens (the lens that often comes bundled with a camera) or with the 50mm lens that the people at the shop recommend (because they WILL recommend it). I know very few photographers who shoot with a 50mm lens, and nobody who takes exceptional photos with a kit lens. I promise to do another post on lenses in the future. In the meantime, find photos you think are beautiful. Check the caption to see if the information is there, or ask the photographer what lens they used. Make note of the lens length and aperture, and see if you notice any common ones coming up again and again.