Q&A: What Camera Should I Buy?

Welcome to the first of our Reader Q&As. To kick this feature off we going to answer a question from Tharina on which camera she should buy. Here is some of the information she gave us to help answer her question.

I am in search of good advice regarding an excellent digital camera brand and model, with exchangeable lenses preferably. I currently have a Pentax Optio 30 – 3.2 megapixel, 3 × optical zoom camera and enjoy shooting nature, outdoor, landscape, close-up macro photo’s, wildlife and travelling destinations… I really want to buy a camera that can last me quite a long time.

Answer

Let me first begin by saying that the camera is a tool and with each of them being so different you will find that some are better suited to one job than another. Just like a hammer will hit a nail better than a screw driver would. This means that it is impossible to find the perfect camera to do all types or genres of photography.

Interchangeable lens cameras do offer an element of versatility that is unique to them in that by changing a lens you can change a large part of the cameras function. With that said there will still be some functions the camera will need to have if for example the largest part of your work is going to be sports where having a high frame rate is important.

This is starting to sound like a long winded answer right?

In brief

There are very few bad cameras today so I would not stress terribly over that. What I would do is follow this rough guide for buying a camera body bearing in mind the following… clause. The quality of the image is as much or more so about the quality of your lens than the camera, if there is one area to focus on make it the lens. Remember cameras will become dated and you will sooner or later upgrade, the lenses will nine times out of ten never need to be changed.

  1. Determine your budget – this is the first thing to narrow down the field of cameras out there. Cross off anything that is outside of your price range.
  2. Brands – Within your budget you may find a few brands with great offerings. When you buy a camera you buy into that system and brand so look at the amount of lenses and accessories they offer. All tend to offer similar service however some may offer a professional service plan for those who make their living from their  camera, is that you? Also look at the price of similar lenses, flashes etc across the brands remembering that third party brands like Sigma, Tamron, Metz etc will have lenses and flashes that cost the same regardless of the brand you buy.
  3. Size & Handling – This is almost more important to me than anything else. If you cant see yourself carrying the top end, weightlifting camera then you are not likely going to use it so why buy it. If the camera is too small, or just uncomfortable then again, don’t buy it. This is where buying from a good, specialist store comes in. Yes you may pay a little more but most times they wont mind you playing with the camera for 10mins, showing you the basics of it and sharing the feedback they get from other clients.
  4. Don’t buy everything in one go – it is ok not to spend your entire budget in one go. While the package with two lenses, flash, bag etc may be great value, it is only great value if its what you need. You may find the second lens as a telephoto is not suitable for you as you may like landscapes with a wider angle more. Perhaps you want a backpack not over the shoulder or you would rather have a fast, prime or fixed lens for low light shooting and not need a flash. Its okay to start with just the camera and one lens to see what you really want and need next.

So to give you a brief example. Lets say the budget is around R10,000.00 for camera and standard lens, what cameras as of the 10th November 2010 will be roughly in that price bracket which we rate as great buys?

Canon

The EOS 550D offering a 18MP CMOS Sensor and HD Video, the camera has the ability to take an optional battery pack or vertical grip which for people with bigger hands improve handling on its smallish body. It offers 3.7fps (frames per second) which is fine for most casual shooters though perhaps a little limiting for those wanting to pursue sports. This will mostly be supplied with the ok 18-55mm lens though where possible we would suggest going for the body alone and a lens more like the Canon 18-135mm IS (Image Stabilizer)

Canon’s EOS 60D is just out of reach, body only it retails for just over our budget which means with a lens like the 18-135mm it would be pushing things too far.

Nikon

I am going to list here first, the Nikon D3100. Now I know in so doing some are going to criticize me heavily because it seems rather entry level, but to be honest, next to the D5000 I would rather have the D3100. The camera is brand new on the market, it have a 14.2MP CMOS sensor that is a better performer than the D5000, not because of higher resolution, but because it is a newer sensor and handles low light conditions better. It also shoots full HD video and has a rather good AF system in video. The 3fps is that tiny bit slower than the Canon. My only real gripe with this camera is the lack of an optional battery pack or vertical grip which for people with bigger hands may mean the camera is uncomfortable to use over extended periods. The key here is that the price is nearly half what we are looking to spend so one can go for an almost equally priced and usually therefore a better or more versatile lens than the standard 18-55mm would be.

The Nikon D90 is another camera in this price point well worth looking at. While many are looking over at the much newer D7000 if you just cannot stretch your budget to a D7000 then the D90 is still a very capable machine. It has a 12MP CMOS sensor, shoots at 4.5fps, has an option battery grip and the built in flash allows you to use Nikon’s fantastic Wireless Creative Lighting System technology which models below this cannot do. Most likely bundled with the better than most 18-105mm VR (Vibration Reduction, Nikon image stabilizer system) lens, you will have a great combo that will not likely be out grown for some time to come.

Olympus

The E620 is the camera that would fit our budget year in terms of traditional DSLR type cameras and is a capable machine. Olympus lenses are some of the best around but they do come at a price. Olympus also offer another type of camera for your consideration, particularly if you are wanting the travel light.

The PEN range of cameras are what we call mirrorless cameras. They have no reflex mirror which makes the camera body smaller, plus you have the flexibility of changeable lenses like conventional DSLR cameras. While lens range for these types of cameras is smaller unless using adapters to fit their DSLR lenses onto the PEN cameras, this really only limits the real long lens photographers looking to shoots sports, wildlife etc. In many instances these mirrorless cameras are fantastic. The two we recommend in the Olympus line are the E-PL1 and the E-P1, though of the two, the E-PL1 is a little more appealing personally with the built in flash.

Sony

In the Sony range you will find a lot of cameras… in some way they we almost think there are too many cameras that are too close together making it more challenging to decide at times. Here are the ones we would suggest.

The Alpha A550. With 14MP CMOS, Quick AF Live View that is only second to another Sony and a display that tilts up and down. There is an optional battery grip, 5fps with a special 7fps Speed Priority mode, wireless flash similar to what we mentioned in Nikon’s D90. Point to remember on Sony is that your image stabilization or as they call it, Steady Shot, is on the body and not in the lens meaning any lens used on Alpha A-series cameras are stabilized.

The brand new Sony Alpha A55 is also a camera worth considering. The body is a lot smaller than the A550 which can be a pain to use for long periods with big hands and there is not battery grip option. The thing with this cameras is it breaks new ground in DSLR type cameras as the mirror is fixed and ‘Translucent’ meaning light passed through it to the sensor. This meant it is the only camera in this price range that will give you 10fps, the fastest Auto Focus system in both Live View and Video but at a cost of the optical viewfinder, instead it has a Electronic Viewfinder. You can read more about this camera in our review.

Lastly, Sony offer their range of mirrorless cameras like the Olympus PEN called the NEX. We would only suggestion the NEX-5 in the range which is incredibly small and uses a similar 14MP CMOS sensor as found in the A550. A camera which I will be honest, is on my wish list.

Conclusion

So there you have it. That would be our list in that price bracket. With that list in hand, go to a good camera store and play with them. All these brands are great but as I said above, go price around additional lenses accessories etc and decide. Above all, make sure the camera feels good in your hand.

1 thought on “Q&A: What Camera Should I Buy?”

  1. When I switched to digital SLRs I bought a cheap(ish) body to begin with (even the cheaper models these days can be pretty fantastic,) and used the lions share of my budget on the glass I wanted. These lenses are still functioning great, several years later, while I have gone through a slow but steady progression of upgrading my bodies. The technology in lenses does not change as quickly as the tech in bodies, so in my mind, get the glass you want, then find a body to match.

    Also, by starting at one of the more “entry” level bodies, it had fewer dials, buttons, and switches, so I was able to ease into how the brand functioned. As I upgraded the bodies, I was ready to have more switches and dials to play with. Start simple, shoot big.

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