Saturday, June 2, 2012

Choosing a Camera

People know me as a photographer/camera/computer geek kind of guy.  I've had a lot of people tell me that they would like to buy a camera, but the choices and the options available are a little overwhelming.  I thought I would create a blog article to give you my thoughts on cameras and that maybe it will help someone getting into photography.
A famous photographer (obviously not me) was once asked "What's the best camera?"  His response sounded something that Yoda would say... "The camera you have with you."  We all have cameras built into our cell phones.  One celebrity photographer even shot a whole wedding with his iPhone just to prove that it's not the camera that makes a great photograph.

Let's look at this in layers.

Point and Shoot, Or DSLR?
If you're not familiar with the terms, a "point and shoot" is the most simple type of camera.  The P&S camera that I had for many years was a Kodak Easyshare.  Most P&S cameras are easy to use, and rugged as hell.  You can walk around with it in your shirt pocket. Grab it, point and shoot. If you only want to use the camera for vacation pictures, or snapshots of your dog, these cameras are perfect.  They are always focused and the pictures are sharp.

I hit the limitations of the Kodak Easyshare pretty quick.  It wouldn't focus right on anything close-up. It wouldn't take good pictures in low light, or if my subject was in shadows.  Being an artistic type, I knew the type of picture that I wanted, but I couldn't get the little Kodak to do it.

A DSLR stands for Digital Single-Lens Reflex camera.  Here's the Wikipedia on DSLR cameras.  They usually have removable lenses, and a hot-shoe to attach a flash unit. The best thing about using a DSLR is that once you learn the controls, you take creative control over the pictures you take.  You can control the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.  You can make certain parts of your picture sharp and focused while the rest of the picture is hazy and un-focused. Don't let the complexity of the DSLR intimidate you from jumping on the bandwagon. You can always set it on "Auto" while you learn how to use your camera.

Which Brand?
There are so many brands of good quality DSLR cameras.  You'll see Olympus, Sigma, Sony, and many others.  But for some really good reasons, I'll tell you that there are really only two:  Nikon and Canon.  Those two brands are the major players in the camera world.  They control the majority of accessories and products that are available for your camera.  Another important factor is resale value.  Look on Craigslist or Ebay and you'll see that Nikon and Canon models retain a good chunk of their original purchase value.

It's an argument that is not worth getting into on Nikon vs. Canon.  It's just preference.  It's like Chevy vs. Ford.  The thing to remember is... once you take a side, and especially after you start investing in lenses, you are stuck with that brand.  Canon lenses don't talk to Nikon and vice versa.  My equipment is Nikon because that's what I trained with at my job.  I'm comfortable with Nikon.

Which Model?
Both Canon and Nikon have a staggering number of various models available for the novice up to the professional with deep pockets.  If you are new to the DSLR world, I recommend getting an "entry level" camera.  These models have enough features that you could use them professionally.

Nikon D3200 This is Nikon's newest entry level camera.  It has an impressive 24 megapixel sensor, and can shoot high speed continuously at 4 frames per second.  It also features HD video, and 11 focus points. It comes bundled with a standard 18-55 mm kit lens. Here is Nikon's product brochure in PDF format

Canon Rebel T3i is a similar entry level product.  It features 18 megapixels, and 3.7 frames per second in high speed continuous shooting.  It also comes bundled with an 18-55mm kit lens.

Both of these cameras have similar street price of around  $800 that includes the kit lens.

Although the two cameras have different specs when it comes to megapixel resolution, keep in mind that the megapixel count is 90% marketing tool.  Most users (even professionals) will never have an actual need for resolution greater than 10 megapixels.  You can take a 10 megapixel photograph, and it will blow up to print a poster size print.  The camera companies want to make a bigger deal out of pixel count than it is.  One of the best websites for beginning photographers is by a photographer named Ken Rockwell.  He explains the megapixel scam very well on his website.  I visit his site often because he has great reviews of new products, and he tells it like it is.

The kit lens that comes with most cameras is the trusted 18-55 mm.  This is a great walking around lens that  will capture just about anything you want to take pictures of.  You can go crazy with the number of lenses that are on the market.  Most experts will give you the following advice on lens selection:

  • 24mm Ultra Wide Angle - perfect for landscapes.  Very wide view.  Make spectacular sunset pictures. 
  • 50mm or 85mm Portrait lens.  This is the preferred focal length of portrait photographers.  Both Canon and Nikon offer a 50mm lens for around $100.  If I had only one lens to walk around with, it would be the "Nifty Fifty"
  • 105mm Macro lens.  This lens was designed for extreme close-ups.  I have an album in my gallery that is just macro close-ups of flowers.  I have a lot of fun with close-up or macro photography, but it's not everyone's cup of tea.  If you want to capture the little hairs on a bee's legs, this is the lens you'll want.
  • 400mm Telephoto lens.  This is the sports professionals choice.  When you see the pros on the field at football games with the monster lens, it's one of these.  They are pricey too... starting at around $1,500 to $3,000.
I've heard a lot of beginner photographers ask a lot of questions about how many lenses to get.  My advice is to just learn with the kit lens.  You'll be very happy with it for over a year before you feel the need to start branching out with other types of lenses.  You can also rent lenses.  This is a great way to try an expensive lens to see if it is something that you can really use.

Used Equipment On Ebay
To be honest, my first camera, and two of my lenses were bought used on Ebay.  I got lucky because they were in great shape.  I researched the seller, and in both cases (lens and the camera body) I purchased from a professional photographer who had upgraded his equipment.  Always beware of the shady characters on Ebay.  These days, if I had it to do over again, I'd buy new equipment with a warranty.  The two best places to shop for cameras and lenses are Adorama and B and H.  They are both in New York City, and their customer service is the greatest.

I'm always happy to talk shop about cameras and equipment.  If you have any questions, you can reach me through email on my contact form at R Spears Photography or you can text me at (210) 259-1385.  Comments are welcome, and camera reviews are awesome.



  1. Hey Rich,

    I mainly have a question instead of a comment. If around 10mp will hold most photography needs, what is the benefit of jumping up to a camera like the Nikon 3200?

    I ask this as I am currently in the market for my first DSLR, which I plan to use mainly for Landscape, with the additional themes of night, outdoors, and portrait.

    Thank you in advance for your thoughts!

  2. This is a really good question, and you've given me ideas for my next blog on this subject.

    In my opinion, the high pixel count of the 3200 is more marketing by Nikon than useful feature to people like you and I. However, there are a few advantages to having HUGE images that this will produce. Bottom line, you could crop to a small part of a image, and be able to print it without pixelation (not sure how to spell that). In other words, let's say that you used a wide angle lens to take a picture of a large group of people. With a 24megapixel size, you could crop that image to say just one face, and then re-size that one face to print an 8x10 and it would still be sharp without being pixellated. (where you can see the individual pixels on an image)...

    But what makes me want a camera like this are the other features... high speed sensor (4 fps in continuous mode shooting) high ISO capability (with ISO 12000, you could still get a good image in VERY low light), scene recognition, and a huge area of auto-focus points.

    I have a few friends who have bought these high megapixel cameras and one of the drawbacks that they are complaining about is image size. If you shoot in RAW format, just one image is so big that you can't email it (over 30MB from what I've heard) You also have to get a memory card that's really high capacity, and even those fill up pretty quick with these cameras.

    Here's Ken Rockwell's well written article about the megapixel myth:

    I hope that helps. Good luck in your research, and let me know when you do buy that camera... I'll be interested to know which one you decide on.



Thank you for your comments!

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.