Choosing Your Next Camera – Part 1

Lesson #5 in Photography for Ignorant Geniuses

Photo licensed under CC, by The Suss-Man (Mike)

Choosing a camera has never been harder. There were times when different types of cameras lived in completely different price points and you effectively bought the best camera possible within your budget, possibly after having decided on which brand you prefer. This still works well in two categories nowadays: the very cheap point-and-shoot range built by nearly ever manufacturer and the high end DSLRs. If I’m after a $3,000 body, there isn’t much choice. A handful of manufacturers build them and my selection will probably be based on what I’m upgrading from because I’d want to keep using my lenses.

If you have a budget of $/€ 500 – 700, however, there has never been a better (or worse) time to be looking for a new camera. You can get yourself a high-end compact camera; a low end DSLR; or one of the many mirror-less interchangeable lens cameras available on the market. All will set you back approximately the same amount of money and all will offer a distinct set of advantages and disadvantages, so you have to be very careful when choosing.

In this lesson I aim to start going through some of the different aspects that will go into the choice and explain them in relation to day-to-day photography, not numbers in a column.

Form Factor

This is something most people seem to underestimate, but it will impact your usage of the camera greatly. For a camera to be good it must not only take pictures at the quality you expect from it, but it should be of a size that you are comfortable with.

It is no use having the best camera in the world if you are not prepared to carry it around with you, but then again if you are not used to shooting off a screen you need a camera which is large enough to house a viewfinder. The variables are endless, and my advice would be to actually make the trip to a physical shop to try the different options out. Check the weight, check whether it fits in the pocket of your favourite jacket and shoot a few pictures to see whether it feels natural.

The kind of photography you are into will also impact your choice of camera form factor. DSLRs are probably better equipped for fashion photography or landscapes in general, but they are not too practical for street photography, where something far more discreet would be an advantage.

Sensor Size & Image Quality

MEGAPIXELS! Camera builders shout out about them as if they were street hawkers selling fish at the market, especially with the smaller consumer cameras. They make you think that the more you have, the better. While this is not exactly a lie, there is much more to image quality than pixel count.

A camera records images on a sensor which is light-sensitive. This sensor is made of a whole lot of little “mini-sensors” which individually record a dot of colour. Put these dots next to each other and you get a picture. Pixel count tells you how many dots a camera is capable of producing per image, but it does not tell you the quality of the data that it is recording or the size of the pixel.

Different cameras have different sensor sizes:

Most compact camera sensors would fit in the smallest size shown in the image above (or even smaller). Cameras with exchangeable lenses like hybrids and most popular DSLRs would have sensor sizes around the APS-C size. Professional DSLRs are usually what we refer to as “full-frame” or 35mm.

A larger sensor for the same pixel count gives you larger pixels. While this will not translate into a larger image on screen or in print, it will result in better image quality for various reasons, including:

  • A larger pixel will absorb more light in the same time-frame, therefore giving you much better low-light performance with lower noise. This is the reason why cameras with larger sensors can usually perform better at higher ISOs
  • A larger pixel will have less spillage from the pixel next to it, and as a result give you better definition and less digital noise

Knowing all this is helpful, especially as background, however there is only one way to be sure that you are buying a top-notch sensor. Use the Internet to research the cameras you are eying up. There are quite a few sites that offer in-depth reviews of cameras and most of them dive quite deeply into image quality.

DP Review and Comparometer are very good starting points.

Lens & Lens Options

(read more about lenses here)

Now that you’ve chosen a camera with a sensor that will record your images accurately you need to start taking a look at the glass that will bend the light faithfully into your little black box.

There are thousands of lenses out there, each one of them with a specific use and audience in mind. You don’t need a camera that can take them all but you have to make sure that the camera you’re buying will satisfy your most basic lens-needs.

If you are considering a prosumer (advanced) compact camera then you should take a long hard look at the lens the camera is built with because it will be there for life. You cannot change lenses so you must be sure that it fits the bill for all your planned uses. Is it wide enough for your family group-photos and will it zoom in far enough? If you want low-light photography then you need to search for one of the few consumer cameras with a wide aperture (f2.8 or f2.0).

With all other systems with interchangeable lenses you have to take a look at the lenses that are available for your needs in particular. Long term you can spend more on lenses and other accessories than you spend on the camera body itself, so thinking about your future needs is key. If you are into portrait photography, what prime lenses of around 130mm are available for the system you’re considering? If it is wildlife shots you’re after, on the other hand, then you should start off your deciding process by finding the best 400+mm lens around.


In next week’s lesson we’ll take a look at more factors you should look out for when choosing your next camera.

Photography for Ignorant Geniuses is a set of tutorials I give out on a weekly basis about the science behind photography. For more information (and to subscribe) click here.

(#57 of 366 X 2012 project)

One thought on “Choosing Your Next Camera – Part 1”

  1. Thank you very much for the weekly lessons. They are very helpfull. I like the diagrams as well. Looking forward to the next ones.

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