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Photo Tips > How to Buy a Camera

Warning

This guide doesn't follow the traditional approach!

Camera Categories

There are six camera categories.

Compacts

ILC

Entry DSLR

Mid DSLR

Prosumer DSLR

Pro DSLR

Here, we're concerned with the first four categories.

Most photographers don't have the need, or budget, for the last two categories.

Compacts

ILC

Entry DSLR

Mid DSLR

Which Category Is for You?

With most of the cameras in the above four categories, you can:

• Take quality photographs under normal conditions.

• Make quality prints, in common sizes, from their files.

Therefore, choosing a camera based on photograph quality and print quality may not be as important as it once was.

Perhaps size and weight are more important.

As you go from category to category, the size and weight of the cameras increase.

Compacts

ILC

• •

Entry DSLR

• • • •

Mid DSLR

• • • • •

When I discuss camera buying with my students, their first concern is often the size and weight.

A second concern is the cost.

Let's look at these two concerns—before getting into the four camera categories.

Concern #1 - Size & Weight

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As the size and weight of a camera increases, the number of photographs taken may decrease.

Many photographers are choosing smaller cameras because they'll carry the camera around more often.

Bigger cameras are often left at home.

"I'm just going to the store, I don't need to bring the big clunk."

But—photographs are everywhere—even on the way to the store.

"Darn, I wish I had my camera."

There are cameras that fit in a shirt pocket, purse, or bag—that produce quality photographs.

Look for them in the Compact and ILC categories.

Compacts

ILC

Entry DSLR

Mid DSLR

Concern #2 - Cost

If you're using this website, you probably are not in the market for a basic camera.

Therefore, expect to pay at least:

• $400 for a compact.

• $800 for an ILC.

• $800 for an entry-level DSLR.

• $1,200 for a mid-level DSLR.

Here are typical price ranges for each category.

Compacts

$400 - $800

ILC

$800 - $1,200

Entry DSLR

$800 - $1,200

Mid DSLR

$1,200 +

After dissing DSLR cameras above, let's look at why you may need one.

Why You May Need a DSLR Camera

The heft and girth of DSLR cameras offer four major advantages over their smaller siblings.

Advantage #1 - Minimal Shutter Lag

DSLR cameras are responsive.

When you press the shutter release, the photograph is taken almost immediately.

When using other types of cameras, there's a lag between the press and the shutter opening.

It's harder to photograph movement, such as a gymnast or a baby's fleeting expressions.

If you're photographing movement, you may need a DSLR camera.

Advantage #2 - Less Noise

DSLR cameras usually have less noise.

Noise consists of:

• Black-and-white noise (luminosity noise), which is seen as graininess.

• Color noise, which is seen as magenta and green pixels where there shouldn't be such colors.

If you're photographing in dim light often, you may need a DSLR camera.

Advantage #3 - Less Depth-of-field

You can blur the background more with a DSLR camera.

If you're photographing portraits, you may need a DSLR camera to blur the backgrounds.

Advantage #4 - More Pixels

The large files from DSLR cameras allow you to:

• Make large prints.

• Crop the photographs to a smaller area in the original photograph.

Camera Categories

The four categories are described below, along with a section of other buying considerations.

The camera links below are for reviews on Google.

Good sources for reviews are below.

The prices are the approximate street prices.

Brands not listed, such Fuji, Olympus, Pentax, and Samsung, should be considered as well.

Always check if there's a more recent model than the one listed below.

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Category #1 - Compact Cameras

Compact cameras are also known as point-and-shoot cameras.

Because you're here, you're probably interested in the more sophisticated compact cameras.

This writer divides the sophisticated compacts into three categories.

Shirt Pocket

True pocket cameras fit into a shirt pocket.

Canon PowerShot S120 - $400

Sony DSC-RX100 - $650

Coat Pocket

Coat pocket cameras fit into a large pocket.

Canon PowerShot G16 - $500

Canon PowerShot G1 X - $650

Nikon Coolpix P7800 - $550

Panasonic Lumix LX5 - $500

Sony RX1 - $2,800 (!)

The zooms on the above cameras usually have limited ranges.

If you like photographing people at a distance, or are going on a safari, have a look at the cameras below.

Super Zooms

These cameras have zoom lenses with huge ranges

Canon SX50 HS - $430

Lumix DMC-FZ200 - $450

Lumix DMC-FZ1000K - $900

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 - $1410

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Category #2 - ILC Cameras

ILC stands for interchangeable lens compact.

You can change the lens:

• Unlike compact cameras.

• Like DSLR cameras.

ILC cameras are:

• Bigger than compacts.

• Smaller than DSLR cameras.

Here's a summary.

  Lens Size/Weight Cost
Compact One • * $ *
ILC Changeable • • * $ $ *
DSLR Changeable • • • • * $ $ $ *

* Usually

Examples

Here are some examples of ILC cameras.

Canon EOS M - $800

Fujifilm X-T1 - $1,300 (Has analog knobs for most-used functions)

Nikon 1 V3 - $1200

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3 - $1,300

Sony NEX-6 $1,000

Sony NEX-7 - $1,120

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Categories #3 & #4 - Digital SLR Cameras

SLR stands for single-lens reflex.

Reflex refers to the mirror and prism for the viewfinder.

Cons

Digital SLR cameras:

• Are bigger and heavier than compact and ILC cameras.

• Often cost more.

Pros

Digital SLR cameras:

• Produce the highest quality photographs.

The pixels are smaller and the color is more accurate.

You can crop—and you can make a huge print—with superior results.

• Have many lenses and accessories available, far more than ILC camera systems.

• Perform better in dim light (less noise).

• Have less shutter lag.

Shutter lag is when you press the shutter release and the shutter doesn't open immediately.

Compact and ILC cameras have more shutter lag making it harder to capture a fleeting expression or movement.

Examples

Some examples of DSLR cameras are below.

Street prices are not listed in this section.

You'll encounter prices for the camera body only, and for the body with various lenses.

Typically, the cameras are offered with a kit lens for another $100 or so.

Kit lenses are fine lenses, but their zoom range of 18mm to 55mm is limiting.

You may want to upgrade to a zoom with more range.

Entry-level DSLR

Canon EOS Rebel SL1 Very compact, about 14 ounces

Nikon 3300

Nikon 5500

Mid-level DSLR

Canon EOS Rebel T5i

Nikon D7100

More Things to Consider

Consider #1 - Test Drive the Camera

If possible, go to a store and handle the camera you want to purchase.

You want a camera with easy to change controls.

• Exposure mode

P, Tv, Av, etc.

• Exposure compensation

Make a photograph brighter or darker

• ISO

Make the camera sensor more or less sensitive to light.

• White balance

Make the camera "color" match the color of the light in a scene.

Check the return policy of the establishment.

Buy a camera from an establishment that will accept a camera for a full refund, for a week or so after purchase, for any reason, as long as:

• The camera is in new condition.

• You have the box and all packing materials.

• The warranty cards are not filled out.

Go to Stores.

Consider #2 - Megapixels & Noise

Megapixels

The number of megapixels is the number of light sensitive photosites on a camera's sensor.

Photosites are cups that collect the photons.

Having more photosites is often good.

But, when more cups are added to a sensor, the cups get smaller.

Smaller cups have more noise.

Noise

Noise is specs of tone and color that shouldn't be there.

A camera with a larger megapixel value—may have more noise—if the photosites are too small.

Consider #3 - Zoom Lenses

A zoom lens allows you to change the focal length of the lens from wide angle to telephoto.

Compact & ILC Zooms

Zoom Factor

The range of zoom lenses on compact and ILC cameras is most often given as a zoom factor, such as 4X, 5X, etc.

The larger the figure, the more range.

A student photographing her downhill-racer kids bought a camera with a 12X zoom.

She could photograph her kids whizzing by from the sidelines.

Another student photographing landscapes bought a camera with a lower zoom factor, 6X.

He didn't need a powerful zoom.

The zoom-factor figure is derived from dividing the most telephoto focal length of the lens, by the most wide-angle focal length.

For example:

30 mm (telephoto) ÷ 5 mm (wide angle) = 6X

Optical v. Digital Zooms

Compact and ILC cameras may have both optical and digital zooms.

An optical zoom uses the lens to change the view from wide angle to telephoto.

The image quality of an optical zoom is fairly consistent no matter where you've zoomed the lens.

For example, a telephoto view of a sailboat crossing the Bay of Fundy will be about the same image quality as a wide-angle view of the bay.

In contrast, when using a digital zoom, the image quality decreases as you zoom from wide angle to telephoto.

That's because the camera is enlarging a small area of an image digitally.

The resulting image from a digital zoom is not as sharp as an optically zoomed image.

Next

DSLR Zooms

More Range

Don't buy a zoom lens with a limited range of focal lengths, such as a 18mm to 55mm.

A better range is from 18mm to 70mm, or thereabouts.

18mm - 200mm

Consider getting a zoom lens with an extended range, such as a 18mm to 200mm.

They're not as big or heavy as you might expect, but they do cost much more.

A more economical choice is:

• A kit zoom lens, which is 18mm to 55mm.

• A 55mm to 200mm zoom.

Close Focusing Distance

Check how close the lens will focus.

Some zooms will only focus if you're six or seven feet from the subject.

You may want a lens that allows you to be closer to your subject.

Other Manufacturers

You need not purchase a lens made by the manufacturer of the camera.

Tamron, Tokina, and Sigma make many well-reviewed lenses.

Consider #4 - Wider Aperture Lenses

The aperture in a lens is like an iris in an eye.

A physically large, a wide aperture, let's in more light.

You won't have to use flash as often.

Compact & ILC Cameras

Look for lenses with apertures of f/2.0 and /2.8 on compact and ILC cameras.

DSLR Cameras

DSLR zoom lenses with wide apertures are expensive.

Consider getting a 50mm lens in addition to a zoom lens.

The f/1.8 versions are about $110 to $130.

50mm lenses let in up to eight times more light than zooms.

Go to 50mm Lens: Good for Low Light & Smooth Backgrounds.

Consider #5 - Caveat Emptor

If the price is too good to be true, check the business at:

ResellerRatings.com.

Better Business Bureau Information System

BBB of Metropolitan New York

• Use a search engine.

Enter the name of a business plus the word problem.

Then do another search substituting complaint for problem.

Also, try adding forum to the search string, to locate forums in which people are discussing their camera-buying woes.

Consider #6 - Imported (Gray Market) v. U.S.A.

A store may offer products that were not imported via their manufacturers.

For example, Nikon U.S.A. imports cameras into the United States.

These Nikon U.S.A. cameras have a warranty that's good in the United States.

A store can import Nikon cameras from elsewhere, rather than from Nikon U.S.A.

These cameras are called gray-market cameras.

Gray-market products may be less expensive.

However, they don't have the manufacturer's warranty in the United States.

Instead, the store may offer their own warranty.

Consider #7 - Extended Warranties

Avoid purchasing an extended warranty.

It's usually not a good value.

Consider #8 - Buy a "Previously Owned" Camera

Most cameras are hardly used.

Therefore, many photographers buy used cameras.

Go to Used Equipment.

Consider #9 - Reviews

As you read camera reviews, use the Camera Features Explained section for explanations of what the buttons and knobs do.

Bob Atkins Canon DSLRs

Consumer Reports publishes reviews of cameras every July. Subscribe to their online services or get a copy at a library.

Digital Photography Review

Nikon Field Guide Thom Hogan, Nikon DSLRs

PC Magazine

Popular Photography & Imaging

Ken Rockwell Canon & Nikon

Steve's Digicams

Be Sure to Set the Time & Date

When you turn on your new camera, you'll probably be prompted to set the date and time.

By setting the correct date and time, your photographs will be sorted into the correct folders by the software that you use to organize your files.