Camera Techniques - How to Choose Your First Camera
Your new purchase will include a camera (battery and memory card typically included) and at least one lens. Within a budget of $1500-1600, a wide array of choices exist. Let’s organize the options so that you can navigate more easily through the camera market.
To make the search easy, avoid Amazon and go directly to an online camera company where you can search for any camera that exists in the world. I recommend you choose one of these two most popular companies (you don't have to purchase from one, but you can use their search engine to find a camera).
Step 1. Begin your search in the field of cameras. You want a camera that allows interchangeable lenses and for this reason, 99.9% of the time, the chosen camera will be a digital SLR (DSLR) or mirrorless camera (here is a link if you want to learn the detailed differences between DSLR and mirrorless camera).
Practically speaking, mirrorless cameras are a new breed compared to DSLR cameras that have been around much longer. While the DSLR technology has advanced remarkably, the mirrorless has grown by leaps and bounds and at this point, it would be difficult to argue that image quality in one is better than the other. However, the mirrorless camera is overtaking the market and camera companies seem to be putting all their eggs in the mirrorless basket. In fact, Sony no long makes DSLR - they’ve gone totally mirrorless.
Another difference between mirrorless and DSLR is the mirrorless camera body tends to be smaller and lighter, which can be an advantage if you carry your camera equipment around. Is there a difference in price? Not so much and as you will see, going mirrorless may offer more options on a budget.
Step 2. Once you choose mirrorless or DSLR, you can begin to filter through the available choices. I highly recommend you stick to the three tops brands, which are Canon, Nikon and Sony. Unless you have a brand preference, I also recommend you do your initial search with all three included. Understand that once you go with a particular brand, you will most likely stick with it for the long term for budgetary and practical reasons.
Step 3. Filter out the item choices further by choosing ‘Body Only’. You will need to purchase a lens to go with the camera, but you’ll be able to do that easily after selecting among the camera choices.
Step 4. I highly recommend you filter your search by ‘Viewfinder’ and choosing ‘Built in Viewfinder’ only. Trust me, you want a camera with a viewfinder (something your smartphone camera does not have). This is the eyepiece that photographers look through when holding the camera up to their eye and you want to be able to do that too!
Step 5. You have an additional choice to make. DSLR and mirrorless both come with two sensor size choices – full frame or APS-C (cropped).
A full frame sensor is 35mm in width, whereas an APS-C sensor is smaller at 23 to 24mm. The APS-C sensor is essentially a cropped version of the full frame. You will see them described as having a crop factor of 1.4, 1.5 or 1.6. Divide 35 by the crop factor, that equals the width of the cropped sensor.
Practically speaking, a full frame sensor camera has traditionally been considered a professional camera – it is higher quality and more expensive than a cropped sensor camera. This does not necessarily mean cropped sensor cameras are of poor quality, because there are exceptional APS-C cameras out there. But overall, a full frame camera offers more advantages. But because of their higher price, most photographers starting out on a budget choose an APS-C camera, knowing that a full frame camera is something to aspire to. However, as you will see below, full frame cameras do not have to fall out of a tight budget. You can read up about sensor size here.
Step 6. Add a kit lens. Let’s say we have narrowed our search to mirrorless cameras, Canon, Nikon and Sony, body only, full frame sensor, and built-in viewfinder. Choose one of the cameras and click on it to open up the product page.
Note below the pricing is 'Product Option'. The product option is a perfect way to add a ‘kit’ lens to your chosen camera. Kit lenses come at a lower price than if purchased separately, thus providing a first-time camera buyer an affordable camera and lens while ensuring lens compatibility. Keep in mind, kit lenses tend to be lower quality than more expensive professional-level lenses. This does not mean they are not quality lenses, because many of them are. It simply means that you will be limited in lens choices. If you continue to grow as a photographer, the kit lens will not be your last lens.
Step 7. Once you pick a camera and note the product options, you can dig a little deeper and read the overview, look at the specs and reviews. Many of the specs will look foreign to you and only after you’ve researched camera details or spend time with a camera will some of these become important to you. In short, if you want to photograph fast moving subjects like birds or sports, you’ll place high value on specs like continuous shooting frames per second, image stabilization and auto focus tracking. If it is landscapes you are shooting, you want high resolution and dynamic range.
There is one very important consideration to make before you purchase that first camera and lens. As you grow into your photography, you will upgrade camera and lenses. At this point, you must understand that your initial choices will greatly affect your second and third choices.
First, if you choose to go with DSLR, keep in mind that the market is leaning toward mirrorless, meaning more choices are available to the mirrorless camera user in terms of upgrades and lenses. It may sound reasonable to start with a DSLR and upgrade later to a mirrorless camera, but here’s the problem – the lenses for the DSLR will NOT work with the mirrorless camera unless you purchase a lens mount adapter. The adapter can be pricey (several hundred dollars) and will not necessarily work for all lenses.
Second, if you choose a lower priced APS-C camera, know that you will likely upgrade to a full frame camera one day. However, the kit lenses you purchase for that APS-C camera will NOT work with the full frame camera. That may be OK because you will likely upgrade your lenses before you purchase a second camera. In which case, make sure that you upgrade to a lens that is compatible with a full frame camera (see screenshot below for lens format options). You can use a full frame camera lens on your APS-C camera, but you CANNOT put an APS-C dedicated lens on a full frame camera. Here's another link that explains differences among full frame and cropped dedicated lenses.
In summary, here are your four choices of cameras and a price range that includes a kit lens. As you can see, a DSLR full frame camera falls way out of our $1500-1600 budget.
The bottom line with my opinion thrown in:
- Within a $1500-1600 budget, you have three choices of camera + kit lens types as illustrated above.
- When searching, stick with Canon, Nikon and Sony knowing the brand you end up choosing is the one you most likely will stay with for the long haul.
- Be sure to choose a camera with a built-in viewfinder.
- On a budget, knowing you will upgrade in the future, and knowing where the camera market is going, it appears to me that starting off with a mirrorless full frame camera is realistic and makes the most sense regarding future lens upgrades.
You may also want to check out my YouTube video on this topic.
Good luck with your purchase, you won't regret it! Thanks for looking on and if you are in the south Florida area, please consider taking a workshop, individualized and scheduled at a mutually agreed upon time. I will help you learn how to use that new camera! Check out my website and feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.