What Camera Should You Buy?

What kind of camera should you buy?

A few people have asked me what camera I recommend. To which I have two questions for you:

  • What’s your price range? (Most people say around $200.)
  • What do you want to use it for? (Most people say everything.)

TL;DR

Here’s the TLDR (too long, didn’t read). You want as big of a sensor as you can get for the money you’re willing to spend. Spend more money than you intended. A decent camera isn’t just another gadget. It’s an investment.

Get a Sony RX100.

It has a 1″ sensor, can fit in your pocket, and has plenty of features if/when you’re ready to take it to the next level. You can find one under $400 (mainly because they’re up to their third version, which is about $800 brand new).

If the sensor is smaller than 1″ don’t bother.

You’re welcome. Much love. Let’s go on a photowalk or photo tour.

OH. YOU’RE STILL HERE? COOL. LET’S TALK SHOP OVER SOME EGGNOG.

Personally, I’m still dreaming about the Sony RX100ii or RX100iii. Of course, the way things go with photo equipment, there are improvements in version 3 (built-in viewfinder, brighter lens, longer zoom, LCD screen has more swivel) at the expense of some features that I like about version 2 (has a hotshoe to attach a big flash, longer zoom).

There are other companies making comparable cameras now. Some are bigger (could fit in a Winter coat pocket), some are the same size as the RX100, some have bigger sensors, but they’re on their first version, which means no previous year(s) markdown.

If you’re not willing to spend a little more money, say in the $400 – $600 range, then you’d be better off just using your smartphone. It’s true. (You can actually get a Sony NEX3 for less than that. Interchangeable lenses and an APS sensor which is about as big as they come unless you’re willing to spend over $1,000 for a full frame sensor and much bigger camera. There’s the Samsung NX series, too, but I’ve never used those and therefore can’t vouch.)

Why? Because those bargain point and shoot cameras have the same sensor sizes as recent smart phones, i.e. tiny.

You want photos you can be proud of. You want photos that are artful, clear and crisp.

Unfortunately, the photos that are most common — indoors with kids running around and being adorable, parties, pets, events, even at the gym — are the most difficult to take. Why? Indoor lighting is very dim for a camera. A lot of cameras will have trouble focusing. When they do, and you take the photo, chances are it will be blurry and grainy.

My recommendation would be to spend more and get something that’s going to result in photos that you can be proud of. Photos that will look good and even professional.

MORE ABOUT SENSOR SIZE

So like I was saying, you want the largest sensor that you can get for your money. A full frame pro-level camera has a “full frame” sensor: 35mm. Consider that your gold standard.

The best compact cameras that will fit in your pocket have a 1″ sensor.

Most compact cameras below the $380 price range have sensors that are 1/1.7″ or 1/2.3″. Your smartphone sensors are about that size.

These new super compact cameras are amazing gadgets. The Sony RX100, RX100 ii, RX100 iii, the new Canon G7X. There’s a new Panasonic LX100 that has an APS-C sensor. It’s chunkier, though.

Up your camera budget to $400 – $600 because you can get a used/refurbished pocket sized beast in that range.

Some of them cost between $700 – $800 brand new.

THE INTERCHANGEABLE LENS ALTERNATIVE

In the $350 to $800 range, you can also opt for the equivalent of the Sony NEX 3 (to NEX 7 or a6000). They have an APS-C sensor — better quality, great for taking photos that have a nice blurred background, much better low light performance — are relatively small and you can change lenses. Very flexible. Powerful. Excellent image quality. You can attach a good flash or other accessories.

They’re a lot smaller than the big impressive looking DSLRs but they will not fit in a pants or small jacket pocket. If you have a kit lens or smaller lens on it it will still fit in a purse or large-ish jacket pocket.

The tradeoff (because there are always tradeoffs): If you want the ability to zoom in from farther away, you need another lens. That means more money and a lens that makes the camera considerably bigger to carry around.

Want even more info to cram into your brain? Then there’s the Micro 4/3rds interchangeable lens cameras. They tend to be smaller and have smaller sensors than the APS-C. Great image quality and a lot more lenses to choose from.

THE SECRET

Last but not least, here’s something most people don’t tell you. Edit your photos. I edit 99% of the photos I take. Pressing the shutter button is only half the story. Not fancy photoshop editing, necessarily. I edit to bring out detail in the shadows or reduce highlights. I adjust contrast and clarity and do noise reduction if there’s too much grain in the picture.

I may enhance the eyes a little bit. I definitely crop photos for better composition. Sometimes things happen too fast to get it right in-camera. Most of the time, actually.

Advanced: I make sure to shoot in RAW (and make sure to buy a camera that has that feature) because you can do a lot of adjusting with all of that info and still come out with a realistic, quality photo.

My three suggestions to take great photos are:

  1. Spend a little more money to get a camera with a decent sensor size. It’s an investment.
  2. Edit your photos. (Google’s Picasa is free and pretty powerful. There are a number of iOS apps that do a good job, too.)
  3. Use the camera’s user friendly features.
  4. BONUS: Take LOTS of pictures.

Here are three things people don’t want to do to take better photos. When I mention these I see their faces kind of crinkle in apprehension.

  1. Spend more money.
  2. Spend time editing photos.
  3. Learn new things about their camera and taking photos.
  4. BONUS: Keep taking pictures when their new camera doesn’t magically live up to their expectations (or misleading advertisements and product descriptions).

Point three isn’t an insult. I have family members who are technophobes. I get it. But If you ain’t growing, you’re dying. That’s what I say. In maybe five years cameras will be physics-defying magic boxes. Seriously. I mean that. Until then there are a lot of trade offs involved.

Whatever the case, once you get those first few perfect photos of your kids, that party, your family reunion, your vacation, or whatever, it will all be worth it.

SUPER EXTRA SPECIAL SECRET CLUB SECRET

You can rent cameras and lenses. I’ve been using LensRentals.com.

Sometimes photographers get offended when someone looks at one of their photos and says, “Wow. You must have a really good camera/lens!”

Skill, practice, honing, experience, and so on are the thing. But sometimes — depending on what you’re photo-ing and the conditions — you need the right tool for the right job. I rented a Tamron 150-600mm f\5.6.3 lens over the weekend. 600mm = big, big zoom. On the full frame Sony a99. I could not have gotten a shot like this without something comparable.

Rent some gear and see if you like it. Does it get the job done? How does it feel in your hand or wearing around your neck all day? Was it fun? It’s a great resource to have and now you have the option to rent and then buy.

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