Buying your first or next serious camera
You want to start thinking creatively and taking control over your photos. You’re ready to buy a serious camera. I would encourage you to make this purchase decision based on what you want to do with the camera and ignore the tech and hype around what’s popular today. When you read an article that lists the best camera models to purchase; and it’s more than a year old, you are already getting stale information. Camera and sensor technology changes every one to two years now so think in terms of your goals for the next two years or three years at most. At that point you can likely sell the kit for half to three quarters of what you paid and then put that money straight back into a new camera. That could mean switching platforms entirely from micro four thirds to apsc or apsc to full frame or dslr to mirrorless down the road. This article doesn’t seek to educate you on what each of those mean, but rather to get you thinking about your intention behind purchasing and learning to use a more capable camera.
Camera Growth Progression - what should you buy next based on your current experience level?
You’re photographing with a cell phone now. You only use the built in camera app, and have never played with the custom settings. Selecting those filters before you snap a photo is fun eh? You download the flavor of the month photo editing app to play with and show off your wacky photo editing skills to friends on facebook.
Your next camera should be: a point and shoot with scene modes, on camera flash, large rear screen and touch screen control if possible, NFC file transfer or wifi transfer for photos to send images to your phone, 12 megapixel sensor or larger.
You’re photographing with a point and shoot camera now or you have been using a full featured camera app on your phone. You know what the different scene modes do and you regularly change them based on what you’re making photos of. You know how to get the photos off the memory card, do some editing in a desktop software and then share them on social channels, send them to friends, or use the images for your phone and computer desktop wallpapers. You mostly pull out the camera to take it on vacation or to photograph a special family event.
Your next camera should be: a prosumer camera under $1,500 with either an attached zoom lens or a couple of interchangeable kit lenses, up to 240mm zoom range, probably still an on camera flash but it’s not necessary, image stabilization, micro four thirds or apsc sensor, 16 megapixel sensor or larger. Wireless file transfer is still nice to have but not necessary - the files are getting bigger so you’re less likely to want to fill up a phone or tablet with those large image files.
You’re photographing with an entry level prosumer camera now. You mostly use it in auto mode but sometimes you play with the other settings. You kind of know what those other modes do, but you don’t use the camera often enough to remember how to use them effectively. Every time you do learn to do something new with the camera you get excited, start researching tutorials online, and bookmarking photography workshops you want to take.
Your next camera should be: an advanced prosumer or professional camera, interchangeable lenses covering wide angle, medium zoom, long telephoto, one or two prime lenses like a 35mm and a 90mm, off camera flash, remote shutter release, 24 megapixel or larger sensor, maybe step up to a full frame sensor if you think you’ll print your images, probably a good ND filter set, maybe a polarizing filter, and start spending some money on good photo editing tutorials or photography lessons. Paying for the tutorials, lessons and workshops will motivate you to carry the camera more often and learn to use its full capability.
You’re photographing with an advanced or professional camera. You know what all of the modes do and you use them correctly as the situation calls for. You have some specialty tools that you’ve started to master and you can make good literal as well as creative photos consistently. You probably have a favorite lens or two and you’re thinking about buying a second body or trying a camera and lens system from another manufacturer.
Beg, borrow, rent and play with whatever you can get your hands on. Have you tried medium format backs? How about film? Maybe quality lighting is more important than the camera and lenses to you now? You have become accustomed to one platform (Sony, Canon, Fuji, etc) and you know the quirks of your own camera, its menu system, what it does well and not so well. It won’t take you more than a few hours with another camera and lens to discover what you like or don’t like about it. The things you thought were important when you first started practicing photography probably don’t even cross your mind anymore. The thousands of photos you’ve made to get to this point have shaped you. The creative direction you want to take next will decide your next purchase more than any kind of technical specs.
How much can you afford?
It is very easy to end up with $10,000 in camera, lenses, filters and accessories in your checkout cart. You really only need $1,000 of equipment; or less, for the first year or two. Moving from a cell phone or point and shoot camera to an advanced camera is a big jump. You can do a professional job with a lot less than you think you can. Most pros end up downsizing their kit so it’s small, light, and so they can travel with just the essentials needed to do the job. I have a closet full of lenses, lights, modifiers, stands and other equipment I’ve gathered over the years. I purchased them each for a specific job or purpose. I didn’t buy them all on day one.
You don’t need much to take full control of your photography and to make great photos. Don’t buy all the gadgets until you have a handle on making good photos consistently. Once you can do that; the rewards of going down a specialty path or experimenting with different looks will pay for the specialty tools you want to buy.
Look at buying equipment that will challenge you to learn what you need to know next. Wade into the pool; don’t jump into the deep end. When you buy more capability than you need you will probably become overwhelmed and never learn how to use it properly. What good is owning an expensive camera that intimidates you rather than inviting you to use it?
What do you want your experience level to be in six months, one year, and three years from now?
The average time is three years to take the journey from hobby to professional in photography. Focused time and effort are required to make enough photos in different situations and with enough different things in front of your lens to really get good at it. If you are unencumbered by obligations like work, family, kids, etc and you can practice many hours a day then it is possible to shorten that three year average timeline.
If you are the latter unencumbered person then go ahead and skip a level and buy more camera than what you’re ready for. Otherwise, progress up the camera hierarchy as your skills and interest allow.
What kind of photography are you going to practice?
What kind of photography you plan to practice should be a guiding decision in your next camera purchase. This factor goes along with deciding what level of photography experience you want to grow into long term. Again; it’s easy to spend more than necessary to accomplish your end goals.
Are you buying the camera to photograph merchandise or events to promote your personal business?
You will want a camera that’s small, starts up quickly and can transfer files wirelessly. If you purchase a large heavy camera with interchangeable lenses; my bet is that you will usually leave it on the shelf and take photos with your phone the same as you always have. Purchase something that’s convenient to have with you.
Are you buying the camera to make money with?
You plan to do personal portraits, corporate headshots, maybe even weddings. You need a prosumer camera with off camera flash and interchangeable lenses. You still don’t need the latest full frame top end camera. Having a few lenses in your kit that are fast and sharp is more important than having a top end camera. This level is also good for travel photography; whether that’s your own personal vacation or making images to submit to prestigious magazines. Commercial photography can be lucrative, but it's not easy to break into and the love for it may follow the pursuit of it.
Are you buying the camera to take creative and artistic images that you plan to sell prints of?
You can do this with a mid level camera and lenses. The more you practice, the more you will want a full frame camera and the best lenses you can buy - they’re still not necessary but you’ll probably want them as you gain more experience. You will also find yourself at this level if you just have money to burn and you just like playing with the best and the latest. I'm not a fan of calling photography "fine art" but that's a rant for another day.
Does it fit you?
You probably wouldn’t buy a pair of pants without trying them on. Cameras either fit your hand or they don’t and that includes the grip and the button layouts. You can certainly adapt to this and it does matter a lot more in the beginning than it will to you several years in. Camera bodies change, button layouts change, weight of bodies and lenses change and you’re not going to dump all of your existing gear just because a new body doesn’t quite feel right in your hands. However; when you first purchase an advanced camera, the feel and usability is important since carrying and practicing with the camera are directly related to how much you actually want to use it. There are a lot of sites that just review technical specs. Camerasize.com shows you a comparison of actual sizes and dimensions that might help in your purchase decision. Still; nothing beats holding and using the real thing to decide if it's a match for you.
Is your new camera purchase a rational or irrational decision?
The rational decision can be thought of this way. The first time you did a home improvement project or fixed something where you live; what tools did you buy? Did you go to the hardware store and buy one of every tool they had? No; you bought a couple of screwdrivers, a hammer, maybe a flashlight. You bought more specialty tools over the years as you did jobs that required those tools. This is the mindset of a photographer who makes a direct correlation between their equipment and how much money they can make using that equipment. I acknowledge that this is my personal point of view and not true for everyone.
The irrational decision is based on how much fun you can have with it or maybe even whether your camera makes a fashion statement for you. Maybe you do have thousands of dollars to spend on something purely as a status symbol. I can’t make a good argument against that motivation. Whether the decision is rational or irrational; I hope your next camera purchase inspires you to carry the camera often and make time in your life to practice your photography. If it does that then the purchase was a success.