If you're thinking about buying a camera this year, you have more choices than at any time in the past. Photography is my primary hobby, although for more than a decade it was my profession, so before we even get started I have a confession to make: There is no one best camera. What's best for me might not be best for you. And beyond that, what's best for me today at noon might be completely wrong for me at 3pm. I'll try to explain that and make some sense of it.
To start, one of the first choices you'll make involves the size of the sensor inside the camera:
Each of these has advantages and each has disadvantages. What's right for me might not be what's right for you, so let's take a high-level view of what's out there.
The Wikipedia illustration here shows the various sensor sizes considerably larger than they are in real life, but it's a good way to illustrate the options. If you want to visualize the true size of the sensor, the 35mm full frame senor would measure 36mm (about 1.42 inches).
The APS-C (Nikon, Pentax, Sony) and APS-C (Canon) sizes are the most commonly found.
Consumer cameras in the past typically were 35mm single-lens reflex devices. They used 35mm film and most of today's digital cameras have been designed around that model.
A full-size sensor is approximately the size of 35mm film, but there are also cameras that replicate medium-format film sizes (typically 6x6, 6x4.5, or 6x7 centimeters) that were used by professionals. I'm going to ignore those larger format cameras because their cost eliminates them for consideration by anyone who isn't in one of two groups: Those whose entire income comes from photography and those who are independently wealthy.
Cameras with full-size sensors are expensive -- usually $4000 or more just for the body -- so they're not appropriate for hobbyists. These cameras also require lenses that are designed to provide full coverage for the sensor and those are expensive lenses.
A full-size sensor camera will look and feel more like a traditional 35mm camera. For example, the image 35mm film photographers expect from a 50mm lens will be what they see on a full-size sensor digital camera. Wide angle lenses will still create wide angle images. The file size will be large, possibly 50MB or larger for each image.
Larger sensors create files with less noise. Overall, this is a good choice if cost, size, and weight are not factors you need to consider. I said I would ignore medium format cameras, but I have to at least mention this: You could purchase a Hasselblad H5D-200c medium format DSLR camera body for $45,000 and then add some lenses for $2000 to $10,000 each. More realistically, the Nikon D5 body sells for about $8000 and Canon's EOS-1D Mark II is on sale for a little over $6000. You'll need lenses, too.
Most digital SLRs purchased by consumers (and by many professionals) have what's called an APS-C "cropped sensor". The active area is somewhat smaller than that of cameras with a full-size sensor.
If you choose a Nikon camera with an APS-C sensor, a 50mm lens will be the 35mm-film-camera equivalent of 75mm. Canon cameras with an APS-C sensor will effectively render images from a 50mm lens as if the lens was 80mm on a film camera.
And this is where it gets confusing. A 50mm lens is still a 50mm lens, but the APS-C sensor records only the central part of the image. The result is sometimes called a "multiplication factor" even though that isn't really the case. Still, that may be the best way to think about it.
Cameras with APS-C sensors usually cost $500 to $2000 for the body and the lenses are less expensive because they don't have to cover a full-size sensor. The optics, geometry, and physics get a little complicated, so let's just leave it there.
For most serious amateurs, a cropped-sensor camera is the perfect choice. This is even more true for those of us whose eyes tend to favor telephoto views because a 200mm lens suddenly looks like a 300mm lens (Nikon) or a 320mm lens (Canon). If you're a photographer who prefers super-wide-angle images, cropped-sensor cameras may be frustrating.
Canon's EOS 7D Mark II with an 18 to 135mm zoom lens is just $1950 and Nikon's D7200 camera with an 18 to 140mm lens sells for less than $1500.
For once some camera manufacturers decided to work together and the result is the micro four thirds system. Unlike APS-C cameras that have a multiplication factor of 1.5 or 1.6 (depending on the manufacturer), all four thirds cameras have a 2x multiplication factor.
Olympus and Panasonic introduced the concept in 2008 and now camera bodies are available from Blackmagic, DJI, JVC, Kodak, Olympus, Panasonic, and Xiaomi. No matter which camera body you choose, you can add any lens manufactured by Cosina Voigtländer, DJI, Kowa, Kodak, Mitakon, Olympus, Panasonic, Samyang, Sigma, SLR Magic, Tamron, Tokina, Veydra, Xiaomi, and others.
This is a remarkable advancement because lenses used to be manufacturer specific. These cameras are also smaller than full- or cropped-sensor cameras. They range in price from around $350 to $2000, depending on the manufacturer and included lenses.
Because of their size, micro four thirds cameras have electronic viewfinders instead of the optical viewfinders found on larger cameras. Electronic viewfinders have advantages and disadvantages. You'll see better images in low light, but resolution is limited to that of the viewfinder. An electronic viewfinder displays what the sensor sees instead of a pure optical view.
The absence of a mirror eliminates the "mirror slap" noise and resultant camera vibration and movement, but the larger crop factor produces a greater depth of field for the equivalent field of view and f/stop compared to APS-C and full-frame cameras. This can be a disadvantage when the photographer wants to blur the background.
The Panasonic Lumix DC-GH5 body sells for $2000 and you'll need to buy one or more lenses to go with it, but the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G85 camera with a 12 to 60mm lens costs about $1000 and the YI Technology M1 with a 12 to 40mm lens is priced at just $350.
A compact camera can be essentially the modern equivalent of a point-and-shoot film camera such as the Kodak Instamatic series, but these cameras can also offer a lot of manual settings. Sensor sizes vary from full frame to micro four thirds.
Some can even create raw images, not just jpeg images. I have a Canon G12 and, although it's a compact camera that can automate everything, it also offers many of the features found on larger cameras. It can create raw images, which is what I prefer, and it offers all the manual overrides that are usually found on larger cameras.
A higher-end compact camera might be the best choice for someone who understands how cameras work, but doesn't want to carry 15 to 20 pounds of gear. It's also a good choice for those who want to carry a second camera that's lighter than their primary camera.
Vivitar has some digital cameras in the $30 range. Cameras in this price range offer few features or adjustments. When a zoom function is provided, it will be a digital zoom instead of an optical zoom and digital zoom significantly degrades image quality. At the other end of the scale, Leica has a full-frame point-and-shoot camera that's priced at $4500, Fujifilm has several models in the $1000 to $1500 range, and you'll find a variety of Canon PowerShot models in the $400 to $600 range.
It seems that everyone has a smart phone these days and every smart phone has a built-in camera. Despite the tiny sensors in these cameras, the image quality is little less than phenomenal. They create only jpeg files -- there's no option for a raw file.
Unless you consider your smart-phone to be a camera that can also be used to make phone calls, the camera is essentially free -- it's just part of the phone, which probably should be considered to be a pocket computer that connects to the internet, turns into a book reader, and also just happens to allow you to make phone calls.
Professional photographers say that the best camera in the world is the one that you have with you. If your $30,000 Nikon full-frame-sensor camera system with 12 lenses and 5 external flash units is at home and you have only the camera that's in your smart phone, that phone-based camera is the best camera in the world. For you. At that time.
It's not the hardware that makes the picture. It's the photographer.
My younger daughter is a graphic artist. She has a Canon compact camera, but that camera is often at home when she wants to take a picture. She also has the camera in her Android smart-phone. She could get a higher technical quality picture with the compact camera, or with an APS-C or full-frame camera, but that's not what she has with her. Because she has a good eye for composition, her smart-phone images are often spectacular.
So now let's think about buying a camera.
If you've ever priced a camera using the internet, you'll find that all of the sellers' prices will be within a few dollars of each other -- and then you'll see one price that's unbelievably low. "Unbelievably" is the key word here. If everybody else has priced a given camera model at $1100 and one store lists it for $850, one thing is clear: You will not be able to purchase the camera for $850.
In some cases, a legitimate seller will offer a "gray market" camera that will be shipped from Japan. That means the camera won't have a US warranty and you'll have to ship it back to Japan if it ever needs service. You may be willing to accept that trade-off, but be aware that there is a significant trade-off. That's a legitimate offer, though.
In most cases, the low-ball price you see on the internet isn't really available. You'll go to the store's website and order the camera. Everything seems fine until the next day when somebody from the store will call to say "That's not the camera you want." This will then be followed by a high-pressure pitch for add-ons. They'll want to sell you the standard equipment that comes with the camera, things like the body cap, instruction manual, camera strap, kit lens, battery, and battery charger. These are all in the box and should be included in the price. They'll probably also want to sell you a warranty, which the manufacturer and importer provides. When he gets finished, you'll end up paying considerably more than if you had bought the camera from a legitimate store.
Oh, and if you refuse to take any of the offers, your order will be summarily canceled.
There are other scams, too. An advertisement that was included with a Dilbert cartoon last week promised that it could make my smart-phone camera equal to "a $4000 SLR."
Looks pretty cool, doesn't it? But the image says "stores are sold out". OK, that happens. But "the manufacturer is offering 75% off [for] orders placed today." That's a major red-flag alert. If stores are sold out, what rational manufacturer would offer a 75% discount?
So I scrolled down.
The website page is designed to look a lot like a review and the writer told me that I should grab this bargain right now! The "review" then provided a lens comparison.
According to this "review", lenses from Nikon, Zeiss, and Leica aren't coated. This is simply a lie. The "review" also claims that Nikon, Zeiss, Leica, and Canon lenses aren't "high contrast" (whatever that means) and they they don't have "low aberration". The "review" also says that only Nikon and Zeiss lenses have "low distortion" and that only Nikon and Canon lenses have "low vignetting". Well, other than the "ProShot HDX" lens, of course, which excels in every measure.
There's your second huge red flag.
Nonsense! All of the manufacturers coat their lenses, all of their lenses can reproduce high contrast and low contrast scenes, all lenses from legitimate manufacturers display low aberration, low distortion, and low vignetting.
In other words, the entire chart is essentially processed food from the south end of a north-bound bull.
These little clip-on lenses typically come in sets of 3 or 4 (fish-eye, macro, and wide angle) and sell for $15 to $30. For that price, the lenses are certainly plastic, not glass, and they won't be coated. That's not to say that such a set of add-on lenses is useless, but it's not going to make your cell phone the equivalent of a digital SLR.
The first two paragraphs tell us all we need to know: ''This is an advertisement and not an actual news article, blog, or consumer protection update. This website may be compensated for clicks or actions that are produced from various articles."
Scroll down further and you'll find this: "Marketing disclosure: This website is a market place. As such you should know that the owner has a monetary connection to the product & services advertised and provided. The owner receives payment whenever a qualified lead is referred but that is the extent of it. The owner receives no further compensation of any kind should you choose to obtain a new insurance policy. [What on this website previously mentioned INSURANCE???] All of the information regarding the goods and services mentioned on this website is provided by the owner. The owner does not recommen [sic] or endorse any product or service advertised on this website. [This is despite 'I would advise you to grab your set before the super low introductory price is raised.']"
Would you trust this website? I wouldn't.
When choosing a camera, other factors deserve some consideration. Here are a few that I think about when trying to determine which camera might be right for a particular task.
Digital cameras can store files in one of two formats, raw or jpeg. Cell phone cameras offer only the jpeg format. These are small files, but that's because in the process of storing the image, the process discards significant amounts of "unnecessary" data. That's fine if the image is perfectly exposed and doesn't suffer from any other problems. Some point-and-shoot cameras also create only jpeg files.
If the camera can save images as raw files, the files contain all of the information the sensor was able to capture. As a result, you'll have significant control over exposure, color temperature, contrast, and even individual colors using an application such as Adobe Lightroom.
Although minor enhancements can be applied to jpeg images, the greatest flexibility comes from raw files.
Some digital cameras are made by traditional camera manufacturers such as Canon, Nikon, and Hasselblad. Others come from electronics manufacturers like Sony, Panasonic, and Samsung. The companies that have been making cameras for decades tend to build cameras that look and feel like traditional cameras. Electronics manufacturers often take another approach and design electronic devices that take pictures.
Experienced photographers who grew up using traditional film cameras generally prefer cameras that look and feel like film cameras. That will likely be less important as people who have grown up using cell phones as cameras start to look for more capable hardware.
Cell phones and some point-and-shoot cameras have no viewfinder. Instead, the user frames the picture using a screen on the back of the camera or phone. This can be a challenge in bright light. Most micro-four-thirds cameras and all of the larger digital SLRs have viewfinders; some are optical and others are electronic.
Electronic viewfinders can be easier to use in dim light and they do a better job of displaying what the digital image will look like. Because an electronic viewfinder eliminates the pentaprism and mirror found in traditional SLRs, the cameras are smaller and quieter in operation. An optical viewfinder is just what the same suggests -- a view directly through the lens that will capture the image.
A camera that has 80 gazillion 300 billion 435 thousand megapixels won't necessarily create a better image than one with 12 megapixels. Or 10. Or even 3. There's a lot more to the image than the number of pixels. One important consideration is the size that you want the resulting image to be. If you're going to print a photograph, you'll want an image that can create about 300 pixels per inch on paper.
Here's what that means: To print an image that's 10 inches wide and 8 inches tall, the long side of the image should be 3000 pixels wide. Don't bother with the internal "resolution" reported by an image editor. Instead, just find the size of the image in pixels and see if there are enough of them to provide the pixel count on paper that you need.
If you do that, you may reasonably presume that a digital image file that's 3000 pixels wide would produce a horrible wall-size print that's 30 inches wide. That's what the math says, after all, because that would be just 100 pixels per inch and I just said you need 300. What that number doesn't take into account is perception and viewing distance. An image that's only 10 inches wide is small enough to be held in the viewer's hand, so you'll probably view it from a distance of 10 to 20 inches. At that distance, 300 pixels per inch will look fine.
Now consider that 30-inch wide image. It's probably in a frame and hanging on a wall. Now the viewing distance will be greater -- maybe 3 to 5 feet. At that distance, 100 pixels per inch will look fine. If you want to take this to extremes, consider this: Highway billboards may be printed at just 10 pixels per inch. Up close, the result would not be pleasing, but from 500 feet away, the image will look crisp and clear.
The quality of the pixels is more important than the number of pixels. Sensor sizes differ and so does the number of pixels on the sensor. Let's pick a number: 30 megapixels. You might have a Hasselblad medium format camera that records 30 megapixels, a full-frame Nikon that records 30 megapixels, a cropped-sensor Canon that records 30 megapixels, and a Fujifilm micro-four-thirds camera that records 30 megapixels. If a pixel is a pixel, then these cameras should all produce images of equal quality, shouldn't they? But they won't.
At the right is an example of 100 pixels on a large sensor. Notice how large the dots are. Now let's see what happens to the dots when you put the same number of them on a smaller sensor. In reality, of course, the sensors are smaller and there are a lot more pixels. These images are intended to illustrate only the relative differences.
The image at the left shows the same number of pixels, but they are much smaller because the overall size of the sensor is smaller.
Two cameras with an equal number of pixels but different sensor sizes won't create identical images because larger pixels are better than smaller pixels. You'll get an image with less noise, for one thing, and that's why the photographer who does nothing but commercial product photography that's intended for use in magazines might justify spending $40,000 for a camera with a large sensor.
There are other factors, too, such as the dynamic range of the sensor and the quality of the lens you put on the camera. But the key point remains: It's not just pixels.