Finding the Right "Good Camera" for You


Each year, I have friends and family come to me for advice around the holidays about what DSLR camera I would recommend for them. I am happy to help and thought I could share the love by writing a post about what I think you might be looking for and offering some ideas on what items might meet your needs.

The truth is that the question is so open-ended.  It really depends on your answer to a few questions first. So, I'll pose those below and give you a chance to do some thinking. I'll also share some basic info on the choices you have and what the differences are to help you make an informed choice.

What do you plan to photograph?

1.  Portraits and Candids of your family?

Lots of people start an interest in photography when they have children. Of course - we not only want to remember the stages of children growing - but with decent images that are clear and perhaps demonstrate in this one way to our children that we care about their lives.

2.  Street Photography?  Landscapes?

Others have an interest born out of a new stage of life and work and desire to take photographs as a hobby.  

3.  Will you be photographing more indoors or outdoors?

This is important to consider because you'll need to study the way the camera behaves in low light situations (some are better than others) if you'll be mostly indoors while using your camera.  Or, you'll need to learn about adding light with additional on or off camera speed-lights or flash systems.

Do you see yourself investing in a camera system?

After you've considered what you primarily want to shoot, think about how your photography goals fit with your lifestyle and interests.  

Before you jump into buying, consider these factors:

1.  If it will be a struggle to carry it around to capture moments of children or If you tend to be someone to keep the camera packed away, a moment like your daughter's first steps might be over by the time you get the camera out.  It might not be time for a more complex system yet if this sounds familiar, or maybe you can try to start new habits to make the most of the purchase.

2.  If you are ready for that or plan to go out on adventures where you would bring the camera along, such as landscape photography or a family hike, it could really become part of your way of seeing the world.

3.  If the idea of later expanding to own multiple interchangeable lenses appeals to you, then you are probably ready to independently research more!

How interested are you in the technical aspect of working a camera?

If you're going to spend the money on a more complex camera, you must ask yourself how involved you really want to be in the technical side of a camera.

Here are some things for you to think about:

1.  For many moments, a camera phone is more than enough. They capture a high quality image and with a few tips and tricks and some practice, the average person can create memorable and unique images with this thing that is readily available - not to mention cloud-based solutions  for photo organization and storage.

2.  Many people have purchased compact digital cameras that can fit in a pocket - which is great for convenience, but these don't have the higher density image sensor that can allow an image to be of high resolution.  These cameras allow for optical zoom and some aperture variance but don't allow for major adjustments which give us creative power.  Pocket cameras traditionally don't perform well in low light and there aren't any accessories you can add to them to give them a more powerful flash, etc.  So, many people who want to take photos of their child on an auditorium stage, for example, begin to realize that their pocket camera isn't able to help out.

3.  Lots of folks want to be able to get creative and have high quality images - so a hobbyist DSLR camera with a separate camera body and inter-changeable lenses would be a great option.  But, it will only be a worthwhile investment if you're willing to study or take a class and get to a point of turning away from the AUTO functions.  Read more on that below.  

What are my choices?

Previously, if someone wanted to move up from only having a compact pocket-DSLR camera, the only viable option was to purchase a big bulkier DSLR.  In the past few years, mirrorless cameras have really gained in popularity.  I'll explain the differences below.

Compact Digital Camera Example

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1.  Compact Digital Camera

These cameras don't have inter-changeable lenses, but if your camera is quick to end up at the bottom of your purse or back-pack, then this type might be best for you, as it is much less likely for dust to get into your image sensor.  Some have higher image sensors than others (read more about Image Sensors below) and the one I'm sharing has one of the highest for its class.  Many of these are also fitted with technology to automatically load images to a tablet, etc.  

Specific Camera:

Nikon Coolpix B700:   This camera is slightly more ergonomically designed to give comfort while holding for extended time periods.

Digital Single Lens Reflex Camera Example

Vielen Dank an die Firma Foto Löffler, die mich die Aufnahmen von der Kamera machen ließen.

2.  DSLR

This stands for Digital Single Lens Reflex.  This means that when you look through the viewfinder, you see what exactly will be included in the final image when you click the shutter.  This happens because a series of mirrors reflects the image to be accurate.

See DSLR Wikipedia Article

Looking through the viewfinder and seeing what you will get is a bonus for someone starting out.   These generally come with larger image sensors, which help you get higher quality and less noise in low-light situations.  Even though, these cameras are bigger and bulkier, they do have a more ergonomic grip for comfort in holding for longer periods of time.

Specific Cameras:

Mid-range: (Under $1,000 for a kit with body and 1 lens):  

Nikon D3300 Kit

Nikon D3300 Body Only

D3300 Book

Enthusiast: (Just over $1,000 for body only):

Nikon 7200

Nikon 7200 Kit

Nikon 7200 Book

Mirrorless Digital Camera Example

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3.  Mirrorless Camera

A mirrorless camera does not use a series of mirrors to reflect exactly what will be included in the composition of the final image.  That means the user needs to be really familiar with how the camera works to shoot in such a way that you account for the visual difference in the viewfinder.  However, this technology results in a much more compact camera body.  Additionally,  because there are no moving mirrors to create the image, these cameras are often very quiet, a characteristic that is very helpful for street photography. 

See Mirrorless Camera Wikipedia Article

Specific Cameras:

Mid-range: (Under $1,000):  Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark II

Enthusiast: (Just over $1,000 for body and 1 lens kit): Nikon 1 J5

What Both DSLR and Mirrorless Cameras can do:

Lenses: Both DSLR cameras and Mirrorless cameras can have inter-changeable lenses.  This can allow users to purposefully select and switch out the lenses for different effects.  

Image Sensors: Both types of cameras can have large image sensors to allow them to produce very high-quality images.  They are relatively similar to each other in sensor size too (unless you want to spend upwards of $2,000 for the camera body alone, which gives you the larger sensors.)

Prices: Prices are comparable between an entry-level mirrorless digital camera and an entry-level single lens reflex digital Camera.

Manual Settings: Since both types of cameras can be fully manual, you have the chance to learn how to use those features to your advantage and create those beautiful blurred backgrounds (bokeh - see example below) that everyone loves so much.

Example of Bokeh

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What is an Image Sensor?

An image sensor  detects information from light waves' bouncing off or passing through a subject and then communicates that information.  These are used not just in digital cameras but also in medical imaging, thermal imaging, and also in analog cameras (which was previously light-sensitive film).   

Wikipedia says , "Each cell of a CCD image sensor is an analog device. When light strikes the chip it is held as a small electrical charge in each photo sensor. The charges in the line of pixels nearest to the (one or more) output amplifiers are amplified and output, then each line of pixels shifts its charges one line closer to the amplifier(s), filling the empty line closest to the amplifiers(s). This process is then repeated until all the lines of pixels have had their charge amplified and output."

The size of the sensor influences the number of cells present to collect information and therefore the amount of information in the resultant image.  

A compact digital camera has the smallest sensor. A hobbyist DSLR has a larger image sensor. A professional camera has the largest, called a Full Frame Sensor. Mirrorless cameras are usually in the middle-sized range though there are some that have Full Frame Sensors.

More on Image Sensors from Wikipedia

This B&H Photo Video Article includes an image sensor comparison.

Source: B&H Photo Video's "Mirrorless Cameras, A Buying Guide"

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Should I purchase a camera with a lens kit?

The short answer is no, but depending on the sale you find, it might be worthwhile to start with it. Read on for more.

Typically the lenses that camera kits (when you buy a camera body packaged with a lens already on it) come with are a bit on the cheap side.  The lenses aren't as refined, are usually zoom lenses, and thus don't have the wide open apertures that users might be craving to get a shallow depth-of-field.  (We usually sacrifice some depth of field for the ability to zoom in and out.)  There are good zoom lenses out there, but they'll cost much more because they have the ability to have wider apertures.

Tip: If your lens doesn't zoom, its called a Prime Lens.  Here is Wikipedia's article on Prime Lenses.

I would recommend that the average family seeking to take portraits of their family should get a camera body and a 50 mm lens (or the equivalent if you're going with a mirrorless camera) which is great for portraits.  

If you are after a zoom for when your child is on-stage in an auditorium, you could later get a zoom lens appropriate for your needs.  

If you're after street photography, a kit lens with zoom wouldn't be the best for you either. Typically, street photography wants to include more in the frame of an image. 35mm lenses offer a view much like what our eyes naturally see. This is the perfect lens for your needs.

Photographic Lenses Front View

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