When faced with the need (or want) to acquire a new camera, we often revert to friends and family for advice on the matter. Being known amongst my friends as a photography enthusiast, I am often asked the titular question of this blog: “what camera do you recommend?” More often than not, this is accompanied by a series of questions about this or that camera, such as: “Is Model X from Brand Y good?” or “Is this Model Y better than Model Z?” And so on and so forth. This blog is addressed to those amongst you who are in this predicament at present. I hope I help you make up your mind accordingly!
My response is generally never a straightforward “Yes” or “No”, or a recommendation on one specific model. I think that kind of answer would be a disservice to the person asking in the first place. Why? Simple really – I do not believe that there is a specific camera model or brand that I would recommend all the time to all the people. Moreover, there’s hardly ever a clear-cut winner in any Model vs Model competition of camera options.
So, you ask, what is my response? My answer is generally composed of a number of sub-elements, including (1) the prospective buyer’s photography skills and/or desire to learn; (2) present and future budget; (3) preferred style/type of shooting; and, perhaps most importantly, (4) personal preferences. Here’s how these factors come into play.
1 – Prospective Buyer’s Photography Skills and/or Desire to Learn
The relationship here is ‘higher skill and/or higher desire to learn’ implies ‘more complex’ camera options to be considered, and vice versa. Perhaps this may sound obvious, but it’s not always the case. Sometimes I’m confronted with persons desiring to acquire a Digital Single-Lens Reflex (DSLR) who have very limited (or no knowledge) of photography and equally no desire to learn anything about it. To such persons, I generally advice against procuring a DSLR camera for one simple reason: DSLRs are typically more complex to operate than traditional ‘point-and-shoot’ cameras. Limiting the use of an SLR to a ‘point-and-shoot’ role would be akin to buying a Ferrari and driving it at 40 km/h everywhere. In other words, it is an inefficient use of your money.
On the contrary, when it comes highly skilled photographers, or persons who desire to further their knowledge of the subject, I highly recommend procuring DSLR cameras or other ‘complex’ cameras, such as mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras, advanced compacts or possibly bridge cameras (in that order). These camera types offer the most versatility and functions to the user, and will thus allow you to ‘grow’ into them better than restricted ‘point-and-shoot’ cameras, (which typically have a very limited set of features and manual controls).
2 – Present and Future Budget
Your budget, both present and future, should play a critical role in the decision you make. Typically, the more complex the system you go for, the more costly the buying option will be, including any future associated costs. I often stress this latter point: cost is not only purchase price, but purchase price + accessories + maintenance. Therefore, present and future costs should be taken into account.
For instance, acquiring an entry level SLR with a basic 18-55mm kit lens could appear to be a more affordable option than buying an advanced compact camera, at least on paper. As an example, a Nikon D3100 typically costs less than say a Canon G1X II (advanced compact). However, with an SLR camera there are generally higher associated costs when it comes to sensor cleaning sessions, new lenses, bags/pouches, filters, batteries, etc. And these are not, strictly speaking, unnecessary luxuries – SLR cameras do require better care, maintenance and investments than most other types of cameras, so always factor in such care and maintenance costs in your budget-related decisions.
Let’s look at the facts: the advanced compact mentioned above features an effective focal length range of 24mm to 120mm straight-out-of-the-box and costs around €630, whilst the entry level SLR with the typical 18-55mm kit lens would cost around €400. Whilst the €230 difference here would seem to suggest that the Nikon is the best option, one needs to factor into the equation the “bang” you’re getting for your buck. If one had to try and ‘equalise’ the specifications offered by both cameras, the Nikon would have some serious catching up to do to match the lens specifications offered in the Canon body, since the Canon offers a lens that is both wider (24mm vs 27mm equivalent focal length) as well as more zoomed in (120mm vs 82.5mm). Moreover, the Canon lens has wider maximum apertures throughout the zoom range, allowing you to shoot at faster shutter speeds when light levels drop. These two reasons alone could justify spending a bit more on the advanced compact as opposed to the Nikon, as with the Nikon option, you would need to invest in additional gear sooner than you would have with the Canon compact. Thus, the Nikon could turn out costlier in the long run.
Thus, my recommendation is to always consider which package gives you most bang for your buck, especially taking into account the effective focal lengths you would have at your disposal, the widest maximum apertures, and noise performance to be expected.
3 – Preferred Style / Type of Shooting
How and what you shoot should always be taken into account when deciding on what camera to buy. For instance, if you only want to shoot pictures of you and your friends whilst out and about having drinks or at the beach, then buying an SLR or very expensive camera could be a futile exercise. For such situations, you would be more than adequately covered with a simple ‘point-and-shoot’ camera that you can carry around in your pocket or handbag. Heck, even smartphones can fill that gap nowadays, so always factor the “typical use case” in your decision so as not to end up with a camera that you keep leaving behind you after procuring it.
On the other hand, if you’re after more serious or specialised photography, for instance, landscapes or macro shots, then you should look elsewhere and consider investing into something more specialised. For instance, SLR cameras with dedicated macro lenses are still regarded among the best options available for specialist macro work. When it comes to landscapes, there are more options available to you, but the wider the view you want to acquire, the more limited the options you end up with. Once again, SLRs tend to dominate here, particularly given the larger availability of wider-view lenses. Nonetheless, you can still obtain superb results with any other kind of camera, such as advanced compact cameras and mirrorless systems. (The latter’s importance is constantly growing in the camera-sales market).
For serious portraiture, the need to have at your disposition a camera that can communicate with different lighting setups and take on different lenses depending on the type of shot you’re after implies one thing: you need to invest in serious gear. Generally, this implies either an SLR or a mirrorless system. Lesser cameras would struggle to give you the quality you should aim for, performing at an inadequate level when it comes to sharpness, depth of field and noise performance.
For sports and high-speed photography, you’re once again looking at serious gear (SLRs), although serious inroads where made here when it comes to mirrorless and advanced compact cameras. What you should factor in here is the system’s focusing speed and accuracy, its ability to handle high-ISOs and the number of shots per second it can take at maximum resolution. These features are critical to acquire action-stopping shots at any light-level, be it day, night or indoor.
4 – Personal Preferences
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the most important factor to take into account is your own preferences! It is essential to factor in the likelihood to use and enjoy the product being recommended to you! For instance, suppose I recommend Camera X to you given the elements outlined by points 1 to 3 above – what good would that be if you think Camera X looks hideous and you do not trust the brand? Whilst this may sound obvious, sometimes people tend to purchase products on the strength of recommendations alone, and then regret this afterwards once they realise they are not “compatible” with the recommended product. The lesson? Try out the products being recommended, visit the agent’s outlet and ask about the features you would use most often – are you comfortable with them? Are they easy to use? And so on, so forth.
Moreover, most choices often come down to this fourth and final factor, especially given the cut-throat competition that exists in the market today. You might go through points 1 to 3 and still end up with a list of, say, four cameras to choose from, each suitable enough to address your needs. It is through this fourth factor that your WANTS come in, and satisfying what you want is just as critical as satisfying what you need.
Finally, one last word of caution: unless YOU are convinced on a model, do not proceed. Camera gear is not cheap, and it’s always better to postpone a purchase, than regret one!
Hope these four points help you in your future decisions!