Choosing a digital camera

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29 October 2010

UPDATE: please see my addendum in the Comments section, at the end.

After my last blog post, a relative asked me for camera advice, because she is planning on buying a new camera to get better at photography. I took the time to type up a detailed answer, and figured I should also share it (revised and edited) here. Note that this answer is targeted at typical home photographers who want to take better pictures; some of these comments would change for other audiences.

I have a Nikon D40. But here’s my advice about cameras:

Megapixels don’t matter, at all. Any number 5 or larger is sufficient; so long as it is at least “5” you can safely ignore the number when making your decision.

First decide between SLR (“Single Lens Reflex”) and Point & Shoot (“P&S”). Get an SLR if you really want to get into learning photography (or if you already know), and know that you’ll want manual control over specific camera settings. Also get one if you know about (and care about) depth of field. Otherwise, an SLR is probably overkill. There are great P&S cameras that have all the features you might want from an SLR, and cost a lot less. You lose some flexibility and control, but you gain simplicity and a lower price.

Everybody wants to know “Canon or Nikon?” That question really only matters if you’re getting an SLR.

  • If you are, I prefer Nikons because they work more like how I (as a geek) expect a camera to work. My sense is that Canons are more human-friendly, though.
  • In either case, it’s really the lenses that matter, not the camera body. So when choosing a body, don’t worry about it too much; buy the least-expensive body that has all the features you know you want.
  • If you aren’t getting an SLR, you don’t have to limit yourself to Canon/Nikon. I had an Olympus camera I really liked.
  • Really you don’t have to limit yourself to Canon/Nikon for SLRs, either, but it’s safer to do so. Just read reviews if you go off those two brands.

The thing that makes the biggest difference in my pictures isn’t the camera, or the lens, usually. It’s the flash. I have an add-on flash that lets me bounce the flash off the ceiling. That makes ALL the difference in how natural my indoor pictures look. Plan on buying a bounce flash; don’t consider it optional. Expect to spend about $100-$200. It doesn’t have to be fancy, to start. You can get a bounce flash for P&S cameras (the bigger ones), too.

After the flash, the next most important thing is to know what you’re doing :) Read a book, or take a class, if you don’t already know about aperture, shutter speed, and what depth of field is. Or if you don’t know how to frame a picture, handle your flash, and adjust the white balance on your computer. If you really do plan on taking a class, skip straight to an SLR rather than a P&S.

After the knowledge, the next most important thing is the lens (not the camera). Ideally you want a single lens that will zoom from about 18mm to about 200mm, with vibration reduction, with almost no barrel distortion, and that has great low-light abilities. A lens with all but the last feature exists from Nikon, for only about $750. But even if you could afford such a lens, I’d still suggest you get a second lens for low-light situations.

The point is, you can’t have everything you want, so you’ll have to compromise. Things you’ll have to weigh in your compromise:

  1. Price. Pick a budget and stick with it. You can always spend more on equipment later.
  2. Zoom range (from “none” to “huge”); also important is how often you’ll need the specific range that the lens covers. If it does zoom, you’ll need to consider whether the extremes of the range will distort the picture; some lenses do.
  3. Glass quality & coatings. Nikon and Canon are almost always great, but many third-party lenses are also great, and usually less expensive; some research can save significant money.
  4. Low-light ability (i.e. do pictures in dark places look blurry?). This is the biggest factor in the cost of the different lenses.
  5. Vibration reduction, which helps offset hand-holding and/or dim light. It’s a valuable feature for longer-zoom lenses, but not an inexpensive one.
  6. Noise while zooming/focusing. Some lenses are noisy. (I don’t usually worry about this.)

If you’re buying a P&S, the lens decision and the camera decision are inseparable. Often that’s how P&S prices are kept down – the lens is crappy. (Often not, though!) Consider the lens carefully when you buy a P&S.

If you’re buying an SLR, I suggest you buy lenses in the order below, until you run out of lens money. It’s OK to run out of money after the first lens :)

  1. The zoom lens that comes with your kit, assuming you read the reviews and they say that the kit lens is a decent one.
  2. A good low-light lens. That’s probably a $200(ish) fixed-zoom (probably 35mm) “normal” lens with a widest aperture of f1.8. Other options exist, but this is probably the right choice to start. This is a great learning-lens, and will occasionally let you get pictures that you just can’t get with either other lens.
  3. A long-zoom lens, with vibration reduction. You’ll end up using this lens a lot for people-shots, once you try it a few times.

Finally, choose the camera. The D5000 is probably Nikon’s best starter SLR at the moment. I don’t know about P&S cameras these days, and I’ve never really known about Canon :)

See It’s very detailed, but it has great information.

  1. Markus Merz | Hamburg St. Georg says:

    A SLR is superior – technically – no doubt.

    But a P&S is the way to go. Literally!

    Canon S 90 (my actual ‘want to own’ favorite), Fujifilm FDn (I had the F10, great camera), Panasonic DMC-LXn (I have the LX1. Great under well known circumstances, bad in bad light, slow with flash).

  2. Nathan Arthur says:

    After a year of reflection and a few more people asking me these same questions, I want to change the advice I gave above, a bit, as follows:


    “8” should really be the minimum number of megapixels. 8 has become common, and there are times with my 6MP camera when I really wished I had a few more pixels for cropping purposes. Numbers above that give you diminishing returns, though, so once you’re above “8” it’s not worth worrying about.

    Depth of field

    You really should care about depth of field. It’s probably the third-most important thing you need from your camera (behind “good lens” and “good flash”). And P&S cameras have serious limitations when it comes to depth of field.

    Depth of field is a complex subject, but basically it determines how much of the picture is in focus, from foreground to background. Take a look at these two examples: wide depth of field, narrow depth of field. You see how in that second picture the background is (mostly) out of focus? Without that blur, that picture would look flat and uninspiring. With it, it’s one of my favorite pictures. (I use it as my desktop background!) In fact, I wish I had more blur in the background for that one – but I’d need a better camera and/or a better lens to get it.

    So here’s the issue: P&S cameras make it effectively impossible to take a picture like that one. (Experts will totally disagree with the technical aspects of what I just said and what I’m about to say, but in practice what I say here is how you’ll actually experience it.) There are really two reasons for this limitation – small sensor size and lower-quality lenses. Both issues affect depth of field, effectively forcing you to always have a wide depth of field (so the background will always be in focus). That’s totally fine for 90% of shots, but if you really want to be taking good pictures, you sometimes just have to have a narrow depth of field.

    So, if you’re serious about wanting to improve your pictures, you should probably stay away from P&S cameras, unless you specifically find one with a large sensor size (look for “1.5 or 1.6 crop factor”, or a “4/3 sensor size”).

    See this article & video if you want to start learning about depth of field.

    Shutter lag

    Something else I completely forgot to mention, because I don’t use P&S cameras, is shutter lag. Shutter lag is the delay between when you press the button and when the picture is actually taken. On P&S cameras, that delay can often be a second or more, although it is usually probably about a half second. That’s way too long for snapping events as they happen. On SLRs, usually shutter lag is very low (quarter-second), and with the right settings (and pre-focusing) it can become effectively nil. Here again, if you buy a P&S carefully, you can get one with low shutter lag – but you have to be careful about it. Generally if you’re buying an SLR, you’ll be fine (but not always – check the specs!).

    In conclusion

    If price isn’t your primary consideration, get an SLR (plus add-on flash) per my advice above. If it is your primary consideration, look very carefully at the P&S options to find one that has a good lens, low shutter lag, and a large sensor. Then also buy an add-on flash :)

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