“What camera should I buy?” is by far the most common question I get asked. So to gather my thoughts together, here is my definitive and opinionated answer.
Do you need a new camera?
Let’s get this out of the way first, the real answer is that if you already have a camera, or even a recent smart phone than you probably don’t need to buy a new camera. What you have is probably technically superior to cameras made 5 or more years ago, and most iconic images of our life are from more than 5 years ago. So you already have a tool more than capable to produce photos that can amaze people. You will probably benefit most from learning more about light, studying masters, and learning how to see.
The other axiom related to the above is that the camera doesn’t make photographs, the photographer does. So it doesn’t matter the camera you use, but how you use it. It is often compared to painters, was Picasso an amazing painter because he had access to better brushes and colors? Of course not, he was great because of his vision, imagination, and ability to produce great work. Whatever camera you pick will be fine.
I believe both of the above paragraphs, that it doesn’t matter the camera, but also in reality it does. For me, I can’t produce anything decent from my smart phone, I’ve tried it just turns out bad. Using a phone, I can’t get myself into the right mindset to take good photos, from composing on an LCD to taking the picture by tapping, it just doesn’t have the feel for me.
So the choice of what camera you should get, comes down to a personal choice. The answer is not what camera has the most megapixels, the most accessories, or considered The Best; the answer is what camera is best for me. Does the camera excite me? encourage me to go out? is it the right size?
First up is to determine which format to buy. Today the choice basically falls down to a DSLR or a mirror-less camera. I’ll quickly dismiss film as an option since if you’re crazy enough to shoot film, than you’ve done plenty of research.
My two quick film answers, if you want autofocus and the best camera ever made get the Nikon F6. If you want a manual camera, get a Nikon FE2, it has aperture priority and is cheaper than a FM2, also a great camera. Forget Leica, save your money, they are overpriced cameras for dentists with too much folklore surrounding them.
Back to DSLR vs. mirror-less, first to explain the difference between the two. DSLR stands for digital single lens reflex camera, it is a camera which light enters through the lens, reflects off a mirror bouncing to a prism which turns the projection the right way up to a viewfinder that you put your eye to compose the image.
When you press the shutter button, the mirror flips up out of the way, so the light can now hit the sensor (or film) and capture the image. This is how cameras have been made for many decades, it is a tried and true mechanical system.
The benefits of an SLR format, since companies are experienced creating them, they are high performing and more responsive. Plus, looking through the viewfinder you see reality, the actual light and how the image looks through the lens you are using.
A mirror-less camera does exactly what it sounds like, it removes the mirror and uses electronics. The light comes in and hits the sensor and then its translated to see on the electronic viewfinder or the back LCD. The first generation cameras were slow in this translation so a little lag between reality and what shows on the viewfinder, but this has been greatly sped up and now pretty much a non-issue.
By removing the mirror the camera can have less mechanical parts, the camera is simpler and without the mechanics to flip a physical mirror they can be more compact. Also, a mirror-less camera is often much quieter, since you don’t have the noise of the mirror flipping out of the way, just the shutter.
I recommend a mirror-less system because they are smaller, lighter which makes it easier and more likely you will carry it around with you. I would skip a DSLR, especially for travel and starting out, since they tend to be bigger and more expensive.
The sensor size is different than camera format, though slightly related. Most DSLRs are full frame, and most mirror-less have smaller sensors, but not always the case. There are basically three sizes to sensors: full-frame, APS-C, and micro four-thirds, it’s more complicated, but don’t need to worry about them all. Historically, sensor size has always been bigger is better. This is still basically true, but with the advancement of sensor technology even the smallest four-thirds sensor produces great images. So these days even though a full-frame is still technically better, it’s probably more than you need and you won’t notice the difference.
I’m a big fan of Fujifilm mirrorless cameras, so my recommendations are going to center around their system. The same applies to just about all manufacturers.
The Fuji cameras use an APS-C size sensor this feels like a good balance between large enough for quality, but small enough to get benefits of smaller cameras and lenses.
I prefer a fixed lens camera, even with my interchangeable cameras I tend to only use a single normal lens. I don’t like zoom lenses because it gives me one other thing to worry about when composing. Plus not being able to switch lenses is a feature that helps cut down on the desire to buy more stuff.
I shoot with the Fuji X100t, it is a fixed 35mm lens which is the preferred field of view for me. The camera is a good size and works well for me. I highly recommend it, with the one caveat that it is priced a bit higher than most people want to spend when starting out. ($1,300 as of July 2016)
The Fuji X70 is just as great camera, uses the same sensor, and is almost half the price of the X100t. ($700 as of July 2016).
I don’t use the X70 because the lens is a 28mm lens which is a little too wide for me. It is the same field of view as the iPhone which is probably fine for most people. The other difference is the X100t has an electronic viewfinder, so you can bring the camera to your eye to compose. The X70 you simply use the LCD on the back, again similar to using a camera phone, which as mentioned previously, doesn’t work for me.
So the X70 is my #1 recommendation for a great camera for most people. You should buy this camera if you like the wide angle, most people do; and you are fine composing shots on the LCD and not an eye level viewfinder. Plus a fixed lens means you don’t have to worry about buying more stuff for your camera.
If you want an interchangeable lens system, Fujifilm does have several options for you, too many if you ask me. If you need a refresher, you can read a little about lenses and focal lengths in my Photography Fundamentals article.
The Fuji X-E2s is a great camera if you want to be able to buy additional lenses and swap them around, this typically gets more expensive, but gives lots of flexibilities. The X-E2s is $700 for just the body, for a first lens I would recommend the slim XF 27mm, it is an additional $450. Fuji has a great assortment of lens to choose from, almost all very high quality, but they aren’t cheap.
If you want to spend even more money, the Fuji X-T2 is the new top of the line camera from Fuji. I had the X-T1 for awhile and it is a fantastic camera, read my review. I ended up selling it, the lenses, and accessories to simplify down to the X100t. The X-T2 is the follow on and Fuji’s answer to compete with top DSLR performance, but price-wise it is up there with them at $1,600 for just the body.
To further confuse things Fujifilm has an X-T10 and an X-Pro2 which fit in other various other price points. The X-T2 and X-Pro2 use a new generation sensor, but all their other cameras use the exact same sensor, so very minor differences between them.
Sony makes some great cameras, and has even a larger selection of models to pick from. Sony actually makes the sensors for Fuji and the iPhones, and I think Nikon, which goes to show that more things are alike than different.
Cameras are so advanced and good these days, you can’t really go wrong buying one. This is why I think manufacturers create so many different models and price points, tiny feature differences to try to drive a little more demand. It is more important to focus on what you are shooting, and not what you are shooting with.
All of the above is for someone interested in Photography (capital P), maybe as an means of artistic expression, or whatever. If you just want a family camera, and feel your camera phone is not good enough, get the Canon PowerShot G9X, Wirecutter rates it their best point & shoot under $500, and I trust them with almost all my decisions.