Camera Buying Guide

snerkler

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(Updated 9/12/23)

Lately I've been answering many posts on which cameras people should buy, explaining the differences between them, and listing the pros and cons of each. I therefore thought it would be a good idea to make a thread about this so that anyone who wants to buy a camera could read it and get a basic understanding.

If people wanted to read it, notify me of any errors or wrong info (I don't profess to be the guru of all things camera related), or add any vital info that's missing, and then hopefully make it into a sticky?

Key

DOF
- Depth of Field; area of the image in focus
IQ- Image Quality
FF- Full frame; referring to the size of the sensor (part of the camera that captures the image). FF sensors are equivalent in size to the old 35mm film
APS-C - APS-C sized sensor, smaller than FF but still with excellent publishable IQ.
M4/3 - Micro 4/3, smaller than APS-C but still with excellent IQ.

Smaller sensors have what is called a crop factor, see below or read here for more detailed info.

For the purpose of this article I am not going to discuss medium and large format cameras as these are still a niche market. When I compare IQ across the cameras they are not compared to medium or large format.


Camera Buying Guide

Before we get started I think it’s important to remember a few things. Getting good pictures is primarily about the person behind the camera knowing what to do, don’t expect that buying expensive equipment automatically gets good pictures.

After technique, and of course light, arguably the two most important factors in getting the best images are the lens and the sensor (the part of the camera that captures the image, i.e. does the job that film used to). Generally the better the lens the better the image quality (IQ), and the bigger the sensor the better the IQ. Also the larger the sensor the better the low light performance meaning your photos will have less noise/grain. Larger sensors also give you more control of depth of field (DOF) which is the amount of the photo which is in focus. An example of shallow DOF is a portrait where the person is in focus but the background is blurred, whereas an example of large DOF is a landscape where everything is in sharp focus. See this link for more info on sensors.

This diagram shows the relative difference in sensor sizes.

Sensor Size Comparison


camera-sensor-size-12 by TDG-77, on Flickr

In recent years the gap between the IQ of the different sized sensors has been bridged and in certain situations it can be difficult to see the difference in IQ between a FF sensor and crop sensor for example.

You will see a lot of camera specifications having a ‘second’ 35mm specification listed. This refers to the old 35mm film cameras and this ‘second’ listing refers to how the camera would ‘behave’ if it were the old traditional 35mm film cameras as different sized sensors have different crop factors which alters how the focal length of a lens looks. Smaller sensors crop the image more and so the image looks more zoomed in for a given focal length. For example Nikon APS-C have a crop factor of 1.5x, therefore if you have a 16mm lens it will give the FOV of a 24mm lens (16mm x 1.5 = 24m). Here is an example showing the difference in crop between a FF (35mm) sensor and crop sensor camera.


Screenshot 2023-12-08 at 08.16.04 by Toby Gunnee, on Flickr

When making comparisons between cameras it is probably best to compare the 35mm equivalent listing as this is standard across all cameras. Another factor influenced by the crop factor is the effect the aperture has on the image. The aperture is the 'hole' in the lens that allows the light in the camera, the larger the aperture the more light enters the camera but also the more shallow the DOF will be. The amount of light let in by the aperture is the same across all formats in terms of exposure, however the DOF will vary with larger sensors giving more shallow DOF for a given aperture size. I'll not get into this too much but the reason for this is the relationship between the different actual focal lengths and subject distance.

Brands

When buying cameras there can be a lot of brand ‘snobbery’ and personal preferences but no brand is better than the other, therefore when buying a camera it is important to look with an open mind and decide what functions of the camera are more important to you. Layout of the controls and buttons vary dramatically from camera to camera, as do menu systems, screens, and also something that is often overlooked but very important, ergonomics. For these reasons it is always best to go to a store to try the camera before you buy.

Megapixels

How many Megapixels do you need? Don't be fooled by thinking the more MP you have the better the IQ will be as this is not necessarily the case. MP count is a bit of a contentious issue, but forcing too many MP onto a sensor 'can' introduce more noise (used to be called grain in the film days), and they have larger file sizes sometimes requiring more powerful computers if you want to edit your images. High MP count can be useful if you want to print VERY big, and/or you intend to crop the image heavily. Here is a good video to show that in the real world there's often little to choose between sensor size and megapixels (skip to 8:57)




Common camera types.

Right then, onto the cameras. This is not exclusive, but I’m going to cover the most common.

Compact Cameras

Most often we think of consumer compacts here. These are generally cheap, small, portable cameras that can offer quite large optical zooms. Generally they have the smallest sensors and so image quality is going to be at the low end, as is low light performance. That being said, in the right conditions they can still provide very good images indeed. Typically consumer level compacts have a sensor size of 1/2.3", but some offer slightly bigger sensors such as 1/1.7" and so will give marginally better IQ and low light performance. Consumer compact cameras offer full automatic control, but only tend to offer limited manual control. Another thing to consider is that consumer compacts don't tend to have viewfinders.

More recently compact cameras have been released that are aimed at the high-end amateur market sporting much bigger sensors, some even have a full frame (FF) sensor and full manual control. These will produce much better image quality and low light performance. However, they tend to cost significantly more money, and zoom is limited. A very good compromise between size, cost and image quality is the 1" type compact cameras such as the Sony RX100 range and Canon G7x range.

Mobile phones can fit into the category of consumer compacts too, although zooms tend to be limited. Software developments mean that images from mobiles are improving all the time, especially when using raw images and processing manually in computer software. (Normally phones and cameras process the photos themselves and produce a jpeg photo, however you can capture the original data (raw photo) and process the image yourself)



Bridge Cameras

Bridge cameras are essentially consumer compact cameras in a different form, looking and feeling more like a DSLR camera. As they generally share the same sensors as compacts (1/2.3”), image quality and low light performance tends to be similarly at the low end of the spectrum. Other than the form of the camera, the other main differences between bridge cameras and compact cameras is that they can offer bigger zooms, allow full manual control and have viewfinders.

More recently bridge cameras have also been released with larger sensors, such as the Sony RX10 which has the same 1” sensor as the RX100 mentioned above. However, once again they tend to be considerably more expensive.



Compact System Cameras (CSC’s), commonly referred to as Mirrorless Cameras.

This is the market that has seen the biggest change and growth in recent years (as of 2023). Whilst not the very first mirrorless manufacturers Panasonic and Olympus brought Mirrorless Cameras to the masses, and created the excellent micro four thirds (m43) system with the premise of creating an interchangeable lens system with excellent IQ whilst reducing the bulk and weight when compared to DSLRs. They were able to achieve this by using a 4/3 sensor which is 1/4 the size of FF sensors and as a result not only can the camera bodies be smaller but so can the lenses, overall leading to a considerable size and weight saving.

Since then we have seen benefits from the mirrorless technology (see below) and as a result we have seen more mirrorless systems with Fuji and Sony bringing out systems with APS-C sensors, and finally FF mirrorless. Panasonic have also entered the FF mirrorless market but initial response is mixed. These larger sensor mirrorless cameras have better IQ and low light performance than m4/3, but at the penalty of cost as well as increasing size and weight with some camera and lens combinations being the size of that of a DSLR system. That being said some manufacturers are now bringing out new lenses that are smaller and lighter and as a result some combinations are not that much heavier than the equivalent m4/3.

Due to the lack of a mirror Mirrorless Cameras use a different focusing system than DLSR’s which initially tended to be slower than DSLRs, although later generations matched DSLRs and some have now surpassed DSLRs. CSC's also have other focussing tricks up their sleeves like eye autofocus where the camera can automatically detect and focus on a person's or animal's eye(s). They also have manual focus aids such as peaking and zoom magnification.

A large number of CSC’s have a viewfinder, and tend to be electronic (EVF) rather than optical (OVF). Both EVF’s and OVF’s have pros and cons and is really down to personal preference. The main advantage of EVF's is that what you see if what you get, i.e. the image in the viewfinder is exactly the image that you will get. Also, you get focussing aids as just mentioned Some cameras have blackout free shooting meaning the images does not black out when the shutter is pressed like it does on DSLRs and other mirrorless cameras. One issue with the EVF is that there is a slight lag in the image seen in the viewfinder meaning that it can be more difficult when panning. With the latest generations of CSC's the lag is minimal to the point you don't notice it, and for most people it won't be an issue. With an optical viewfinder you are looking through the lens and not seeing the final image, however you are getting a 'real life' image (as opposed to looking at a small LCD like EVFs) and as a result there is no lag.


DSLR’s

Primarily there are two types of DSLR cameras, APS-C and Full Frame. FF DSLR’s (and FF mirrorless) , as already stated, can provide the absolute best in IQ, low light performance, and control of DOF. Also, when you get into the more expensive FF cameras they tend to have more features, have better focusing systems, and weather sealing. The problems with FF DSLR’s are that they are more expensive, bulkier, heavier, and have less reach (think zoom) than APS-C DSLR’s. However, with the market moving towards the mirrorless systems DSLRs and their lenses can be found at relative bargains, especially on the used market.

APS-C DSLR’s have a smaller sensor than FF as already mentioned, but can still produce outstanding IQ and low light performance. To the untrained eye there is little to no discernible difference in IQ between APS-C and FF. They have the advantage over FF in that they are cheaper, less bulky, less heavy, and have a longer reach due to the crop factor as already mentioned. This is advantageous for those who want a long reach but without the weight and expense of very long telephoto lenses. There are APS-C DSLRs available that provide the 'pro level' features and build of the higher end FF DSLRs. The Nikon D500 is arguably the best example of this currently (true as of June 2019).


All DSLR’s have viewfinders, with most being OVF. Sony broke the mould by introducing EVF’s into their DSLR’s, which was made possible by their different mirror technology, at the expense of introducing a bit more noise. These cameras are actually called DSLT's rather than DSLRs but other than the tech behind the mirror they can be considered the same.


Useful Links

Learn About Camera Equipment
Digital Photography Review
Welcome to Photozone!
Digital camera reviews, photography techniques, photography gallery and photography forums
KenRockwell.com: Photography, Cameras and Taking Better Pictures
Compare digital cameras - Snapsort



Here's some good links for guides into photography for those wanting to learn the basics.

Understanding ISO, Shutter Speed and Aperture - A Beginner's Guide

Understanding ISO - A Beginner's Guide

Understanding Aperture - A Beginner's Guide

Understanding Shutter Speed - A Beginner's Guide

Understanding Metering and Metering Modes



Cambridge in Colour - Photography Tutorials & Learning Community


Understanding Digital Camera Histograms: Tones and Contrast

Understanding Digital Camera Histograms: Luminosity and Color

Understanding Camera Metering and Exposure

Making the Most of Natural Light in Photography




The Basics of Light for Photography - Pinkbike


Ultimate Exposure Computer



Also, this book is good. Goes over a lot of the stuff from the links above, but nice to have as reference. I got it for a tenner off amazon so worth looking to see if it comes up on offer.

Understanding Exposure, 3rd Edition: How to Shoot Great Photographs with Any Camera: Amazon.co.uk: Bryan Peterson: Books



P.S. Zone, I don't know if you could bump this up so that it follows the first post?
 
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Looks pretty good and thanks for taking the time ot do this.

minor typos - braket and carriage return missing in the FF para and i'd reverse the sentence "best images are the lens and the sensor " to "best images are the sensor and the lens" int he 4th para to be consistent with the info in the following brackets.

May also be worth adding a paragraph about lens aperture numbers and what to look for (amount of light and depth of field) and may be an additional para in the compacts section about the mid range 1/1.6" and 2/3" being a good compromise especially when combines with an f2ish lens. Also may be worth adding a note about Mpix not being a big differentiator once you get above about 10Mpix for most amature applications. Another thought may be to add a para in about thinking about what type of photo you want to take and therefore what to look out for in a camera/lens. And finally may be useful to add a link to the wiki page on camera sensor sizes (has the picture you added) and also the various review standard sites dpreview, photozone, ephotozine, the-digital-picture, ken rockwell, snapsort etc.

Hope these comments are useful and I'll leave it to you to include/discard as you see fit.
 
Looks pretty good and thanks for taking the time ot do this.

minor typos - braket and carriage return missing in the FF para and i'd reverse the sentence "best images are the lens and the sensor " to "best images are the sensor and the lens" int he 4th para to be consistent with the info in the following brackets.

May also be worth adding a paragraph about lens aperture numbers and what to look for (amount of light and depth of field) and may be an additional para in the compacts section about the mid range 1/1.6" and 2/3" being a good compromise especially when combines with an f2ish lens. Also may be worth adding a note about Mpix not being a big differentiator once you get above about 10Mpix for most amature applications. Another thought may be to add a para in about thinking about what type of photo you want to take and therefore what to look out for in a camera/lens. And finally may be useful to add a link to the wiki page on camera sensor sizes (has the picture you added) and also the various review standard sites dpreview, photozone, ephotozine, the-digital-picture, ken rockwell, snapsort etc.

Hope these comments are useful and I'll leave it to you to include/discard as you see fit.
Thanks for the feedback. Have made a couple of alterations to my original post based on this. I will dig out a link re sensor size later.
 
Nice one Snerks :thumbsup:
 
Excellent guide :)
 
@Snerks - PM Zone and get it added as a Sticky Thread to make it easier to point people at if they don't spot it themselves :)
 
@Snerks - PM Zone and get it added as a Sticky Thread to make it easier to point people at if they don't spot it themselves :)
Will do, was just waiting to get it 'finalised' first. I think the recent alterations have just about completed it though?
 
It's useful as it is - getting it stickied won't stop you adding to it as new ideas come along....
 
So what camera shall I buy?
 
D3200 - or the Sony equivalent :devil:
 
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:cool:
 
Well done, Toby - great guide and something that will be very useful to point people to in future :clap:
 
Ditto. You've certainly come a long way since taking this hobby up. :)
 
Here's some good links for guides into photography for those wanting to learn the basics. .........




........
P.S. Zone, I don't know if you could bump this up so that it follows the first post?

I merged them. Is that OK?
A good technique for anybody planning to document a project or post a masterclass, is to post the first but then to post four or five blank posts with the message "To be filled later". Then you just edit as required.
 
Great, thanks very much :smashin:

Good guide but this comment "CSCs - Lenses for these types of camera do not tend to be as good as some of the higher end DSLR lenses and therefore IQ may not be quite as good." isnt true.
 
Good guide but this comment "CSCs - Lenses for these types of camera do not tend to be as good as some of the higher end DSLR lenses and therefore IQ may not be quite as good." isnt true.
Are you saying that you can get CSC lenses that are as good as the top level DSLR lenses then? I did put 'tend' and 'may' in italics for this reason and to emphasise that it doesn't mean always :smashin:
 
Are you saying that you can get CSC lenses that are as good as the top level DSLR lenses then? I did put 'tend' and 'may' in italics for this reason and to emphasise that it doesn't mean always :smashin:

Yes, of course you can. Some of the best lenses Ive ever used have been CSC lenses. Is the comment based on your own use of various systems and lenses or other sources? It might mislead people into thinking that a DSLR is the best (for IQ), especially newbies who are looking into investing quite a lot.
 
Yes, of course you can. Some of the best lenses Ive ever used have been CSC lenses. Is the comment based on your own use of various systems and lenses or other sources? It might mislead people into thinking that a DSLR is the best (for IQ), especially newbies who are looking into investing quite a lot.
Other sources, I've not used CSC's except for 'playing' in store. I'll change the info then if that's the case. I did source from several places so got a general consensus, I guess this is a general misconception in the photography world then?

Thanks for the advice :smashin:
 
Other sources, I've not used CSC's except for 'playing' in store. I'll change the info then if that's the case. I did source from several places so got a general consensus, I guess this is a general misconception in the photography world then?

Im not shooting down your hard work, because it is a very good guide but there are a lot of biased reviewers out there. Its not a general misconception but the DSLR internet world is more developed than CSC internet world and people are stuck in their ways of bigger and more expensive is always better.

Dont forget about Leica, Carl Zeiss, Olympus, Fuji, Voigtlander and a lot of others that produce lenses for mirrorless or that a mirrorless can use pretty much any lens ever made.
 
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Im not shooting down your hard work, because it is a very good guide but there are a lot of biased reviewers out there. Its not a general misconception but the DSLR internet world is more developed than CSC internet world and people are stuck in their ways of bigger and more expensive is always better.

Dont forget about Leica, Carl Zeiss, Olympus, Fuji, Voigtlander and a lot of others that produce lenses for mirrorless.
No worries, I didn't take it in a negative way :) I did ask to be notified if there's any wrong info so appreciate the feedback :smashin:
 
Hi there, I wonder if anyone can help me and sorry if I posted this on the wrong thread. I'm hoping to buy my first CSC (having researched the various options, DSLR and Bridge are not for me). I've only ever had a standard compact before and the most knowledge I have of SLRs or compacts is from a brief course I went on (and promptly forgot). I want the camera as I'm going on a round the world trip in a few months and want to take some good quality photographs. I'll mostly be taking photos of landscapes, natural environments such as flowers, and perhaps people. I've no idea which to go for but want something small and not to heavy as I'm backpacking, and my budget is around £400. Something not too complicated but that can be added to or has more complex options when I learn more. I was considering the Olympus Pen EPL-5 - any reviews or other suggestions? Thanks :)
 

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