camchoice1…is a question I hear regularly. Honestly. This year it is the 5th or 6th time I was asked to advise on the choice of a camera. Previously I wrote an entry about that, but that was written with a bit of annoyance and therefore not very much helpful. Today I want to try to be a little bit more constructive and give some ideas on how to proceed when buying a camera.

Standard info speech, part  1: There is no “best brand”
I will not emphasize a certain brand unless there is a strong reason for it (e.g. if you already have Canon lenses from your old analog Canon equipment it might make sense to buy a Canon, more on that later). In terms of image and build quality I can state that there are no crappy DSLRs on the market. Don’t listen to fanboys, for them everything besides their favorite brand will be crap. I postulate that you are pretty safe in terms of image quality when you buy a camera  from one of the major brands (Nikon, Canon, Olympus, Sony, Pentax, Sigma and other manufacturers I might forget now, don’t hate me). No company can afford to produce low quality DSLRs, they would not prevail on the market. Generally spoken one can rule out that “one brand is better than another”.

Now comes the “but”
There’s that thing with your personal preferences and “history” in terms of camera equipment you might have posessed earlier. Everybody has other preferences, and this is the point when the camera from manufacturer A might be better for you than the camera from manufacturer B. Many factors play into this. The level of functionality, number of buttons and dials, body design, user interface,   surface roughness, materials, shutter sounds (don’t laugh, this also influences the buying decision), size, weight, viewfinder complexity (some people are irritated by too many symbols in the viewfinder, some demand them).

Standard info speech, part  2: “The lens is more important than the body”
Frankly speaking a camera body is a light-sealed box with a sensor which captures the image. And the image is shaped by the lens. The lens is more important than the body. Chant this five times every day before going to bed.
An expensive lens on a cheap body will produce better images than a cheap lens on an expensive body. Don’t believe me ? Watch this very entertaining and informative video by DigitalRev.TV:

So here is my conclusion from that: Invest in lenses. Yes, it might hurt to spend so much money on a lens, but you will be rewarded with the little fine extras in image quality (that is, unless don’t give a sh*t about it, which brings us back to the “personal preferences” thingy…).

Standard info speech, part  3: “Go into a store and try some cameras”
Mucho importanto. Use the camera. Hold it, use it, feel it. I know guys to whom I gave this advice who came back to me and said “Gee, I took the Blablabla 500 and I have trouble holding it, it does not fit well in my hand” or the other way around “The Nanana 8000 is a nice camera, but quite heavy. I am not sure whether I want to carry this around all day…”
Try the cameras. Take some pictures. Browse the menus. This will give you feedback on the camera that review articles with measurement curves can’t give you.

After giving my standard speech I start asking questions, first one being:

“Do you or somebody in your family already have any camera equipment, perhaps an old analog SLR with some lenses ?”
This question might abbreviate the choice of a camera brand. If the answer is “yes” you should evaluate what equipment the person has. Some people do not know that even very old lenses from the major brands can be used with modern DSLRs. The mount has not changed. I have Nikkor lenses which are 20+ years old and I can attach them to all the modern Nikon DSLRs. The same for Canon for example.

Please note that a “yes” does not trigger a “buy this brand” decision automatically. Again it has to be checked what equipment the person has, if it is compatible, and if the quality of the equipment justifies the brand decision.

Here one special case has to be known: If the person answers “Yes, I have a Minolta film camera”. Minolta has been bought by Sony (who manufacture the Sony alpha DSLR series). Most of the old Minolta lenses can be used with Sony alpha cameras. But check this first, because not all lenses fit ! The Support Pages of Sony can help you further.

What also might influence the buying decision are your friends. Photography is more fun when you do it with friends, so if all your friends have Nikon e.g. it might be worth a thought also to get a Nikon camera. Then you can borrow lenses and other equipment.

“How seriously do you want to get involved into photography ?”
Some people now talk about taking photos of their newborn child, of family reunions, and of taking pictures during their vacation. Some talk about learning photography, portraits,  depth of field, perhaps art, interesting lighting situations, composition, studio shoots. What I note down are just examples.
The answers give you an idea of the person’s preferences. Somebody who wants to document his/her child growing up might be happier with an easy-to-use-camera with many motive programs. These people probably are not interested in manual exposure, spot metering or bulb mode. It would more point in the direction of a consumer DSLR (a “small” DSLR). If the person is talking about the second set of interests I mentioned the person might be better off with a mid-class DSLR which offers more possibilities. But then again – there are also people who are interested in getting deeper into photography, but they don’t want to carry a bulky camera with them. There are many factors to consider.

– I repeat that these are guidelines and ideas, not rules ! –

“Are you willing to carry around some camera weight or do you like it small and compact ?”
This is closely related to the previous question. Let me give you myself as an example. I am strongly interested in the details when it comes to photography, it is not only a hobby but also a business for me now. Therefore I want to get the best results possible when taking images. I usually carry around a lot of stuff and I don’t mind carrying that extra weight. I like having all the stuff with me.
My preferences might be characterised best by my requirements towards a camera backpack: “Must hold all my gear and a bottle of water”.

Other people see photography more as a nice side-thing. When they are on vacation they might want to take a snapshot, but not center their time around taking pictures.

The answer to the above question again is a puzzle piece towards the camera choice.

“What is your budget ?”
This might already narrow it down. Closely related to the “weight” and “depth of involvement”-questions. If the person wants to spend only 500 € your choice is narrowed down (don’t get me wrong, I have seen pretty good offers for a body and kit lens for 399€ at the major electronics retailers).

Finally: Cooking it all down
There are many other questions you can ask, I listed only the most popular ones. I usually do not recommend a specific brand or model but point a general direction e.g. “In your case I would suggest you take a look at the small and lightweight entry-level DSLRs.” So what I have done is helping the people to become clear about their own expectations and wishes.

“Starter kit” suggestions:
Finally, Whenever somebody is on the verge of buying I give them a basic shopping list, with the stuff they need to start clicking away. That list is very short and goes like this:

  • camera body
  • lens
  • memory card
  • bag
  • second battery.

In my eyes this is the very standard equipment you need. One might argue over the second battery, but it is so much more practical to have a spare battery when going out taking photos. Not to mention that your batteries will live longer because you are not bound to charge the battery regardless of its charging status.

Closing comments
In this article I outlined a general approach towards the choice of a camera brand and camera model. Since everybody has other preferences and use scenarios for a DSLR it is important to find out what these preferences and use scenario are. Once one is clear about that the choice of models can be narrowed down to a certain “level” of cameras in terms of size and functionality. From there on the buyer must decide for himself what he/she actually wants to spend money on.