How to find the right camera?

As students and friends often ask me this question, I have created a little flowchart to help you find a camera that fits your ambition, experience and purse – without endorsing specific brands. If you need more help, feel free to ask any question.

If you have come here, chances are that you care about photography and are looking for a camera which lets you control aperture, shutterspeed and ISO and change lenses for different focal lengths. If you are not going to work as a professional photographer anytime soon, I would look for good, but possibly used equipment – starting with a DSLR body and 1-2 lenses and gradually buying more equipment as you see the need. (If you live in the SF Bay Area, Stanford has a good second-hand list.)

If you do not have a body or lens yet that you want to keep, first choose a brand – you cannot go wrong with the major ones. You should stick to that brand, as you cannot easily use e.g. Nikon lenses on a Canon body. If your friend already has good lenses of a particular brand that you want to share, consider getting a body of the same brand. Don’t worry too much about megapixels if you are not planning on exposing gigantic prints in galleries.

Do worry about your lense(s):

While camera bodies have a limited lifespan – they fail after some hundred thousand shutter actuations – camera lenses can last a lifetime. Thus don’t compromise on your main lens. The lenses that come with cameras (kit lenses) are usually not really good. What makes a lens good is a large maximum aperture, like f=2.8, written on the front or outside the lens. This max. aperture should ideally be constant, that is, not being reduced when you zoom in. The latter is the case for most kit lenses; you will find out if you see something like f=3.5-5.6 written on the lens. The lower your max. aperture, the more limited your low-light capacity and the bokeh you can achieve.

A large zoom factor (like a 18-200) makes a very practical travel lens, because you can quickly adapt to all situations from landscape panoramas to wildlilfe photography. But these so-called “superzooms” tend to be soft, rendering less detail (the max. aperture is typically f=4), as if you carry several lenses with more limited zoom factors. Your decision depends on what you prioritize on: Do you need to get all zoom factors with one rather light lens (like a 18-200)? Or can you limit yourself to a smaller zoom factor (like 18-55) and either miss out on some wildlife shots – or carry an additional zoom lens which you will have to change on the spot?

I opted for the slow-and-bulky-but-high-quality approach. It works because I already know beforehand what I will need in a certain place and I prefer taking a few good pictures to covering everything. My main lens is a Tamron 24-70mm with an aperture of 2.8 – on hikes it is the only one I take. (As my camera has a full-frame sensor, if you wanted to achieve the same focal range on a more beginner-friendly crop-sensor body, you would need a 18-55mm lens.)

I often carry a very small prime (portrait) lens of 50mm with a max. 1.8 aperture (35mm for a crop-sensor camera) which I transform into a macro lens by turning it around. (You can find a macro reverse ring for around 10 USD, if you google it – just be aware of the diametre of your lens.) Sometimes I take my ultra wide-angle lens of 14mm/2.8 (9mm for a crop-sensor camera) which is great for some indoor and star photography. If I don’t mind carrying a really heavy lens, I take my 70-200mm/2.8 telephoto (50-130mm for a crop-sensor-camera).

Once you have found a good lens (read some test and reviews here), you can buy filters at the appropriate diametre. I would recommend a UV filter to protect it, eventually a polarizing filter to filter out reflections (landscape photos during the day and on the seaside) and – if you have a tripod – a ND filter for long exposures at daytime.

I am working with the following equipment: Canon 5D Mark II, Tamron 24-70mm/2.8, Tamron 70-200mm/2.8, Canon 50mm/1.8, Rokinon 14mm/2.8, ND 0.9 filter, polarizing filter, UV filter, flash, reflector, tripod. However, 20 years ago I learned all the basics and got hooked with a very simple, used, analogue SLR camera.

If you want to learn about photography and experiment with different genres, register for my 10-week workshop at the Palo Alto Adult School or read some of my articles on photography here (English >>, German >>).

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