Friday, December 14, 2012

What Camera Should I Get?

As a photographer the most frequent question I hear is "what camera should I get?" While a few people are asking this question in ernest, many really are asking for justification in buying the most expensive camera they can afford, or in some cases they can't afford. When selecting a camera there are really a couple of things to consider. The first is what is the end usage of the photos? The second is does the end usage support a budget that exceeds the 80-20 rule? There is a third question too, and really this is the one that justifies the budget, where will I be shooting, in what lighting conditions? I will get back to this but let's take a moment to look at the first two.

What is the end usage of the photos? Unless your end usage is giant, as in 3 feet by 4 feet or larger prints, any modern camera will likely suffice. For 8"x10" prints you only need a 2 megapixel sensor, less than that if you just want images for emailing to family or displaying products on your website. The camera sensors in cell phones are plenty for these uses.

So does your usage justify exceeding the 80-20 rule? Well let's take a look at the 80-20 rule. This rule basically says that you get the first 80% of the performance for 20% of the cost. In professional photography we have to be able to provide that last 20%, that is what we are paid for. But most armatures and hobbyists are going to find that their budget can be much better spent elsewhere than on that last 20% of performance.

This really brings us to my third point. This is the one that really deserves the attention. The camera is actually one of the least important pieces of equipment. Now I know what you are thinking. You are thinking "Brendan, you must be crazy, what do you mean the camera is one of the least important pieces? How do I take pictures without it?" Well consider this, there is a theory that Leonardo Da Vinci created the worlds first photo without a camera AT ALL. It is believed that he used a room referred to as a camera obscura to burn his likeness onto a piece of fabric creating the Shroud of Turin. It really does not matter if that event is factual, at the time camera obscuras were commonly used so that artist could paint the images projected onto their canvases. 

This brings us to the heart of photo-graphy "light-drawing", when you look at it this way it is easier to see why the camera is less important. Light, the ability to modify it and control it is what IS important. And it is a much better place to spend 80% of your budget then the camera is. Which in a round about way brings us to point three where are you shooting, what are the lighting conditions like? These factors determine which lighting options you need. I will cover this point much more thoroughly in a later entry. But a couple of things to consider. 
  • Do I need to freeze action? If the answer to this is yes then you will need strobes of some kind. 
  • What kind of natural light is usually available? If there is not much then a couple of basic floods and modifiers may be the route to go. Buy fluorescents, they are so much cooler to work around. If you are likely to have a lot of natural light then scrims,  reflectors, gobos, and flags (negative bounces) may suite your needs.

Ok so now we have an idea of what to consider, how does this actually work. Lets say your total photography budget is $1000.00, then you want to look at cameras in the $200.00 range leaving you $800.00 for lighting equipment. Depending on where and what you are shooting this may not come close to meeting you lighting needs but it will certainly get you started with some quality options. But let's say your total budget is more like $300.00 if you look at the 80-20 rule that would only give you $60.00 for a camera. Not really the best budget. But it is not as bleak as it seems. If you already have a camera invest that $300 in lighting. Talk to a camera shop and a local club and find a few lighting options that will work for the kind of shooting you want to do, and that will continue to do so when you upgrade later. Then in 6 months or a year you can look at your budget options for a camera that will compliment what you are already learning, or you may find that the camera you have is better then you thought.

In general you will be in the $100-$300 dollar range for a quality camera. It is important to find one with full manual controls and if possible manual flash controls also. Not just on/off but intensity settings as well. Having a wide range of optical zoom options is handy too, but don't be fooled by digital zoom, that just degrades image quality.

A couple of exceptions. Lets say you want a camera to take photos of your kid in marching band and there is no way for you to control ambient light and it is out of the practical range of strobes. Then saving money for lighting is a mute point. In which case a prosumer with its larger sensor size and long telephoto option may be the way to go and will run about $350 - $450 dollars.

If you are really ready and determined to make the leap to DSLRs then buy the least expensive body and invest in glass. Lenses will last four or five camera bodies at least and if you put a crap lens in front of an expensive sensor you will get crap pictures. So invest in the lenses first just as you should prioritize investing in lighting. 

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