Feature photo by Karlee Hooper

So you’re in the market for a new camera? Eeeee! So exciting! But, the choices can be overwhelming as you scroll through the endless options. Should you choose DSLR or mirrorless? Full frame or crop? Will you shoot video? And, do you really need all those megapixels? How to buy a camera can’t be summed up in just a few sentences and shouldn’t be left only to personal recommendations. After all, what’s right for your friend might not be the best fit for you.

It’s so important to understand the basics of how to buy a camera based on what YOU need (and want) before you dive into decision making. Here are some of the most important factors to consider when shopping for a new camera:

1. First, decide what you need.

Think about these two questions to help you narrow down your camera choices before you dive in. Your answers can help you determine what you really need so you’re not stuck researching features you don’t care about and won’t use.

What will you photograph?

OK, this is a big one. You can’t decide what you need in a camera until you know how you’ll use it. Are you a family portrait photographer who shoots client sessions multiple nights a week or a travel photographer heading to Europe with a backpack? Maybe you’re a new mom looking to photograph her growing infant or a wildlife photographer planning a safari? Some cameras are better suited for certain jobs.

How will you use your photos?

Another big consideration is how you will use your photographs. If you’re a commercial photographer taking picutres for high-end brands that will end up in print publications, you will need to focus on the information the camera can record (you might just need those megapixels). If you want to print your family photographs in annual albums, you’ll need to consider the image size, but it doesn’t have to be your main focus (you can make a pretty good 4×6 print from a phone pic). And, if you intend to share your images only on social media, image resolution might not be as important to you as the size and versatility of the camera.

Canon camera - how to buy a camera
Photo by Kristen Dokoza

2. Next, compare camera features.

Now that you’ve considered what you’ll be photographing and how you’ll use those photos, it’s time to SHOP! As you consider the basic functions and capabilities of each camera, keep yourself focused on your answers to the “what” and “how” above. That should keep you grounded as you look for options within your budget.

Sensor size

Think of the camera’s sensor as the digital equivalent of film. The bigger the sensor, the more information the camera is able to record. Sensors are commonly called “full frame” or “crop sensor (APS-C).” A full frame sensor has the same dimensions as 35mm film while a crop sensor is, well, cropped.

The main difference between these two types of sensors is the field of view, meaning that comparing two images created from the same location with the same lens but different sensor sizes will yield different fields of view. The cropped sensor image will appear to have the edges of the image cropped and zoomed in. This is called the crop factor.

The benefit of a full frame sensor is a larger image size and more detail recorded into the created image. The full frame sensor will generally have a greater dynamic range and perform better in low light settings. While beneficial for any photographer, full-frame sensors are preferred by landscape, architectural, and real estate photographers.

On the other hand, a crop-sensor camera is beneficial because it is typically smaller, lighter, and less expensive. Because of the crop factor, it also offers extra reach when the photographer needs to get closer to her subject. Cropped sensor cameras are often preferred by wildlife, sports, and photojournalists because they are able to extend the reach of their telephoto lenses.

Megapixels and image file sizes

A megapixel is one million pixels. Pixels are squares of digital information that connect like a puzzle and create your image. The more megapixels a camera has, the more information is recorded.

When digital cameras first hit the market, megapixels was the buzz word. Everyone wanted to know how many MPs your camera had and seemed to try to one-up each other with more and more megapixels. Now, the phones in our pockets hold enough megapixels to create a billboard sized image and the competition has ended with a tie.

While more megapixels is considered better because more information is recorded, there comes a time when there is enough information for the human eye to not be able to discern a difference.

In modern terms, megapixels are directly related to image size. The larger the number, the larger the image size and the more space is needed to create and store those images. Because we are largely sharing most of our images online, the larger the size of the image, the more compression that image will receive on upload, which can actually lead to lower apparent image quality.

Megapixels and image size are also directly related to printing your images. The larger the number, the larger the print you will be able to make. However, today’s cameras offer plenty of megapixels for the average print.

The most common benefit of an image created with more megapixels is your ability to crop that image without affecting image quality.

Boy holding photography lenses - how to buy a camera
Photo by D'Ann Boal

ISO range

ISO is the measure of how sensitive your camera sensor is to light. The ability to shoot at a high ISO is essential for low-light conditions. This certainly factors in when shooting at night or on the edges of the day, but it should also be considered for indoor photography or images created on overcast days.

The need for a narrower aperture or a faster shutter speed also requires a higher ISO range. Today’s cameras are far advanced when it comes to handling ISO. However, if you are someone who regularly shoots in conditions with lower light, you need to be very mindful of purchasing a camera with that handles high ISOs very well.

Image stabilization

Image stabilization or vibration reduction is a helpful tool created to counteract the blurring effects of camera movement while shooting. Camera movement can be introduced simply by pressing the shutter button, but also by having too much coffee, shooting with a longer lens, or even a medical condition that causes your hands to shake.

Some camera manufacturers put stabilization into the camera body while others build it into the lens technology.

Wi-Fi capabilities

There has been debate that built-in Wi-Fi is an unnecessary feature, however as a photographer who travels quite a bit, it’s a beneficial feature to have.

Built-in Wi-Fi allows you to wirelessly control your camera with an app on your smartphone, eliminating the need to carry an additional remote trigger. It also allows you to connect your phone or other devices to your camera to wirelessly transfer images for editing and sharing.

While it would be cumbersome to transfer an entire shoot, selecting a couple of favorite images to share with your family, clients, or on social media is wonderful!

I have also used the Wi-Fi feature to shoot entire real estate sessions from my iPad while viewing the live view scene on the iPad. This offered me the ability to see my shot before it happened and create one shot that was composed perfectly.

Video

Most cameras now feature the ability to record video. The most advanced video feature regularly available at this time it the ability to record at 4k, which is four times the standard high-definition resolution of 1080p. Watch for 6k cameras just starting to hit the market if you are an advanced video shooter!

Built-in camera image stabilization is also a helpful tool when recording video. And, an electronic viewfinder simplifies filming as you are truly able to pre-visualize the scene.

Which camera brand is right for you?

It’s impossible to think about how to buy a camera without considering camera brands. Here are a few:

Canon: Best known for their high-end, top-of-the-line L-series lenses, Canon cameras render images with beautiful color and contrast.

Nikon: Known for their superior low-light performance and the ability to use vintage lenses, Nikon cameras create super sharp images.

Fujifilm: Known for their exceptional film cameras, Fujifilm also offers high-quality mirrorless cameras with incredible detail and color.

Sony: Leading the revolution in the mirrorless camera market, Sony’s innovation in camera technology is unparalleled.

Olympus: Olympus offers cameras that are reliable and competitive with the others on the market at a lower price point.

Leica: Offering top of the line, fully manual cameras, Leica is known for both quality and cost.

Panasonic: Known for their micro four-thirds sensor technology, Panasonic is a leader in compact camera models.

Photographers at sunset - how to buy a camera
Photo by Jyotsna Bhamidipati

Budget considerations:

Your budget is obviously going to be a factor when you think about how to buy a camera. A higher priced camera might have more features than you really need, while a lower cost model might not have the features you want. You’ll need to try and balance your needs and wants with what you can spend on a new camera. Be sure to factor in the entire package of camera body and lenses when considering your budget so that you aren’t met with unexpected costs at checkout.

While a more expensive camera won’t make you a better photographer, you do ultimately get what you pay for in terms of quality and ease of use.

3. Make sure the camera is a good fit.

Now that you’ve spent all that time deciding on exactly what you need, you want your camera to be a good fit — functionally AND physically — so that you’ll actually be able to use it. Finding a camera that feels just right is an important step.

Camera ergonomics

We often overlook ergonomics when buying a camera, but in my opinion it’s one of the most important factors. Who wants to buy a fancy camera only to have it feel awkward in your hands?

Because we tend to buy our gear online without first trying it, we rarely know what that gear will feel like when we hold it. Most reputable companies offer a generous return policy (if they don’t, please don’t buy from them!), which will allow you to try the camera before you fully commit to it. I encourage you to use this time not only to evaluate the images that you can create with the camera but also the overall feel and handling of the camera as you use it.

Be certain to consider the controls. Can you easily access the dials that you will regularly use? Awkwardly placed controls will slow you down when shooting, preventing you from working efficiently.

Size and weight

Some cameras are simply too heavy for you, especially when paired with larger lenses. Evaluate the feel of the grip in your hand. Is it comfortable for long periods of shooting? Try the camera with both large and small lenses to be sure that you are physically comfortable when holding the camera.

Girl with camera in flower field - How to buy a camera
Photo by Karlee Hooper

Mirrorless or DSLR?

With mirrorless cameras growing in popularity, the decision between mirrorless versus DSLR is a hot topic. Most pro photographers are familiar with DSLR cameras. But now Fujifilm, Sony, Canon, Nikon and Panasonic have all entered the mirrorless camera market in a major way, giving photographers more choice in camera technology. You’ll need to look at your own needs to decide what’s right for you.

The main difference between the two technologies is the way the camera displays the scene through the viewfinder. With a DSLR, the image is rendered in the optical viewfinder as a mirrored reflection passing over the sensor. This means your camera settings do not appear “live” as you make adjustments to them. Mirrorless cameras offer a true live view using an electronic viewfinder and without a mirror, which shows changes in exposure as you change your settings.

While an electronic viewfinder can be interesting to adapt to, the benefit of seeing the scene rendered exactly as you will photograph it is a considerable one. The lack of a mirror also reduces the physical size of the camera body.

Battery life, focus technology, image stabilization, video capabilities, silent shutter shooting, focus peaking, and frame speed are a few other differences to consider when you’re comparing mirrorless and DSLR and thinking about how to buy a camera.

But when the question comes down to which takes better photos the answer is neither. Both DSLRs and mirrorless cameras have their own unique features and ultimately what matters most is the photographer behind the camera.

Lenses to buy instead of a kit lens
Photo by Jennifer Carr

There are endless factors to consider when you’re thinking about how to buy a camera. The trick is to narrow it down to a more manageable list of things to research! Hopefully this helps to shed some light on to what to place at the top of your list.

Ultimately, it’s important to remember that gear is only a tool. And, while certain features help to create great photographs, it’s the photographer that is the most important tool in the box.

Jen’s cameras and lenses:

Cameras: Sony a7R III, Sony RX100 VI, Sony a6500

Lenses: Sony 16-35mm f/2.8, Sony 24-70mm f/2.8, Sony G Master FE 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6, Sony 35mm f/1.4, Sony 85mm f/1.8, Sony 20mm f/2.8, Sony 10-18mm f/4, Sony 18-105mm f/4 G, Lensbaby Composer Pro with Edge 50, Edge 80 and Velvet 56, Helios 44-2 58mm f/2.0

5 Lenses to try instead of a kit lens

When I purchased my first DSLR on Black Friday in 2008, I was thrilled that it came as a kit with two lenses! A wide-angle zoom and a telephoto — what more would I need?! But as I learned more and more about photography I came to understand that kit lenses aren’t really the best options. Here are a few types of lenses to try instead:

Prime lens: Often the “nifty fifty” (50mm f/1.8) lens is recommended as the first prime lens a photographer should purchase. Personally, I prefer the focal length of a 35mm f/1.8 prime. Either way, they both are a reliable lens option that is small, lightweight, sharp, and fast.

Wide-angle lens: Wide-angle lenses are fun lenses to have in your bag. By definition they offer a wider field of view, bringing more of the scene into your image. They are great for landscapes, travel, or even capturing your kids at the playground.

Telephoto lens: Telephoto lenses offer you the ability to bring something far off in the distance closer to you in your photographs. Ranging in focal lengths from 100-600mm, there are a wide variety of options and price points. Personally, I use a 100-400mm telephoto lens, which meets most of my distance needs.

Vintage lens: Vintage lenses have become all the rage these days. Producing incredible bokeh and lens flare, vintage lenses such as the Helios are a fun addition to your camera bag.

Versatile zoom: My favorite lens is a versatile zoom lens. I prefer the 24-70mm f/2.8 lens; it’s on my camera most of the time. This focal length range allows me to catch all the action on my travels and incredible scenic landscapes, but also zoom in on subjects in the distance. With its fast aperture, I don’t struggle to get the shot in periods of low light.

Which camera did you buy?

Leave us a comment with your favorite camera! Which one did you end up with, and why? Was there a single most important deciding factor, or did you finally just pick one? We gotta know how YOU bought your camera!

p.s. Did you know we’re over on Pinterest pinning cool photography gear and the latest gadgets for you? Come see!