The Ultimate Guide to Buying A New Camera: How to Choose The Best Camera

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So you’re about to embark on a thrilling journey—buying a shiny new camera!!

Exciting! But you might also be a bit intimidated…

What are all the different types? What accessories do you actually need? What do all those crazy letters and numbers mean?

First of all – if you’re already in a store wondering what’s best to buy, here are our top picks:

Category

Model

Lo​oks

Price

Budget
dSLR camera

General purpose compact camera

Advanced compact camera

Enthusiast dSLR

Best high-end mirrorless camera

Looking for a more comprehensive guide? You’ve come to the right place.

There are so many options available it can be difficult to know where to start. Worry not, brave explorer.

This guide is designed to teach you everything you need to know about buying a camera, so you can feel confident when you make that delightful purchase.

Psst! This guide is chock full of general information about cameras, lenses, and more. But if you’re looking for specific photography equipment recommendations, you’ll want to mosey on over to our incredibly thorough Recommended Photography Equipment page! Enjoy!

Table O’ Contents

This is an absolutely epic guide. If you’re brand new to cameras and photography, we recommend reading it start to finish, for the ultimate learning experience.

But if you’re just interested in a certain topic, feel free to make use of the magical Table O’ Contents below. Simply clicky click where you want to jump!

(Pro Tip: After clicking on one of the links in the Table O’ Contents, you can hit back on your browser to hop on back to the top of the page here.)

Now sit back, get comfy, and let the camera buying adventure commence! Onward!
Types-of-cameras

There are a ton of different types of cameras, from little point-and-shoots to big fancy DSLRs. Let’s take a look at the different types, and what makes them each unique!

DSLRs

When you think of a big, fancy, expensive camera, you’re probably picturing a DSLR (digital single lens reflex) camera. These cameras are made up of two main parts—the body and the lens. The lenses can be taken off and changed (aka interchangeable). But you’ll need both parts – the body and the lens – in order to take a photo. DSLRs feature a mirror that allows you to actually look through the lens as you compose your image. This gives you the most accurate idea of what your final image will look like when you take the photo.

Camera-Line

Now when you press the shutter, the camera records the scene as a digital image on a sensor. In DSLRs, these sensors are quite large (typically the size of 35mm film, or a bit smaller). The benefit of the large sensor is that it provides better low light noise performance and better background blur (bokeh).

But when it comes to image quality, a big part of the story is the lens (aka. the glass). See, the lens is what collects the light from your scene. The better the quality of the lens, the better the quality of the final image created.

And here’s the great news: With DSLRs, there are so many kinds of high quality lenses out there that you have plenty of options when it comes to getting variety and getting creative with your photography. We’ll talk more about lenses later on in this guide!

If you’re interested in pursuing photography as a serious hobby or professionally then a DSLR is what you’re looking for.

DSLR

Mirrorless (& Micro Four Thirds)

In recent years, mirrorless cameras have become increasingly popular.They have a lot of the same features as a DSLR but in a smaller body, without the mirror.

(A subset of the mirrorless category are Micro Four Thirds cameras, a title that refers to the size of sensor.)

Like DSLRs, mirrorless cameras also come with interchangeable lenses. In general, the quality and selection of lenses for mirrorless bodies aren’t on par with DSLRs, but they’ve definitely been improving. And there are now mirrorless cameras that boast a full frame size, the same size as the ones found in professional-level DSLRs, making this genre of cameras even more appealing.

All that being said, most mirrorless cameras do have some downsides relative to DSLRs. Although there are now a few models out there with full frame sensors, most mirrorless bodies have sensors that are smaller than those in DSLRs, meaning that they won’t be as good at registering depth of field or at shooting in low light conditions.

But mirrorless cameras do have their advantages. Most notably, they’re generally much, much smaller and lighter than DSLRs.

This format of camera is great for everyone from the casual hobbyist to the advanced amateur.

Mirrorless

Compact Point-and-Shoots

Point-and-shoots are the smallest cameras dedicated primarily to photography (camera phones are typically smaller).

The big advantage of the point-and-shoot is its size. Because they’re so small and easy to carry around, you may be more likely to take more photos than you otherwise would if you had to carry a bigger mirrorless or DSLR camera around.

These cameras have permanently attached lenses (i.e. not interchangeable) that generally cover a wide zoom range. The lens retracts back into the camera in order to keep it nice and small.

But point-and-shoots have their downsides too.

Typically, they have the smallest sensors, meaning your image quality won’t be nearly as good as it would be with a higher-level camera. Things have definitely improved in recent years though, so it’s not that hard to find a point-and-shoot that produces good quality images.

Further, some models lack manual controls for key settings (like shutter speed, aperture and ISO). Autofocus speeds will most likely be slower and the lag time between when you press the shutter and when the camera takes the photo will be longer.

So why buy a point-and-shoot camera? Like we said, they’re so much easier to tote around than larger cameras, meaning you may be more likely to use your camera.

And then there’s that matter of price. Point-and-shoot cameras are typically much less expensive than the higher-level options.

If you’re not looking for a lot of creative control or fancy extras, a point-and-shoot may be the right place to start. If you’re looking to get serious about photography though, expect to grow out of a point-and-shoot pretty quickly.

Point-and-shoot

Camera Phones

Camera phones are the most widely used cameras today.

The pros are impressive: a camera that you can carry in your pocket, giving you incredible convenience to shoot anytime, anywhere, with minimal effort. Many photographers are showing great proficiency with the camera phone, taking photos more regularly and getting in more practice, honing their skills. Some even say their camera phone let them fall in love with photography again. Not something to sneeze at!

Then comes sharing. The camera phone pretty much made photo sharing a *thing*. Now it’s easier than ever to take a shot, and then (almost instantly) get it in front of thousands of eyes with phone apps like Instagram.

But too often the cons of the camera phone are overlooked.

For one, the image quality is still behind every other type of camera. The point-and-shoot is starting to be challenged, as camera phones are coming out with bigger and better sensors every year, but mirrorless cameras and DSLRs are still far ahead in terms of image quality. They have bigger sensors, better lenses, better autofocus, more control, better response times…

But the biggest drawback of all is that a camera phone has a fixed lens. You can’t zoom without reducing image quality, so you’re left with only one focal length option. You could see this as a creative challenge. But it is, indeed, a limitation as well.

If you want to take photography seriously, you need more than a camera phone. It’s a great way to keep a visual diary, to practice your skills, and grab a snap here and there. But you just can’t beat the creative control that comes with a bigger camera.

Camera-phone

Action Cams

Action cams are small, mountable cameras geared towards sports and adventure photography, and for photographers looking to use the mountable function to bring a unique perspective to their shots. GoPro and Sony make the most popular action cams on the market. But Yi 4K is a Chinese action cam brand that offers excellent quality for nearly half the price!

Action cams are primarily used to capture video, but they also let you create image stills and time lapses.

Though action cams have come a long way since they were first introduced, we don’t think they’re really a substitute for a proper camera. The camera settings are pretty limited, and your ability to adjust those few settings is fairly restrictive as well. Unless you’re looking specifically to get to create action cam-style shots and videos, think of these cameras as fun extras rather than your primary piece of shooting gear.

Action-cam

Essential-features

Cameras have a ton of different features—some that are essential, and some that sound super cool but that you never end up using. Here is a peek at the features that really matter in a camera.

Manual Mode

manual

Manual mode allows you to take full creative control over the exposure of an image.

See, in automatic mode, the camera selects aperture, shutter speed and ISO for you. In manual mode, you select those three things yourself, giving you so much more control over how the image turns out.

Now, automatic and semi-automatic (Av & Tv or S) modes can be useful, especially when you’re just starting out. But the sooner you learn how to use manual mode, the sooner you’ll learn how to create images that look the way you want them to.

Check to see if the camera you’re interested in has manual mode (usually labeled “M”). Most DSLRs and Micro Four Thirds cameras have manual mode, while fewer point-and-shoots do. If you find a point-and-shoot with manual mode, give it a try and make sure that it’s actually easy to use. Because of the smaller size of their controls, it can be tricky to change the controls on a point-and-shoot quickly, making their manual mode pretty impractical to use.

ISO

ISO

ISO controls how sensitive the camera’s sensor is to light. By increasing the sensor sensitivity you’re able to shoot in darker conditions without a flash. Look for cameras that offer ISO 1600 or higher. Some cameras can shoot as high as ISO 25,000 – 102,000!

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Now, we should mention that there’s a real trade-off to using a high ISO setting. Higher ISOs usually mean more noise (coloured speckles) and grainier images.

Luckily cameras are getting better and better at noise performance, meaning you typically can get useable images even at higher ISOs. Take a look online to see if you can find some sample images taken at different ISOs by the camera you’re considering. If the images are grainy even at low ISOs, like ISO 400, and you intend to use your camera even when it’s not sunny and bright, you may want to consider a different model.

Megapixels

Pixels

Megapixels (MP) are a measure of the resolution of a camera. Think of it like this: The greater the number of megapixels, the larger the high quality, sharp print you can make.

Now, it’s important to point out that you probably don’t need a camera that has a huge number of megapixels. For typical 4×6 inch and 5×7 inch prints you only need 4MP to get good results! And a 8MP camera will easily make 8×10 inch prints. With 20MP you will be able to create super high quality 12×18 inch prints.

You can also create large prints and still get good results, even when you don’t have a zillion megapixels, simply by reducing the print resolution. We’ve made great 40×60 inch canvas prints using a 12MP camera! Larger prints often require greater viewing distances in order to take in the whole image, so you can get away with lower print resolutions (especially if printing on a coarse medium like canvas).

Long story short, megapixels are just one part of the story of what makes a great camera, so don’t get totally distracted by them! Consider what sort of resolution you need (if you’re making huge canvases on a regular basis, you’ll want more than if you intend to print mainly 4x6s) and go from there.

Ergonomics 

ergonomics

A big thing to consider when purchasing a camera is how it feels in your hands. You’ll be holding your camera a lot, so get a good feel for it before you decide to buy!

Here are a few things to consider, ergonomically speaking.

SIZE

Are you able to easily reach all the buttons? Does the camera feel comfortable in your hands? How does it feel when the camera is close up to your face? (Hint: To figure this stuff out, go to the store and actually hold the camera you’re considering!)

WEIGHT

Generally speaking, cameras in similar classes will weigh similar amounts. If you’re just starting out with photography consider getting a camera that you can take with you everywhere. You’re more likely to carry around a smaller, lighter camera than a full size bulkier camera. It might mean a trade off in image quality, but at least you’ll be taking shots. If your camera is so heavy that you’re inclined to leave it at home, you’re not going to get anywhere with your photography very fast.

DURABILITY

Some cameras are more rugged than others, featuring sturdy magnesium alloy internal frames and weather sealing. These may or may not be features necessary to you, depending on what crazy things you’re planning to photograph!

MENU SYSTEM

Make sure that the menu system is straight forward and easy to use. Every camera is different, but you should be able to figure out how to navigate the menu system without consulting the manual. A camera’s menu should not be so complicated that it prevents you from using the camera!

Raw

Some cameras have the capability to save images in either the raw or JPEG format. Others will be limited to the JPEG format only.

Raw-SPES-v3

The difference between the two is that the raw format records all the information captured by the sensor and allows you the most flexibility when it comes to post processing (especially when correcting mistakes!). Comparatively, the JPEG form discards data when it compresses the image into a smaller file.

Almost all DSLRs, Micro Four Thirds, and mirrorless cameras can shoot in the raw format (as well as in JPEG format). Very few compact point-and-shoot cameras, or camera phones, have the option to shoot in raw and are instead simply limited to the JPEG format.

If you’re serious about photography you’ll definitely want raw capability.

10reasonsraw

Autofocus

Autofocus

Proper focus is a huge part of great photography, because it draws the viewer’s eye through your image to the precise spot where you want them to look. Missing the focus is an easy way to ruin a great shot!

When you check out a potential camera, you need to seriously consider the quality of the autofocus system. Here’s what you should do:

Turn the camera on, and look through the viewfinder or the LCD screen. Press the shutter release halfway down to activate the autofocus system, and focus on something in the frame.

Now consider: Does the camera focus quickly? Does it focus accurately? Try focusing on something close to you, then something far away, and then close again. If the camera is slow to focus as you change what you’re looking at, or has difficulty focusing on the right thing, then you may want to look for another camera.

When you see something worth capturing, you need to be able to focus quickly and accurately. If your camera can’t keep up, you’re going to keep missing your shots and getting frustrated with photography.

Additional-features

Most cameras have some other nifty, though less essential, features. These can be really fun to experiment with and can make the camera more enjoyable to use, but they probably won’t be what makes or breaks your purchasing decision.

The best way to find out which features a camera has is to look it up! Here are a few of the features that are common right now:

PANO MODE

Pano

This feature allows you to take multiple images of a scene and have the camera automatically stitch them together, into a ‘panoramic’ shot. This feature is more common in point-and-shoot and some mirrorless cameras, and less common in DSLRs.

IMAGE STABILIZATION

Stabilization

This feature reduces vibration and shakiness when shooting, which in turn reduces blurriness in low light conditions. Sometimes the camera body or lens itself will contain the stabilization mechanism, which is known as optical image stabilization. This is of a higher quality than digital image stabilization, which is software in the camera that does that work.

VIDEO RECORDING

Video

Almost all types of cameras now feature video recording. The standard for HD (High Definition) is 1080p, which a lot of point-and-shoots (and even phones) are capable of recording, along with DSLR, Micro Four Thirds and mirrorless cameras. More advanced cameras will also offer manual control of exposure and better video quality (with greater ability to blur backgrounds). Some cameras now offer 4K, which is four times the resolution of 1080p!

FRAMES PER SECOND

FPS

This is how many photos the camera can take per second. A higher frames per second (fps) capability is useful if you’re shooting sports or other fast action scenes.

AUTOMATIC SENSOR CLEANING

Icon-cleaning

Many cameras have a feature that shakes dust off the camera’s sensor using ultrasonic vibrations. This is beneficial feature, though you should note that it doesn’t always work perfectly in removing sensor dust.

Liquid Crystal Display

LCD

A liquid crystal display (LCD) is a type of screen common in cameras. But not all LCDs are created equal! Higher resolution screens will display your images better than lower resolution screens. Some screens will also be brighter than others, and/or offer better contrast. You can usually get a sense of what counts as good screen quality just by taking a look at a few different camera screens.

Some camera makers are now offering articulating screens (also known as flip screens), that allow you to adjust the physical position of the display along one or two axes. The idea here is to use the screen as a viewfinder, allowing you to see what you’re shooting in situations where you wouldn’t be able to look through a physical viewfinder. Pretty handy!

VIEWFINDER

Viewfinder

The viewfinder is what you look at when you compose your image.

With DSLRs, the viewfinder lets you look right through the lens, thanks to the handy mirror.

Mirrorless and point-and-shoot cameras may have an LCD screen on the back of the camera, in place of viewfinder. Some may also have an electronic viewfinder.

An electronic viewfinder (EVF) displays an electronic image of the scene as it will appear in your photo, given your current camera settings.

The advantage of the electronic viewfinder over an LCD display – which will also show you how the image looks given your current settings – is that EVF is much easier to use in dim light conditions. Great for night photography.

One of the downsides of EVF, with some camera models, is that it blackens the viewfinder display during burst mode. This makes it unsuitable for action or sports photography, so you should verify this point before investing in such camera. 

Make sure to think carefully about what kind of viewfinder you want (as always, head to a store and give a few cameras a try).

WI-FI & NEAR-FIELD CONNECTIVITY

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Some cameras are now able to connect to the internet wirelessly, making it a breeze to upload your photos to your computer or to social sharing sites straight from your camera. With some cameras, you’re even able to download apps that link your phone up to your camera, letting you do things like set a timer, press the shutter, or see what your camera sees, all from your phone.

Near-field communication is another wireless option available with some newer camera models. Near-field communication allows you to wirelessly transfer images from your camera to a wireless device (like a phone or tablet) simply by touching the devices together. If you’re planning to do a lot of sharing from your wireless devices, near-field might be something worth looking into when you choose a camera.

Global Positioning System

GPS

Some cameras include a global positioning system (GPS), which keeps track of where your images were captured (aka geotagging). This can be a handy feature when you’re travelling (especially if you’re unlikely to remember where each shot was taken), or when you’re location scouting and find an area you want to return to.

Remember, a lot of these additional features become “selling points” when the salesperson is discussing cameras with you. They sound fancy, and can be a lot of fun, but make sure to consider them in conjunction with all the essentials we talked about previously. It’s the basic stuff that really matters.

Brands

The brand of your camera doesn’t have much to do with the quality of images you create. That’s all about you as a photographer! But brands get a lot of attention in the photography world, so let’s talk about them.

Canon and Nikon

The two major manufacturers of DSLRs are Canon and Nikon.

Canon holds the largest market share around 44% (2010) with Nikon following with 30%. Both make cameras along the entire spectrum, from point-and-shoots to high end DSLRs. By choosing a Canon or Nikon camera you’ll find the widest selection of compatible lenses and accessories (both brand name and 3rd party).

Canon and Nikon both build solid cameras that function well, and each have their own pros and cons. It’s generally agreed upon that Nikons have better build quality and focusing, while Canon has a better selection of lenses. They each seem to render colour differently as well.

Your best bet in choosing will probably come in trying out each brand, and seeing which ones feels better to you. Don’t get peer-pressured!

Other Brands

Sony is most aggressively pursuing the mirrorless market, and are fashioning themselves as a serious competitor to the Canon/Nikon domination. The cameras they offer have some innovative features that seem ahead of where Canon and Nikon are, and at cheaper prices. They’ve also developed a pretty competitive line up of lenses.

Fuji is another brand offering excellent quality mirrorless cameras (our currently lineup of cameras and lenses are all Fuji!)

In terms of Micro Four Thirds Panasonic, Olympus are your only options.

Finally, when it comes to compact point-and-shoot cameras, it seems as though every manufacturer has their hand in that competitive market. If you are interested in a point-and-shoot then your best bet is to find a camera that you’ll take everywhere with you. Brand name shouldn’t play as big a role in your purchasing decision.

Lenses

Every camera needs a lens, whether it’s permanently attached or interchangeable. See, the lens contains pieces of glass that focus light onto your camera’s sensor. Without that light, you don’t have an image!

Not all lenses are created equal, and they’ll have a big effect on the look of your final images.

Lenses 101

To feel confident picking a lens for your camera you should first know a few basic things about lenses!

FOCAL LENGTH

focallength

The focal length (measured in mm) determines the angle of view that a lens will capture. A wide angle lens will capture a lot of the scene, and a telephoto lens will capture only a small portion. Wide angle lenses range from 15mm to 35mm. Normal lenses are around 50mm, and most closely resemble what your eye sees. Telephoto lenses range from 85mm to 200mm+.

APERTURE

aperture

The aperture is the hole inside the lens that opens and closes to control the amount of light entering the camera, and it is represented by f values (like f/2.8 or f/5.6). Lenses are described by their maximum aperture, which is the widest opening possible for that lens. So a lens might be a 50mm f/1.4, which means the focal length is 50mm, and the maximum aperture is f/1.4.

Now this might be a bit confusing: The larger (more open) the maximum aperture, the smaller the f value, and the more expensive the lens will be. This is because it has the ability to collect more light, allowing you to shoot in darker conditions, and it can also give you more background blur, which is awesome!

Lenses-EECS-v3

IMAGE STABILIZATION

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Image stabilization (IS) helps to minimize blurriness that can occur when your camera moves at the same time that you take a shot. This is handy when you’re shooting in low light conditions (where you typically use a slower shutter speed), or other situations where you’re using a slow shutter speed without a tripod and want to avoid blur. IS can also be helpful if the lens is particularly heavy and therefore more likely to move around as you shoot.

A lens with image stabilization (typically labelled as an ‘IS’ lens) will be substantially more expensive than an equivalent lens without IS, so it’s worth considering carefully whether you’re likely to benefit from IS.

ZOOM LENSES

zoom

A zoom lens covers a range of focal lengths (eg. 24mm – 70mm) and allows you to shift (zoom!) between any focal length in the range. Convenient! The downside to zooms is that they usually have smaller maximum apertures. Zooms with larger maximum apertures (like f/2.8) tend to be very expensive.

PRIME LENSES

prime

A prime lens has a single fixed focal length (eg. 50mm or 35mm). If you want to change perspective you have to move closer or further from your subject, or switch lenses. Prime lenses generally have larger maximum apertures, giving you better background blur, better performance in low light, and usually better image quality!

Kit Lenses

Most DSLR, Micro Four Thirds, and mirrorless cameras have the option to purchase the camera body with what is known as a “kit lens”.

A kit lens will typically be a cheaper, mid-range zoom lens (the most common range being 18-55mm). When you’re just starting out with your DSLR, a kit lens should serve you well. But as you progress with your photography, you’ll probably want to experiment with different lenses, like lenses that blur out the background more, allow you to get closer to your subject, or help you to zoom in on objects that are farther away.

The quality of the glass in kit lenses is also generally lower than lenses that don’t come with a DSLR, so you’ll find that kit lenses don’t always render colours well, and don’t produce the sharpest images. Basically you can expect to upgrade from a kit lens pretty quickly!

Beginner Lenses

Our recommendation is always to start off with an affordable prime lens.

As we talked about before, a prime lens is a lens with a single, fixed focal length (which means you can’t zoom in and out). This forces you to physically move around in order to compose your images, which gets you more involved in the process of taking a photo.

With prime lenses, compared to zoom lenses (kit lenses included), you typically get better image quality and more ability to blur out backgrounds.

Lenses-illustration

In short, with prime lenses, you’ll create higher quality photos and spend more time thinking and learning about the process of creating images than with zooms. Win-win!

Great prime lenses to start out with include the 50mm f/1.8 lens and the 28mm f/2.8. These lenses run in the $100-200 range and both Canon and Nikon offer affordable versions.

Advanced Lenses

Eventually, you may find you want to upgrade your introductory lenses for higher quality models.

See, like we said earlier, the quality of the lens will have a large impact on the quality of your photos. With pricier lenses, you’ll be getting faster apertures (for better low light performance and more background blur), higher build quality (with the possibility of weather sealing), and better glass that produces better color and sharpness. For zooms, you may also get image stabilization.

Knowing when to shell out the big bucks (and sometimes we’re talking big, big bucks) for these lenses isn’t easy, and it has a lot to do with how important those improvements are to you, your images, and your business.

Above all, remember that a better lens won’t automatically take better photos. It can help you create better image quality, but ultimately you’re the one calling the shots!

Specialty Lenses

Beyond the range of lenses designed for regular use, there’s a whole world of specialty lenses out there, meant to produce particular effects or to be used in more niche sorts of situations. We generally consider these lenses to be extras, but depending on what kind of photography you’re into they may be your kind of essentials!

Macro

Macro-100

Macro lenses are designed to allow you to get extremely close to your subject, letting the subject occupy much more of the frame than they would with a normal lens. Macro lenses are commonly used in advertising and food photography, as well as in nature photography, where the photographer needs to get closer to the subject to show details. Macro lenses are made for a range of camera types, including DLSRs, mirrorless systems, and even point-and-shoots and camera phones.

Tilt Shift

Tiltshift100

Tilt shift lenses allow you to control the plane of focus in your image by bending the angle of the lens relative to the sensor (fancy!). They’re typically produced to work with 35mm DSLR cameras, as well as medium format cameras.

Tilt shift is commonly used in food and architectural photography, where it’s important to control the plane of focus or the appearance of converging lines, and is becoming more popular as an artistic tool in portrait photography.

Tilt shift lenses aren’t cheap, and it takes a lot of practice to learn how to use them well, so we recommend renting (or borrowing) a lens before you buy, to make sure it’s going to be worth the investment.

You can learn more about tilt shift photography in our two-part series from the blog:

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Fisheye

Fisheye100

Fisheye lenses are ultra wide angle lenses that create dramatic distortion, producing images that look almost semi-circular in their perspective. Though you’ll see them used in a variety of contexts, t