Photography is a fantastic hobby that affords high levels of variety and creativity. There is an art to taking a good photo; some ability comes from study, but most come from practice.
Why use a separate camera in a world of good cell phone cameras? A decent dedicated camera will capture a higher-quality image than the tiny sensor on an iPhone. However, that is only part of the reason. More importantly, a high-quality camera gives the photographer control over the image. What is in focus, and what is not? What part of the image needs to be perfectly exposed? Should a fast-moving object be frozen, or is it preferred to have it show its speed by having it blur in the image? These and many more possibilities move a photograph from a snapshot to an interesting image and sometimes a work of art.
Enthusiast and professional-level cameras allow the photographer such control. However, new high-end cameras can cost thousands of dollars for the camera body and much more for a collection of lenses. Spending $2,000-$10,000 on a hobby that may not hold interest over time is not in a new photographer’s best interest. The good news is there is a solution, as older cameras are affordable and allow a new user to gain the skills necessary to take magazine-quality images.
Three years ago, I produced a YouTube video emphasizing that all semi-professional and professional cameras made in the last decade produced images that could be used for just about any current professional photo need. Some instances are so demanding that the shooter could be compelled to buy the latest and greatest. However, there have always been workarounds to get those amazing shots using a little thought and technique.
That is not to say that cameras haven’t improved over the last decade; they have improved in many ways. Newer cameras have amazing focusing, but older cameras had focusing, which was very good. Newer camera sensors have better dynamic range and low-light performance. However, those two improvements are only important in certain circumstances. Most cameras do an excellent job of capturing what the photographer intended.
Newer cameras may have convenience features, like a tilting screen which can make low-angle shooting easier, but if you don’t have one, you just have to bend down. The one central area where cameras have advanced is their ability to shoot videos in addition to stills.
The Nikon D90 was released in 2008 and was the first DSLR camera that could also shoot video. This was revolutionary at the time but primitive by today’s standards. The D90 was only able to capture 720p video in 5-minute increments. Another milestone was in November of the same year when Canon introduced the 5D Mark II, a camera capable of recording 1080p video for 12 minutes. The Canon 5D’s capabilities were so astounding that it was used to film TV shows and theatrical movies. Camera models introduced after that improved these features and were entirely capable video cameras. The one problem was that their video’s automatic focus could have been better, requiring the videographer to focus the camera manually. In 2013 Canon introduced dual pixel autofocus, which improved autofocusing of video dramatically. Other camera manufacturers have since introduced their own autofocus algorithms making focusing video as simple as pointing and recording.
Recently, many newer cameras can record video in 4K for extended times. Significantly, their ability to follow focus on their subjects has gone from abysmal to spectacular. Some newer cameras include more professional features like zebra striping and focus peaking. However, many of these features are unnecessary for the casual videographer or the individual who wants to shoot still images.
In 2008 Panasonic introduced its first large-sensor mirrorless camera, the Lumix DMC-G1. Over the last 15 years, all camera manufacturers (except Pentax) have switched to a mirrorless format. This has allowed for more computer-driven features like face detection focusing and amazing burst shooting rates.
However, all the functionality needed is present in older cameras, from excellent photo quality to enough controls to allow any level of creativity. The lack of computer-generated functions can improve the skills of a budding photographer as hands-on controls allow for the best understanding of the processes needed to obtain the best image. It is better for a photographer to understand and modify controls than expecting a computer to use some algorithm.
If you are interested in photography, knowing how to use a camera is more important than having the latest, greatest gear. Remember, digital cameras from the last decade have been good enough to take spectacular photos seen on everything from billboards to National Geographic.
If you are new to cameras, the following primer will help you understand some camera specifications:
Semi-pro and professional digital cameras have image-capturing sensors much larger than your phone’s. These larger sensors are more capable of capturing an image in low-light conditions. Typically, they also have a better dynamic range. Dynamic range measures how many levels can be discerned between black and white. The greater the dynamic range, the greater the ability to see nuances in a photograph. For instance, excellent dynamic range lets you see details in shadow areas.
Sensor sizes in professional cameras come in three sizes. The sizes from smallest to largest are called Micro 43, APS-C, and full frame. There is no standardized naming convention in these three sizes.
The largest sensors (full frame) are typically the best in handling low light and have a better dynamic range. It is also easier to produce a sharp subject with a blurred background, as you may see in some portraits. The lenses of full-frame cameras have to be bigger to accommodate the larger sensor; because of this, both cameras and lenses typically cost more.
Smaller sensors (Micro 43 and APS-C) allow a smaller camera body and lenses. Lenses can cost less because they use less glass. How much a lens magnifies, an image is measured in mm. A lens with a 16mm equivalent focal length will give an ultra-wide view, while one with a 200 mm equivalent focal length will zoom into a subject. Smaller sensors have a multiplication factor when using lenses. For instance, a 200 mm lens will produce an image equivalent to a 400 mm lens on a micro 43 (2x crop) camera and 300 mm on an APS-C camera (1.5 x crop). This can be useful when you need to get maximum telephoto magnification.
All three sensor sizes can produce excellent images. I would choose a sensor size base on other qualities. For instance, if you take many flash-free images in a dark venue (like a nightclub), a full-frame camera will likely do a better job. If you want a smaller camera body and lens, buy an APS-C or Micro 43 camera. Street photographers and hikers often prefer smaller cameras, as carrying a heavy camera can be a drag.
If you want to go beyond “pointing and shooting” and become proficient with controlling your camera, you will want to have specific controls easily accessible on the camera body. I like physical controls, but some cameras have easy-to-access controls on a screen, which can also work. If the controls are hard to get at, for instance, hidden in menus, you will be less likely to use them. Having accessible controls IS THE MOST IMPORTANT FEATURE of a pro camera. Being able to control a camera quickly will give you the greatest flexibility.
The practical goal when taking a photo is properly exposing the image. There are many ways to do this, each impacting the end result differently. Becoming familiar with these ways is the most important technical thing a photographer can do.
These are controls that you will often adjust.
Cameras can expose the sensor to light for various lengths of time. A fast shutter speed freezes motion, and a slower shutter speed allows more light to hit the sensor.
This is how wide the opening of a lens is. A narrow aperture gives a great depth of field. In other words, everything in the image is in focus. A wide aperture gives a shallow depth of field, so only the subject of interest is in focus, separating the subject from the background. A wide aperture is also helpful in dark situations when you want to have the maximum amount of light with the quickest possible shutter speed.
This refers to how sensitive the sensor reacts to light. A low ISO will give the clearest picture. Using a high ISO may introduce more noise to a photo but may allow you to capture a photo in a dark setting that you couldn’t otherwise.
These three parameters (shutter speed, aperture, and ISO) impact the amount of light hitting the sensor, and together they create what is called the “exposure triangle.” Depending on the situation, you may adjust one or another. If you adjust one setting, the camera will change the other settings automatically to achieve the correct exposure. Cameras also allow you to override all these settings by placing the camera into manual mode. This is used in certain situations but beyond the scope of this post.
This handy feature allows you to override the camera exposure settings while still utilizing all of the camera’s automatic settings. Let’s say you photograph a person standing against a bright sunlit window. The camera’s light meter will read the entire scene, meaning that all the light from the window will cause the person to be under-exposed. You can use exposure compensation to increase the exposure so that the subject is properly exposed.
The above controls are the most important and will allow you enough control over your camera to do anything.
Multi-zone metering tells the camera that you want it to register all of the light seen by the camera and then average the metering for the entire scene. Multi-zone metering works in most situations. Sometimes you can use spot metering to register just a portion of the image you want perfectly exposed.
In most cases, I leave my camera in multi-zone metering, and if I need to compensate for the exposure, I use exposure compensation.
You can have most cameras focus on a single point (let’s say a person’s face), or you can have a camera track a person or object that is moving. Different cameras have different abilities to track moving objects. Semi-pro and professional cameras from around ten years ago are very good at tracking, and newer professional cameras are excellent at tracking.
Some early cameras only had a single focus point in the center of the frame. Pro-level cameras may have 30 or more points that help with tracking. Some very modern cameras may have thousands. The Canon 5D Mark II (introduced in 2008) is an excellent camera with only nine focus points. The Nikon D300 was introduced in 2007; it had 51 points and is excellent at tracking subjects. Many pro photographers only use the center focus point on a camera and then shift the camera to recompose the image once they lock in the focus. A lot of focus points are good when you are trying to track a moving subject.
You can set a camera to take a single shot or continuous shots as long as the shutter button is pressed. Different cameras have different burst rates. Cameras designed for sports or wildlife have very fast burst rates.
This is a mechanical attachment for an external flash. Many high-end cameras don’t have a built-in flash so that a hot shoe can be handy. Flashes (also called speedlights) are often specific to a particular camera brand. However, they can often be used manually on just about any camera in a pinch.
Although not absolutely needed, an eyepiece allows you to hold the camera up to your eye when you compose your image. This lets you steady the camera and helps you see your subject on a sunny day. Some consumer cameras lack an eyepiece and only have a view screen on their backs.
Most modern cameras have a camera shake-prevention feature. Newer cameras often have it built into the camera body, whereas some designs have image stabilization built into the lens. Both work well enough for most situations.
Cameras have all sorts of bonus features that may make your life easier. These features are optional for a beginning photographer.
The view screen can be tilted in several directions. Different models allow different amounts of tilt. This can be useful if you take many photos from a low angle. However, you can also crouch down.
Double Card Slots
All cameras use memory cards. Some cameras have two slots, so the image is still secure on the second card if one card fails. This is great if you tend to be a worrier, but it is optional if you practice reasonable techniques. For instance, never remove a memory card while the camera writes an image to that card.
Fancy cameras have many other features that allow you to fine-tune an image. These extras are great if you know how to use them, but unnecessary in many situations. Discussing these high-end features is beyond the scope of this post. However, most are niceties and not necessities.
How Many Mega Pixels?
In most cases, this is a moot point. Don’t worry about it for your first camera. High MP cameras produce huge image files that clog up your hard drive and slow down your editing software. 16-24 MP is just fine. However, a pro camera with as little as 12 MP can take beautiful photos.
DSLR or Mirrorless?
DSLRs (Digital Single Lens Reflex) is a type of camera that was the dominant camera for professionals for many years. DSLR cameras are based on a camera design that was first introduced in the 1930s in film cameras. These cameras have a mirror system that directs some of the light to the camera’s eyepiece. When you take the photo, the mirror is moved so the light can hit the film or sensor. Although this sounds clumsy, this system has been perfected over generations of cameras.
The first digital mirrorless cameras were point-and-shoot cameras. These used tiny sensors and basic designs. These consumer cameras have almost been eliminated by smartphones that can take photos that look as good.
Enthusiast large sensor mirrorless cameras were first introduced in a Micro 43 format by Panasonic in 2008. The first mirrorless cameras could take excellent photos but had limitations in other areas. For instance, they used a focusing system called Contrast Detection Focusing, which could hunt and peck and was slower than the system used in DSLRs called Phase Detection Focusing. However, more recently (depending on the camera model), mirrorless cameras have not only gotten as good at focusing as DSLRs, but in some ways, they are better as they can detect specific things like a person’s eye to focus on.
What Camera To Buy
There are many choices. I will list some cameras offering good controls that allow new photographers to improve their skills.
These cameras are at the low end, offering a high-quality camera at a very low price. Naturally, there are more advanced cameras between these models and new camera models. I’ll give you inexpensive options, but these are only some possibilities, even within this low price range. These are cameras that I have actually used, so I have confidence in them. Use these examples as a starting point in your search.
Some of the best bargains are used DSLR-type cameras. Mirrorless cameras are all the rage, so good DSLRs are plentiful on the used market. Their lenses can also be had inexpensively. The downside is that these cameras tend to be larger and bulkier. However, they have fantastic battery life and pair well with larger lenses, as the camera and lens feel more balanced together. Pro-level DSLRs have a lot of external controls, which is a huge plus.
Older mirrorless cameras take great pictures but may focus slower or more inaccurately. Newer mirrorless cameras have fantastic focusing that goes beyond DSLRs. However, for the best features, expect to pay thousands of dollars. There are decent mirrorless cameras from a few years back that are inexpensive and do a good job.
One of the great things about pro-level cameras is that you can change out the lenses. DSLR lenses are plentiful and less expensive than newer lenses for modern mirrorless cameras. However, there are some exceptions to this rule. For instance, you can buy older lenses for mirrorless Micro 43 cameras at reasonable prices.
Lenses come in two types, prime, and zoom. A prime lens is fixed at a particular focal length, whereas a zoom lens can “zoom” to many different focal lengths. Prime lenses can be smaller as they are simpler in design, and some consider them sharper as they are specialized to do a single job. However, many zoom lenses can be sharp too. Lenses often come in a consumer version and a pro version. A pro version may have better optics and, importantly, be built more robustly. However, consumer lenses can be much cheaper and often do a good enough job.
A decent zoom lens in the 24-70 mm or 24-150 mm range can give a photographer many options. More expensive lenses often will allow more light into them. An “F-stop” rating notes this, with lower numbers being better. For instance, a high-quality lens may have an F-stop rating of F2.8 over its entire range. In contrast, a consumer lens may have the same zoom range but an F-stop rating of 2.8-6.1, meaning that as you zoom in, the lens lets less light into the camera, and you will need to compensate by adjusting the camera’s shutter speed or ISO. However, consumer lenses may be a good choice for a new photographer as they are less expensive while still being very versatile.
There are some excellent consumer lenses in primes. Their construction may be poorer than a pro lens, but they can have low F-stop numbers and good optics. Some photographers will only use a single prime lens for their photography needs. Street photographers often like a 35 mm equivalent lens for street work; portrait photographers might use a 50 mm or 80 mm equivalent lens. Of course, others may use a zoom lens; there is no right answer. There are many specialty lenses for particular uses. For instance, macro lenses are used to photograph tiny things, and tilt-shift lenses are used in architectural photography. However, these are optional for the beginning photographer.
You will need to buy a used lens along with your camera body. Consider buying a 35 mm prime or medium-range zoom, like those above. You can always add more lenses later.
Lens mounts are specific to a camera brand and type. A Nikon-compatible lens won’t work on a Canon camera, and vice versa. Lenses for some brands that sell both APS-C and full-frame cameras can be specific to the sensor size. A mirrorless camera also uses a different mount than a DSLR camera within the same brand.
When you choose your camera, ask Google for the lens designation. You can also go to a reputable camera site like Adorama.com, type in the camera model number, and ask for compatible lenses.
What lens mounts are compatible with a Nikon D7100?
Answer: DX or FX format
What lens mounts are compatible with a Nikon D700?
Answer: FX format
What lens mounts are compatible with a Canon 60D?
Answer: EF or EF-S format
What lens mounts are compatible with a Canon 5D Mark II?
Answer: EF format
What lens mounts are compatible with an Olympus OMD-EM1?
Answer: Micro 43 format
What lens mounts are compatible with a Sony A6000?
Answer: Sony E format
Almost all professional photographers use software programs to improve their photos in many ways. You don’t need expensive subscription software like Photoshop or Lightroom. It is easy to start with the free software that may be included with your computer. Apple’s photo software is surprisingly powerful for basic editing. I currently use DxO Photo Lab for most of my editing, but I could do about 90% of my photo editing using free Apple software.
This list is not all-inclusive. These are starting point recommendations. Go up a newer model or two for more features and better specs. However, these cameras can still take professional-level photos in most situations. I have bought used cameras listed on eBay with good results. However, it can be risky, especially if you are unfamiliar with cameras. You may blame yourself when the camera is faulty. Therefore, sometimes it is wiser to spend a bit more and go with a reseller like KEH.com or a camera shop like Adorama.com or BHphotovideo.com when buying a used camera.
Here are some low-cost options in no particular order: