Which camera is best for me?

Around once a week, through various avenues like this site’s inbox, my Facebook page or other ways, I receive a question of the form ‘Which is the better camera – X or Y? Often it’s more specifically ‘Which should I get Canon or Nikon?

That means, over the course of a year, forty or fifty people reach out through the ethersphere to me (and, I’m sure to many others) for an answer to a question that clearly burns for them. And over the years, that makes hundreds of versions of the same basic question.

I don’t need to point out, do I? that reason people find themselves in a genuine cleft stick is because there’s not much to choose. It’s a delicious choice to have to make, if you’re fortunate enough to have to make it: Audi or BMW or Mercedes? Not only do they all get you from A to Z, they do it comfort, speed and safety.

Canon, Nikon, Sony, Olympus, Fuji, Samsung … their cameras – all of them – get you your image not only in comfort, speed and quality, but with efficient fun too. If you want to go luxuriously, but a bit slower and a lot more money, you can go Hasselblad, Leica S, Phase One, Pentax, or Leaf with larger sensors. The basic fact, dull as it may be, is that no-one on the planet can tell, just by looking at an image, which camera it was made on.

In short the choice is hardly based on image quality, except at the most rarified levels, but simply on handling of the cameras.

Once upon a time

Compared to a mere ten years ago, there has been a huge change. At the beginning, many photographers did not have a digital camera. If they were up-grading, it was from a film-using camera.  Now, however, photographers already have a digital camera, at least one. In fact, the industry says that around 70% of enthusiast camera sales (serious compacts, ILCs, SLRs) are to photographers who are up-grading their gear.
The fact is that SLR cameras (I don’t call them digital SLRs because, to all intents and purposes, any SLR camera these days is digital) of at least the last seven years have been superb image-making tools. And so have most of the serious compacts such as Panasonic’s LX series and Canon’s G series.
In addition, some cameras share essentially the same sensor: even if not identical, there is precious little difference in sensor performances these days. Much of the basic technology is out of patent, so everyone has access to them. The industry has full command of the mathematics of colour filter array interpolation: there are few secrets around. The playing field, in short, is pretty level.
If it’s the case that image quality is pretty much even between cameras, it’s not a basis for deciding between cameras. (The choice of lenses is altogether another matter.) So it’s down to handling: how they feel in the hand. And how much you can afford.

Feelings

For example, much as I admire Nikon cameras, I find them too chunky, populated with too many buttons and even the viewfinder displays are too busy for me. Repeat: for me.  And while I loved the Canon 1Ds MkII, I did not fall in love with the MkIII even after shooting over 10,000 images with it. Much of that was down to one, rather pathetic-sounding, reason: I hated the shutter/mirror-box noise so much it was inhibiting my inclination to shoot (it’s that musical ear of mine). And while I adore the Canon 1Dx, it’s too big for my use.
And size is not just about weight and heft.
Let’s consider, for fun, a scene in New York’s wonderful Botanical Gardens. We’re in the reflection pool. I was using two cameras that day: the Kodak Easyshare Z740

kodak ez740 and Canon 1Ds MkII.

canon_eos-1ds_mark_ii_front_mediumQuestion to you is: which gave the better image? And by ‘better’ I mean which image did we choose to use in the book?

This is the image from the Kodak:

New York Botanical Garden - Kodak 749

New York Botanical Garden – Kodak 749

And this is the image from the Canon:

New York Botanical Gardens, Canon 2Ds MkII

New York Botanical Gardens, Canon 2Ds MkII

The key is symmetry. The picture we chose was beautifully balanced. You might think we could have simply cropped the Canon shot down, but the result doesn’t look right.
The reason why the little Kodak wins out is simple but subtle. The optical axis – the line that goes straight through the middle of the lens to the sensor – is very near the base of the camera: within 5mm. In the Canon, the optical axis is more than 60mm away from the base. To obtain the best reflection, I needed the optical axis as close to the water as possible. The big Canon camera couldn’t do this. $5K worth of camera lost out to the cheap little Kodak point-and-shoot camera. It happens.

Of course, by a thousand times, the Canon is my camera of choice compared to the Kodak as it can do tons and tons more, better, faster, more accurately. What I hope to show with this example is that whatever little camera you have, in some situations, with some subjects, your point-and-shoot will – truly will – do an excellent job like provide the published image.

My best advice

So, to all boys and girls who write to me asking about which camera to buy, here are my key answers:

•    any camera that works is a good camera
•    the best camera to have is one that works that you already own
•    the very best camera is one that works that you own that you have with you
•    if you replace the time you spending thinking about a new camera or lens with time thinking about creating photographs, you’ll be a better photographer (it’s cheaper too)
•    if you blame your camera for your poor photography, it’s time to improve your photography, not the camera
•    the first thing you best do is to work out how to make a virtue of equipment’s defects Until you can, you won’t learn anything from a new camera

If you want to hear alot of this in a lot more detail, with lots of photo tips thrown in, sign up for my course ‘Buying Cameras with Confidence’:

As a special offer to readers of my site, use the code ‘SiteDiscount’ when paying (type the word SiteDiscount without the quotation marks) to obtain a 50% discount.
Only 30 discount coupons available, then price returns to $20.

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