Which DSLR camera to buy - A guide to buying the right camera for you
There’s an endless range of DSLR cameras on the market at the moment so if you’re trying to decide on which is the best for you, this article will help you cut through some of the chaos and confusion to reach a decision you won’t regret.
I often get asked questions like “What is the best camera to buy?”, “Is Canon better than Nikon” or “Should I get a mirrorless camera?”. The truth is that there is no easy answer as to which DSLR camera is the best. Although there are many articles that claim to have a simple answer, only you can really decide.
So before you head to your nearest camera store, wallet in hand, there’s a number of very important factors to consider.
The first thing to think about is what you’re going to be using the camera for. Are you going to use it to photograph your handmade arts and crafts to post online? Are you an avid sports fan that wants to capture fast paced action on the field? Or, are you a budding professional looking to deliver high-quality work to your growing clientele?
What you want to use your camera for is the first, and perhaps the most important, question you need to answer as this will help you determine what you need from your camera. Just because a camera has a greater number of megapixels or higher frame rate per second doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right camera for you.
If you’re interested in landscape photography you may want a camera with a greater tonal range rather than one with a higher frame rate per second. If you’re interested in high end product photography you may want a full-frame camera or medium format camera rather than a crop sensor camera to allow for greater image quality.
2. Know the basics
If you’re not sure what a crop sensor is or why megapixels don’t matter as much as you think they do, then you may want to take the time to go back to the basics.
The camera’s sensor is the CCD or CMOS chip that captures light to record an image, it’s what converts what you see through your viewfinder into a photograph. While there are a few different sensor sizes, the three you’re most likely to have heard about are full-frame, crop (or APS-C) and medium format.
Full-frame cameras, as the name suggests, is the larger of the two sizes (and also the more expensive). Because of the larger sensor size they are able to record greater tonal range, have greater image quality, perform better in low light conditions and allow for far greater depth of field control. With full-frame cameras there is no crop factor, which means what you see through your viewfinder is exactly what’s recorded.
Crop sensor cameras are the most common sensor size for many entry and mid-level cameras (and even some professional-level cameras). The sensor size measures approximately 23.5 x 15.6mm compared to the 36 x 24mm full-frame sensor, which makes them smaller and lighter than their full-frame counterparts. What this means, basically, is that the image recorded has a pre-determined crop already applied to it, which makes them well suited to photographing wildlife or sports photography, where you’re often working further away from your subject and require greater focal lengths.
To understand more about the difference between full-frame and crop sensor cameras, I provide further explanations and explore the advantages and disadvantages of each in this video.
Medium format cameras (which I discuss in depth in this video here) record images onto a 53.4 x 40mm sensor. The benefit of this is that the larger sensor size allows for much higher resolution compared to cameras with smaller sensors. There is often more megapixels in medium format cameras and greater dynamic range, which allows for much greater tonal and colour accuracy. This image quality means they are often the camera of choice for professionals looking to achieve true colour accuracy or produce large format prints.
However, medium format cameras can be much bigger and heavier than most other cameras and are more expensive. They also have slower burst modes and focus capabilities.
I did a comparison between the full-frame Nikon D850 and medium format Hasselblad H6, which you can read about here.
Photographers nowadays seem to be obsessed with the number of megapixels, and while it’s certainly important, it’s by no means the defining characteristic of a good camera.
Put simply, an image is made up of millions of pixels. For example, a 22 megapixel camera has 22 million pixels that make up the recorded image. The more megapixels, the higher the image resolution. This can be useful if you’re likely to crop your images or want to produce large scale prints.
As I mentioned above, the more pixels there are in an image, the higher the resolution. However, more megapixels aren't necessarily better. What's more important is that you have the right number of pixels in relation to the size of your sensor.
For example, the image quality of a 50 megapixel smartphone camera will be far less than that of a 50 megapixel medium format camera. But why is this?
To understand why, we need to understand the basics of how images are formed. Digital images are created from millions of tiny dots of colour, which blend together to form the image we see. These dots (as you should know) are called pixels, which are recorded by photosensitive diodes on the sensor called photosites (the term ‘Pixel’ is often used in place of ‘Photosites’, but they are not the same thing. Photosites are what record pixels).
Generally, the more pixels recorded by the photosites, the higher the resolution of the image. However, a higher number of megapixels does not guarantee higher image quality. It’s not necessarily the number of megapixels that matters, but more the size of them (measured in microns - “µm”), which is determined by the size of the sensor.
The image quality of a 48 megapixel smartphone camera will be less than a 50 megapixel medium format camera due to the smaller pixel size.
A 50 megapixel smartphone camera will have much smaller pixels compared to a 50 megapixel medium-format camera. This is because the sensor of the smartphone camera is much smaller, which means the 50 million pixels are crammed together. The consequence of this is that the sensor's ability to capture and record light is much less. This often results in diffraction and increased noise, especially when shooting at higher ISOs.
A larger sensor allows for much larger pixels (compared to, say, a smartphone camera with the same number of megapixels) and allows for much greater dynamic range, which gives a larger transitional tonal value, greater tonal accuracy, and better color accuracy. For example, on a 50 megapixel Hasselblad CMOS camera, the pixel size is about 5.3 microns compared to the pixel size on a standard high resolution DSLR, where the size is about 4.14 microns.
DSLR vs Mirrorless
Recently there’s been a lot of hype about mirrorless cameras, but many photographers don’t really know the differences, let alone the advantages and disadvantages of each.
DSLRs are built using the same design as 35mm film cameras of the past. A mirror inside the camera body reflects the light coming in through the lens up to a prism (which is what you see through the viewfinder). When you press the shutter button, the mirror flips up, allowing light to hit the sensor, which then records the image.
Mirrorless cameras have done away with the mirror; instead light passes through the lens straight onto the sensor, which then captures a preview of the image that is displayed on the back screen or EVF (electronic viewfinder) inside the eye piece.
The absence of the mirror means mirrorless cameras are smaller and lighter than DSLRs, which is the main benefit. However, the lens choices for mirrorless cameras, although expanding, are still limited compared to what’s available for DSLRs.
There are distinct differences between DSLR and mirrorless cameras, but, fundamentally, using them is no different.
DSLRs also boast better battery life (again, this is improving in mirrorless as the technology advances) and faster and more accurate autofocus performance. When it comes to continuous shooting, the playing field is pretty level between the two.
Fundamentally though, using a mirrorless camera is no different to using a DSLR. As with many things, it largely comes down to personal preference.
3. Lenses and accessories
Buying your camera is just the start and it’s important to consider what accessories you’re going to be using in conjunction with it. If you’re an avid wildlife photographer, a telephoto lens is a must, the same way that if you’re a portrait photographer accessories such as studio lights or speedlites will come in handy.
Before you make the final decision on which camera to buy, think about what’s available to you. When it comes to lenses you may find that Canon offer a better range than Nikon, or that independent brands such as Tamron or Sigma offer a more budget friendly alternative.
If you’d like to learn more about different lenses and their effects, make sure to watch our photography class showing different lenses and their results.
The good news is that there’s a wide selection of DSLRs available for almost any budget nowadays. The bad news is that there can be a number of hidden costs that you need to consider too.
A good lens (or two) should be the first thing on your list. It isn’t just the camera that determines the quality of your images — lenses play a large part too. I’d recommend putting a part of your budget aside for investing in a couple of good quality lenses. Make sure to do your research before investing in a lens — read reviews, explore different comparisons and consider renting the possible options before you make the leap (I discuss this a bit more later on).
If you can’t afford brand new lenses, it’s definitely worth considering buying second hand. I discuss a number of tips when buying second hand lenses here.
There’s also smaller, less obvious items that are essential such as a camera bag, spare batteries, memory cards (if you’re going to be using your camera for video, it’s worth investing in memory cards with faster write speeds. This useful article by B&H covers the best memory cards for photo and video recording) and card readers. But remember, it’s not essential that you buy everything at once. You might want to save buying that shutter release cable or filter set for a later date.
5. Explore your options
Before taking the final plunge, it’s a good idea to rent your final options for a day. This will give you an opportunity to get a feel of a camera, test the controls and explore its capabilities. I’ve listed a few well known equipment rental companies below:
London camera rental
New York camera rental
Knowing how to use light is one of the most important aspects of photography as this allows you to create a particular mood or emotion in an image and it is this mood and emotion that helps tell a story and captivate your viewer (I go into more detail about this in our ‘Emotion of Light’ live show). Knowing how to then combine this with technical aspects such as composition, depth of field and shutter speed is also important.
The fact that you’ve taken the time to read this article shows you already understand the value of knowledge, but it’s worth including this point nonetheless. I’ve always said photography isn’t so much about gear as it is about knowledge. More often than not, it’s not about what equipment you have, but more about how you use that equipment. Knowing how to compose and light your image will have a huge impact on your image. I cover what makes a good image in much more detail in our 'A Guide to Lighting Emotion' live show.
Our Essentials section offers a complete introduction to photography, where you’ll find everything from aperture to ISO, composition to optics, to help you get started with your photography. We also have a handy Beginner Photography Quick Start Guide on our blog (where you’ll also find a cheat sheet for photographing in manual that you can download). For advanced photography classes, visit our Advanced section or, if you’re interested in more specialised topics, we have a variety of classes on portrait photography, product photography, food photography, fashion photography and post production.
So remember, if you’re ready to buy a camera, there’s a lot more to consider than just the technical. Take the time to think about how you’ll be using your camera. Set out a budget, consider any extra equipment and, if you’re still undecided, find somewhere to rent the camera to test it out. Then, once you’ve made your decision, take the time to get familiar with your equipment and invest in your education.
If you’re looking to grow your lighting skills, you will also find the following classes useful. Here I cover some of the fundamental knowledge of studio lighting and show you how you can take complete control. Whether you’re unsure about different modifiers, flash duration or how to measure and correctly expose your shot, you’ll find all you need to know in these informative modules.