Which camera should I buy?
March 20, 2017 5:17 PM   Subscribe

I'm interested in learning to take better photos. I've never had good gear, but I just got a bonus and now's the time to upgrade. Budget <$2000 including a case.

Last time this was asked was circa 2013.

I'm going on a long-anticipated trip to Rome in late April. I'd also like to try out food photography. I'm seeing a lot about "mirrorless" cameras but I honestly don't know what's that about. What camera should I buy? I'm open to dSLR or point-and-shoot, but I want to leave lots of room for growth.

Help me narrow down my options?
posted by libraryhead to Shopping (13 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
You'll have to figure out what you want to optimize for, then find the best combination with the most palatable trade-offs.

Are you OK with a big camera, or need something compact? Do you need a zoom lens, or can you "zoom with your feet"? Do you really want low-light performance, or are you ok optimizing for other things?

You can basically go from "deficient" to "obsessive" in each category independently.
posted by reeddavid at 5:25 PM on March 20 [2 favorites]

An SLR has a mirror in it that reflects the image from through the lens up to the viewfinder, then when you take the picture, the mirror rotates up out of the way and the sensor records the image (this bit used to be film). So you can see exactly what the lens sees, etc. A mirrorless camera doesn't have the mirror; instead, it uses the image on the sensor directly to create an image on a little screen in the viewfinder instead. This means that the body of the camera can be a lot smaller; it can also mean that the sensor is smaller, although my Sony mirrorless has the same size sensor as most midrange DSLRs.

A good mirrorless camera has 90%+ of the power of a midrange DSLR in a package that's half the size. (Here's an example size comparison.) What you're missing is: toughness (midrange DSLRs are sometimes partially weather sealed); controls (DSLRs have bigger bodies, so they have more places to put dials and buttons, making some aspects of manual photography somewhat easier); lenses (mirrorless cameras are newer and take smaller lenses, so there's less selection than DSLRs). I love my mirrorless and wouldn't go back to my DSLR, but I'm just a guy who wants to take some good photos when he goes places or eats a nice meal, not a pro or dedicated hobbyist.

The wirecutter has a good article that covers the current state of the camera market.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 5:57 PM on March 20 [3 favorites]

My recommendation would be entry-to-midrange mirrorless. A mirrorless camera differs from an SLR in that it doesn't have the mirror assembly that's necessary to let you look through the lens of a camera optically. (In film cameras, obviously, this was important because that was the only way you could know exactly how your photo would be framed. But now cameras all have live preview options that let you see exactly what's hitting the digital sensor on the LCD screen or the electronic viewfinder.)

That means they can be quite a bit smaller, which means you're more likely to carry them. (With the help of $15 adapters, you can also use them to manually focus with almost any lens that's ever been made, which I find inexpressibly neat.) As with DSLRs, you can use a mirrorless as a point-and-shoot camera or take full manual control.

There are lots of different systems. Micro 4/3 (Olympus and Panasonic) use a smaller sensor than APS-C systems (Sony, Fuji, and Canon each have their own). That can have implications for low light and narrow-depth-of-field photography, but that also means the cameras can be even smaller than APS-C cameras, which are already very small. For me (and I think most hobbyists), the trade-offs in size and price mean systems that use "full-frame" sensors, which are even bigger than APS-C, aren't worth it yet.

Whatever system you get—I use a Sony mirrorless camera and love it—my advice would be to get a fast prime (non-zoom) lens to take along with the one that comes with the camera. For Sony, that's the 35mm f1.8. A "fast" lens (lower f-stop) accentuates the advantages dedicated cameras still have over great phone cameras—isolating your subject from the background in portraits, great low-light performance, etc. You'll be amazed at how nice your pictures look, and how naturally you start framing the photo by walking back and forth instead of zooming in and out. (They're also usually smaller, which helps.)

I wouldn't hesitate to recommend Sony's cameras—the a5100 and the a6300 are both great options that would leave you a lot of money for lenses (or just for your trip). But any of the Wirecutter's mirrorless recommendations is going to do exactly what you want.
posted by Polycarp at 6:20 PM on March 20 [3 favorites]

This is such a personal question, and the only way you can answer it is by learning more about what you might want to do. You have a good deadline ahead of you that will be good incentive to avoid overthinking, so do as much research as you can stomach and then pull the trigger on something with full knowledge that it will be amazing (your first good camera is a revelation)!

Here are some things you can do to figure out what kind of camera to buy:

--read a bit to get a basic understanding of what ISO, shutter speed, and aperture do to a picture. the principle reason to own a dSLR or higher quality mirrorless camera is to give you more control over these three things, along with a higher quality sensor that can capture more information. If you are not jazzed by this idea, consider sticking with a really good point and shoot

--if it is sounding interesting, borrow or rent a dSLR with a kit zoom lens (something like an 18-55mm) for a weekend and carry it everywhere. doesn't matter which one. take a lot of pictures. Notice: how easy is it to operate the camera? What kinds of controls does it have and how are they accessed (physical knobs and buttons, electronic menus, touch screen..)? How heavy is it - did you find yourself wishing it were smaller? When you look at your photos later, what focal length did you end up using for most of the pictures you liked best (did you use the zoom feature a lot, or did you put it in one place most of the time?)? Were you able to get the shots you wanted, or were you constrained by the camera or the lens at any point (i.e, it couldn't autofocus fast enough, it could take successive pictures fast enough, you couldn't get the depth of field as shallow as you want, etc). Did you find yourself wanting to try for some photos but worrying about damaging the camera?

--this should give you enough to start weeding out features you do and don't want in your camera. Once you start planning to spend around $1000 on a camera body the things that differentiate between cameras are mostly about handling and build quality. The Fujifilm XT1 that I use has separate dedicated physical buttons and knobs for all the principle controls, a feature that I love but that others hate -- you may prefer having a few multipurpose knobs and a touchscreen. Sony mirrorless cameras have control systems that really bug me, but that others find to work just fine. Some cameras are weathersealed and have survived warzones with photojournalists, others (especially entry-level ones) are more delicate. Based on your test, write down the features that you really want and the quirks that are dealbreakers for you. Then pick up and handle as many cameras as you can in camera stores to expand your list and narrow choices.

--make sure to consider lenses as part of your calculation. For food photography, you might want a macro lens at around 50-60mm, or at least one that can focus quite close. Canon and Nikon both have a full range of current and legacy lenses, along with third party lenses. If you want to look at Sony, Pentax, or Fujifilm you may want to look at the available lenses and consider whether they will work for you. Your total cost is at least the camera body + the lens(es) you want to use most.

--think about picking up either a used camera or last year's model that is now heavily discounted because its replacement has already been released. These things update so frequently that it can be hard to stay on top of it, and its important to remember that you don't need the absolute most cutting edge hardware to make great images. Honestly, there are probably 15-20 mirrorless interchangeable or dSLR cameras released last year, and they are all miles ahead of your smartphone in terms of capability and will serve you well for the next 5 years or more. Save most of your $2000 budget for lenses, a flash (you may want 2 flashes and wireless flash controls for food photography), a tripod, and a good bag. Also -- if you buy used or discounted, you will lose much less later on if you end up trying to resell and move to a different camera or camera system.
posted by cubby at 6:28 PM on March 20 [6 favorites]

I would echo the comments that saving money by buying a slightly older camera can be a pretty good idea. I bought my current camera, a full-frame DSLR in 2014, a couple of months before my 2nd kid was born. The camera I had before that was a APS-C DSLR which I had and used a lot for 8 years. It was putting out good images until the day it was replaced and now it has become my 1st kid's camera. The main advantages of the newer camera were the fact that it was full frame (and all my lenses could take advantage of that), much better performance in lower light conditions and a quadrupling in resolution. I fully expect my current camera to last for a similar amount of time and the only real advantage I imagine my next camera having would be much better performance in lower light conditions (I only ever print up to 8x10 size and for that my camera's 24MP sensor is more than enough).

I bought my wife a mirrorless camera and she uses it a fair bit. The one knock against it is that its battery doesn't last as long as my camera's and my wife is pretty bad about recharging things so very often the battery is dead when she wants to use it. I much prefer using the various dials and buttons on my camera to adjust things and get lost in the menus on her camera but I am sure that is something that also becomes fairly instinctual with use.

At this point I think the only viable choices for a non-smartphone camera are a full-frame DSLR or a mirrorless camera. A full-frame DSLR will be much bigger, heavier and more expensive than a mirrorless camera. It will also be more durable and you'll have a wider range of lenses your camera can use without adapters. Both would be able to fit within your budget.

As far as cases go, the place you buy your camera from might throw one in for free. I've always just put my camera and lenses in whatever bag or backpack I had with me.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 7:48 PM on March 20

For travel photography a good pocketable point and shoot is a delight. You will be much happier carrying it than a DSLR/Mirrorless with a bag full of lenses.

You can't do much better in a pocketable camera than the Sony RX100 series. I recommend the first iteration, as the image quality between the models is about the same, and the battery life is better on the earlier models. You can pick one up used for about $350.

This camera will take excellent pictures, and is unobtrusive enough to get some interesting street photography.

Some general photography advice: You get to be a better photographer by shooting more photos and evaluating your photos. Good gear helps to some extent, but too much gear will get in the way.

Take at least a dozen photos a day -- the photos can be of anything that catches your eye. Every few days review all your photos from the last few days, decide which are better, and try to figure out why they are better. Take more photos like that. Repeat for a year.

posted by gregr at 8:41 PM on March 20 [3 favorites]

"Some general photography advice: You get to be a better photographer by shooting more photos and evaluating your photos. Good gear helps to some extent, but too much gear will get in the way. [...] Review all your photos from the last few days, decide which are better, and try to figure out why they are better. Take more photos like that. Repeat for a year."

gregr said what I came here to say, but more diplomatically. If your question were "which system has the best lenses?" or "which one is best to carry on vacation?" I'd be all about it - but there's not a camera that's going to help you take better photos.

I've shot with simple point-and-shoots, cropped sensor DSLRs, full-frame DSLRs, and now micro-4/3rds (mirrorless) and gotten both great and terrible shots with all of them. None of them made me better at what I was doing. Critical thinking about my results made me better at photography more than any piece of gear.
posted by komara at 8:58 PM on March 20 [3 favorites]

Echoing the advice above about renting. Lensrentals and Borrowlenses both do an excellent job in that space. The Sony RX100s are very nice cameras, they take much better pictures than phones and are ultra portable, but you won't have room for growth with one of those. If high quality and maximum portability are what you're after, the RX100 series are a good bet. If you're willing to trade portability for flexibility, you're better off with an SLR or mirrorless camera with a bigger sensor and interchangeable lenses.

People have religious associations with cameras, so it's tough to get good, unbiased advice. Really, all of the major camera makers make excellent cameras and very good lenses. I would Nth the advice of buying good, used gear rather than new stuff, as it's often half of the new price (LensRentals, LensAuthority, eBay and KEH are all good sources for used gear). I would also recommend against using the "kit" lens that comes with most cameras, as they're typically not very good. Upgrade your standard zoom to one step better (typically $400-$600 new). Finally, I'd recommend a 35mm or 50mm (equivalent) prime lens for doing food photography, no matter what camera system you buy.

I have experience with Canon, Sony and Fuji. Canon and Sony are good cameras for beginners. Nikon probably is too. I *love* my Fuji cameras, but I think they would be confusing for someone new to photography.
posted by cnc at 11:12 PM on March 20

Do take a look at the Olympus PEN line -- it will let you use it as a "proper" camera where you are in control of everything, and it will let you use it as a point-and-shoot. I've had amazing results with it for everything from portrait to product photography. The pricing is very reasonable for what you get, I feel. You can tell, looking back at old photos, the exact point at which I upgraded to the PEN, and I am not a particularly skilled photographer.
posted by kmennie at 1:31 AM on March 21

Honestly, the differences these days between dslr and mirrorless across all major brands are almost entirely personal - every single major brand is capable of excellent pictures. Sure, they all have different pros and cons, but for 90% of what people take, 90% of cameras priced above say $500 will get them there.

Get to a store and see what feels good in your hand, and which menus make sense. In my experience people always underestimate how much a camera that "fits" is more fun to use.
posted by smoke at 4:12 AM on March 21 [2 favorites]

"Get to a store and see what feels good in your hand, and which menus make sense. In my experience people always underestimate how much a camera that "fits" is more fun to use."

smoke has a really good point here. I started with Canon long ago and Nikon menus (and even the direction you would twist a lens to zoom) felt awkward and weird. I know that this is only because I started with Canon, and it would have worked out the other way around if I hadn't.

Point is: Nikon just felt weird and wrong. You probably have some inherent bias for or against ... something, whatever it is. If you buy a camera and its menus feel awkward to use then you won't like it, and you'll be less inclined to pick it up.

When I switched to my Olympus OM-D the menus felt totally wrong. In some ways they still do. However, I was so in love with the rest of the body - the size and feel and lenses - that I got over it for the most part. You're in a good position, you don't have to set yourself up to get over anything.
posted by komara at 6:37 AM on March 21

Most cameras these days are really nothing more than a body wrapped around a chip. Yes there are differences between sensors, speed, etc. But the main thing, at least with interchangeable lenses, is to put your money into the glass. Camera bodies and features change every year. But a good lens will last a long time, if you take care of them. So among the other features you are considering, don't overlook the lens selection and backwards compatibility. Are really, 3 to 4 good lenses of varying lengths, along with a good prime lens, will cover just about any situation.
posted by jtexman1 at 6:41 AM on March 22 [1 favorite]

Drpreview.com is specialist site with a pretty comprehensive camera choosing wizard that lets you find tune your choice.

I used it before I bought both of my cameras years ago - A Nikon D5100 and a Canon G15 because the D5100 was killing my neck.

I liked the wizard because it helped me fine tune what was an important feature and then let me narrow my search based on that.

When I was searching for a more compact camera than my D5100, I insisted on an optical viewfinder because it was what I was used to. I'm glad I stuck to my guns because although it made the search harder, I ultimately got a camera I use almost every day instead of a hunk of technology which frustrates me and would have resulted in me taking fewer pictures


Good luck!
posted by Faintdreams at 8:55 AM on March 29

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