What Camera Should I Buy?

Posted on: June 21st, 2011 0

For the past 2 or more years I’ve been teaching a class called “Meet Your DSLR”. As a result, many more cameras have crossed my path than is the case for most people. Since it is incumbent upon me to show people how to use their cameras, I have by necessity had to learn about many more cameras than I ever bargained for. As a result I’ve been able to form a few opinions about which camera someone should buy. Plus, even though the people in that class have already bought a DSLR (Digital Single-Lens Reflex) camera, they do ask me what the best camera to buy is. I have the answer. It may surprise you.

So Which One?

Let me get this out there right off the bat. ANY DSLR camera body by ANY manufacturer will allow you to take great images. Yup……that’s right. Once cameras crossed the 6 megapixel barrier they could capture enough image data to create a super-detailed photograph. Yet, every year it seems, the camera companies cram more “megapixels” into their products. The camera manufacturers lie to you. They keep perpetuating the myth that more megapixels equals better image quality. They do this because their marketing departments have discovered that people respond to this. It’s easy to sell megapixels: “Higher number…..gooooood; lower number baaaaaad.” What they don’t want you to know, is that MUCH more important than megapixel count, is SENSOR SIZE! More on that in a bit.

The REAL Choice

It really doesn’t matter which brand you buy…..they are ALL very good. Anyone that says Nikon is better (or Canon or Pentax, etc.), is simply full of it. Your decision has more to do with which TYPE of camera to buy, not which brand. I’ll limit this discussion to 3 types of digital cameras, even though there are more. Those 3 types are:

  • Point and Shoot
  • Crop-frame DSLR
  • Full-frame DSLR

Again, there are many more types of cameras, so don’t start leaving comments about the ones I’ve missed. I am limiting this discussion to these 3 basic types because they are the most common, and even a full frame DSLR is a stretch because most people aren’t gonna buy such a beast. I really just included it because a FF camera is a useful point of reference. OK smarty-pants?

At any rate, that’s your real decision….whether or not you want a Point and Shoot or a DSLR. Let me help you here. If you DON’T want to learn how to take control of your camera, if you DON’T want to learn about Exposure and all that that entails, then please, do yourself a favor. DO NOT buy a DSLR. If you simply want a camera that allows you to capture a moment and will allow you to take great photos, get a Point and Shoot. A DSLR is a more expensive, and less capable, camera for pointing and shooting than a, well, Point and Shoot!!

A Point and Shoot camera does a decent job of automatically setting exposure, and when you take into account the many “presets”, such as “Portrait”, “Snow” “FIreworks”, etc., it is a pretty versatile camera that does the heavy-lifting for you. There, I’ve saved you literally hundreds of dollars. Which one should you get? That’s pretty easy to answer. Get the one that has the largest sensor and f-stop value that you can find. You will get pretty great images in not-so-great light. One such camera is the Canon S95. It has the same size sensor as a crop-frame DSLR, and a whopping f-stop of f/2! Plus, if you decide one day to venture into the waters of manually setting exposure to REALLY take control, the S95 will go fully-manual. For the purposes of learning photography it’s a great little camera, but if you just want to “point and shoot”, it does that very well too. I own the older version, the S90, and I love it! I don’t know if other camera companies make a similarly well-equipped P&S. If they do, buy it!

Size Matters

It so happens that the size of the sensor has a lot more to do with the quality of the image than the megapixel count. What is a “sensor”? The sensor is that thingie that sits inside your camera body behind the shutter. It’s job is to capture the varying degrees of luminosity, or brightness, that define an image. This function was performed by film until the advent of digital imaging. The image quality of a full-frame DSLR, which has a sensor the size of the image frame of 35mm film, at @ 13 megapixels will be better than the image produced from a 16 megapixel point and shoot, which has a much smaller sensor. I don’t want to re-invent the wheel and explain exactly WHY this is so, so here’s a link to an explanation for those of you who don’t believe me (briefly, larger pixels capture more light than smaller pixels, and the pixels on a 13MP full-frame sensor are much larger than the pixels on a 16MP point and shoot that has a much smaller sensor). For the rest of you, regardless of the TYPE of camera you buy, you should get the one with the biggest sensor. The problem with that is, camera companies almost NEVER display the sensor size on the box or in their advertising. They ALWAYS display the megapixel count. Therefor, it isn’t obvious at all what the actual sensor size is.

Just Tell Me Which Camera To Buy!

Once you’ve made your decision as to which TYPE of camera you want to buy, the answer to this question is ridiculously simple. BUY THE CAMERA WITH THE BIGGEST SENSOR! When it comes to DSLRs, Canon is not better than Nikon is not better than Olympus is not better than Sony, etc. All consumer-level DSLRs have roughly the same size sensor…..known as “crop-frame”. In the Canon world this sized sensor is called “APS-C”. Nikon’s label is “DX”. The other manufacturers have their own way of obscuring the fact that the sensors inside their cameras are NOT full-frame too. that is why a Canon 5D Mark II is thousands of dollars more than a Canon XSi, and why a Nikon D700 is thousands more than a D90. FYI, the “crop factor” for these sensors is roughly 1.6. In real terms that means the sensors in these cameras is about 1/2 the size of a full-frame sensor. This crop factor comes into play when you are thinking about the focal length of your lens. We don;t want to think about that here, since this is a discussion about sensor size and image quality, not sensor size and Field of View.

In terms of Point and Shoots, the water is a bit murkier. Most P&S cameras have rather small sensors. Some higher end P&S cameras have the same crop-frame sensor as most consumer DSLRs….as is the case with my Canon S90. Roughly speaking, a P&S that gets up around the $400 price range probably has a crop-frame sensor. Anything less expensive has a much smaller sensor. If you want to find out the size of that sensor, good luck. It is not something easily discovered, since cameras companies really don’t want you to think about sensor-size.


For me, that meant buying a used full-frame Canon 5D for $1000. It performs better in low-light and yields overall superior images than the much newer, and more expensive, APC-sized sensor in the Canon 7D. This is NOT what Canon wants you to know. IMHO, a used Canon 5D is the best deal out there in the $1000 range…..better than ANYTHING new at that price. Nikon was late to the party with a full-frame camera, so a used FF Nikon D700 at $1000 is impossible to find. Nikon is still selling them at retail for close to $3000. Is it better than the Canon 5D? Nope. The Canon 5D was replaced by the Canon 5D Mark II. They both have the same sized sensor, but the 5DMark II crams 21 MP into that sensor. The 5D only has 12.8 MP. Which sensor has larger pixels?

If you don’t want to spend $1000, you can get some great deals on used crop-frame cameras on eBay. One person in my class picked up a used Nikon D50 and 2 lenses for @ $350! Stop believing in megapixels, and stop believing that every new camera that comes out is “better”. At this point, the manufacturers are falling all over themselves trying to cram as many useless features as they can into the newest cameras. The latest thing is HD video. Geez. What does THAT tell you about the future of single-frame cameras?

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