It usually feels like if you get a better camera, your pictures will stop being so grainy/noisy and blurry.
We all want to stop taking these noisy blurry pictures with weird colours right?
This post has been updated for new camera models on 10 December 2013.
/Before you choose…
The truth is, you will need to learn about how your camera works to get the results you want from your photos. Your camera may already be able to do what you want if you switch the mode away from that “P” on the dial. Or start shooting in RAW mode and learn to use some post-production software like Lightroom or Aperture so you can fix up the colour balance and recover some of those blown out highlights. Learning a little about these two things will make a huge difference compared to buying a “better” camera.
In this post, my aim is to gently push you in the general direction of finding the best camera for what you are planning to take pictures of. As a bonus, I will throw in some user tips to get you going. This blog will not contain detailed reviews of cameras. There are plenty of resources on the web already for that type of thing. I would recommend using DP Review to fulfil your pixel-peeping and measure-bating desires (seriously, that site has everything you’d ever want to know about individual cameras and lenses).
/Category rather than camera.
Given the sheer number of different cameras, I thought I would talk more to the camera category. Most of the cameras in a category are fairly similar and many differences come down to personal preference. I have, however, noted down some popular cameras in each category to get you started.
This list is in order from cheapest to most expensive:
- Smartphone ($): (cheapest because it's an add-on to a product you most likely already own) e.g. iPhone 5S, Nokia Lumia 1020, Samsung Galaxy S4, HTC One.
- Compact camera ($): e.g. any camera from Sony, Panasonic, Canon, Nikon under $200. Note: this category is pretty much obsolete due to the increasingly amazing quality of smartphone cameras.
- Advanced compact (meaning compacts with manual controls and ability to shoot in RAW mode) ($$): e.g. Canon Powershot S120, Panasonic Lumix LX7/LF1, Fujifilm FinePix X20.
- Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens (EVIL) aka "Mirrorless” ($$$): e.g. Panasonic G-series, Fujifilm X-Pro1, Sony NEX-series, Leica M9.
/Camera gear is about compromise.
There is a horrendous amount of choice when it comes to cameras, and even more choice when you start adding lenses into the mix.
Why? Photography is all about compromise. This is simply due to the physical limitations of optics and capturing light. Cameras must compromise between features to capture the type of light the photographer is chasing.
Simply put, no camera system can do everything well unless you are prepared to carry a lot of weight and spend a lot of cash (compromises in themselves). That is simply the nature of the beast that is photography. I guarantee you every camera excels in some areas and absolutely sucks in others. Some excel in two or more areas and you pay for that benefit.
Photography includes so many different genres and cameras are used in so many different environments, camera manufacturers have to make a wide variety of cameras to suit them all. Then overlay the different schools of thought on what's important and what's not and the camera iterations become endless.
//Best camera for what you are shooting.
You can take a DSLR and a bag full of lenses while on a trip…if your purpose is solely to take photos. However, for most people, travel also includes eating, shopping, seeing shows, relaxing, etc.
Ideally for traveling, you want something easy to carry and doesn’t scream mug me. Otherwise, you will break your back, your wallet, or both.
I would recommend an advanced compact or if you have the money, an EVIL/mirrorless camera like the Sony NEX-series. Both these options give you a very powerful toolkit without the weight and bulk of a DSLR kit which means you can enjoy the place, rather than focus all your attention on the photography.
If you are more of an observer and are into street photography style travel photos, I’d also recommend looking at some specialty cameras like the Fujifilm X100S or, if you have money, the Leica M9. These cameras are not for the faint of heart, but if you go and have a look at them, they could be the travel camera you’re looking for.
/Parties and social gatherings.
Generally, in these situations, you’re in a fairly dark place. Therefore the most important features you will need are a camera with a "bright" lens (meaning a big aperture that lets in a tonne of light) and an image sensor that can hit crazy high ISOs. Image stabilisation helps too to eliminate camera shake at slow shutter speeds.
With these features, your camera has more freedom to shoot at a higher shutter speed (eliminating blur) and can still produce clean images in dark conditions (good high ISO performance).
Also, the camera should be small unless you want to photograph the event rather than enjoy it.
This camera category includes cameras with quite good lenses which have large apertures that open up as far as f1.4 in some cases and also have great sensors that hit crazy ISOs of 12,800 (5 years ago, you would be looking at a $8,000 pro-level DSLR for ISO performance like that).
The added bonus is that some are about the size of a deck of playing cards (i.e. Canon S120).
For some novelty, you might also want to find a camera with a “slow shutter syncro” feature (different manufacturers will call it different things but it’s essentially a camera that can do "rear-curtain sync" as an option when using the flash - then just have to use a long-ish shutter speed for the exposure, say, 1/4 second). That way when you are forced to use flash because it’s so dark, you can create some cool light trail effect like this picture below by Nick Onken.
/Kids and pets.
The issue here is that these subjects mover around a lot…and very quickly.
Therefore, the most important factor in getting a good picture is using a high shutter speed to “freeze” the action. Otherwise, the subject will be blurry (unless that's the "artistic" effect you're going for).
Similar to shooting in dark places, the only way your camera can get the right exposure (picture isn’t too dark or bright) is to have lots of freedom to adjust the aperture and ISO. Therefore, similar with the above, I would again recommend an advanced compact or EVIL/mirrorless camera.
Try keeping the shutter speed above 1/160th of a second which can be done by using shutter priority mode or selecting sports mode.
/Sports and nature.
You might find it funny that these two categories are grouped together, but they are actually very similar (which says a lot in itself). In both situations, you are witnessing an event from a fair distance away and the subjects are moving extremely fast.
If you look at the pros shooting any professional sporting event, the camera lenses are huge. You will also see this phenomenon with nature photographers too (especially bird photographers).
For sports and nature you need a camera with a lens that has a long focal length aka telephoto (i.e. zooms-in real good) and also ideally one that lets in a tonne of light (big aperture, f2.8 and larger). This combo allows you to shoot from very far away (assuming you don’t have an all-access pass) and use a fast shutter speed to “freeze” the action. If you're shooting in lower light conditions (late afternoon), you will have to shoot at very high ISOs to keep the shutter speed fast enough to eliminate motion blur (think 3200-6400 ISO when shooting at f2.8 to get the 1/1000 shutter speed you need to freeze the action).
The ability to shoot at a high framerate is also very handy so you can let that camera's motor-drive really rip to give you you the best chance of getting that perfect shot. It might not seem that important, but a camera that can shoot at 4fps (avg for a low end DSLR) compared to one that clicks away at 12fps (avg for a high-end DSLR dedicated to sports) is 3 times the amount of photos every second. This means when motor-drive shooting Roger Federer hitting a serve, at 4fps you might get the beginning, the mid swing, and the end of the service action. At 12fps, you will get all those moments in-between as well…and then some.
I will mention, if you are shooting sports or nature, you are heading down a very deep rabbit hole. Normally, people will say gear doesn’t matter, it’s the photographer and their skill. I would say that’s true except for sports and nature. This is an area of photography where gear matters a great deal (of course you also need to know how use the gear). Therefore, I would recommend having a think about your budget and how serious you are.
You can be perfectly fine using a Canon S100, it zooms to 120mm which is nothing to laugh at, and its shutter speed goes quite high with a very wide ISO range to play with.
However, nothing beats having something like a Nikon D4 or Canon 1D X with a 400mm f2.8 lens attached. You will be able to push that camera to the limits and get a picture, whilst sitting at the back of the stadium, of Usain Bolt’s sweat beads flying off of his face as he crosses the 100m finish line at midnight. However, that will also cost you about $15,000 and break your back as you carry all that gear from you car.
So realistically, if you’re only semi-serious about it, I would recommend something like a Nikon D7100 and the best zoom lens you can afford covering that 70-200mm range and above. That will be an excellent kit to start off with, and you will learn along the way and know where to go from there.
User tip: Try to keep your shutter speed above 1/1000th of a second for that crisp action shot. You will be really pushing the limits of your gear (using high ISOs) so don’t be disheartened if the image doesn’t look like it came out of a magazine - for once, you can actually blame your gear.
The most important feature for landscape photography is dynamic range and large image sensors with giant pixel counts (Note: giant megapixel numbers alone won't cut it, it's really the large image sensor).
The human eye has a much wider dynamic range than even a high end camera. That’s why you can see the blue sky and the person sitting in the shade at the same time on a sunny day. When you take a photo of this scene, depending on your camera settings, the sky will either be blown out to white, or the person in the shade will be pitch black.
Most cameras have a landscape mode which means the software inside the camera will attempt to even out the exposure by processing the image a certain way or it will take a few different pictures at various exposure settings and combine them into a single image (usually called HDR mode or high contrast mode).
Another handy feature is panorama stitching which will help you automatically stitch together sections of a scene into one big photo (if you don't want to do that in post-production on a computer).
Landscape photography is a serious pursuit and that’s why it’s hard to recommend a camera. The quality you want from the photos, the amount of extra gear you’re willing to carry, and your willingness to learn to use post-production software on your computer will ultimately determine which camera to get.
An advanced compact is probably the best place to start given it’s so handy in every other situation and you can advance from there once you’ve decided you’re serious.
User tip: Play around with the scene and picture modes of your camera to really get the colours and details to pop. Try them all and see what you like, don’t just pick “landscape”.
//General info about features, pricing.
I've put together the following summary showing all the important features and which camera category caters specifically for this feature by compromising other aspects like price or battery life or compactness. I have also put in brackets what kind of price tag this feature normally commands.
- Value for many: Advanced Compact
- Quick startup ($$): DSLR
- Build quality ($$$): High-End DSLR (there is a quote that goes something like: a pro-level DSLR can be used to beat someone to death and still be used to take a picture of the body)
- Ease of use ($): Smartphone
- Compact and easily carried all day ($): Smartphone, compact and advanced compact
- Interchangeable lenses ($$$): DSLR, EVIL
- High frames per second ($$$): "Mirrorless" and very high-end DSLRs dedicated to sports e.g. Nikon D4 and Canon 1D X.
- Dynamic range and details ($$$): DSLR with full frame sensor e.g. Nikon D800
- Professional grade video ($$$): DSLR with full frame sensor
- Low light and high ISO performance ($$$): High-end DSLR
If a lot of these terms don't mean much to you, then they aren't going to mean much more once you drop $1-2,000 into a new camera system. If this is you, I would take a guess that you have a decent camera already and just need to learn how to make the most of it and learn its limitations before you upgrade. So read on…
//What’s wrong with my current camera?
Cameras are ultimately dumb devices. For a basic auto program, the camera looks at the scene in front of you and adjusts all the settings (aperture, shutter speed and ISO) to get you the “best” picture it can. Unfortunately, “best” to the camera means 18% grey.
This is 18% grey
Yup. Looks exactly like the Eiffel Tower at sunset doesn’t it?!
The reason why your camera’s auto mode won’t take good pictures essentially comes down to three things (explained below), and the most likely reason is the metering. You should NOT upgrade your camera if that is the reason for the bad photos. Take some time to learn about exposure and then go from there.
The auto modes have largely improved with time and these days cameras have very sophisticated sensors and artificial intelligence (AI) to calculate the best exposure (and understands not every scene should be 18% grey). Unfortunately, the camera makers don’t put the best AI in the cheap cameras - probably to perpetuate the myth that you need a better camera to take better pictures so they can keep up-selling you.
Better sensors perform better when the ISO is turned up (so you can shoot in low light). They produce less noise or they produce noise patterns that are easy for software to eliminate. Either way, you get a cleaner picture and you get more options (wider useable ISO range). Better sensors are also bigger in physical size. The bigger sensors also tend to have higher quality pixels, which means more detail and better accuracy for rendering images. Bigger and better sensors are more expensive and require a larger camera to house them.
Good lenses cost a lot of money. The lens contained in a little point and shoot is not as good as a $3,500 Canon L-series lens. Big lenses let in more light, which means big lenses are made of more glass. More glass means more money (especially given the quality of the glass). It also means more weight. See all the compromises piling up….
//Do I need a DSLR?
If you are asking this question, the most likely answer is: NO!
As camera technology has matured, the DSLR is starting to become an obsolete piece of technology due to rapid advances in "mirrorless" camera technology.
The traditional advantage of an SLR camera is that you can see the world through the lens. Seeing the world through the lens meant that you had a 1:1 reproduction of what the film was seeing. Very handy back when it used to take 1-2 weeks before you got your film back from the lab - then only to find out the exposure had been blown all over the place, but hey, you got your framing right thanks to your SLR!
This advantage has started to become obsolete due to the advances in digital camera technology whereby you can now see "live" exactly what the camera sensor is ready to record and then instantly preview the picture as soon as you take it. Therefore, one of the main advantages of the DSLR has become obsolete. Sure, this "mirrorless" technology is still maturing (the current iteration is sort of laggy and chews through batteries), but in a few years, these issues will go away as the technology gets better.
So when you compare an entry-level DSLR to a decent "mirrorless" camera, there aren't any real compelling reasons to choose the DSLR. It's only in the mid to high-end DSLRs where you will find features that make it more worth it to carry around such an expensive and heavy kit. If you need these high-end features, you will know exactly why you want a DSLR.
The take home message is: don't over-stretch yourself. Just because your compact sucks doens't mean you need a DSLR. There are a tonne of cameras in between. If your decision process lands you at an entry-level DSLR, your decision making process has probably gone wrong somewhere. The most likely scenario is that you buy an entry-level DSLR (because the others are too expensive) and once you get around to learning how to use it, and more generally about photography, you will find out the genre of photography you enjoy and want to pursue requires a bigger sensor, or higher fps, or 9 steps of exposure compensation for HDR …and you need to upgrade.
There are very few reasons to get an entry-level DSLR given the quality of EVIL/mirrorless cameras coming out these days.
//Do I need a new camera?
As I said at the beginning of this post, learning to use your current camera and some post-production techniques can take you miles. You'd be surprised. Learning about contrast and how the curves tool works alone will open up a whole new world of imaging to you.
A smartphone with a good camera and a quality suite of apps will take you very far! You will be amazed at what can be achieved with such simple tools. I am a strong proponent of learning to photograph via the use of a good smartphone.
Take a look at what Jeremy Cowart has been able to achieve with an iPhone and some apps.
//If you actually read all the way to the bottom of this post…
You should really be out there making more images rather than thinking about gear. At the end of the day, gear doesn't really matter…unless you're in a war zone (weddings count as war zones).