As a multi-camera haver and as someone who occasionally takes pictures that don’t suck, I get asked this quite a lot. The obvious answer of course is “Buy them all and then give me the ones that you don’t like.” This has yet to work, but I live in hope.
So, onto more practical matters then. How to narrow down the dizzying array of options that are available to the best piece of equipment for you? For those of you struggling with this question or those of you who also get asked this on a regular basis, this post is for you. I’m not going to recommend specific models because that’s not going be helpful if you are reading this after a few months when the market has moved on to newer and shinier things, so I won’t make the decision for you. I will instead try to explain how to make that decision.
Firstly, let’s start with establishing the fact that all cameras are compromises between different sets of priorities and downsides. Even given an unlimited budget, the best camera in the world is not a thing that exists in a meaningful sense. If you said to me “Iain, I have way too much money and I want the best camera that exists, tell me what it is.” I’d not be able to just point you at a specific option. Actually I’d probably tell you to buy a Hasselblad H6D and thirty grand worth of lenses, then just give it all to me when you figure out that you have no idea what you are doing with a camera system that costs more than a luxury car.
The most obvious compromise is cost. Your budget dictates a great deal about the amount of camera that you are going to be able to get. A less obvious compromise that a lot of people overlook is portability. There’s a thriving market in barely used, entry-level DSLRs because people buy one thinking it would be cool to have a real camera and then find that they never use it because it’s awkward to carry around and their phone takes pictures that are almost as good 90% of the time anyway. So, the question to ask yourself, almost before you factor in things like cost or the use case is, how much tolerance do you have for carrying something bulky around with you, potentially with other bulky and fragile accessories too? If the answer to that is ‘not much’ then we’ve already ruled out most system cameras.
If portability is a strong priority for you then there are still very good options available but you’ll necessarily be looking at lighter and smaller cameras, and those qualities tend to correlate strongly with fewer features and smaller sensors. You can overcome that to an extent with a larger budget, there are excellent mirrorless systems that are not much bigger than a compact and can provide exceptional images but these can cost you as much as a high-end DSLR.
It’s probably worth dispelling the commonly held misconception that a DSLR is the pro-camera format and, that if you want pro-quality images, you’ll need a DSLR. That’s not ever really been the case. It’s certainly true that a lot of pros do use DSLRs but that’s because the DSLR is a very versatile platform and many pros are heavily invested in the lenses for their brand of choice. DSLRs are good at most kinds of photography and exceptional at some specific tasks but other formats can beat it in various cases. In the world of 35mm equivalent system cameras however a DSLR remains a good choice if you want a camera that’s generally good all around although, as I mentioned earlier, it is big and bulky with that size and bulk increasing as you go to more expensive models. These days however, the DSLR isn’t the only game in town for that role. Mirrorless systems as mentioned earlier are becoming a mature niche with decent lens lineups and much better quality than the early generations. If you want weather sealing, high ISO performance and interchangeable lenses, you’re looking at a high-end DSLR or a midrange mirrorless. A lot of pros that I know have ditched their Canons and Nikons to embrace Fuji and micro-4/3rds systems. They report that the picture quality hasn’t been noticeably impacted but they suddenly have a lot more room in their camera bags.
Image quality is another common misconception. Often I see the question phrased something like “I need a camera that will give me professional looking images.” Here’s the thing about that. Pretty much any decent camera will give you professional looking images. Even compacts can in the right circumstances. Even your phone camera can if the stars align correctly. Professional looking images look professional because a professional has composed the shot properly, lit it correctly and then spent a lot of time in post processing to make it that way. The camera and lens are almost the least important elements of the final product. That’s not to say that gear isn’t important, it is – up to a point – but you won’t get pro-level results just because you have expensive gear, and a good photographer can work with pretty much any kit to get nice images. The advantage of the more expensive body is that it works better in a wider range of situations and it has features that pros like such as multiple card slots, weather sealing and faster burst shooting. If you’re shooting landscapes or if all of your pictures are being shot as jpegs for Facebook then most of the extra capability is moot and you’d get practically identical images with a much cheaper setup.
So then, your choice of camera boils down mostly to your feelings about camera size and your available budget. These days it’s hard to recommend a DSLR as an entry level camera, the bottom end of the DSLR market overlaps with the midrange mirrorless niche and, for most people, the mirrorless is more of a camera than they’ll need. Entry level DSLRs are also pretty poor value in general, if you really want the flexibility of a DSLR, then it seems like a bad idea to take on the downsides of the format for a less capable system than an equivalently priced mirrorless or a second hand enthusiast level body. Just as the low-end of photography is now owned by phone cameras, the bottom of the market for ‘real cameras’ is steadily getting encroached on by increasingly capable small-format system cameras. The cheap compact camera has been made obsolete by incrementally better phones and the same technology that’s pushing phone technology – sharper screens, better battery capacity, thinner ICs – is also putting smaller cameras into an arena previously owned by entry level DSLRs.
All this assumes of course that you are looking for a generalist platform. Maybe you want to shoot some landscapes, some portraits, some nice pictures of your kids or your dog playing in the park and some souvenirs of your holidays. For that kind of use, a generalist platform with interchangeable lenses and a small selection of glass will be all that you need. If you are doing something more niche however then your choices get more limited.
If you want to do bird and wildlife photography, then you’re probably going to need a DSLR – not because of the format, but because you’ll need long, fast lenses and those don’t really exist in small-format ecosystems yet. It used to be true for sports too but the smaller formats are already catching up for medium telephoto work. If you only want to take landscapes or do studio work, then a medium or large format system will be your best bet, you really can’t beat the massive resolution of a 5×4 negative or the big sensors on Phase One or Hasselblad cameras. However digital medium format is super, super expensive so your options, if you don’t feel like dropping the price of a car on a camera, are to dive into film or to fall back on a smaller format system. Landscape photography is probably the least demanding kind of photography as far as gear is concerned, you can get away with a lot if you use a tripod and a reasonably wide lens no matter how old or limited in capability your body happens to be but, if you’re going to specialise in a photographic field where you’ll almost always be using a tripod and taking plenty of time to set up a shot, arrange filters and shoot relatively long exposures, then why not go for the big and unwieldy options if you can?
Street photography on the other hand practically requires the opposite. You’ll want something fast and unobtrusive. Ideally something that you don’t have to raise to your face to take a picture either. That means a small camera with either an articulated screen that you can flip up to see from above or a waist level finder. That basically screams mirrorless or an older film format like a TLR or my super-rad FX3. Film is still actually a pretty good choice for street work, you can get cheap B&W film, load it into a small SLR or TLR, pre-focus to about a meter and a half and go wild. Film is pretty forgiving for exposure range so you wont normally have to mess about with aperture or shutter speeds once you set it for the ambient light level, most film stocks can handle +/- 2 or 3 EVs quite happily which is way more than you’ll encounter in a normal outdoor walk.
So, basically it boils down to how much you want to spend and how much you want to carry. Figure out the answer to those two and then you’ll be in a much better position to make a decision.