So you want to get a camera... / by andrew hyde

 ...lessons in choice - because choosing your first 'real' camera is a big deal. Correcting a wrong decision could end up quite costly.

I used my first blog as a bit of an introduction, and said 'Switching to a DSLR started a journey of discovery' and I said I would save that discussion for a future blog. It's that discovery I wanted to share as it very much centres around the first choice of camera I made. It's also likely my only gear blog (I won't say never, ever again) I just thought hearing a bit about my experience would help anyone thinking of making the jump to an interchangeable lens camera or, even, those currently thinking of ditching one system for another.

To write this I've gone back over my own photographic journey and asked myself what I would do differently? If I could, what bit of wisdom would I go back and tell the Me stood in the Electrical store as I was preparing to depart with a fair amount of cash on my first 'real' camera. Once I started asking the questions, there's actually quite a lot so I've distilled it to a 10 point list. Who doesn't like a 10 point list?

It's not an exhaustive list.

It's just my list.

If you're thinking of buying your first camera, or even looking to change systems, then I hope a bit of reflective learning on my part can help you make a really informed decision.

But, before I go any further, there are a couple of very important points I want to make. Firstly:

These are my own opinions, formed during my journey with photography

Now, having said that, I think I need to get this one statement out of the way as soon as possible:

The perfect camera does not exist!

Shock, horror, eh?

It really does mean that, no matter how many web searches you do, no matter how many review sites you visit, no matter how many rumour sites you troll, the perfect camera isn't out there now and, the perfect camera isn't going to be released at Photokina twenty-whatever. That's because, your photography is personal to you. This means your selection is personal to you. Like so many consumer products, purchasing a camera is all a matter of trade-offs. Only you know the trade-offs you're willing to make.

Let's leave photography for a little drive-by-analogy...when I chose a car all I wanted was something to get me from A to B reliably. My car is the second car (the one that does the junk run to the tip) so most of my mileage is spent alone on my commute back and forth along the M4 motorway in South Wales. For my needs, a Renault Clio does me fine. First off, it's a car. Its small. It's cheap to run. It's reliable. It's my personal compromise in choice. I have a friend who holds the view that, as he spends so much time on his commute, he wants all the luxuries without compromise. He drives a BMW. My friend and I know the trade-offs we're willing to make and used that knowledge to inform our choices. It's the same when choosing a camera.

So, that's point number one: Know your trade-offs

I wish I'd known that when I switched from a point-and-shoot to an interchangeable lens camera. I didn't. Everything I knew about photography at that time came from articles I read in photography magazines. Now, back when I was first reading photography magazines, you'd be forgiven for thinking there were only two companies manufacturing cameras. Nikon and Canon. That's pretty much why I chose a Canon as my first camera. I read review after review. Reviews have Canon and Nikon pretty much head to head. One company is only ahead of the other depending on when you read a review and which company has just released a refreshed batch of cameras...and then they're only a month or two ahead until the other company catches up. The higher up the camera hierarchy you head, from cameras aimed at amateur photographers, to enthusiast photographers, to professional photographers, the slower the refresh rate of cameras. The big companies know pros won't change cameras every year or so (mind, very recently, Sony may have bucked that trend). The mark of a pro photographer is the realisation that the camera is a tool. With this comes the realisation that a new camera doesn't mean better pictures. If you don't think like that then the quest for better, faster, and more mega-pixels will consume you and drive you absolutely insane...not to mention, clear out your bank account pretty quick.

Number two: Think like a pro. A camera is only a tool.

But, I wasn't thinking like a pro. I went out and purchased a Canon 700D (also known as the Rebel T5i in some countries). It looked like a camera. It really did. It received excellent reviews. I know, I read review after review after review. I drove my wife mad looking at review sites. I drove my wife mad buying those 'what camera is best for you' magazines. Well, when I say I drove her mad...I actually mean, I drove her madder than usual.

But, I actually did purchase a pretty good camera. It took lovely pictures. I've read about some wedding photographers using the very same camera as their second, backup camera. I affectionately call it the 'big-black', such as...I'm going to take the big-black out. However, with so much research I ended up purchasing a spec sheet and not a camera. Here I have to admit, the pixel peepers chose my camera, not me. I had little to do with the actual choice. After so much reading, rereading, and analysis and comparisons of camera specifications, I wasn't purchasing the camera to suit me, I was purchasing a camera based on mathematically quantifiable and testable specifications. I purchased a camera that was assessed to be statistically and significantly ahead of it's colleagues within the price range I could afford. The numbers suggested it was the ideal camera for my budget and my needs.

I don't use the Canon 700D any more. Actually, I recently sold all my Canon gear.

Wow, what could have happened.

Number three: Don't suffer from analysis paralysis when choosing a camera.

Now, I'm a kind of gut feeling type of person. If something feels wrong or not quite right, then I listen to that spidey sense. I have a tech background and have managed a lot of IT projects. This has taught me that, never mind a project with a healthy green delivery status, what's the gut feeling of the team, what's the team's delivery status. Many times I've found the team's gut feeling is different to the report that everyone's reading and basing their high-fives on. A lot of the time the team thinks there's no way they'll deliver and, do you know what, they're usually right. Now, I know there's a self-for-filling prophecy that Henry Ford pretty much summed up...

Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t—you’re right.
— Henry Ford

But, we're talking about cameras here so we don't have to look at the finer working of a project team. Here, we're looking at the finer workings inside your head...or, to be exact, my head.

From the moment I picked up the 700D it didn't feel right. It didn't feel right in my hand. The controls didn't feel right. The balance didn't feel right. It felt big, bulky, heavy and cumbersome. I tried the camera with different lenses stuck on it. It felt even bigger, bulkier, heavier and more cumbersome. But, it was still statistically and significantly ahead of it's colleagues within the price range I could afford. It had to be Thee One for me. It just had to. No matter how it felt, this was my camera.

Number four: Listen to your gut feeling.

Unusually for me, I didn't listen to my gut feeling. It was my first 'real' camera. Maybe cameras were meant to feel this way? No matter, I went along with what the pixel peepers were telling me. Or, more likely, I had some money to spend, I had myself a camera to buy, and I wanted to get out there and take pictures as soon as I could.

But, that gut feeling...well, it was right. The big-black wasn't for me. Sure, we had a love affair. It started off with a courtship. We got engaged. We even had the wedding...literally, together we headed off for our first wedding shoot and what a fantastic day we had. It was an awesome day. Together, we took some really nice pictures and, more to the point, the bride and groom agreed. You'll see some of those wedding pictures here. You'll see quite a few pictures taken with the 700D here. But, the signs of a faltering relationship were there from the start.

Number five: Look for the warning signs.

Looking back, I called it the big-black for a reason...the camera was big and the camera was black. But, what I was actually doing when I gave the camera its name, I was bestowing it with all the things I didn't like about it. That's why it doesn't matter if it was a self-for-filling prophecy, or not. My gut feeling knew the camera wasn't right for me. As a result I found myself leaving the camera at home a lot of the time. I couldn't face taking out its big, black bulkiness when I left the house. The size of the camera put me off using it. The sound of the mirror flipping up and the shutter slapping, those sounds put me off pressing the shutter button. Aiming and pointing the camera at anyone felt like I was pointing a rocket launcher in their face and, that's pretty much the expression I captured in a lot of images. People also changed their behaviours, stopped what they were doing and posed as soon as I aimed the camera in their direction. It wasn't the pose I was interested in. Was the problem the camera, or was the problem me. It doesn't really matter. I wasn't happy so, quid pro quo, the pictures I took reflected my unhappiness. It's all relative, don't you know.

Number six: Only invest in a system you're happy with.

This is an important one. I think it's unlikely that, with your first purchase, you'll pick the system that you'll stay with. When you first start out with photography you'll take pictures of everything. Sunsets. Sunrises. Waves crashing against breakwaters. Insects. Spider webs. Spring flowers. People. Family. Kids. Rubbish. Pets. Food. Plastic bags dancing in the breeze. You name it, you'll photograph it until you start to find the spider web photos disappear, or the sunrises become a bore. I found landscapes were first to go as my gallery filled with pictures of the urban environment and I moved towards street photography. Your first camera is your playground, your photography playpen. Use It to help you find your particular niche. Remember, it's a tool. Your play will inform you of the actual images you enjoy taking and want to capture.

If you talk to any photographer you'll find that most (not all) have courted different systems in their search for the tool that's right for them. If you're looking to buy your first camera, it's exciting. You're purchasing something for you, something you're treating yourself to, something that you may have put money aside for every month as, let's face it, it's a bit of a luxury purchase. That's why it's exciting, and why you've done so much research and reading. You want to make sure you get the best for your money. Just remember, the best isn't necessarily the best for you. The best for you is the camera that's aesthetically pleasing, something you want to hold, a camera that simply feels at home in your hand. Find the camera that you want to hold and look at and don't want to put down.

At this point you may scream, "What, aesthetically pleasing? What a load of rubbish! I want the best camera I can afford!" But, this really does lead on to my next point...

Number seven: There is no bad camera.

Don't mix this up with 'there is no perfect camera'. When I say there is no bad camera I'm talking about the quality of images taken with a camera. Pixel peepers will have you think you'll need a £49,000 Phase One FX100 camera or, if not that, you'll find yourself thinking that a 1" sensor isn't as good as a Micro Four Thirds sensor, and they fall behind APS-C sensors. While none of them are as good as a Full Frame sensor. And, a camera with a medium format sensor is the camera you actually want. Mind, if you're more concerned with the smooth and un-speckled quality of a patch of shadow zoomed in at 100% than you are with the actual content of the image taken, then you need to purchase the most expensive camera you can finance while not worrying about putting food on the table or keeping up with the mortgage payments.

Something I will say, I find a lot of digital images too clean and I add intentional noise to images while editing in the digital darkroom.

In the real, every day world, you'll see little difference in your images no matter the sensor. The person pressing the shutter button is the most important element in the whole image creation equation. Today's technology means there is no bad camera. You only have to go visit an Apple store and look at the large format images they have on the walls that were taken with an iPhone. Sure, you'll see tests with pictures taken at high ISO settings in near dark conditions but, remember, with today's cameras we're capturing images at ISO settings thought unimaginable a couple of years ago.

Then we have to ask ourselves, what do we do with all those images we take? Most, if not all, images we take are destined for social media. The sensor in your phone is perfect for these images.

Personally, I think it's a case of don't believe the hype. No matter what interchangeable lens system you choose, the sensor inside the camera is more than capable. Actually, even the basic camera is most probably more capable than you are...and don't take that the wrong way. My own camera has more functions than I'll ever use. It's much more capable than I am. You could buy a bridge camera and it may do everything you ever want and, that may be the most sensible place to start your photographic journey. You could buy a high-end, large sensor, fixed lens camera like the fuji x100T, or the Panasonic LX100 and that could be the only camera you'll ever need. It is for a lot of people. The Sony RX100 IV camera is amazing (and they've recently updated it with the even more amazing RX100 V). The Sony RX1 II is a monster (in a good way and with a price tag to match). Any of the Olympus Pen cameras would produce images you'll love. Remember, they're only tools and, today, all these tools are excellent.

The bad camera is the one that doesn't feel right for you. You need to fall in love with your camera. If you don't love your camera you'll find yourself getting embarrassed when you take it out and point it at people or, worse, apologise when you point it at people. It must be a camera you want to take with you at all times, not leave at home in a bag or hidden away in the shadows on a shelf or in a cupboard. 

Number eight: Fall in love with your camera.

But, in a good way...not a creepy way :)

Why would I say this...well, that's where a quote is needed from the master himself...Henri Cartier-Bresson:

Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.
— Henri Cartier-Bresson

That's why I think this point is an important one. You want this camera to be your every day, go-to camera. You want to get in the habit of picking it up as you leave the house. I call it my holy trinity, phone and wallet (with an smaller double stupid check of SD card and battery when I pick up the camera). Be truthful to yourself when you first pick up and hold the camera...would you take it with you on a family shopping trip? If the answer is a big 'No!' Then is it the right camera for you? If it's not a camera you will take everywhere, and I mean everywhere, then you're never going to get to that 10,001 image that turns out to be the best image you've ever taken.

There's also an important point hidden in that little paragraph and that's the bit where I say "...when you first pick up and hold the camera..."

Number nine: Pick up and hold the camera

You're not buying the camera without holding it are you?

Tell me you haven't done all the research on the web, read all the review sites, bought magazines, looked at and found photographers who use the camera you're interested in, viewed their portfolios, and are about to place an order with a major on-line retailer...all from hearsay and without actually touching, holding, feeling, fondling and using the camera?

Please don't do that.

You have to complete the Goldilocks check. Make sure the camera is just right for you, and you won't be able to do that, or arrive at that decision, without picking up the camera and holding it. Otherwise, how will you know if it's too small for your hands, or too heavy to carry around?

In the end, after a lot of use, the camera needs to be a part of you. It needs to be an extension to your vision and a tool that fits into your hand. That's why first impressions count and, if you don't pick it up and hold it, then you won't get that overall gut feeling. Miss the tactile bit and you're buying a camera based on mathematically quantifiable and testable specifications developed by pixel peepers. Don't do that. There's more heart to photography than that.

However, you have to realise the camera isn't the most important part of the purchase equation...

Number ten: It's all about the lenses 

It took me a while to get this.

When I first looked at cameras I don't think I ever read one article about lens choice. It was all about the sensor and how well it performed in this and that light. It's possible that's because I was solely focuses on the camera body and not the system as a whole. I had money for a camera and the kit lens. So that's what I focuses on. I didn't think about other lenses I would purchase in the future. I don't think I really understood that I was buying into a system. That was my mistake, and the real lesson to take away from my experience.

The Canon kit lens that came with my 700D wasn't a bad lens at all. Once I started to figure out how to make the images from the camera look like the scene I could see and wanted to capture, I started to take some of my favourite images with the kit lens. But, I soon found that I wanted a bit more reach and extend out with a longer zoom for some situations. I also wanted to take flash-free pictures in low light. This is when I started to notice something.

A lot of companies make APS-C cameras. These companies also make full-frame cameras. These companies reserve their best lenses for their full-frame cameras. This includes Nikon, Canon, Sony and others. It's easy to understand why. Their range of APS-C cameras are aimed at enthusiasts. There's a mindset that real photographers use full-frame cameras so these cameras have lenses aimed at real photographers.

However, there's changes afoot, a shift happening at the moment. As I said above, there is no bad camera any more. Technology advances have seen to that. Following this, there are a lot of professional photographers using cameras with smaller sensors as their main, workhorse cameras. These photographers want professional lenses to match.

I really noticed how limited my Canon lens choice was when I was approached to do my first wedding. I knew I wouldn't be able to photograph a wedding with a kit lens and my newly purchased zoom lens. I needed to hire something a lot more professional. Doing a bit of research, I found that none of the Canon lenses made specifically for their APS-C cameras were up for the job. I needed to hire a couple of pro zooms (the choice of zoom lenses over prime lenses is a blog all of it's was my first wedding :). As the Canon pro zooms are manufactured for full-frame sensors, the Canon pro zooms have a lot of glass. A lot of glass means a lot of lens. A lot of lens means a lot of weight.

In the end, to match a high quality lens with my 700D, made for the smaller APS-C sensor, I had to look outside of Canon's own offerings and hired a Sigma lens for the wedding. The Sigma lens was an excellent lens. I used their 18-35 f1.8 Art Lens. What a lens. Fast, accurate and exceptional quality even wide open at f1.8. But, the fact of the matter: Sigma are filling a gap where Canon should have native professional lenses across their range. Not the case. This left me in a bit of a quandary.

Personally (remember those trade-offs) I'm not looking for a full frame camera. I don't want the bulk of a full frame camera, or the added bulk of lenses for a full frame camera. I want something smaller, something I'll take with me wherever I go. And, I want professional lenses to match. Unfortunately, Canon weren't offering anything that suited my needs. Their cameras are big. Their lenses are big. It's all big and bulky. Unfortunately, I needed to look elsewhere.

So, where did this take me?

When you're looking for camera companies producing professional lenses for small sensor cameras, you'll quickly find two systems that rise to the top of your search results. The Fuji system and the Micro Four Thirds system. They're mirrorless cameras which means, in essence, they're smaller cameras having very capable sensors, and (what's more important for me) those companies producing these systems match professional lenses to their cameras (CaNikon need to take note).

It took me a while, a lot of umming and ahhing, but I settled for the Micro Four Thirds system and Olympus in particular. Mind, it was a close thing with Fuji...real close. In actual fact, from my own point of view, there's very little between the systems.

When I bought my Olympus OMD Em5MkII and a pro lens, I kept my Canon gear for a while...just in case I wasn't happy. The Canon gear gathered dust. I had no need to use it any more. The Olympus far surpassed my expectations. The image quality is outstanding. I've never wanted for more dynamic range. And, to think, I nearly believed the hype about the issues of a smaller sensor. I haven't seen any of those issues transfer into real world use. Not one issue. Since January 2016 I've shot exclusively using Olympus and the Micro Four Thirds System.

I hope my reflective learning points above are helpful if you're starting out on your own photographic journey. I know I'd do things different if I was starting out again. Then, as the saying goes, hindsight is an exact science and I wish you well.

This is already way longer than I'd intended so I'll leave you with this 10 point summary outlining my personal journey...the bits I haven't mentioned above:

  1. I discovered that being able to switch out lenses to help capture and frame the scene, exactly as you'd imagined, is something wonderful.
  2. I'd always known digital cameras give you flat files and none flatter than a digital point and shoot, but a DSLR doesn't only give you lovely JPEG images, a DSLR gives you RAW files to help you create beautiful JPEG images - I'd discovered the wonder of post-processing.
  3. I found I hated the term post-processing and much preferred the term digital-darkroom.
  4. My DSLR gave me GAS...not literally, it's an acronym for Gear Acquisition's a syndrome that makes you scour the Internet, reading photography reviews about new lenses and new cameras and new equipment. Then you start not only reading reviews, you start reading rumour sites to find out what people are guessing will arrive in the future all with the intention of planning to waste money you haven't even earned yet.
  5. I found out that GAS can actually stop you from getting out with your camera and photographing
  6. I'm in GAS remission. 
  7. I found out that, month after month, issue after issue, all 'how to' photography magazines do is continually rehash different ways to explain the exposure triangle of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.
  8. Leica. I found Leica. Their camera systems cost thousands and thousands of pounds (I'm talking family car type thousands).
  9. I found out that my favourite photography is black and white photography ("When you photograph people in colour, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in black and white, you photograph their souls!” Ted Grant).
  10. Leica make the Monochrom, a wholly black and white digital camera (my wife is adamant we have more important things to purchase, like food).
  11. Okay...I'm not known for succinct. There's a couple of points beyond 10...
  12. my love of people watching and black and white photography developed my love of street photography.
  13. my love of street photography made me realise my big bulky Canon DSLR was too big and bulky for most of the photography I love.
  14. most of the time, I left my big bulky Canon camera in the house because it was...well...too big and bulky.
  15. I shouldn't have hired pro lenses for a wedding shoot. Wow.
  16. I needed pro lenses (think toddler temper tantrums).
  17. Canon pro lenses are huge.
  18. Canon pro lenses are costly.
  19. I found mirrorless cameras
  20. I found Olympus and Fuji. Their mirrorless cameras are small and so are their pro lenses
  21. I had to ditch the big bulky Canon DSLR.
  22. I agonised over the choice between Olympus and Fuji to the point of obsession.
  23. I found that a lot of opinion about sensor size doesn't really reflect real world usage. I'll thank Steve Huff's blog for helping me see that sense.
  24. I chose Olympus for their camera size and their excellent in-body image stabilisation.
  25. I found zooms are good but, primes are better. 
  26. I found the best camera is the one you have with you.
  27. I found all you really need is an iPhone :)

If you've read all of this...thanks for staying. If you have any questions do contact me, or add a comment below. But, remember, this is all based on my own personal experience.

Now, get out and create something wonderful.